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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 201 – Researching the Origins of Lesbian Myths, Legends, and Symbols

Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 201 – Researching the Origins of Lesbian Myths, Legends, and Symbols - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/05/15 - listen here)

Introduction: The Joy of Research Puzzles

What do we know about history? How do we know what we know? And how do we go about figuring out the facts behind the things we think we know?

Today I want to take you on a little tour through what I consider one of the most fun aspects of historic research. It’s a bit like solving mysteries, and a bit like doing archaeology, and a bit like following wildlife tracks across the wilderness. You run across a really fascinating statement about someone or something in history, and you ask yourself: Is this true? How do we know what we know about the subject? In searching out the answer to that question we can learn far more than simply answering the original prompt.

If you want to see how a simple question about a historic fact can explode into something far more fascinating, check out the book Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar by Betty T. Bennett. (There’s a link to my summary of the book in the show notes, but it only begins to capture how much fun that story is.) What starts out as a simple question of a biographical footnote in an edition of Mary Shelley’s letters turns into a wild hunt through archives and correspondence to turn up a story of gender disguise and same-sex marriage. Sort of.

My own favorite project along these lines was about the emperor Charlemagne and his favorite cheese. I ran across a book about the history of food that mentioned two specific local varieties of cheese—brie and Roquefort—that the 8th century emperor was fond of. And I asked myself, how can we possibly know something that specific from that long ago? The book itself gave me no clue—no footnotes, no references. It became something of a treasure hunt and quest to trace the question back to its sources. (You can read the results of that quest in the article linked in the show notes.)

This sort of intriguing claim turns up a lot in history books aimed at a general audience. Usually the reader will accept what the author says and keep reading. After all, the author is an expert—why would you question whether they’re telling the truth? But like the childhood game of “telephone” where a message gets whispered from one person to another and changes in the process, historical facts often get passed from scholar to scholar without checking back to their basis. And they can change in the process. Or entire new “facts” can come into being along the way because a reader understood what they were told differently than it was intended. Or they took a general statement and retold it in a more specific form. Or they filled in the gaps of a story with speculation and the next person failed to point out that it was speculation. And, of course, sometimes “facts” are changed or invented on purpose, to tell a specific story for a specific purpose.

Today I want to think about how to research the myths, legends, and symbols associated with lesbians in history. What is the nature of the myth or legend? How did it originate? What evidence do we have about it—and what evidence may have existed but has been lost? Who had a stake in establishing or passing along that item as fact? Did they intend for it to be understood as fact? And what fascinating things can we discover during the journey to try to answer those questions?

Definitional Myths

One type of topic that’s a challenge to research are what might be called “definitional myths”. And when I say “myth” I don’t mean it in the sense of “something that’s not true” but rather in the sense of “an idea that’s part of our cultural understanding of something.”

A definitional myth might be something like “the word lesbian wasn’t used in a sexual sense before the later 19th century.” This is a claim you’ll hear commonly because it can be found in a lot of general works on the history of sexuality. Why would you question it? The people and publications that pass along the claim don’t usually give you the background for why they believe it to be true. And most people who quote it aren’t in a position to do their own primary research to support or contradict it.

In one way, this type of myth is very easy to investigate because it’s a negative claim: any positive evidence of earlier use of the word lesbian adds to our store of knowledge and expands our understanding beyond the myth. But in another way, a broad sweeping claim like this can be hard to follow up on, because the reason it persists is that so many sources agree. Why do they agree? Because they all learned the myth from each other.

Another definitional myth might be “there was no such thing as lesbian identity before the 20th century; women might have sex with women but they didn’t think of themselves as a specific type of person because of it.” Or, conversely, “every woman in history who had sex with women or fell in love with women was a lesbian.” These types of definitional myths lie more in the realm of philosophy than history, because they rely heavily on the exact parameters being specified. Investigating them doesn’t so much involve looking for facts to interpret as thinking about how the question is being defined in the first place.

Definitional myths can shape a lot of our understanding about a subject, but they’re somewhat less fun to investigate than myths about specific people and things. So let’s move on to those.

Myths about People

Consider the myth about Sappho and Phaon, the one that says Sappho left behind her girlfriends and fell hopelessly in love with Phaon the ferryman, for whom she made a suicidal leap off the Leucadian rock. It’s a highly specific and detailed myth—and this time we can use the word “myth” in its classical sense as well, meaning a story about gods and heroes. Given Sappho’s connection with love between women, the Phaon myth was a looming presence throughout history, telling us that love between women is ephemeral, that women will always prefer to love a man in the end, and that a background of sapphic love makes a woman unstable and suicidal. That’s a lot of cultural meaning to pack into one little legend.

Does it matter? Does it matter whether it was true or not? If we could prove that Sappho either did or definitely did not love a man named Phaon, would that have consequences for how we feel about love and sex between women? Put that way, it certainly shouldn’t. And yet the question of how and why this story arose and became the dominant biographical element of Sappho’s story over well over a millennium can tell us a lot about cultural attitudes.

How would one take on that challenge? Can the question even be answered, given how much information has been lost about the historic Sappho’s life? André Lardinois takes a stab at it in his article “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos”, and you can trace the methods for approaching this type of question in his explanation. First of all, he traces the texts that mention Sappho and Phaon. Somewhat obviously, if the story were true, then it isn’t something that Sappho could have mentioned herself. The key source for the story is Ovid’s Heroides, a series of poems about betrayed women, expressed in the voice of the woman herself. Many of the other poems in the series can be tied to pre-existing myths, but often focused on mythical, rather than historic, women. So Ovid was retelling stories that already existed in many cases, simply in a new format. Does that mean that a story about Sappho and Phaon already existed? Possibly—perhaps even probably—but that avenue of exploration appears to be blocked by a lack of sources. Lardinois suggests that during the era when Sappho had become a stock figure in Athenian comic drama that “in all probability her love of Phaon was made fun of” but no specific works are noted so this appears to be speculation.

Let’s take a different angle. Do Sappho’s surviving works make any reference to a man named Phaon or a Leucadian rock? The rock, no, though a Greek poet of a similar era, Anacreon, refers to a leap from the Leucadian rock as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. (Note that it is not necessarily a suicidal leap.) If this was a commonly known folk-charm against unwanted desire, it is certainly plausible that Sappho might have made reference to a “Leucadian leap” in some now-lost poem, given how often her work discusses the pangs of love and how to deal with them.

How about Phaon? Was he a real person that Sappho might have mentioned? Mentioned, yes; real, no. Phaon was a mythological figure—one of Aphrodite’s human lovers, similarly to Adonis. Sappho mentioned him as Aphrodite’s beloved in fragment 211. And in various poems, Sappho speaks in the persona of Aphrodite, including one fragment where Aphrodite speaks of her love for Adonis. Put all together, we have a plausible—if far from proven—scenario in which a poem in Aphrodite’s voice expressing love for Phaon, combined with a reference to the Leucadian rock in the context of a means of addressing the pangs of love, were re-interpreted at a later date as a biographical story about Sappho herself. Thus, the origins of the myth can make sense while not supporting the myth itself as factual.


While we’re on the topic of Sappho, let’s look at another lesbian myth where the popular version and the historic context tell different stories. You can find a lot of discussions of queer visual symbols that will assure you that “violets were an early lesbian symbol dating back to 600 BC when Sappho described her lover as wearing a garland of violets”

Are violets a symbol of lesbian love? They are today because people use them in that way. But does that symbol date all the way back to Sappho? And if not, how did it arise?

First of all, yes, Sappho does mention garlands of violets in some of her sensual poems praising women. She also mentions garlands of anise (fragment 5), roses and crocuses (fragment 14, along with violets), clover, hyacinth, lotus, dill, as well as generic references to spring flowers, blooming flowers, purple blossoms. There is no special focus on violets, nor are mentions of violets specific to the poems suggestive of desire for women. For example, in fragment 30 we have a “violet-bosomed bride.” So while violets were one of the flowers mentioned in Sappho’s poems, we don’t really find Sappho herself making a specific connection between violets and love between women. Flower and plant garlands were a common motif. Sappho notes that the Graces favor those who wear garlands (fragment 81). But we have to look somewhere else to tie violets and lesbians together as a symbol.

Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that there have been large swathes of time since Sappho’s day when her reputation as a lover of women was not at the forefront of people’s minds, or when the body of her poetry was not available to people even when they were familiar with her as a poet. So the idea that Sappho’s mention of violets as a motif gave rise to an enduring and continuous tradition of using the flower as a lesbian symbol is clearly nonsense.

One key event in the modern queer mythology of violets is the 1926 play La Prisonnière (The Captive) by Édouard Bourdet, who has one of his characters use a bouquet of violets as a lesbian symbol. In the context of the vibrant queer culture of Paris in the 1920s, the censorship of this play turned it into a cultural flashpoint, and this seems to be when the wearing of violets as a lesbian symbol arose. A number of discussions of queer symbols claim a more general use of violets as a symbol of lesbian desire in the 1920s, losing track of the association with Parisian society and the Bourdet play. And indeed the use of violets as a sign of support of lesbian themes does seem to have spread after that date. An article in The Advocate (issue 338) notes that women wore violets to performances of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour which involved lesbian themes. But the use of violets within the Bourdet play made no specific reference to Sappho or her poetry. Within the play, the flowers refer to an earlier scene between two women when one mentions wearing violets during a particularly happy rendezvous they had, and the other woman later sends her a corsage of violets as a reminder of that time.

Was this just a case of a random symbol being picked up and given a retroactive history? Not necessarily, though it would be interesting to see if a direct connection with Bourdet could be traced. But French lesbian poet Renée Vivien, who was a major figure in the late 19th century Parisian salons, used violets as a symbol and was even known as “the muse of the violets”. Vivien was also a major figure in the revival of interest in Sappho as a lesbian figure, so is there a direct connection there? Did Vivien pluck the violet out of Sappho’s poetry to use as a lesbian symbol? That might have been an influence, but a more direct connection was Viven’s romantic relationship with her childhood friend Violet Shillito who died tragically young. So we have another connection of lesbians and violets, but one that doesn’t necessarily perpetuate an existing tradition, and that can’t necessarily be connected with later tradition.

I’ve only scratched the surface of tracing the violet connections and it would be fun to see someone do a rigorous study to answer the question of whether there was any tradition of lesbians and violets before the 1920s, or whether there is simply a set of individual connections.

Blue Feather

Visual symbols seem to attract mythology, perhaps because they can be used covertly and therefore a documentary trail to establish the history of their meaning may be deliberately obscured. Beginning in the late 1980s, you can find references to the use of a blue feather as a queer symbol in the middle ages. Sometimes it’s considered to be a lesbian symbol, sometimes a symbol for both male and female homosexuals. So what are the origins of this symbol and how can we trace them?

The Wikipedia article on LGBT symbols mentions that the modern use of the symbol is popular among certain historical hobby organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism and Renaissance fairs, and that it is also used among certain neo-pagan groups. If you’re familiar with the sociology of those communities, at least in the US, then it makes sense that use of the blue feather symbol is most likely to have spread from inter-community connections rather than being due to independent discovery of the symbol in other contexts.

But where did the motif come from? What was the historic basis for it? The story behind it is an object lesson in how the history of a symbol can be unclear even when its appearance can be pinned down very precisely. I should know, because I was there.

In August of 1988, at the large annual Society for Creative Anachronism event known as Pennsic, a group of people got together to form an interest and study group within the organization on the history of homosexuality in the middle ages, as well as to serve as a social support group back in an era when not all people felt comfortable being “out” to everyone in the SCA. By chance, I happened to be attending Pennsic that year and attended the organizational meeting, so some of the following is from personal recollection, as well as being documented in the newsletters of the interest group that formed. SCA people are very fond of their visual symbols and social structures, and the idea was tossed around of using a blue feather as a symbol and semi-secret signal for group members. By a year later, this symbol had been officially adopted and its use gradually spread throughout the organization. The overlap of SCA members with participants in Renaissance fairs and membership in neo-pagan groups led to use of the symbol in those contexts, which were also places where a visible but covert recognition symbol was found useful at the time.

