Skip to content Skip to navigation

Précieuses, Libertines, and Female Intimacy

Monday, August 31, 2020 - 07:00

Having finished up the long list of journal articles acquired in my last trip to the JSTOR terminal at the U.C. Berkeley library, back in the Before Times, rather than continue my original plan to read some more theory oriented books, I've lined up four books generally on the theme of the intersection between friendship and desire in the last four centuries. (Primarily, as usual, focusing on England/France and a bit of the USA in the later part of the scope.)

Wahl's book is the first of these, looking at two contrasting models of intimate relations between women in 17th and 18th century England and France. The direct comparison of the two cultures is useful because looking at either one in isolation during this period would present a false impression, and yet they were in close communication and influenced each other immensely.

I'm taking the book in several chunks, but may post more frequently than my usual weekly schedule. I'm feeling like I'm finally coming out of my quarantine slump, but don't want to trap myself into too ambitious a commitment yet.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2


The word “intimacy” is chosen for the focus of this book deliberately for its ambiguity of meaning. It reflects both openness within relationships and privacy protecting those relationships. “Intimacy” can both indicate close friendship and be a euphemism for sex. Wahl looks at the late 17th through 18th centuries in England and France to untangle the meanings of “female intimacy”, originally intrigued by the correspondence between Denis Diderot (author of La Religieuse) and Sophie Volland, whose “intimacy” with other women provoked jealousy in Diderot and veiled hints of sexual impropriety. Diderot never directly accused Volland of having sex with women, but spoke of her “liking pretty women” and of her friend’s “voluptuous and loving” actions.

At a time when men thought women incapable of “true friendship”, how were relations between women viewed? What motivations and purpose were they thought to have? While using the language of love, were they in fact homoerotic?

Wahl is not looking for “lesbian” representation as such, but looking more broadly for dynamics that are inclusive of homosexuality. She follows Foucault, while recognizing his deficiencies with regard to women’s erasure. In the review of theory, Laqueur’s one-sex to two-sex theory is noted.

The creation, in the 18th century, of the middle class “domestic woman” relates to the rise of bourgeois power. But this focus marginalizes anything outside the middle class heterosexual norm. This era saw a conflict between philosophies that viewed women and men as essentially similar, or as fundamentally different. But the focus on differences between the sexes can erase equally important differences among women.

Wahl discusses the meaning of lesbian (in)visibility (cf. Terry Castle) and takes as a starting position that lesbian sex has existed across time, culture, and class, but that specific practices are shaped by culture and era. She rejects a sharp distinction between “sexual behavior” and “erotic but non-sexual behavior”, which is often used in order to narrow and contain the scope of what may be called “lesbian” (critiquing Faderman on this point). The distinction between “romantic friendship” and “lesbian” is treated as artificial and meaningless.

Wahl avoids speaking in terms of “identity” or “choice” in sexuality but argues for a fluid, variable and contradictory model of sexual experience. In this era, we see the image--both for men and women--of a person who enjoys relationships with both sexes simultaneously with no conflict, who sees them as complementary and distinct experiences.

The author notes that transgressive categories like “hermaphrodite” and cross-dressing/gender-disguise figures can identify points of cultureal anxiety, but chooses to focus on Traub’s “fem-fem” dynamic in this book. Wahl treats marriage, not as identical to heterosexuality and inherently excluding homoerotic bonds, but as alignedwith heterosexuality and with reproductive sexuality. Female intimacy can act within or across heterosexual institutions independently of them.

The book will use two reference models as a lens: “sexualized” and “idealized”. These are used to examine not only women’s lives but societies fantasies about their lives.

17-18th century ideas about female intimacy are shaped by a contest between the one-sex and two-sex models. Are women “lesser men” or are they something entirely separate from men? There is a parallel contrast between viewing fem-fem love as a “harmless life stage” that all women might experience, to seeing women’s same-sex desire as a force equal to or stronger than male-female desire.

The “idealized” model of female intimacy is linked to the rising image of domesticity, companionate marriage, and a focus on woman as mother rather than as wife. Women’s friendship shifted to filling a place formerly held by family networks. Even the “companionate marriage” ideal--which in theory held that a husband and wife should be equal (or at least complementary) companions in marriage--strengthened female friendships, as it tended to result in women being companions to their husbands without women receiving the same companionate support in return. Instead, women turned to each other for companionship and support. They worked to create ideal models of friendship and rejected the misogynistic position of the male tradition of platonic friendship which held that women were incapable of “true friendship”. As these efforts adopted the language of courtly love, they produced homoerotic overtones that some historians reject (as mere convention) and others seize upon (as reflecting genuine emotions). Poet Katherine Philips serves as a lens for this .

The erotic and idealized models of female intimacy played out in the same woman-centered social spheres: convents, schools, salons. As this conflict played out, commentary on female intimacy became increasingly satiric, projecting anxieties about the irrelevance of men onto an exaggeratedly decadent elite, in order to elevate middle-class domestic femininity. The reasonable ideals of female equality in the Age of Enlightenment were rejected by male philosophers as the extreme result of the excesses of female intimacy.

Wahl notes the problem that the “sexualized” model is based almost entirely on men’s writings, creating problems for interpretation. The book will conclude with the political uses of sexualized female intimacy to target “aristocratic decadence” in general.

Time period: