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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 9 - The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu

Saturday, April 29, 2017 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 9 - The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/04/29 - listen here)

Every once in a while, you come across a historical artifact that you’d never believe if someone made it up in a work of fiction. I’ve run across all sorts of odd objects while doing historic research. There’s an ancient bit of tapestry from 5th century Egypt that looks for all the world like a “my little pony” pegasus. There’s a letter home from a Roman soldier serving on Hadrian’s Wall complaining about army food and asking for more socks. There are real historic figures like the bisexual sword-fighting opera star Julie d’Aubigny who would be considered unbelievable as fictional characters. And if you’d described the premise of the 18th century novel I’m going to talk about today, I would have demanded proof before believing it.

The book was written in 1744. For reference, this is a couple decades before the American revolution. In France, it’s the time of King Louis the Fifteenth and his beautifaul mistress Madame de Pompadour and all the glitter of the Palace of Versailles. Women wear wide gowns and lace. Men wear full-skirted coats and intricately embroidered waistcoats. The book has one of those long-winded titles common at the time.

The book was written in 1744 and has one of those long-winded titles common at the time:

The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, Cousin to the Present Duke of that Name, Who made the Tour of Europe Dressed in Men’s Clothes, attended by her Maid Lucy as Valet de Chambre, now made into English from the Lady’s own Manuscript, by the translator of the Memoirs and Adventures of the Marques of Bretagne and Duke of Harcourt lately published in Dublin.

Well. It’s hard to tell if the title merges seamlessly into an indication of the author, except that not only is the protagonist in question fictional (and therefore her memoirs are fictional as well) but the supposed French original also appears to be an invention, and the supposed translator of the Duke of Harcourt’s memoirs (who doesn’t seem to correspond to any actual duke of that title) is most probably a mask simply for the novel’s anonymous author. This sort of fiction of authorship wasn’t at all uncommon in the 18th century, so why is this book notable?

Let’s look at the barest outline of the plot. The protagonist and narrator, Alithea de Richelieu, having been conveniently orphaned at an early age--as all good adventurers must be--and having just come of age and into her inheritance, has decided to go adventuring. And as a practical matter, she decides that she will have better (and safer) adventures if she does so disguised as a man, the Chevalier de Radpont. In the course of these adventures, she meets and desires closer acquaintance with a reclusive widow, Arabella de Montferan, who has forsworn all company with men. Therefore, to further their friendship, Alithea discloses her true sex and they develop an immediate bond. Arabella wishes to accompany Alithea on her adventures, but is cautious of her reputation--for she wishes to be able to return to a respectable life afterward. So she concludes the best thing is for her to disguise herself as a man as well.

And why is this story relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project? Because the two of them regularly make protestations of deep emotional attachment and love, and regularly flirt with the idea that--if only one of them were truly a man as she pretends--they would marry and live happily ever after. Because as they encounter and interact with women on their travels, it’s clear that each is deeply jealous of any other woman’s attentions to her traveling companion, and especially jealous if that companion appears to return the attention. And most of all, because at the end of the entire adventure, when they return to living as women, they conclude there’s no reason they shouldn’t share their lives happily ever after, though still paying lip service to the notion that it’s “just until one of us decides to marry.”

Having now spoiled the plot thoroughly, I’d like to take you on a guided tour of excerpts of the book that are most suggestive of a lesbian subtext. Although sub-text is much too tame a term for what we get here. Should any of my listeners decide to read the original for yourself, I’ll warn you that the “good parts” are embedded in a lot of rather tedious philosophizing and moralizing, a vast amount of social and geographic description, and not a few episodes that are racially or religiously offensive from the point of view of modern sensibilities.

The work falls in the category of picaresque novel--a rambling and episodic journey involving not entirely reputable adventures. There is only the barest skeleton of anything resembling a plot in modern terms. There are many digressions. Randomly encountered characters are prone to spilling their entire life history onto the page. So my tour presents a false notion of the novel’s coherence.

Further, it presents an exaggerated notion of how much of the story concerns Alithea and Arabella’s companionship, for they don’t meet until about halfway through the book.

Alithea, in disguise as the Chevalier du Radpont first dallies in Paris in the company of the Count and Countess de Salluce (who don’t know of her disguise), through whom she meets and flirts with a number of attractive young women. But Alithea longs to travel and at last takes off in a hired coach, accompanied by her maid Lucy who is also in male disguise as a valet. There is a brief nod to the oddity of her quest. Alithea justifies her proposed adventures as being likely to turn her mind to a more suitably feminine turn, without risking any real danger to her person or reputation due to the male disguise.

The risks Alithea takes are not to be entirely dismissed, however. While staying in Gascony, Alithea--or rather, the Chevalier de Radpont--exchanges admiring glances with...well, let’s let her tell it.

[vol.2 part 1 pp.151-153]

The first time I went to this assembly I happened to see Mademoiselle de L’Eglise, a pretty young girl, on whom I threw such amorous glances, and gave such umbrage to her lover that next morning I had a billet-doux from her, and a challenge from him; both which, with the answers I wrote, having no better entertainment to give you at present, I shall here put down verbatim.

[The letter from Mademoiselle L’Eglse] Were I a good interpreter of the language of the eyes, I would not be so apt to imagine, as I am, that yours, sir, seemed to express something more than indifferency, when your looks were directed towards me. This freedom will, no doubt, seem a little odd to a Parisian, but you'll perhaps construct it to my disadvantage; but I must let you into a secret, by telling you, that such steps are common to the ladies of this country, and no man who knows the custom, or anything of our characters, will dare on this account to harbor a bad opinion of our virtue, which in any other place would be justly suspected. We are frank, and will freely tell a man when he happens to please us, and are by no means sorry if he happens to be pre-engaged, nor offended if he should resist the power of our charms; and therefore, sir, you may freely tell me, whether my conjectures are right or wrong, and whether I may rank you in the number of my slaves, in which case you may expect to be very kindly used by,

Felicité de L'Eglise

This letter, I own, appeared to me to be of a very singular style, and I could not but think that the custom of the Gascony was very favorable to the ladies, by exempting them from a terrible constraint to which women in other parts of France are liable. I was preparing to write an answer, when word was brought to me that a man of good air, and dressed like a gentleman, desired to speak with me in private. I ordered him to be directly introduced. Catadiss my dear sir, said he upon entering, I am, par bleu, overjoyed that the very first time I have the honor of saluting you, I should be so lucky as to be the messenger of a piece of news which must give a brave man like you great pleasure; I hope, in return, that you will pitch upon one with whom I have had a little diversion.

This language was as mysterious to me as a Persian riddle, and would have remained so had he not put a billet into my hand or directed to the Chevalier de Radpont, which I opened, and found in it the following words.

“You must be ignorant, sir, of the Gascon delicacy, and of the danger of giving offence to a man who without vanity is your superior in every respect, and knows how to put young sparks like you in mind of their duty; I say, you must be ignorant of these things, otherwise you would not have given your eyes the liberty they took yesterday at the First President’s. In short, sir, Mademoiselle de L'Eglise is the object of my wishes, and must be that of your indifference; if you don't incline to give me the trouble of running you through the body. I shall be at the opera this evening upon the stage, where I expect to see you, and to know your intentions, which I believe will be to ogle no more, because you'll soon perceive that there's no jesting with

The Marquis de Tonnerre

You can see the sort of amusements that Alethea has in mind for her travels! The matter goes so far as meeting for a duel--which Alithea bluffs her way through and then uses as an excuse to hotfoot it out of town, leaving her female admirer bereft.

Arriving some time later at Montpelier, Alithea gambles somewhat too deeply and that is what leads her into the confidences of Arabella, as we shall see.

[vol.2 part 1 pp.208-209 para]

I never diverted myself so well as at this place, though I had business enough upon my hands, no less than three mistresses to manage; the first a coquette, the second a prude, and the third (whom I infinitely esteemed) a handsome, virtuous, discreet young widow, to whom I was oftener than once tempted to discover myself, from a secret remorse for imposing on a pretty young creature of so much merit, and who preferred me to all the rest of her admirers; but I went so far, before I began to reflect, that I imagined she would hate me so much for the diversion I had given myself at her cost, that she would publish my secret to be revenged, which made me go on as I had begun.

As for the precise lady, and the coquette, I had no scruple of conscience for imposing upon them, since it was but paying them back in their own coin; and to be sure I led them both such a dance, that I dare say they did not soon forget me.

Though I seldom played deep, yet one evening at the Princess’s having lost about 50 Louis d'Or at the Lansquenet, which was all the gold I had about me, and being a little piqued at my being so handled; I asked the gentleman who held the cards if I might play upon my word, which he readily agreed to; and I had such a run of luck, that in half an hour I was ten thousand livres in debt, which I bore with a pretty good grace, and told the coupeurs (setting down upon a bit of paper the names of my creditors and their respective sums) that as I was not ignorant how punctually debts of honor were to be discharged, they might expect satisfaction next day.