But where did the blue feather as a symbol come from? This is where the trail gets a little muddied. I have very clear memories from 1988 of the blue feather symbol being described as a symbol used by troubadours with homosexual interests in France. And that this came from a reference in Judy Grahn’s book Another Mother Tongue. At some later date, the myth shifted to being a symbol used by women in Renaissance Italy who had lesbian interests. Sometimes specifically in Venice. The blurring of these different versions can be seen in the May/June 1989 newsletter of the group, which attributes the choice of the symbol “from the custom of wearing a blue feather in one’s cap to indicate one’s preferred company (Italian?) troubadour custom.”

The problem is: none of those possible origins had any solid facts behind them. A close reading of Judy Grahn’s book found no trace of any reference to feather symbolism. And the shifting details of the alleged context of use made it difficult to find a thread to pull on. Being interested in pinning down the specifics, I made the effort at the time to contact the organizers of the interest group to get more details on where the blue feather motif had come from, to no avail. What I eventually got was something along the lines of “what does it matter whether it’s true or not?” From which it was hard not to conclude that motif of the blue feather was entirely invented in or shortly before 1988. At that time, the best resources I had for researching the origins were the people who had put forth the symbol as a historic fact. If I hadn’t been present—with access to those people—then trying to find the context of those first references would have been a much more difficult job. Today, having spent a lot of time reading historic research on the history of sexuality in Europe, I can add that I’ve never turned up any additional references to the use of a blue feather as a queer symbol that can’t be traced back to that SCA event. And yet, like violets, the use of blue feathers as a queer symbol means that they are a queer symbol. But they’re a late 20th century queer symbol, not a medieval one.

Lesbian Bordellos in 18th Century London

One outcome of the quest for the historic origins of a myth is to find that there are none. Another outcome can be to find a quagmire of possible leads, made confusing by the tendency of books to cite each other and to add layers of specificity to far less certain original data. This was what I ran into when trying to trace down the myth of lesbian bordellos in 18th century London. I posted most of this on the blog previously, but let me take you on a guided tour through how I try to track down sources and references for the facts of lesbian myths in history.

When I was blogging Betty Rizzo’s book Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women, I ran across a footnote in the chapter about Elizabeth Chudleigh about how some friends of hers were known (or perhaps rumored) to frequent a lesbian bordello in London. Well, that certainly caught my attention! Rizzo cited the claim from E.J. Burford’s Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons – London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century but noted that there was no solid citation given in the book for its source. Despite that, Burford’s book needed to be my next stop along the path.

Burford wrote a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally. So there’s a little hope that we may be able to follow the scent.

The vast majority of the sexual content is focused on heterosexual interests, of course, though there are a dozen index entries relating to male homosexuality, some of them covering multiple pages. I didn’t want to read through the entire book in detail to try to find the hypothetical “lesbian bordello” material, so I focused on the three index entries under “lesbians”, as well as following up on cross-references to the women mentioned by name in those discussions.

In chapter 7 (“The Places of Resort”, which covers various specific taverns with significant reputations), the discussion of the Rose Tavern makes a passing reference to how all sexual appetites were welcome at the Rose including: “homosexuals and lesbians (the latter’s activity called ‘the Game of Flats’)…” No specific source is given for this information, but if you check out the LHMP tag for the phrase “game of flats” it will show you several known sources from the 18th century. So the Rose Tavern and the phrase “game of flats” are further threads from this particular reference.

In chapter 11 of Burford’s book (“The Heyday”, which is sort of a hodgepodge of anecdotes from the mid 18th century), after a discussion of an attack on a well-known “molly house” (a gathering place for male homosexuals), the chapter segues into the following discussion:

“Lesbianism is seldom mentioned. It was colloquially known as ‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street. The best-known practitioners were Lady Caroline Harrington and her friend Elizabeth ‘the Pollard’ Ashe. It was regarded as an aberration – indeed, it was not even a misdemeanour.”

There are no references to primary sources in this section that would appear to be relevant to this passage, however the listing of specific names and locations provides a number of threads to follow: Mother Courage’s bordello, Frances Bradshaw’s house (which the context implies may be a house of ill repute), and a specific reference to Caroline Harrington and her “friend” Elizabeth Ashe, who presumably are among the “ladies of the quality” involved in lesbian relationships.

