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Lesbian Literature in the 18th Century

Monday, June 27, 2022 - 07:00

As with the previous post, this chapter is written by a prolific and deeply knowledgeable scholar on the era in question. One of the benefits of a survey like the Cambridge Companion that is both a high-level overview and focuses specifically on lesbian history is that it can be easier to see some of the large-scale patterns. If the 17th century was an era when female homoeroticism was becoming more visible in general, the 18th century was an era when knowledge about female homoeroticism was becoming more organized into motifs, tropes, and categories. In some ways, that categorization only serves to emphasize the diversity of experiences that fall generally into the concept of "female homoeroticism". I've started poking at the idea that one of the problems with trying to identify "lesbianism in history" is that we need to acknowledge that there were many different "lesbianisms", each with their own history and cyclicity. On some points, they intersected and overlapped, on others they could be distinctly different. The awkwardness we often experience in trying to develop a unified historical model of lesbianism stems, in part, from trying to embrace all those lesbianisms as a single whole. But even if you look at much more recent lesbian history -- say, from the mid-20th century onward -- the experiences, concepts, and communities that are, in theory, covered by that label have been diverse, distinct, and sometimes in philosophical conflict. I shall continue poking at this idea and will probably turn it into a podcast at some point.

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Full citation: 

Gonda, Caroline. 2015. “Writing Lesbian Desires in the Long Eighteenth Century” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Gonda, Caroline. Writing Lesbian Desires in the Long Eighteenth Century.

Female same-sex desire appears in a wide variety of genres in the “long 18th century” from private letters and journals, to professional literature, to novels, to satire, to porn, to poetry. And reference to lesbianism served a number of purposes that are not always obvious to the modern reader. The most visibly sexual representation tends to be hostile, while positive depictions tend to idealize “chaste female friendship”.

That polarization can obscure the relationship of literary representation to real women’s everyday lives. In a gender segregated society with very different concepts of privacy, opportunities for erotic encounters were many, and could easily go unremarked. Hostility tended to arise when women’s activity is challenged male privilege and expectations.

In contrast, official models of female-female desire tended to be associated with an unnatural state: whether physical, such as the “enlarged clitoris” theory, still prevalent early in the century, or behavioral, such as the increasing image of lesbians as “masculine”, later in the century.

Toward the end of the century, shifts in the acceptability of gender play in masquerades and theatricals parallel an increasing “gender panic” about appropriate roles and behavior. (Some see this crisis gradually developing from as early as the late 17th century.)

Across the 18th century the discourse around female homoeroticism moved from viewing it as having no significance to being significant enough to be threatening. The figure of the “female husband” appears regularly at the intersection of those views. Writing about these symbolic representations of female-female desire and gender transgression sometimes tells us more about the concept of lesbianism in the 18th-century than trying to find real-life lesbians. Real women had a reason to obscure their desires, while public discourse focused overtly on the meaning and consequences of those desires.

The figure of Sappho as a lesbian icon comes to the fore. Language evoking Sappho establishes itself in the general vocabulary of female-female desire, most commonly as “sapphist”, “sapphic”, “sapphism” but also in ambiguous uses of “lesbian” in reference to the poet and her loves.

Public and private discussion of specific women’s sapphic desires took up a full range of presentations from the celebrated “friendship” of Ponsonby and Butler to the whispered accusations against Anne Damer, to the autobiographical records of Anne Lister.

One common theme seen in these commentaries is an attempt to force female couples into a “butch-femme” mould even when the couple themselves emphasized their similarities. However we also see couples that do embrace a gender polarity, as in the writings of Lister.

Outside of overtly satirical or hostile literature, treatments of female homoeroticism in literature are often oblique or coded. This coding may be hostile, as in the depiction of “masculine” women in novels such as Belinda, or may act to blur or conceal erotic elements in favor of sentimental attachment, as in Millenium Hall.

The chapter catalogs a number of iconic and lesser known works with homoerotic themes, and again makes a good shopping list for interested readers.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

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