Alithea appeals to her three girlfriends for help with the debt and is rebuffed with a great deal of wordplay and scolding. And so:

[vol.2 part 1 pp.215-230]

Next morning, about eight o'clock, I went to Mr Desmaret’s, my banker, and told him what had happened. I am sorry for your loss, sir, said he, but such debts must be paid, and about two o'clock in the afternoon I shall send the money to your inn. As I had about a hundred Louis d’Or in my lodging, I drew I only drew on my agent at Paris for a thousand pistols, and the moment I had put my name to the bill, and wrote two words of advice, I left Mr Desmaret’s, and went to make some visits; so that it was near twelve when I returned to my lodging, where I no sooner entered then Lucy delivered me a letter with a very large purse, or rather bag, full of gold. I had not patience to open the letter, which would have explained the mystery, but hastily asked her how she had come by this money, which, at first, I thought the banker had sent sooner than he had promised; but how great was my surprise when, upon opening the letter, I found the name of my widow; and, by reading it, that she had sent me this money. As I think it would be highly ungrateful to conceal it, I shall here insert an exact copy of it.

To the Chevalier de Radpont, at the Eagle Inn

Though a traveler, sir, may have credit sufficient, wherever he goes, for more than he has occasion for; yet as bankers seldom go beyond what their correspondents give them orders to advance; yours, perhaps, may scruple to let you have the sum which you have just now have occasion for; and, as I have it lying idle by me, I hope you will accept of it, till you can order money to be sent to you from Paris. I would not have you to look upon this as a favor that can tie you down to any other acknowledgement, than barely to return the money at your own conveniency; and I shall take it very ill if you do not as frankly accept as it is offered by,


Your humble servant,

Arabella de Montferan

What generous noble sentiments, cried I, are displayed in these few words, and how happy will that man be who gets possession of so lovely a woman; could I now but metamorphose myself really into the sex I represent, I would go and die at her feet if she refused my heart; but what madness possesses me to rave at this rate, and wish for impossibilities; since providence has put an invincible bar to wishes of this kind, shall I be so basis to impose upon so lovely a creature. No; it is resolved I will trust her with my secret, I am sure she is too good to betray me; and since I cannot be a husband, I will be a faithful and constant friend, and spend the remainder of my days in this generous lovely woman's company; [but where am I wandering again; is it possible that the men, who must see all her perfections better still than I do, will not tease her for ever till she enters a second time into the state of matrimony; and is it rational to imagine that a woman so young and lovely will incline to remain a widow?] Well, let us go and endeavor to penetrate into her intentions, and act according as we find them.

I here ended my soliloquy, and ordered a chair to be sent for, that I might wait of her at her house, and return the money; but when I came there, the bird was flown; and I was told by one of her servants, that she went early this morning to her country seat about six leagues off, where she was to remain eight or ten days. New surprise to me, but it directly came into my head, that her leaving the town so abruptly was to prevent my having an opportunity of restoring the money.

[Various interactions with creditors omitted. The widow has cancelled the request with Alithea’s banker, forcing Alithea to use the money she provided to pay the debt.]

I sent my footman to the lady's house, to inform himself exactly whereabouts her country seat lay, that he might go to it with a letter; and at the same time ordered him to hire a horse, and got himself ready in an hour to set out, after which I sat down and wrote a letter, whereof the following is an exact copy.

To Madame de Montferan at her castle of Blaisy.

Dear madam,

You take a most effectual way of forcing those whom you intend to oblige, to accept of your favors. I have, indeed, known instances of good-natured actions, upon earnest application made; but it only belongs to Madame de Montferan to force large sums upon people unasked; not only that, but to put it out of their power, by a noble and generous stratagem, to do without her; this is my case just now, by my banker’s going out of town upon the pretended valet de chambre’s telling him I had no occasion for the money which he was to have sent me at two o'clock; and upon the faith of which I had sent word to the several people, to whom I was indebted, to come or send for their money, which they have indeed got but at your cost.

Your generous care of my honor, madam, is so kind, that I cannot find words to express my acknowledgement; nor can I ever hope to make a suitable return, except by letting you into a secret, before I leave this county, which will show you what confidence I put in your discretion; in the meantime, give me leave to assure you, that the banker made no difficulty to advance the money, which I shall get from him the moment he comes to town, and be myself the bearer of it to your country seat, or deliver it here to any person you are pleased to order; I should much rather choose the former, that I might have the pleasure of assuring you, by word of mouth, that it is impossible any mortal can admire you half so much as

Dear Madam

Your most obedient and obliged

humble servant

The Chevalier de Radpont

My servant returned next morning, and delivered me a letter from the lady, of which I here subjoinea copy.

To the Chevalier de Radpont at the Eagle Inn in Montpellier.


I receive no visits from gentlemen at my country house; and, as I design to be in town in a few days, I beg you'll keep the money in your hands till I see you. I cannot pretend to more discretion than others of my sex, and, therefore, I am not very desirous of being trusted with secrets; however, if yours gives me an opportunity of being serviceable to you in this or any other part of the world, you may, with safety and freedom, put me to a trial; for I have such a favorable opinion of you, that I am persuaded you have no secret that may not be told, and heard, without putting you or me to the blush. Apropos about blushing. Ought I not to be a little afraid that you'll conclude, from my free manner of behaving with you; I am not easily to be put out of countenance, and that I certainly I must have some plot upon you; but I will now let you into a secret which will answer two ends; the one, of making you easy upon the score of my favors, as you term them, that is to say, that they proceed from no selfish view; and the other, that by my discovering my real intentions to you, I acquire a sort of title to a reciprocal confidence.

You must know, sir, that though I am rich, young, and, if I may believe my glass, not ugly; and though I have several offers that may satisfy my ambition, or any other desires which a woman at my age may be supposed to have; yet by a distaste, I suppose from constitution, to what commonly is looked upon as the principal happiness of a married state, joined to the fatal experience I have already made of it, I am fully determined never to enter into a second engagement; this is a secret which you alone know, and which I thought proper to let you into, that you might not misconstruct my intentions; a certain inexplicable sympathy makes me mighty desirous of your friendship; but if you should, out of gallantry, or seriously commence lover, you may depend upon losing, that moment, my friendship and company; so choose, sir, whether you incline that I should be familiar with you as a friend, or shun you as a lover; if the former, I will go great lengths to convince you how sincere I am in friendship; but if the latter, you may bid adieu to all correspondence with


How satisfactory was this letter, and how it eased my poor distracted mind, not as yet fully determined whither the secret must out, or not. On the one hand, I could not bear the thoughts of dissembling with a woman of such a lovely and noble character, but on the other, it was to be imagined that a young fellow, on whom she had bestowed so many marks of a particular esteem, could, or ought, indeed, to confine his wishes within the limits of friendship, where, besides extraordinary obligations, he meets with charms capable of inspiring the most violent passion. Her letter, tis true said I to myself, exempts me from acting the lover, and cuts off all my hopes as such; but while she believes me to be a man, she certainly never can imagine that it's possible for me to confine my heart within the bounds that she has prescribed, whatever promises I may make so to do in obedience to her commands.

I believe she sincerely intends to have no more to do with love or lovers; but how does she know but that that serious friendship may at last turn to love, and that she would be caught when the least thought of it; nature loses none of her rights, and will, sooner or later, work us all up to that softness which gives to a relish to matrimony; so that in spite of constitution, and a former unhappy marriage, the widow may change her opinion, and what a misfortune would it be were she to do so in my favor; I must prevent it by the discovery of my sex; but, continued I, what if she should condemn my disguise as a thing inconsistent with modesty, and, perhaps, lose all the esteem she had for me as a man. In this case she may think me whimsical, for, after all, I scarce think she will suspect my virtue, and in the other she would look upon me as a cheat and an imposter, and would detest me as long as she lived; for, to be sure, no disappointment can equal that of a woman, who bestows her heart on a thing that is but a mere shadow, so to speak, and absolutely incapable to make the proper use of it.

After much reasoning pro and con, I concluded that the fastest way was to trust my secret to her honor; and in this resolution, I made my servant return to her country seat with a letter, of which I kept a copy; and here it is.

To Madam de Montferan.

Dear Madam,

Your friendship I prefer to all the attachments I had or can have; and though I think you richly deserve the adoration of all the male sex, yet I glory more in the character of your friend, than in that of your lover; for this reason, that I flatter myself qualified for the former, and am certain that I cannot, without a monstrous madness, aspire to the latter; for which I am almost tempted to curse my unhappy fate.

Though I tremble at the thoughts of disclosing the secret of my life to you, not that I suspect your discretion, but that I dread the severity of your virtue, which may not, perhaps, be satisfied with my conduct, though in the main regular and innocent, and dares malice's blackest mouth; however, happen what will, I must lay my heart open to you, and let you into a secret which I was resolved to conceal from every mortal while I was on my travels.

Give me leave, dear madam, to wait upon you at your country seat, and you shall see me metamorphosed into a creature that admires your perfections, but who is not capable of other sentiments than what friendship inspires; the glorious title of friend you have already given me leave to assume, my ambition soars no higher; and I hope when the mask is off, you'll have no cause to repent your having entertained a favorable opinion of

The Chevalier de Radpont

That very evening my servant returned with the following answer.

To the Chevalier de Radpont


Though curiosity be none of my predominant failings, yet I must own that your letter has raised mine to such a height, I will, for once, break in upon the law which I had laid down to myself of admitting no men visitors here; I hope the discovery you are to make will excuse this rash step; but remember, that if there lies a snake in the grass, I mean, if I find this grand secret proves nothing but a stratagem to get access to this forbidden place, nothing will ever after restore you again to the friendship of


Now fortune, cried I, fortune what is she but a fiction of the poets, and to be invoked only by roving fancy. Let me make my application to that infinitely perfect being, by whose power and wisdom the whole creation is governed; vouchsafe O God to remove from the fair Arabella all suspicions of my virtue; whatever notion she may have of my imprudence, my youth will plead indulgence for this, if she is but persuaded that my inclinations are chaste and pure, which heaven knows they are. After this ejaculation I felt a serenity in my mind, and all my first fears vanished. I ordered my footman to get post horses for my chaise, and have everything ready by eight o'clock next morning, at which hour I designed to set out for Madame de Montferan’s country seat, where I arrived about eleven; and though something within me seemed to portend a kindly reception, yet I trembled as I was going up the stairs. I was carried into a very magnificent apartment, and had scarce been a moment in it, when the lovely Arabella appeared.

Madam, said I, advancing some steps, I don't come here with a design to thank you for your generous assistance; she who is capable of doing what you have done, receives no satisfaction from the acknowledgments of the persons obliged, but from the inward pleasure which always accompanies the noble and generous action; so that I shall without any further formality, beg leave to restore in the bag you sent me, if not the individual pieces of gold that were in it, at least, an equal number of the very same species, which I received last night from my banker.

I hope, sir, said she smiling, you have something of more consequence, than the restitution of the money, that brings you here, and I'm impatient till I know it.

Yes, madam, answered I, the motive of this visit is quite other than what I dare say you imagine; and though I tremble at the thoughts of doing what, perhaps, may ruin me in your esteem, which I should think the greatest misfortune that can come upon me; yet I cannot bear the thoughts of having any reserve with a lady who has acted so nobly by me; Know then, madam, continued I, that you see in me one of your own sex, whom curiosity to see the world has tempted to put on this disguise, that I might travel with more freedom and safety.

Good god, cried Madame de Montfaran, you a woman, can I believe it?

That I am, madam, answered I you may be assured; but before I give you such proofs as will remove all your doubts, give me leave to run over some passages of my life, by which you'll understand how this whim of knight-errantry first entered my brain.

Proceed, sir or madam, I don't yet know which--I'm all attention.

When I had finished my narration, I unbuttoned my waistcoat, and discovered my breasts, which the lovely Arabella no sooner perceived, than she clasped me in her arms with transports rather of a lover than of a friend.

My dearest mademoiselle, cried she, for I am now satisfied about your sex; how happy do you make me by this discovery, which I hope will unite us in bands of friendship more solid and more noble than those than that of love; and if your sentiments correspond with mine, nothing but death shall separate us; if I cannot persuade you, continued she smiling, to give over your traveling project, I will take breeches too, and we shall set out together upon our adventures.

Arabella tells her sad tale of marital unhappiness, cured only by her husband’s untimely and unlamented death. Alithea and Arabella quickly become fast friends and arrange to meet further.

[vol.2. part 1 pp.241-242]

To Madam de Montferan.

I suffered so terribly, my dearest madam, by the constraint which the presence of your curate laid us under, that I could have wished the poor man, God forgive me, in purgatory; but I hope tomorrow night, how agreeable is the pleasing thought, that I shall meet with no obstacles, to the sincere and tender embraces, which the charming Arabella may expect, from one who prefers the glorious title of friend from her, to all the advantages in the power of fortune to bestow upon

Alethea de Richelieu

I had a sentry planted at the gate by which she was to enter the town, who brought me word the moment she arrived, and she was scarce alighted when I was at her heels, and when the servants were retired, before whom we were always observed great ceremony, I flew into her arms. What difference between this moment's liberty, cried I, my dear madam, and the constraint of that to which I was tied down when I left you last; and how happy do I think myself in being at freedom to give you all the testimonies of the sincerest esteem and friendship, of which a heart infinitely attached to you is capable.

I receive your caress, my dear Alithea, (for henceforth I insist on all ceremony’s being banished between you and me, and that I shall be your Arabella as you are my Alithea) with as much pleasure as you give them, and am very sure your attachment to me cannot exceed mine to you.

While, a certain amount of the language of romance that they use between them can be attributed simply to the rhetoric of the day, it's very hard not to see in the protestations of love and affection a clear romantic intention between the two of them.

But, as Arabella notes, their repeated meeting will only damage her reputation, given that the world believes Alithea to be a man. And she hesitates to ask Alithea to give up the masquerade and therefore her adventures. So Arabella suggests some alternate possibilities.

[vol.2 part 2 pp.243-244]

For whim’s sake, I will tell you what pretty scheme I have in my head; but first of all let me ask you a serious question, to which I beg a serious answer: are you under any matrimonial engagements?

I neither am, answered I directly, nor ever intend to be, if I continue to think of a married state as I now do.

Since this is the case, said the widow, if I were sure there would be no crime in our marrying, I would give you my hand sooner than to any man living.

And I would accept with as much pleasure, answered I laughing, as if I were capable to perform the duties of a real man, though I must own there would be some injustice in robbing the male sex of such a treasure.

Forbear your compliments, my dear Alithea said she, and let me proceed to the other part of my scheme which is this, that in case it should be esteemed a mockery of the sacrament of marriage in us to join hands, which I am very apprehensive it would, and that we must give over all thoughts of that kind, the next thing to consider, is, whether I shall put on breeches or you throw them off; I am afraid I should be very awkward in men's clothes, and I believe it would be a mortification to you to give up your favorite scheme of traveling.

I own, said I, that I see difficulties on both sides; as for matrimony, I believe, in our case, it is contrary to all divine and human laws, and might be attended with dangerous consequences, at least for me whom the world would look upon as a cheat and an impostor, unless you were to declare, upon a discovery which might possibly happen, that you knew beforehand that I was a woman; and, even in that case, our whim, for no other name could it justly bear, would make us be pointed at by all who knew us, and be talked of all over the kingdom; and, as for my giving over my travels, I confess I have so strong a desire, or passion if you will, to see Italy, that a disappointment would give me great uneasiness; besides, my dear Arabella, though my friendship for you should get the better of my inclination for rambling a little longer, I should never be able to bear the thoughts of appearing here in a different shape; and if I put on women's clothes it must be in another place than Montpellier.

I hope that the listener is now beginning to understand why I feel that this particular novel is of great relevance to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. While the sentiments expressed by the two women regarding the possibility of marriage between women (even with one in disguise) are perhaps not entirely enlightened to our day, the fact that they would contemplate such a thing at all suggests something a great deal stronger than mere friendship.

And so they make arrangements to travel together. Arabella has various arrangements to make, and they part briefly. But when she has concluded her business, Arabella writes to Alithea saying she will meet her at Lyons: “where I will appear in short coat and breeches, and then set out with you whenever you please upon our adventures. In the mean time, be assured that every minute is an age till I have the pleasure of embracing my dear Alithea, who is husband, lover and friend to Arabella.”

And then:

[vol.2 part 2 pp.341-343]

Upon my arrival next day at Lyons I found a letter from Arabella, acquainting me that she reckoned to be with me by the thirteenth, which gave me great joy. As I was a little fatigued I did not think proper to make my appearance in town that day, but went early to bed and a good night's rest made me as fresh as the next morning as I was when I left Lyons.

A lover could not be more impatient for the arrival of a mistress than I was about my friend, who was so good as not to let me languish long in expectation; for at the precise time her letter mentioned, I had the unspeakable pleasure of clasping her in my arms, dressed in a habit fit for a gentleman traveler; and she looked so charming in that dress, that I gazed upon her for some minutes, without being able to open my mouth, at last I recovered the use of my tongue, and made her a great many extravagant compliments; my dearest Arabella, cried I, were you really what you represent I believe I should have quite different thoughts of matrimony, for I am very sure I should fall in love with you, and in that case I fancy nothing but matrimony would satisfy me, and which will show you my weakness in the full extent, I must fairly confess that I just now wish you were a man, and a man who would play the fool and commit matrimony with me.

Without pretending to the spirit of prophecy I can foretell the loss of many poor female hearts before you and I have finished our rambling; for in good earnest, my dear Arabella, your features, complexion, mien, and shape, are so exquisite, that it's impossible for any man who is a man to resist them; besides, there's a certain je ne se quoi in your whole composition that will, I vow, make all the women, from the princess to the chambermaid, stark staring mad, and I fancy it will require all your art and mine to bring you out of intrigues, of which, I dare say, you'll have abundance on your hands.

She laughed at my rhapsody, and told me that I was prejudiced in her favor, which made me think her endowed with so many perfections; but my dearest Alithea, continued she, do you not think that you will have your share in our conquests; and without enumerating all your perfections and charms in that pompous manner you have done mine, let me only tell you, but not in jest, that if anything could tempt me to wish myself of another sex, it would be the possession of the charming Alithea.

They begin their travels in Italy and I’ll gloss over any number of iterations of the pair arriving in a city, finding lodgings, making contact with high society, socializing, meeting agreeable women and flirting, getting in trouble thereby, and escaping by some strategem to travel on. It becomes apparent that Arabella is, perhaps, an even more attractive man than Alithea is, and Alithea begins feeling jealous and getting a bit snippy and sarcastic about this fact.

At last they arrive at Rome where they plan to spend the winter and settle down to frivolous amusements. Alithea declares that she no longer finds it amusing to help Arabella attract women; she's going to work on her own behalf and Arabella can do the same. Arabella is amused by this and teases her about toying with women's affections when there is no hope of carrying through. Alithea gives a little speech to the effect that the anticipation of love is far more satisfying to ladies than the consummation would be anyway. Arabella then cautions her against jilting any lady too harshly, as the Romans are known for taking somewhat violent revenge for these things. This gives Alithea pause, but she notes that they can get away with all manner of flirtations because, after all, they are French and it will only be expected of them.

There is then a somewhat amusing series of encounters where Alithea cozies up to a beautiful young widow who is disinclined to re-marry; convinces her to reconsider; and then, on being successful in this and being coyly solicited by the widow for suggestions for a potential husband, Alithea recants and says she's disconsolate to have turned the widow's mind toward marriage when now she (Alithea) has concluded she was right to disdain it from the first.

In turn-about, Arabella falls in with a lady who is quite interested in contemplating matrimony, while Arabella (who never was all that enthusiastic about the state, if you recall) argues against it. She is also successful, and her conversational partner then declares she's dead-set against marrying, whereupon Arabella implies that her heart is now broken as the lady had successfully changed her own heart. (This all occurs over several exchanges of letters and casual meetings at the opera.) Having had their amusement, our heroines determine to make sure to put an end to the flirtations in a firm but non-hazardous way. And then they make the mistake of comparing notes.

[vol.3 part 1 - pp.123-124]

Now, my dear Alithea, what do you think of Maria?

Why, I think she is a very witty girl, and would make a very pretty mistress, and do not you think she would make a very charming wife?

Sure you do not imagine, said I laughing, that I have already forgotten my anti-matrimonial system.

But tell me seriously you whimsical waggish creature, said Arabella, if this girl would not tempt you if you were a man, I am sure she would me, for I think she possesses everything that would make a man happy.

Very well, said I, Maria is to have Alithea's place in your heart, and poor Alithea is no more Arabella’s dearest friend, in pronouncing these words, I put on so grave an air that she really thought me serious, and was so affected that the tear came in her eye, she clasped me in her arms, and said in a languishing tone, how cruel you are, my dear Alithea, to touch me in so sensible a part, heaven knows that no woman upon earth can rival you in my affection and esteem, and had I thought you would put any such construction on the praises which I bestowed upon Maria, I would not have mentioned her name.

I am as jealous of you, said I, as a man could be of his mistress, and were you to get a husband, I believe I should have difficulty enough to keep my temper.

I don't think you will ever be put to any trial that way, replied she, if I continue to think of marriage as I now do; but if in the sequel I should alter my opinion, I promise you that I will never marry without your consent, and it would be very agreeable to me if you could come under the same engagement; touch hands, my dearest Arabella, and let us jointly make this vow by way of prayer, that if ever we take unto us husbands without consulting one another, may heaven plague us with strong desires and husbands that cannot satisfy them. Amen and amen, with all my soul, said she .

Their travels take them through Spain, and then by ship to England, but while enjoying the sights of London (and making rather sarcastic observations on the English), Arabella has received a letter from Paris with the news that her man of business has died and she must return to see to her affairs. With a brief diversion through the Netherlands, they return at last to Paris, where Alithea makes her home. She has written ahead to her man of business, who knows about her gallivanting around in male guise and therefore is well positioned to ease her transition back to life as a woman. He has hired a house and servants for her, and the two women go there directly.

[vol.3 part 2 pp. 352-354]

When my friend and I were by ourselves, I took her in my arms, my dearest Arabella, said I, how pleased should I be to find myself at Paris, and at the end of a wandering life, with which I have sometimes since been wearied, though I said nothing, could I have but the pleasure of your company; but the thoughts of your leaving me and going to the south of France, is a terrible drawback, or rather sours all the pleasure I might otherwise propose to myself, in a calm and quiet life after so much rambling.

My dearest Alithea, answered she, we perfectly sympathize in our thoughts about this terrible thing called separation, and as I advanced toward Paris, the idea of it made a terrible and melancholy impression upon my mind; but I have been thinking of an expedient which will keep us always together, if you approve of it.

Speak, cried I, with vivacity, I am sure you can propose nothing but what I will cheerfully comply with.

As your affairs, said she, or, to speak more properly, as your estate and mine lie at a great distance from each other, it cannot be imagined but that we must be at hand, at least now and then, to inspect into the management of those to whom we commit the charge of receiving our rents, for which reason I would propose that I should pass six months of the year with you here, and you six months with me in Languedoc; by this means, besides the pleasure of being with one another, we shall avoid the extreme heats in the place of my nativity, and all the fogs, rain, and other inclemencies of weather, to which the winter season in the north of France is liable. How do you like my project, added she, looking fixedly on me?

I like it so well, answered I, that I will this minute sign, seal, and deliver, I mean, that provided you will only give me time to settle my accounts with Mr Pigeot, I will go with you to Languedoc, and stay with you there until the warm weather chases us from that corner of France; but my dear Arabella, added I, how shall I make my appearance at Montpellier, after having once passed there for a man, and how shall I be able to stand the raillery of your patched lover?

It is, replied she, upon his account as well as others that I would have you appear there in your natural dress; for, my dear Alithea, added she, who knows but the people in that country have been informed of my travels with a person whom they believed to be a man, and therefore it will be very necessary to undeceive them, that my character may not suffer; when they come to know your sex, the worst they can say is, that we are whimsical creatures.

What must be must be, cried I, rather than part with you I will do anything, and make the best of a bad bargain; that is, put the best face upon my impudent behavior the first time I was at Montpellier that I can; I may well be put to the blush, but I fancy none of your lovers will pretend to call me to an account for carrying you away.

They are by no means bloodthirsty men, said she, as I told you before, and I believe they will be very well pleased with your metamorphosis; but whether they be or be not, it is a matter of great indifference to me, for I never intend to make any of them my lord and master, and if they are such fools as renew their old importunities, I will soon let them know what they are to expect.

Let this kiss, said I, clasping her anew in my arms, be as a seal to our agreement, with this only reserve that when either of us happens to be in the humor of matrimony, after asking, according to our former convention, the other’s consent, it may be lawful to take unto us husbands.

I do not know, said Arabella smiling, whether you are in jest or earnest, but you may be assured that when you find yourself disposed for a husband, I shall not oppose it.

I know my own thoughts just now, said I, but I cannot answer for those two days hence, so it is prudence to make allowance for the fickleness of our sex.

In almost every expression of love between them, there is always this pulling back, this expectation of fickleness and whimsicality. As if only by that denial are they able to be so passionate. But the conclusion of the book offers at least a solid happy-for-now ending.

[vol.3 part 2 pp. 357-358]

For a fortnight, we did nothing but visit all that was worth seeing in and about Paris, to satisfy Arabella’s curiosity; and as we frequented all public entertainments, what I had foretold with respect to Arabella’s charms was fulfilled. She soon had crowds of admirers, but she was inaccessible, and would by no means receive any visits, though many stratagems were laid by lovers of all ranks to get into her company.

I have nothing more to tell the reader but that we went together to Montpellier, where it was generally believed that Arabella and I had been married in Italy, and some of her disappointed lovers had so publicly condemned her conduct, that they were confounded when we returned, and were ashamed to present themselves.

We remained in Montpellier till towards the middle of March, at which time we return to Paris, where we passed the summer season according to our agreement, which we have regularly observed for several years, and without the least thoughts of altering our scheme till death parts us; the longer we are together, the more we love one another, and are happier in our friendship and freedom, than we could possibly propose to be in any other condition of life. Arabella's temper is sweet with a little mixture of reserve; mine is gay with a little of the ingredient called whim; my gaiety rouses her now and then out of a fit of thoughtfulness, and her reserve bridles my vivacity, so that we play to one another's hands; and if there be such a thing as happiness in life, we are the persons who enjoy it.

Show Notes

This mid-18th century novel tells the story of two women romping through Europe in male disguise, breaking hearts, having narrow escapes, falling in love with each other, and ending up deciding to share the rest of their lives together. The 18th century prose is rather dense, but I’ve tried to pick selections that show why I find it fascinating.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The historic context of the novel
  • An overall plot summary
  • Readings of selected excerpts that illustrate the romantic relationship between the two main characters

Books mentioned

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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