Finishing up Burford’s index listings for “lesbians”, we have in chapter 12 (“The Theatrical Connection”, which discusses the overlap between actresses and courtesans, noting both licit and illicit intersections with the aristocracy) there is a second mention of Ashe and Harrington. Once again, there is no reference to a specific primary source in this section of the chapter that would give a clue to the story’s origins. But there is a verbatim quotation from some source that might provide a clue. Further research determined that the quote discussing Elizabeth Ashe is from Hester Thrale Piozzi, although her writings are not listed in the bibliography for Burford’s book. Here’s the section from the book that includes the quote:

“One of the most bizarre actress-courtesans was Elizabeth Ashe, ‘a small pretty Creature…between a Woman and a Fairy’, daughter of John Ashe, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs – although she always claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Lord Rodney and the Princess Amelia. When very young she was often in Covent Garden mixing with the haut ton. In 1751 she married the scapegrace Edward Wortley-Montague but he left her a year later because of her promiscuity. Ten years later she married Captain Robert Falconer RN but before long she was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the equally profligate Lady Caroline ‘Polly’ Harrington (also a frequenter of Covent Garden ‘stews’). The friendship was broken when Miss Ashe became the mistress of Count Josef Franz Zavier Haszlang, Bavarian Envoy to London, who was very well liked in all circles in London Society as a pleasant, helpful and compassionate man. Lady Harrington, one of the most powerful Society hostesses, claimed that ‘her character was demolished’ by her friend’s actions. Despite her two marriages, Elizabeth was always known as ‘Little Ashe’, and Horace Walpole nicknamed her ‘the Pollard Ashe’, observing that ‘she had had a large collection of amours’ before she died, still gay and happy, at the age of eighty-four.”

That provides a lot of biographical specifics to follow up on: lovers and husbands, contemporary writers who mentioned the two women. We can now set to work tracking down further details that may support Burford’s claim that the two women were lovers. But we can also cross-check where Elizabeth Ashe and Caroline Harrington appear elsewhere in Burford’s book.

Ash appears only in the two cited passages. Harrington is also mentioned in chapter 17 describing Covent Garden institutions that began competing with the traditional houses of prostitution:

“The other competition came from the marvelous concerts and balls given by Mrs Cornelys at her mansion in Soho Square, which royalty occasionally attended and where the most refined and elegant assignations could be made by such powerful ladies as the Countess of Harrington and her clique, who acted as unpaid procuresses.”

There’s no direct reference to lesbian relations, but the mention of Harrington being a countess suggests it will be easy to find further biographical information on her.

Frances Bradshaw was mentioned earlier as running an “elegant” house of prostitution in Bow Street, and she gets two additional mentions in Burford’s index. Around 1760, Frances Herbert was keeping ‘a very reputable brothel in Play-house Passage in Bow Street’, financed by a wealthy man whose mistress she had been. But a Lord of the Admiralty named Thomas Bradshaw fell for her sufficiently to think about marrying her. It isn’t clear from the text that he actually did so, though she began using his surname starting a few years before his death. But this mini-biography of Frances Bradshaw provides no repetition of the suggestion that her house’s clientele included female customers.

This leaves us with the only other named reference being “Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street”. The index entry for “Courage, Mrs.” adds the information “a house for lesbians” with one other citation besides the one we’ve already discussed. This occurs in the context of the courtesan and opera singer Caterina Ruini Galli who, worked her way through several wealthy (male) lovers who found they couldn’t support her extravagance, after which “the last heard of her was that she was gracing Mrs Courage’s well-known place of assignation in Suffolk Street off the Haymarket.” But this passage makes no reference to lesbian assignations nor does it imply any lesbian connections for the singer.

So let’s collect up what we’ve learned from Burford’s book. He makes two specific claims:

  • Countess Caroline Harrington had a sexual relationship with the courtesan-actress Elizabeth Ashe.
  • At least two named houses of prostitution (Frances Bradshaw’s and Mother Courage’s) catered to lesbians.

