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Intimate Friends on the Eve of Sexology

Monday, December 14, 2020 - 20:00

I'm going to confess that Vicinus's Intimate Friends is becoming a bit of a slog. (Did you notice I failed to get a blog up last week?) The material is becoming more and more literary critisicm and less biography. And there's a fair amount of psychological analysis that feels at odds with the historic context of the subjects. Or maybe I'm just going through a reading slump. Two more chapters. And then maybe I'll throw out my plans for the next publication and hunt through my shelves for something I can get excited about.

In the mean time, I'm having a lot of fun with the fulfillment of the auction item I donated to Romancing the Runoff. Per the winner's request, I'm putting together a historic guide to writing f/f relationships in the Regency era. Eventually I'd like to do a number of focused guides of this sort (and friends are convincing me to save them for publication and not just give them away on the blog, on the theory that people won't value them unless they pay for them).

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Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 6: Passion…Immense and Unrestrained

This chapter looks at examples of intense, perhaps even destructive desrie that didn’t fit neatly into the available 19th century models for female love. So how did these women depict and understand their desires? One method was to displace the desire through taking on roles or working it out through fictional depictions. Some women understood their desire for a dominant position as a type of masculinity, as with the two women considered in this chapter: Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

Linton came to terms with her inner conflicts over desire for women via a masculine identity, played out in her fiction and in idolizing “masculine” virtues such as intellect and self-control. Lee was suspicious of male power in society and looked to a non-mateiral feminine ideal of virtue and leadership. Both writers focused on characters driven by irrational feelings, while valorizing self-discipline and intellect. And both had difficulty dealing with their desire for women, which was expressed in destructive ways in their own personal lives.

Linton’s life story suggests a trans-masculine identity (though Vicinus doesn’t fasten on this), but she went beyond rejecting conventional femininity in her own identity to despising it in others. Her books tended to contrast two female types: one feminine but treacherous, the other boyish and virtuous.

These attitudes carried over into her journalism, which features anti-feminist positions while embodying many of the goals of feminism in her own life. Similarly, she disparaged “gender inversion” as a concept, while embodying it. She creates strong lesbian-like characters in her novels then turns them into villains, while depicting her own desire for women through transparently self-insertion male characters, including the protagonist of a fictionalize autobiography that traced her own relationship with a much younger woman (who left her to marry).

Vernon Lee emerged from a somewhat chaotic childhood abroad to be acclaimed as an author at a fairly young age. Though her unconventional personality and habits (including wearing mannish tailored suits and having unfemininely outspoken opinions) initially inspired fascination among the Pre-Rafaelite set, her work was considered too edgy for literary success.

Lee’s fiction featured women whose same-sex desire played out in turbulent plots in which they ended up becoming saviors of weak, degraded men. She envisioned a new type of womanly virtue that lay in rejecting marriage and sexual desire to serve others. Although Lee’s heroines were depicted as “sexless” it was in a form that included an idealized same-sex desire. A generation later, her characters would have fit well with the image of the “new woman”.

Lee’s own life included a couple of extended intimate friendships. The first with a fellow writer ended with the latter’s marriage. Another with a woman she idolized for her physicality and beauty foundered on a mis-match of personality, with Lee’s intellectualism at odds with the other woman’s desire for someone in need of emotional support. Lee’s fiction expanded into horror, often involving the consequences of obsessive love.

Both Linton and Lee lived during the emergence of sexological theories of homosexuality. These theories sorted out the women involved in same-sex relationships into the “true invert” (masculine-presenting and emotionally disordered) and “normal” women who accepted their love but were not necessarily driven to same-sex relations. Rather than this pathologized image of the “masculine invert”, Linton and Lee worked with an images of female masculinity that aligned more with an androgynous boy. In the remainder of the chapter, Vicinus explores this image in their work, especially as it interacted with the figure of a distant or unavailable mother.

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historical