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17-18th c Women's Intimate Relations - Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Friday, September 11, 2020 - 08:00

Complexity and ambiguity is a hard thing to depict in overviews of history. People have an uncomfortable desire to get "the real story" with the implication that there's a single story. There's a desire to be able to interpret historic sources at face value, rather than struggling with the possibility that they may have been prescriptive rather than descriptive, or may have been deliberate fictions designed to obscure realities the author didn't want to acknowledge, or even that they simply reflected the incomplete and limited understanding of a contemporary of events that were incoherent at the time.

The one big take-away I hope readers get at this conclusion of my summary of Wahl's book is that the study of queer history can't take any historic sources at face value--not when the social structures that shaped and gate-kept those sources were not simply antagonistic toward non-normative sexuality, but were actively and persistently misogynistic. And yet, that doesn't mean that the student of these times can simply discard evidence that doesn't suit the history we want there to have been.

As we get historians looking more deeply at the complexities and shifts of understandings of gender and sexuality across time, a theme that comes up again and again is cyclicity. Any history book that tells you that a specfic understanding or expression of gender or sexuality first dates to year X should be looked askance. (I dedicate this observation to seeing yet another claim in an online queer history timeline that "Anne Lister had no language to express an understanding of lesbian identity -- the word hadn't even been invented yet." I paraphrase.)

Too often we're served one extreme or another of historic interpretation. "Homosexuality didn't exist before the 19th century." "Our modern queer identities have always existed throughout time." "If women't didn't write the equivalent of a diary entry saying, 'Today I fucked my female lover' then they were sexless prudes who don't earn the label of lesbian." "How dare you suggest that these beloved platonic friends sullied the purity of their love by feeling sexual desire?"

Although it isn't necessarily her intention, Wahl shows how all these things can be both true and false at the same time. That women may be depicted as experiencing only non-erotic love for other women because that's what they genuinely felt, or because the social mores of the day pressured them not to publicly express erotic desire at all, or because the writer was so freaked out about the thought of two women together that they needed to deny the possibility, or as a satirical wink-wink-nudge-nudge disclaimer because the writer wanted you to conclude the opposite, or many other reasons. And similarly, women may be depicted as engaging in sexual relations with each other becuase they genuinely were doing so, or because the writer didn't believe that such devotion was possible without being driven by eros, or because the writer wanted to destroy their reputation and could think of no worse accusation, or because the writer got off on imagining the act, or for many other reasons. And all of these things can be going on simultaneously.

In writing historical fiction, there is never only one history to choose from Indeed, all these overlapping and contradictory versions of history are a wealth of motifs to complexify your characters lives.

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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

Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 6 - Regulating the “Real” in Fictional Terms: The (Auto)biography of the Tribade in Erotic and Documentary Texts

Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”

Madame de Murat’s upper class status caused problems in the collection of evidence, particularly given that so many of the alleged crimes occurred in the privacy of her own home. There are details of domestic disputes, jealousy, and violence driven by underlying romantic or sexual relationships. Many of the potential witnesses seemed disinclined to get involved, one noting that it was “not compatible with his dignity” to testify.

The police records don’t label Madame de Murat’s activities as lesbian in as many words, but they give a very different picture of women’s erotic relationships that is found in libertine literature. These records don’t show the tolerant amusement reflected by the libertines, but rather distaste and horror. Madame de Murat is viewed as a bully, liable to punish her accusers.

She is eventually imprisoned, but the police feared her continued correspondence with family and friends and her ability to continue to exert power in the external world.

Compare her to fictional portrayals, such as Miss Hobart in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont who is easily defeated and humiliated by male rivals. In the conventions of satiric literature f/f desire is no serious threat to men. But in the early 18th century we see an increase in male anxiety about the lesbian or tribade as a genuine challenge to male prerogatives.

Miss Hobart represents the overlap and transition from the image of lesbian-as-hermaphrodite to the lesbian-as-tribade, driven by personal desire not by anatomical abnormality. Madame de Murat represented the reality of how many saw female same-sex possibilities. [Note: Female homosexuality was illegal in France, but not in England at that time, so the circumstances must be kept in mind.]

Comparing the fictional and real narratives of female same-sex activity can remove the illusion of the insignificance of female homoerotic relations claimed by the libertines. This is important as these have sometimes been accepted as factual by later scholars.

In this chapter Wahl looks at several libertine or pornographic texts from the late 17th and 18th centuries to compare their depictions of female homosexuality to the satires by male authors on actual women such as Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting and Marie Antoinette, as well as texts written by women themselves of their own experiences.

The first text to be examined is the Satyra Sotadicaand the Academie des Damesboth of which represent themselves as a dialogue between women engaging in a sexual education that involves increasingly exaggerated and unusual sexual behaviors. Wahl goes on at great length to dissect the dialogs and discuss the behaviors they depict.

Next she looks at two texts by Cleland: his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure(Fanny Hill) and his translation and revision of the memoirs of Catherine Vizzani. These texts either conflate the lesbian and the prostitute as a single archetype, or in the case of Catherine, depict the lesbian as an entirely separate type of being.

The use of a female narrator was another technique in depicting the activities of supposed tribades, often given either a an allegorical name such as The Confessions of Mademoiselle Sapphoor borrowing the name of a woman reputed for such scandals, as with the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt.

These narratives created the illusion of reality by reference to specific actual persons and events. They depict a sexual awakening of one woman by another, though they are vague about the details of the relationship. The protagonists life is eventually resolved away from the same-sex relationship, one way or another.

In conclusion, Wahl suggests that the wide-spread awareness of female same-sex possibilities constrained the ability of women to depict and enact idealized forms of female intimacy. This awareness served to widen the conceptual gap between the popular image of the lesbian and the experiences of “respectable” women even when those experiences included same-sex intimacy.

[Note: I thought that Wahl indicated this chapter was also going to cover texts such as Charlotte Charke’s fictionalized autobiography and the like, but the book ends without touching on that genre.]

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