We have some quotations from primary sources about these women, but none of the quotes indicate lesbian relationships. While I wouldn’t necessarily put the idea of lesbian bordellos into the category of “extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof”, it would be nice to find something more specific and documentable. And honestly, Burford has provided absolutely no documentation at all. Having squeezed all the possible clues out of Burford, I took my clues and threads and turned to other sources to see if I could find more. For basic biographical information about historic figures, Wikipedia is a good starting place, although it should never be relied on as a sole source of historic information. But because Wikipedia entries are sourced, one can trace back further for their claims. This is a lot easier than doing a similar project in the days before the world-wide-web!

One good place to start would be Caroline Harrington, since a countess seems most likely to have left a trace in the historic record. Sure enough, there’s a Wikipedia entry for Caroline FitzRoy Stanhope, Countess of Harrington. (It doesn’t say much for Burford’s historic accuracy that he’s turned her title into a surname. But never mind.) The rather brief entry states:

“After being blackballed by the English social group The Female Coterie, she founded The New Female Coterie, a social club of courtesans and "fallen women" that met in a brothel. Known for her infidelity and bisexuality, she was nicknamed the "Stable Yard Messalina" due to her adulterous lifestyle.”

Well that sounds promising. And Wikipedia has a footnote for the claim “she had male and female lovers” citing it from Fergus Linnane’s Madams: Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London. Definitely promising…but on checking the cited passage (via Google Books), the details regarding her alleged lesbian relationships are so exactly parallel in wording to Burford that I’d be very surprised if he weren’t the source. (And Burford is cited elsewhere in Linnane’s book.) Which brings us full circle.

Caroline Stanhope’s Wikipedia page cites three historical studies that include her as a major focus. It’s possible that one or more of them has some more solidly cited evidence than “she was part of a social club of adulterous women who held their events at a brothel.” But I’m not ready to start ordering more books on that slim a lead and I can’t take a look at library copies until I’m willing to break quarantine. So let’s start down another path.

Elizabeth Ashe doesn’t seem to have her own Wikipedia entry, so we’ll leave her for now. Trying to do a broad-scope search on the brothel name “Mother Courage” runs into a lot of interference from the Bertolt Brecht play of that name and from a restaurant in New York City. Powerful online search engines tend to fail when you’re trying to research the name-twin of something much more famous. So again, I’ll set that line aside for now.

Frances Bradshaw has no Wikipedia entry, but Thomas Bradshaw does and it rather undermines Burford’s suggestion that Thomas seriously proposed marriage to Frances, given that he was survived by his wife of 17 years.

So circling back to the footnote in Rizzo’s book that started this whole thing, the context was that Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress and then wife to a duke) had, in her 20s, been intimate friends with Lady Caroline Fitzroy Petersham (later Caroline Stanhope, Countess of Harrington) and Elizabeth Ashe, and that the purported romantic relationship between Caroline and Elizabeth suggested that Chudleigh’s rather jealous attitudes toward her companions may have been sexual in nature.

Chudleigh and Lady Caroline were much of an age (only a year’s difference) while Elizabeth Ashe was eight years younger, which raises the question of when their lives would have intersected. A Google search on “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” + “Elizabeth Ashe” turns up a text in of a 1911 biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh by Charles E. Pearce, which places all three women together. We find the following descriptions in chapter 8 (titled “Elizabeth's associates Gay ladies of fashion, The frolicsome Miss Ashe, The friendship and wrangles of Miss Ashe and Lady Caroline Petersham, A merry night at Vauxhall…”). Keep in mind that this is an early 20th century biography, not an 18th century source. And like many historic and biographical works of the early 20th century, it does not believe in footnotes. But we get a lot of specific details that provide confidence that there is an original source that could be tracked down.

p. 136: It is related that while Miss Chudleigh, the free-and-easy Lady Caroline Petersham, afterwards Lady Harrington, and the latter's inseparable friend one equally free and easy Miss Ashe, were at Tunbridge Wells they were somewhat incensed by the intrusion into their circle of a Mrs. Wildman, a rich widow of low origin, who wished to pose as a lady of fashion.

