Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
II.B.4 Lesbian Evil
Ordinarily, my Project will skim over content from the 20th century. I'm going to continue covering the entirety of this book because the through-line of the argument is important. But the 20th century material will include fewer tags and more high-level summaries of the content.
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The theme of evil predatory lesbians was taken up by others from the French aesthetic writers, but stripped of any hint of sympathy. In these works, the lesbian aspect may be concealed in vague ambiguity while still retaining sexual overtones. Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” (published unfinished in 1816) was declared obscene for these overtones, but although modern readers tend to see clear lesbian themes, some contemporary reviewers assumed that the antagonist was meant to be a man in disguise, and thus that the obscene content was the seduction of Christabel’s father by the antagonist, rather than the seduction of Christabel herself. [The ambiguity allows for this and speaks to one of Faderman's themes: that there are shifts over time in what sorts of sexual possibilities can be imagined, given the same external evidence.]
Most “evil lesbian” works appeared later in the 19th century and were clearly influenced by the aesthetic writers. Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) is given as a typical example. The point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, A young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. The narrator resolves this problem by killing his wife’s female lover, but the wife dies of a brain fever cause by excessive sexual activity.
Faderman notes that “in France, innocence regarding love between women was virtually at an end by this time” though such “innocence” persisted in England and the America for a while yet. [The cyclic nature of “innocence” regarding the possibility of sexual relations between women is not noticed. French texts of the 16-17th century were quite aware of those possibilities.] Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, while writers in America contemporary to him were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal. This attitude persisted among some American writers as late as the 1920s.
Belot’s novel provides archetypes of the decadent “lesbian love-nest”, with its black and crimson decor, draperies that shut out the light, and bookshelves stocked with well-known lesbian-themed novels. Although Belot claimed his writing to have a moral purpose--to bring this danger out into the open and to attack the very concept of Romantic Friendship--it’s clear that his work was driven by fascination and hatred and the desire for sensationalism. Belot’s protagonist describes lesbianism as a “new vice” [a claim made repeatedly over the centuries, though Faderman seems unaware of this cyclicity] that must be countered by “a man strong enough or with enough authority” to rescue the innocent partner from the lesbian’s clutches.
The term “vice” was generally popular in sensational literature of all types in this era in France, but the specific association of lesbians with vice and evil appears regularly in French literature for the next several decades. It is speculated that one motivation for the focus on lesbianism was the falling French birthrate and anxiety about the French population being overwhelmed by foreigners.
Another regular theme in French literature of the 1880s and 1890s that uses lesbian motifs is the association of lesbians with prostitution. Faderman suggests that this might be grounded in the exposure of the (male) writers to real-life lesbian relations primarily in the context of the demi-monde, where prostitutes turned to other women as an escape from the brutality of their professional interactions with men. This demi-monde shows up in novels such as Zola’s Nana (1880). Yet another trope popular at this time is the idea of organized “cults” of lesbians, such as are seen in Guy de Maupassant’s “Paul’s Mistress” (1881), but where the practices of these supposed cults are clearly drawn from male-authored lesbian literature itself. [Compare also the accusations of organized cults of lesbians in late 18th century France, such as the Anandrine Sect.] One feature of these literary lesbians is that only the “active” partner is considered a true lesbian--and is portrayed as masculine in nature and physically ugly--but they are mysteriously attractive to “normal” women. The title character of “Paul’s Mistress” commits suicide when his lover deserts him for one of these groups of lesbians, and as he is drowning his last vision is of his mistress in the arms of a woman “as though she had found a refuge in a closer and more certain affection, more familiar and more confiding.” This description is quite similar to those found in positive portrayals of Romantic Friends but here the context turns it sinister.
If the violence, jealousies, and disfunctionality of lesbian relationships in such literature was, indeed, drawn from observations of the demi-monde, then the same conclusions about evil and vice could also be made about the heterosexual relations in that part of society, but there was no similar movement among sensational authors to treat those as universal, just as there was little recognition among psychiatrists that the disfunctions they saw among their lesbian patients were found equally among heterosexual patients.
The middle and upper-class lesbians of late 19th century France such as Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas lived lives that had no resemblance at all to the lesbians in sensational literature, but their type of lives weren’t reflected in the fiction of the time.
Accusations of lesbianism became a weapon for misogynists who saw any personal rejection by a woman as evidence for that woman’s sexual proclivities. August Strindberg’s A Madman’s Manifesto (1887) was basically a screed against his first wife’s feminist tendencies and desire to continue her professional activity, couched in over-the-top accusations of sexual activity with a wide variety of women in all manner of circumstances--activity that Strindberg claimed to have personally witnessed by spying on his wife over several years. Although his wife acknowledged having close passionate friendships with women, she didn’t consider them problematic and described them using the traditional language of Romantic Friendship.
The motif of the evil lesbian appears outside France in examples like Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire story “Carmilla” (1872), which uses a subtle parody of romantic friendship themes, interspersed with the tropes of French sensational novels. Some modern critics question whether LeFanu understood that his story was referencing lesbianism in particular (though from a modern viewpoint the equation appears obvious). Another non-French writer who inserted sinister themes into a story of passionate friendship is George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin (1886). The monstrosity of the lesbian character is symbolized by physical deformity, as well as being expressed in general antipathy toward men and love for women. Her orientation is explained as being congenital, caused by her mother’s hatred for sexual activity with her father. In contrast to positive or neutral depictions of passionate friendship, her beloved is shown as being uncomfortable with her expressions of love, and this anxiety is depicted as normal and expected. The protagonist eventually accepts being rebuffed and goes into a convent. The sentiments she expresses would have been unremarkable and framed positively in other works of the same era that still took a positive approach toward women’s friendships.
In America, anxiety about love between women starts appearing occasionally in the 1890s at a time when translations of the French decadent writers begin appearing. Doctors begin repeating second and third-hand accounts of lesbian orgies, whose details are modeled after the decadent writers. The sensationalized murder in 1892 of Freda Ward by her female lover “to make it sure that no one else could get her” was treated as proof that the sexologists were right about the inherent pathology of lesbianism. In 1893 an American doctor could write about how “morbid sexual love” between women started among schoolgirls. But it took a while for these ideas to dominate the discourse. In real life, 19th century America had a tradition of being accepting of cross-dressing and passing women, even when overtly connected with feminist sentiments. But in the 1890s Romantic Friendships began to be framed in fiction as morbid, connecting lesbianism with murder and portraying lesbian villains as assertive, feminist, intellectual and sophisticated. Yet at the same time, novels such as Diana Victrix (1897) could still present female romantic partnerships in a neutral or positive light.