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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 216 – How to be a Lesbian in an 18th Century Novel

Sunday, November 21, 2021 - 19:30

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 216 – How to be a Lesbian in an 18th Century Novel - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/11/21 - listen here)

This podcast has always had two parallel purposes: to talk about historic people, ideas, and literature relevant to women who loved women, in a wide variety of interpretations, but also to talk about how to adapt and use that information when writing historical fiction today. When focusing on the first purpose, I put a lot of effort into presenting the information in its own context, to make clear distinctions between modern identities and categories and how people in history understood their own lives and those of their contemporaries. But as I move more into focusing on the second purpose—on bridging the divide between the reception of history and the production of fiction—that distinction will be more blurred.

Every author will need to make their own choices about what balance of history and invention to use. What language to employ for their characters’ thoughts and experiences. How to translate their historic setting to make it appeal to their readers. I certainly have my own strong opinions on some of these issues, but my purpose here is to spark ideas and make connections—maybe connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you before. In looking at characters and themes in historic literature that can help ground a fictional character, I’m not prescribing a particular understanding of sexuality in the historic sources. And, as always, when I use the shorthand of talking about “lesbian” characters, it isn’t meant to exclude the possibility that the same sources can inspire characters that offer connection and reflection to readers who use other words. Think of these types of podcast episodes as a grocery store. I’m offering ingredients, but you can choose the recipe.

The Novel

The novel, defined as a long work of narrative fiction, typically in prose, has a somewhat disputed history, perhaps rooted as early as the beginning of the common era, depending on exact definitions. But there’s a fair amount of agreement that the novel in Europe found its stride in the 18th century, braided together from strands that included romances, philosophical explorations, thinly disguised political satires, and picaresque adventures. This century saw the rise of the “sentimental novel” which explored the inner emotional lives of its characters. In the later 18th century, we begin to see a strain of the domestic, moral novel, intended to counter the perception (that genre fiction carries to this day) that reading novels was hazardous to the morals. In addition to this coalescence of genres and motifs, the 18th century was a time when printing technology and rising popular literacy meant that recreational reading expanded outside the educated upper classes and became a popular leisure activity at all levels of society.

Women were a prime market for novels (and considered particularly susceptible to the moral hazards of reading them). But the rise of the novel also offered women two opportunities that had previously been difficult to access. Writing novels gave educated women an opportunity to earn a living in an era when middle and upper class women had few respectable opportunities for independence. And novels were a context for exploring and expressing ideas about human nature and social relations, for critiquing the status quo and imagining other possibilities, for describing and challenging some of the realities of women’s lives that lay beneath the illusion of benevolent patriarchalism.

And novels were a place where authors of all backgrounds could hint at and explore modes of sexuality and identity outside normative paradigms, whether as utopian ideals or as dangerous transgressions or as satirical entertainments. Fiction of the 18th century will not reflect the candid, self-conscious internal realities of the lives of women who loved women. And such women understood their lives differently than we would today. But it offers glimpses of women who stepped outside that normative paradigm in some direction, and from there we can begin to visualize the wide variety of experiences that we might classify as queer women in our present framework.

So today, I’d like to take a tour though some of the people and plots in 18th century fiction that hold queer resonances for us today. These characters cannot truly be identified as “lesbian” as a recognized identity within their own context—even their fictional context, and even when there are suggestions of sexual activity. But as with the episodes on Shakespeare and Jane Austen, I’m showing how existing characters and plots in historic literature can be mined to adapt historic tropes for modern audiences.

A modern author need not take these themes at face value and either embrace or reject the character types “as is.” We can add emotional complexity and sympathetic back-stories. We can strip away the misogyny and look at sexually transgressive characters from a different angle. We can step behind the curtain of respectability and share the parts of their lives that were kept private between the original covers. And we can do all that without forcing our historic characters into modern molds.

To make sense of the wealth of 18th century literature, I’ve organized this tour according to several general types of characters depicted in the works.

Libertine Lives

The first character type is the libertine—the woman who unashamedly enjoys sexual encounters with other women. Ok, maybe sometimes she’s expected to be a bit embarrassed by it, but it’s a performative embarrassment. Just a bit of plausible deniability, as it were. It’s often a pansexual libertinism, though you get examples both of a strong preference for female partners and an attitude that women are just to “make do” when men aren’t available.

The libertine character may be a sex worker or a performing artist (which, in this era, were often conflated in the popular imagination). But she might also be a member of the aristocracy. One of the motifs that developed across the 18th century was an association of aristocrats with amoral behavior and sexual excess.

To represent this theme, I’ve chosen novels of three types: satires, sexual initiations, and sex clubs.

Delarivier Manley’s satirical works The New Atalantis (1709) and Memoirs of Europe (1710), were thinly veiled socio-political satires of recognizable figures of the English court during the reign of Queen Anne. Manley’s characters are depicted somewhat coyly, but unmistakably as enjoying romantic and sexual relationships with women. In some cases, their lesbian relationships exist alongside or in active conflict with their relations with men, complete with tales of stashing one lover or the other in a closet when the rival drops by unexpectedly. But the “New Cabal” social circle described in The New Atalantis requires members to restrict themselves to same-sex relations, except by special dispensation.

Manley’s novels are concerned with women of the aristocracy, although some recognizable models fall more in the demi-monde of courtesans and actresses—though these were permeable categories in an era when eccentric noblemen sometimes married their less well born mistresses. Because the sexual element in Manley’s novels is overt (even if not necessarily explicit), they enable us to see how a homosexual relationship could hypothetically lie behind ordinary and socially-acceptable friendships. Manley pokes fun at the superficial claims of these couples to avoid the company of men to protect their virtue, or that they are simply enjoying the pleasures of friendship and good company. Indeed, if you strip away the presupposition that a sexual relationship between women is inherently immoral, the ladies of the New Cabal are simply engaging in the type of intense, sentimental platonic friendships that were considered normal and expected for women of their time and station, even those that married men.

As Manley writes of the Cabal, “lamenting the Custom of the World, that has made it convenient (nay, almost indispensable) for all Ladies once to marry [they are required] to reserve their Heart, their tender Amity for their Fair Friend, an article in this well-bred, willfully undistinguishing age which the husband seems to be rarely solicitous of.”

Manley’s Cabal are an organized social circle of women with similar sexual tastes who support each other in their relationships, enjoy socializing together, and carefully preserve the secrecy of the nature of their bonds. Gender role play is not a significant element of their identities. Although one couple is noted as sometimes wearing male disguise to go out together to seek sexual adventures among the demi-monde, the default expectation is that members of the Cabal are femme women partnered with other femme women.

It is probably not entirely random that the libertine novels most sympathetic to the idea of women preferring women over men were written by a woman, despite the satirical intent. The motif of a same-sex sexual initiation in preparation for a career as a prostitute appears in a number of male-authored works. (Though, since female authors rarely touched explicitly on sexual activity in novels, the gender distinction is less meaningful than it might appear.)

Perhaps the most famous (or notorious) of these is John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The novel follows the sexual adventures of a young woman fallen into desperation who, after a long career as a sex worker in various contexts, is reunited with her first lover and settles down to being a respectable wife and mother. The story is primarily an excuse for many and varied descriptions of sexual activity, most of it heterosexual, thinly coated with a moral about the triumph of true love.

The lesbian episode is fleeting, at the very beginning of Fanny’s career, when she is being initiated in sex by another sex worker prior to being introduced to male customers. Fanny herself is depicted as enjoying the encounter but being eager to move on to the “more solid food” of heterosexual pleasure. But Phoebe, the woman who initiates her is described as specifically enjoying the opportunity. It is, the book notes, “one of those arbitrary tastes, for which there is no accounting.” Phoebe is solidly bisexual, enjoying her work with male customers, but she takes a special joy in sex with women.

A similar scenario appears in the novel Thérèse the Philosophe by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d’Argens (1749). A young woman arrives in Paris with a so-far-theoretical erotic knowledge and falls in with an older woman who promises to set her up as a sex worker and takes her to bed as a prelude to this career. As with Fanny Hill, it is the more experienced woman who is depicted as being more inclined to lesbian sex (while also using it as a recruitment technique for heterosexual sex). While a character of this type might not feel very inspiring as a protagonist, what we see here is a depiction of sex workers as having experience in pleasuring women, and in some cases preferring women outside of their professional lives.

Perhaps the ultimate libertine representation of lesbian sex originates in the novel L’Espion Anglois by Mathieu François Mairobert (1777) which seems to be the source of the motif of the Anandrine Society, a Parisian sex club for women who love women. (I did an entire podcast on this topic, if you want more details.) Within a culture of secret societies, suspect political organizations, and rising interest in social equality, the fictional Anandrine Society promoted the idea that women’s natural allies and partners were other women. Women may be recruited for membership because they catch the erotic interest of a member, but the society sees its goals as the development of those recruits on an educational, philosophical, and cultural level. The stated ideals include communal sharing of property, charity toward those less fortunate, and the cultivation of sophisticated manners and behavior.

To be sure, the novel has a tinge of disbelieving satire in describing these ideals, and later fictional representation of the Anandrine Society offer a far more raunchy and less elevated image. But in employing the idea of the Anandrine Society in worldbuilding your novel, it can be treated either as fact or as a mythic touchstone through which your characters can explore their sexuality. The simple fact that it existed as an idea tells us useful things about 18th century lesbian possibilities.

Predatory women

The libertine view of sex did its best to be relatively non-judgmental. People were sexual beings and one could indulge that nature or not as one chose. But society definitely made judgments about certain types of people and certain types of desires, and so we move on to the next general category relevant to lesbian plots: the sexual predator. The idea of “the lesbian” as a specific defining category was still in its infancy in this era, so there wasn’t really a sense that a woman was inherently predatory simply due to being erotically attracted to women. Rather, there were other intersections that brought in the predator motif, with sex being the medium through which it was expressed.

The 18th century novels I include in this category follow three general themes: power for its own sake, the lesbian as ally to a male seducer, and the “mannish” woman as predator.

The novel Juliette by the Marquis de Sade (1797) might equally well fall into the libertine category. All the characters are sexually voracious and relatively indiscriminate in their tastes. Specific sexual acts are described purely for the purpose of shock and offence. The fact that the titular character focuses her attentions on other women is almost beside the point.

There is, perhaps, more coherent motivation behind the representation in Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse (The Nun) (1796). This novel is part of a long tradition of anti-Catholic literature, which often picks up the theme that all-female societies are inherently perverse and will naturally lead to lesbian relations. A young woman who is perhaps fatally naïve about sexual relations becomes the erotic plaything of the abbess who takes advantage of her position of authority.

Both of these novels depict relations that exist only for the gratification of the user, but in the second subgroup the sexual exploitation (or threat thereof) is more a tool for the purpose of furthering the interests of a male character. Within the convoluted sexual intrigues of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782), the manipulative Marchioness de Merteuil idly speculates about seducing the innocent Cecile who is the pawn at the core of her plans for revenge against a social rival. The Marchioness has no particular commitment to sapphic relationships, but is willing to use them to further her political ends.

On a somewhat cruder level, in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), while the titular heroine is valiantly resisting the advances of her male employer, she must also contend with the more subtle attentions of his housekeeper, who is described as a “lover of [her] own sex.” The housekeeper is trying to further her employer’s goal to seduce Pamela, and sees her own act of seduction as a way of wearing down Pamela’s resistance.

In both these novels, the female predator acts as an ally to a male partner, having greater social access to the victim and knowing that after one step into sexual experience, the next step will be easier.

As noted earlier, the connection between lesbian desire and masculine performance is far from a predominant theme in 18th century literature. But there are examples where a specific connection is made between an aggressively “mannish” woman and erotic interest in women. Although that connection isn’t necessarily predatory, there are two novels that depict it as such.

In the fictionalized biography, Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont by Anthony Hamilton (1713), Mistress Hobart is in charge of the maids of honor in the Duchess of York’s household and competes with men for the romantic attention of her charges. She is depicted as inappropriately using her position and access to make advances on the young women, and is described as masculine in behavior—to the extent that she is suspected of being a man in disguise or a hermaphrodite.

In Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda (1801), the title character is torn between the friendship of two women: one a conventionally feminine woman and the other the flamboyantly mannish Mrs. Freke, who rides around the country in male clothing, incites duels, and delights in discomfiting the women she takes an erotic interest in.

With only a slight shift in point of view, both Mistress Hobart and Mrs. Freke could easily be turned into sympathetic characters. They represent an archetype that is beloved of modern historical novelists: the gender-transgressive, physically active figure who openly flirts with women in the face of social disapproval. While it’s realistic for that social disapproval to be present in the setting, that doesn’t mean the character must surrender to it.

Friends Forever

It’s the nature of 18th century novels that sex positivity isn’t really a thing. There are novels with sex and there are novels that depict positive and loving relationships, but as a general rule you don’t find novels with both. Oh, you can interpolate the sex in a lot of novels, but that’s easier to do with heterosexual relationships where you have markers like marriage and pregnancy. And as I’ve often discussed, you run into the question of what the characters would define as “sex.” But let’s take it as a given that when we look for stories with overtly positive depictions of relationships between women, it’s going to be a separate set of books than those that unambiguously include sexual relations.

With that, the next set of 18th century novels we’ll be looking at are those that show women in passionate or romantic relationships with each other. While it would generally be an anachronistic leap to describe these women as lesbians in any but the most tangential sense, they provide excellent models for developing fictional characters that are intended to be understood as being in homoerotic relationships. Not all the relationships discussed here were enduring. Not all had happy endings. But they provide historically-grounded examples of how women met, developed connections, supported each other, and negotiated their lives together.

Let’s start with some books that simply take female bonds for granted. Someday I should do an episode all about author Eliza Haywood, whose books focused on women’s lives and situations. Haywood was a prolific author with over 70 works published during her lifetime across a variety of genres. In addition to being an author, she was also a playwright, an actress, and a publisher. Her early works were often angsty dramas of love and revenge. In her middle period, her work often had a feminist flavor with her female protagonists in conflict with men. Later in her career, she seemed reconciled to treating marriage as an appropriate happy ending. But throughout her career, connections between women were a continuing theme, and she often focused on plots that offered women an alternative to the heteronormative paradigm. Let’s take a very brief look at some of the characters and motifs in Haywood’s work that are most relevant to the present topic.

The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) portrays erotic attraction between women, though it is not acted on. In The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753) the character of Lady Fisk goes on a cross-dressed adventure in Covent Garden that ends in picking up a (female) prostitute (but also ends in Fisk being attacked when her sex is discovered).

The British Recluse (1722) begins with a “failed heterosexuality” motif, when the two protagonists are rejected by the same man. But this results in them resolving to retire from the world together, and part of the motivation is the strong attraction they feel for each other. Eventually they are divided when one accepts a marriage offer, however the narrative itself concludes at the point when they have decided to live together, allowing the reader to imagine a different path. A similar retreat from an overt depiction of women’s lives together occurs in The City Jilt (1726) in which a jilted woman enlists her female friend’s help for revenge against her former lover. After the success of this revenge, she “gave over all Designs on the Men, publickly avowing her Aversion to that Sex” and planning to live with her female companion. Unfortunately the companion had a prior (heterosexual) commitment, leaving their time together only a “pleasurable interlude”.

In The Rash Resolve (1724) and The Tea-Table (1725) women create supportive, emotionally-connected relationships apart from marriage structures (and often in direct contrast to them). The first book involves a complex adventure of love, betrayal, abandonment, and the struggle to survive, in which the heroine is alternately betrayed and supported by the women in her life. Passion between women is introduced in both negative and positive contexts, with the betraying woman encouraging the protagonist’s passionate response on behalf of a seducer, and later a patroness who “had taken a fancy to her and was resolv’d to have her” taking the protagonist into her household and creating a domestic partnership that more resembles a supportive marriage than any of the heterosexual relationships in the work. The eventual need to choose between this loving partnership and a return to the now-contrite seducer is avoided by the protagonist’s convenient death.

The Tea-Table describes a literary club or salon, with women sharing and discussing texts. The table of the name is a gathering place where the fictitious women create a supportive literary community. The members include a woman depicted as explicitly rejecting marriage who has “a long intimacy” with another woman of the circle. Although men are not entirely absent from the portrayed circle, there are no positive models of heterosexual relationships within it, only a variety of alternatives. These models include a poem they discuss that was written by one woman on the death of her female companion. Toward the conclusion of the work, the hostess of the tea-table receives a letter from a long-absent female friend and experiences a strong emotional reaction. She expresses joy that their long separation (seven years) is over and eagerly anticipates their reunion. The other guests recognize “by the writing of the one, and the Look and Manner of the other, that nothing could be more sincere and tender than the Friendship between them.”

The desire between women in Haywood’s works is never directly depicted as sexual, but is described through coded words of love, passion, and emotional connection. Within these limitations, the possibility for women to create and prefer strong emotional bonds and partnerships with other women is normalized, even when narrative conventions fail to allow for those partnerships to prevail. The characters and setting of The Tea-Table, in particular, offer an inspiration for situating female couples within 18th century English society.

The realities of 18th century life meant that marriage was often an imperative, but that didn’t necessarily preclude female companionship from being the central focus of a woman’s life. In the French novel Lettres de Milady Juliette Catesby a Milady Henriette Campley son amie (Letters from Milady Juliette Catesby to Milady Henriette Camply, her beloved) by Jeanne Riccoboni (1759), the letter writer, having spent the entire novel rejecting and dismissing the efforts of a suitor to convince her into marriage is, in the end, tricked and pressured into the marriage and ends with a continued expression of longing for the friend who is the addressee of the letters.

The motif of the “mannish” woman with homoerotic inclinations shows up again in the context of a background couple in Charlotte Lennox’s novel Euphemia (1790). The Amazonian Miss Sandford and bluestocking Lady Cornelia are described satirically in the novel, but if the thick coating of misogyny is stripped away, we can see an archetypal lesbian couple: Miss Sandford in her military-style riding habit, riding to the hunt fearlessly and declaring her firm intention never to marry, and her close companion the “learned and scientific” Lady Cornelia who refuses to be embarrassed by the depth of her learning.

Several novels depict a close, and sometimes eroticized, bond between women with significant class differences, such as an employment relationship. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) tells of a woman abandoned by her husband who regains a stable life with the help of her devoted and cherished maidservant by setting up as courtesans. There is a certain indirect eroticism of their shared sex work.

A somewhat more intriguing relationship is depicted in Jane Barker’s The Unaccountable Wife (1723) in which a woman becomes passionately devoted to her servant (who had been her husband’s mistress) and, in an “unaccountable” role-reversal, begins serving her as if the servant were the mistress. The husband dismisses the serving woman but the wife leaves with her and they set up housekeeping together, remaining together for the rest of their lives through various adventures. Although the story is presented as nonsensical and illogical, all the contradictions are resolved if one reads it as a love story.


In all too many of the novels of female friendship, we endure endless pining with no happy resolution. Sarah Scott’s Journey Through Every Stage of Life (1754) follows two devoted friends making their way through the world, one in male disguise, only to be separated at the conclusion by the marriage of one of the characters.

In Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), the title character’s male suitor works to separate his target from all her support structures but especially from her friend Anna. And while Anna is willing to risk all to save her friend, Clarissa dithers and escapes the situation only via death.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise (1761) follows the passionate friendship between two married women where it’s clear that the bond between the two of them is the most important emotional aspect of their lives, but one that coexists with the unalterable fact of their marriages.

Stories such as these, while frustrating for the reader who is secretly hoping for the women to end up together, establish the norms of female friendships in the 18th century. As writers, we are free to take characters such as these and reimagine other choices and other pathways.

The triumph of female couples

And 18th century novelists did imagine other endings for their female couples. In Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1799), Sophia leaves her husband to be with her beloved childhood friend Constantia. And when Constantia’s suitor tries to interfere, she disposes of him. Furthermore, this isn’t simply a case of the two women having a special bond. Sophia regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she encounters.

The Dutch novel Het Land in Brieven by Elisabeth Post (1788) shows two women forming an idyllic marriage-like bond, explicitly rejecting heterosexual relationships. Similarly, the French novel Paul et Virginie by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1788) shows the two female protagonists deciding to form a family together after having been betrayed in various ways by heterosexual relationships. 18th century novels were able to imagine resolutions where the women ended up together, overcoming both social expectations and the economic realities.

The ultimate romantic triumph of our female protagonists, of course, is that bizarre and delightful novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu by Erskine (1744) in which our heroines, Arabella and Alithea, reject marriage, fall instantly in love on meeting, romp across Europe together in male disguise, regularly joke about how they would marry if only one of them were a man, and conclude by abandoning their gender disguise and settling down to live happily ever after together as a couple.

Feeling inspired?

And that seems like an ideal place to end this tour. What we see in 18th century novels is a wide variety of models for lesbian-like characters, with a similar variety of situations, challenges, plots, and resolutions. There is plenty of inspiration to be found that will ground your characters in the archetypes and understandings of the time. Almost every time I look at the material available for a specific century I find myself thinking, “What a wealth of ideas! You could spend your whole life writing f/f romances in this setting and never write the same story twice!” And I certainly hope some of you will go out and do that.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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