Ok, so Chudleigh, Harrington, and Ashe are friends, the latter two “inseparable” which was often a code-word for a sapphic relationship. Let’s continue to something more concrete. Speaking of Chudleigh, the biographer writes, quoting some other source:

p.144 "Her intimacy with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures, and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgencies." As this was written in 1780, thirty years afterwards, it is purely conjecture. It is certain, however, that Lady Harrington, then Lady Caroline Petersham, and the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton, was one of the most-talked-about beauties of the day. About her intimate friend, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, there is a little mystery. She is stated indirectly by Wraxall and directly by Mrs. Piozzi (who describes her as “a pretty creature, but particularly small in her person”), to have been of very high parentage, her mother being no less a personage than the Princess Amelia Sophia Eleonora, second daughter of George II, and her father the gallant (in more senses than one) Admiral Rodney. The Princess, it is said, displayed the same partiality for Rodney which her cousin and namesake, the Princess Amelia of Prussia, manifested for Baron Trenck. Miss Ashe was as frolicsome as she was adventurous, and her escapades included a Fleet wedding, and an elopement with the scapegrace Edward Wortley Montagu, of which more later on.

p.146: Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper.

p.153: …[in reference to a notorious highwayman] at his trial the court was crowded with ladies of fashion, among them the inseparables, Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, "like Niobe, all tears."

Again, we have the repeated use by the 20th century biographer of the term “inseparables”. This was definitely a code-word for sapphic relationships in the 18th century, and we can guess that the biographer may be quoting his sources in using it. Caroline and Elizabeth seem to have had a tempestuous relationship, as noted in the following passage quoted in the biography.

p.199: "Miss Ashe is happily reconciled to Lady Caroline Petersham, who had broke with her upon account of her indiscretion, but who has taken her under her protection again”

There are a number of passages about Miss Ashe’s heterosexual encounters, but one should keep in mind that 18th century mores tended to see same-sex and opposite-sex relationships as running along different tracks and not necessarily incompatible with each other. And Lady Caroline seems to have used quarrels as a routine part of her courtships, as the book later notes regarding:

p.215: the obstreperous Lady Caroline Petersham and her lively friend, little Miss Ashe. For the time being the frivolities of these fair dames provided ample material for the diarists and polite letter-writers. The wrangles of Lady Caroline always made a dainty dish of scandal, and we learn that she and "Pollard" Ashe quarrelled about reputations, while a little later she has her " anniversary quarrel with Lady Townshend."

While this biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh is a secondary source and doesn’t bother with detailed footnoting, many of these references are attributed to Horace Walpole, and one of the references was to prolific diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi, so I’m going to consider the general tenor of the information well-sourced. Although, if I were writing this study up as a formal research project, I’d want to track down the original quotations.

As a summary then, Pearce’s biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh seems to solidly support an image of Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe as “inseparable” and “intimate” friends with licentious reputations. In this era, the fact that their licentiousness included men doesn’t exclude the possibility that they were also lovers (or rumored to be such). Since Piozzi was known to have strong negative opinions about homosexuality (in both men and women), her writings might be a good place to look for a more explicit accusation, but I don’t have an electronic edition of her writings. And since she wrote very prolific diaries, I’d want a searchable form or one that was very well indexed.

The suggestions in Rizzo that Elizabeth Chudleigh’s close friendship with the two women might indicate sapphic leanings on her part is far more conjectural, and I’d put it down as “suggestive, but far from proven.”

So we’ve gotten as far as accepting a “probable” lesbian relationship between Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe, but what about the suggestion that Caroline was a “frequenter of Covent Garden stews” which, if one reads very carefully, is the only point at which Burford’s book actually places houses of ill repute in conjunction with specific named supposed lesbians? A search of Pearce’s biography turns up no examples of “Covent”, no relevant examples of “garden” and no examples of “stews”. So, he can’t be the source of this accusation, at least not in anything resembling that wording. And since he doesn’t seem to shy away from discussion of sexual indiscretions, it makes me wonder whether the supposed reference actually exists. And—let us note—Burford’s book only claims that the two women frequented the “stews”, not that they went there to seek female sexual partners, as opposed to looking for possible hook-ups with men. So there’s the potential that the entire implication of “lesbian bordellos” has been read into this passage based on mistaken assumptions.

