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The Pendulum of Lesbian Legibility

Monday, December 3, 2018 - 08:00

Across many authors there’s a confusing assertion that lesbian possibilities have regularly gone from being considered impossible, to being recognized, then resulting in the demonization of demonstrations of affection. To some extent, this article deals with the reverse swing of the pendulum: how was that awareness suppressed again, such that there could be a later re-awakening of suspicion? Traub and Andreadis discuss how lesbian possibilities were identified and articulated in the 17th century, resulting in a genteel avoidance-discourse among authors like Katherine Phillips. Lanser and others examine a similar dynamic in the 18th century leading to the "sex panic" of the 1790s that rolled over into an erasure of female sexual possibilities in general in the 19th century...only to have a focus on lesbian possibilities revived in the late 19th century with the decadent movement and the sexologists, who once again raised the spectre that any close female relationships were suspect.

It almost makes me wonder to what extent this apparent pendulum swing is a real phenomenon in lived experience and to what extent it's an artifact of changing fasions in "official discourse." Were there actual ups and downs in the average person's awareness of the possibilities of female same-sex relations? Or were there only ups and downs in the degree of official scrutiny those possibilities were given? Other authors have pointed out that shifts in the attitudes of the patriarchal establishment toward relationships between women were often dictated by the extent to which those relationships defused or exacerbated women's challenges to their authority.

When Craft-Fairchild asserts "the lack of a coherent, codified model" of sapphic identity in the 18th century, could we not just as reasonably assert that 18th century English writers did not have a single stereotype for "real lesbians" while clearly having an awareness of desire between women? Rather than this lack of coherence indicating the absense of a sense of lesbian identity, might it rather indicate that 18th century lesbian identity was rooted in the experience of desire itself and had as wide a variety of expressions of that desire as were available for heterosexual desire? Does "lesbian erasure" come from the absence of a single, agreed-upon stereotypical image? Or does real erasure come from the idea that there must be a single, agreed-upon sterotypical image in order for "lesbian identity" to exist?

I think these are questions that might usefully be considered by comparison to 20th-21st century concepts and images of lesbian identity. Is there currently a "coherent, codified model" of lesbian identity of the sort that Craft-Fairchild is looking for in the 18th century? Or are there many different flavors of identity that connect to each other by a variety of similarity-links without the need or ability to define a sharp-edged category? (I'm always happy to insert cognitive approaches category theory into a discussion!)

One significant challenge that articles like this one raise is against the idea that "absence of evidence" for unambiguous lesbian-like identities can ever be considered evidence of absence. But another important challenge is to the idea that an overall picture of historic concepts of same-sex love and desire can come from studying individual historic periods. If any given defined historic period appears to recapitulate a cycle of covert identity, growing awareness, public identification, demonization, and suppression, then maybe we need to stop thinking in terms of "development". It's reminiscent of Traub's concept of "cycles of salience" (Traub 2011) as well as Lanser's point that in every age lesbianism was framed as being both "an ancient vice" and "a new fashion" (Lanser 2014).

When I started this Project, I truly thought of my own work as being the isolated summary and presentation of individual publications, but more and more I find myself developing my own over-arching image of the state of sapphic consciousness across time and space, and find myself challenging more narrow conclusions based on focused data. Not that I think there is a single unified field theory of lesbianism, but that I have an image of the connections and continuities as well as the disruptions and disjunctions that helps me make sense of how individual women in different times and places might have understood their own lives. It's a rich tapestry and has a lot of space for making up new stories that are woven seamlessly into the existing ground.

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Craft-Fairchild, Catherine. 2006. “Sexual and Textual Indeterminacy: Eighteenth-Century English Representations of Sapphism” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 15:3

A comparison of the popular reactions in 18th century English literature to “sapphists” as contrasted with male homosexual institutions like molly houses gives the appearance of unconcern about women’s relationships, as does the absence of English laws against sex between women. When women in same-sex relationships ran afoul of the law, they were typically charged with fraud. Nor were women who cross-dressed as men treated with the same public scorn as effeminate men. Various scholar have suggested that it was possible for people in that era to be entirely ignorant of the sexual possibilities between women.

Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian took a contrasting position: that lesbians were absent from the historic record because they generated an anxiety too extreme to be articulated. Other scholars, such as Elizabeth Susan Wahl assert that homosexual possibilities between women were an “open secret” during the 18th century that was encoded into a variety of literary genres while still being elusive. Similarly, Valerie Traub maps out how 17th century English texts used a set of classical idioms, tropes, and motifs to create a means of making female homoeroticism intelligible, but that very visibility led to increasing social sanction. Knowledge about female same-sex possibilities then cast suspicion on forms of intimacy such as bed-sharing, kissing and caressing, and close friendships that had previously been considered “chaste”.

Harriette Andreadis argues that this conflict provided an impetus for inhibiting open discussion of same-sex relations by the mid-17th century. Accusations of female same-sex relations could be used for social control to support a binary, heteronormative sexual imperative. This resulted in a self-protective evasiveness among women writers who depicted eroticized female relationships.

Thus we find an apparent contradiction where female homoeroticism is expressed in a variety of 18th century genres while simultaneously beginning to fade to deniability. The anxiety around same-sex discourse affected the authors as well as their audiences, resulting in an ambivalent and indeterminate treatment of lesbian-like characters. This article looks at the nature of how that ambivalence and indeterminacy was expressed. Rather than taking a position that textual same-sex desire existed but has been erased and must be re-discovered, Craft-Fairchild looks at the textual nature of the presence of same-sex desire.

Were women “struggling to find a language with which to define their love for one another”? Or were they using the approved models of female friendship to conceal or dodge the issue while still expressing those emotions? Was lesbian identity being developed or was a developed model being concealed? If 18th century texts appear to present an incoherent articulation of same-sex desire, is that due to the incoherence of the writers or of today’s readers? Craft-Fairchild argues that the apparent tolerance of the 18th century sapphist was due to the lack of a coherent, codified model that defined her. This same lack is what makes her difficult for modern readers to identify.

The first case study is Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis (1709), which ridicules the lesbian behavior of “the new Cabal,” a fictional cadre of women who have turned their emotional focus on each other. The resulting relationships are varied in nature, including both mannish women and traditional feminine ones, “butch-femme” couples as well as “femme-femme” ones, hierarchical relationships and egalitarian ones and with a variety of expressed motivations for disdaining men (or embracing both men and women).

Manley’s text both asserts that female homoeroticism is an “impossibility” while simultaneously treating it as a threat. The all-female society is presented in both utopian and satirical lights. She sees the line between female friendship and “irregularity” as both impossible to identify and clearly transgressible. Manley’s text asserts both that the “real” sapphist can be identified by physical signs (masculine appearance and behavior) and that one can be both traditionally feminine and inclined toward women.

The second case study is John Cleland’s Fanny Hill in which the innocent Fanny is initiated into sexual pleasure by an older prostitute, Phoebe, who is described variously as having “an arbitrary taste” for women that she takes the opportunity to gratify, while also taking pleasure “without distinction of sexes.” While Fanny is depicted as preferring to move on from her female initiation to the “more solid food” of men, Phoebe is assigned a contradictory array of motivations for her active interest in same-sex erotics. Nor is she depicted as being in any way masculinized. Rather than resolving the problem, Cleland simply abandons the character.

The third case study is Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband, a highly fictionalized story of Mary Hamilton, a woman tried for fraud for marrying another woman while in male disguise. Fielding presents Hamilton as being traditionally feminine and attractive, as being innocent and properly brought up, but then being “corrupted” by a relationship with an older woman after which she had a fixed interest only in women. The actual court records of Hamilton’s case make it clear that the legal charge was fraud and that there was no suggestion of a sexual crime, while Fielding’s work revolves around a prurient interest in the sexual possibilities of her life.

Fielding lays out an incoherent theory of “natural” versus “unnatural” desire which fails to justify how Hamilton could be diverted to the “unnatural” despite having no physical or psychological predisposition before her own seduction. Fielding simultaneously asserts that such women will always turn back to preferring men when the option is available (illustrating the point with several of Hamilton’s partners who abandon her for men), but consistently depicts Hamilton herself as steadfastly preferring female partners, with no implication that she would have been unable to attract a man if she chose.

Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of male anxiety, as voiced by Fielding’s character, is when she offers her female partner “all the pleasures of marriage without the inconveniences.”

The anxiety provoked by the inability to “read” sapphism is illustrated by a fantasy by Jonathan Swift, who imagines a system of evaluating female virtue by means of the myth that a lion would not attack a true virgin. Thus all communities (he asserts) should keep a lion handy by the church. A woman would not be absolutely compelled to offer herself for the test, but if she refused she would be assumed to be a whore. He then spins a tale in which a woman embarked on the test believing herself secure, but when the lion attacked, as she was torn to pieces, she confessed “I am no true virgin! Oh Sappho, Sappho!” The text emphasizes the lack of any identifying signifier of sapphism other than the magical senses of the lions. The sapphist moves invisibly through society with no identifying characteristics, but the strength of the anxiety her existence provokes is measured in the viciousness of the fictional punishment she is subjected to.

Even condemnatory texts such as Manley, Swift, Cleland, and Fielding could not serve up a coherent image of female homoeroticism. But positive descriptions of women in committed relationships fared no better in characterizing their subjects. Susan Lanser asserts that women such as the Ladies of Llangollen or Anne Lister created an acceptable image of “lesbian” relationships but that the acceptability of intimate female relationships depended on manipulating the conventions through which they were interpreted. Positive depictions of female erotic relationships drew on the language of friendship and heterosexual romance, but in wavering between them might participate in their own erasure.

The anonymous The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu presents an example of the difficulty of interpreting textual intent, in part because the anonymous nature of the text and a lack of contemporary critical commentary makes it hard to determine the author’s intent or the expected reception. The story embeds the spicy tale of same-sex flirtation and love within an incoherent jumble of other literary genres, making it possible to overlook--or even deny--the sexually transgressive nature of the text. The protagonists (Alithea and Arabella) regularly disparage heterosexual marriage, but in a manner that is consistent with expected reactions for women of their class. Only their expressions of physical admiration and desire for each other then move their reactions into sapphic territory. The story is rife with expressions of physical affection between the two, teasing references between them to being lovers or each other’s husband, but avoids using any vocabulary that makes unambiguous reference to lesbianism (terms such as sapphist, tribade, fricatrice, etc.). And the two regularly pay lip service to same-sex love representing “impossibilities” and lamenting their inability to truly play the part of a husband. This leaves the reader suspended between an interpretation of the text as a covert lesbian love story and a misogynistic satire that denies the possibility of love between women.

There are parallel ambiguities in the fictionalized autobiography A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke by an actress best known for performing both “breeches roles” (roles in which a female character dresses in male clothing) and actual male roles. Charke cross-dressed off the stage as well at times in a variety of circumstances, including a long stint living as “Mr. Brown” in company with a female companion. Like the Richelieu story, the text combines multiple genres and refuses to adhere to a coherent through-line. Charke hints at a heterosexual context for her cross-dressing (which she refuses to disclose in detail) and depicts herself as dodging any attempt at consummation of romantic encounters with women while cross-dressing, but then relates in detail the loving and marriage-like relationship with Mrs. Brown. While critics have offered a number of events in support of Charke’s heterosexuality (marriage to a man, assertions that she didn’t share a bed with Mrs. Brown) Emma Donoghue points out the double standard that if a man and woman engaged in the relationship laid out for Charke and Mrs. Brown there would be no doubt it was a romantic and sexual one.

Across multiple 18th century texts, sapphic figures are presented in ambiguous and inexplicit terms that allow for plausible denial while requiring a significant amount of effort and hand-waving to perform that denial. Homoerotic relations between women were presented indirectly, both due to the lack of a consistent and coherent social model, but perhaps by the women themselves as a self-protective measure. Although explicit language was available to identify women involved in same-sex erotics, that language was avoided in more elevated literary registers both because it was taboo, and possibly because women writing of their own lives did not view themselves in the negative light associated with those terms. In doing so, they may have participated in their own literary erasure.

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