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The Nice and Nasty Sides of Early Modern Female Friendship

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 - 20:06

This is the second of the articles that drove me to track down this collection (though, as it happens, I suspect the last two articles will also be of interest). Andreadis has written on this theme before and you can see the concept develop accross several publications. (But, of course, I'm not reading them in the order they were produced, so I get some of the ideas out of order.) While it's dangerous to try to understand historic attitudes by analogy to modern ones, it might be useful to consider the wide range of approaches to "respectability" within modern LGBTQ communities. People's public presentation doesn't necessarily align with their personal identity. People can disagrwee about the best way to create meaningful art while sharing similar inspirations. Andreadis addresses the reasons why early modern discourse around lesbian sexuality might diverge into two contrasting camps, but those differences don't necessarily tell us anything about private behavior. I think it would be a mistake to posit that avoiding explicit sexual language in one's writing implies avoiding explicit sexual activity in one's bed. I like that Andreadis connects her analysis with Terry Castle's analysis (which I really do need to read and blog one of these days), and the ways in which the permitted public expressions of desire between women work to make it possible to doubt the fact of that desire. The combination of a public discourse of female same-sex desire and the dynamic shifts in how it was expressed and received are part of why I'm attracted to writing fiction in the later 17th century. It expands the options for how one's characters might think, speak, and behave around their desires and offers intriguing sources of conflict.

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Andreadis, Harriette. 1999. “The Erotics of Female Friendship in Early Modern England” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Andreadis, Harriette. “The Erotics of Female Friendship in Early Modern England”

The focus of this article, in Andreadis’s words is “a class of women and behaviors described by their contemporaries in ways that coincide with our modern ‘lesbian’.” There is still much uncertainty within that description as to how these women and their society understood these concepts, and Andreadis’s thesis is that as such behaviors begin to be framed in public discourse as transgressive, women who engaged in the same behaviors but wished to be viewed as “respectable” developed a coded language to express sexual feelings in the language of female friendship – a shift that Andreadis labels “double discourse” as it parallels the more overtly transgressive language that was coming into use. [So, in essence, they developed a “closeted” language to deflect condemnation.]

Double discourse is particularly apparent in the poetic expression of female friendship, beginning with authors such as Aemelia Lanyer and Katherine Philips. This phenomenon partakes of a long tradition of making lesbian sexuality “undefinable” as explored, for example, in Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian. The ways in which female same-sex desire are expressed make that desire erasable, even as they protect the women who recorded these desires.

Andreadis discusses the resistance among historians to acknowledging female same-sex eroticism in England before 1600 despite an undeniable vocabulary for female same-sex activity, dating at least as early as the 16th century. This vocabulary occurred in medical and travel literature, for example. This unambiguous vocabulary, including terms such as tribade, fricatrice, and rubster identified a specific type of transgressive and stigmatized sexuality. When specific activities are indicated, it is rubbing the genitals together, or penetrative sex using an instrument or a (probably mythical) enlarged clitoris.

The treatment of sex between women undergoes complex shifts from a relatively matter of fact, if misogynistic, curiosity in the 16th century, to a more self-conscious and often prurient presentation in the 17th century. At that time, in addition to documentary contexts, allusions to sex between women are appearing in literary works, both by male authors and by those female authors willing to be viewed as unconventional. Mid-seventeenth century female authors who write of same-sex eroticism include Margaret Cavendish, Anne Killigrew, Aphra Behn, and Delarivier Manley. With the exception of Killagrew, these women were all considered scandalous to some degree. The question is open whether their reputations gave them the freedom to write on sexual matters, or whether their writing was the driver of their reputations.

In reaction to that intersection of infamy and using same-sex erotics as a literary subject, there appears to have been a shift (roughly following after the Restoration) by which women who wish to protect a respectable reputation developed a separate literary vocabulary for expressing same-sex desire. By using this vocabulary, they could distance themselves from the image of tribades and fricatrices.

What was the nature of this literary language? It included emotionally charged, erotic (but not sexual) imagery, including the assumption of largely homosocial lives (but ones unable to entirely avoid marriage and childbearing) and drawing on specific tropes and categories that were considered acceptable for women writers. These tropes included praise of patrons or social supporters, elegies for female friends, poems either celebrating or lamenting the dynamics of friendship, poems about women’s life stages, poems about reading and writing, and dedications on other authors works. Acceptable themes included meditation, philosophy, pastoral fantasy, and compliment – but the genres of political satire and explicit sexuality fell on the other side of the line. But when writing within these permitted themes and genres, erotically-charged sentiments could emerge.

Parallel shifts in society of the later at 17th century include the rise of professional women writers, increasing publication in English (rather than Latin), a greater focus on female education, the growth of the middle class and the ideals of domesticity, and greater sexual permissiveness and behavior.

Women writers such as Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips often addressed their work specifically to a female audience. Philips organized a literary social circle celebrating female friendship, while writing strongly erotic poems for her favorites among that circle. Philips’ work be can be considered a model for the creation of a passionate discourse between women that lay outside the contemporary understanding of the sexual. This tradition continues in the work of Mary Chudleigh, Anne Finch, Jane Brereton, and the pseudonymous “Ephelia”.

Their work can be seen in contrast to the more explicitly sexual writings of Behn, Manley, Cavendish, and Killigrew. What is difficult to determine is whether the women in these two “movements” saw a commonality in their experiences and desires (simply with a different mode of expression) or whether they consider themselves to have no common concerns. There is an allusion to this contrast in a poem by Brereton addressed to a female friend, which describes, “The Behns, the Manleys, head this motley train, Politely lewd and wittily profane.” But the poem, while critiquing the mode of expression, is reticent about whether the subject matter had common inspiration.

Also unknowable is whether the absence of explicitly erotic content in an authors work corresponds to an absence of genital activity in her relationships with women. The remainder of the article consist of close readings of several poems that follow within the “passionate friendship” genre. This poetry of intensely intimate female friendship developed the vocabulary and motives that would underlie the development of “romantic friendship” as an important theme in the later 18th century and onward.

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