So what about the references to Mother Courage’s house in Haymarket and Frances Bradshaw’s house on Bow Street as being houses of prostitution that catered to women seeking women? Casting about for more leads to follow, I put “Frances Bradshaw” + “Bow Street” into a Google search and the wisdom of the search algorithm pointed me toward Peter Ackroyd’s book Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day which I happen to own but have not gotten around to blogging yet.

Here's Frances Bradshaw in the index… a lead! What does he say? “Close encounters were not reserved for men. Certain female bagnios were open only to other women, such as Frances Bradshaw’s establishment in Bow Street.” That’s a far more specific claim that Burford’s, who simply referred to “‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street.” Ackroyd makes a similar exclusive claim about Mother Courage, stating “Mother Courage ran a house exclusively for females in Suffolk Street.” In both cases we’ve moved from “indulged in by ladies in specialist houses” to “exclusively catering to lesbians” which seems like a leap to conclusions. Furthermore, we still don’t know what the original evidence is that this claim is based on. Ackroyd, alas, has no footnotes at all. And his bibliography doesn’t list Burford, which might be the expected source if this is part of a circular game. However he does list Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin: London and its Vices which also turned up in the aforementioned Google search for Frances Bradshaw. Google Books allows us a peek at the relevant passage:

“’Mother Courage’ of Suffolk Street and Frances Bradshaw of Bow Street catered for the lesbian trade, while Sisters Anne and Elanor [sic] Redshawe ran ‘an extremely secretive discreet House of Intrigue in Tavistock Street, catering for Ladies in the Highest Keeping’ and wealthy married women who came in disguise to amuse themselves.”

The passage is footnoted, but the footnote isn’t available through the page preview I have access to. However we can trace the reference to Anne and Elanor Redshawe (again, via the power of Google) to Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies an annual publication in the later 18th century listing prostitutes and their specialties. The mention of the Redshawes is glossed in Colin Murphy’s Fierce History: 5000 years of startling stories from Ireland and around the globe, using wording precisely similar to that in City of Sin. It feels like we may be circling in on something profitable here. But I do want to note that a strict reading of “catering for ladies” and “married women who came in disguise to amuse themselves” does not specify female partners, as opposed to providing a space where women could indulge discreetly in liaisons with men. Several of the many editions of Harris’s list are available online, however without having a more specific reference to the year, the search could be tedious. And it isn’t at all apparent that the references to Frances Bradshaw or Mother Courage came from this source.

Indeed, if Burford is the source of connecting Mother Courage with an establishment catering to lesbians, it isn’t at all clear that even his blanket assertions support the idea. The description of how the opera singer Caterina Galli ended up “gracing Mrs. Courage’s well-known place of assignation” is in a context where it’s clear that Galli’s liaisons were with men.

And Burfords discussions of Frances Bradshaw—back when she was Frances Herbert—describe her as keeping “a very reputable brothel” which doesn’t sound like how you’d describe a lesbian establishment, and further that it was financed by a man whose mistress she had been, which weakens the suggestion that she set up her establishment exclusively for a lesbian clientele.

There are still a lot of threads to pull on, leads to follow up, primary sources to comb through. One suspects that there may be references to Mother Courage and Frances Bradshaw née Herbert in the index of Covent Garden prostitutes, at the very least in their roles as proprietors. But for now, let’s leave the puzzle as unsolved. You’ve gotten a tour through the complexities and processes of trying to retroactively verify historical claims that have been passed from author to author, being changed along the way sometimes into an unrecognizable form. And yet, there are hints of treasure possibly to be found. The problem is, if we don’t know how we know something, we don’t actually know it. And we don’t yet know that we know there were lesbian brothels in 18th century London.

Does it Matter?

Does any of this matter? Does it matter whether the myths about lesbians in history have any truth value? Or, if they were made up, does it matter whether they were invented by an ancient Roman poet, or a French salonnière, or a sloppy Victorian biographer, or a medieval re-enactor? No one can tell you whether it should matter to you. I’m a historian and it matters to me. But even more, the whole process matters to me—the glorious quest to trace information and evidence across time and to see what we can tell about the human experience from its origins.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: