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When in Rome, be a Sculptor

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 07:00

As I emphasized repeatedly in my podcast about Charlotte Cushman, the community of women discussed in this chapter deserved to have an entire historical mini-series created around them. There are so many personalities, so much drama, you could easily fill several seasons of tv. If you're writing sapphic historical fiction in the Victorian era you need to know about this milieu, if only so you are aware of the range of possible lives for those willing to do the work of slipping through the blind spots of society. I've read entirely too many stories where a female protagonist is isolated in her experiences because of the author's mistaken impression that the public myths of the Victorian era were the universal everyday reality.

There are also too many stories where women place an enormous load of guilt and shame on romantic and sensual interactions between women that--in actual fact--were part of everyday life at the time. You're a nice 19th century girl, you "kissed a girl and you liked it"? Congratulations, you're enjoying an experience that a plurality of your contemporaries consider a normal part of your emotional life. You visit your friend and spend the night cuddling and kissing in the same bed? Of course, you do. That's what best friends do. You fantasize about being able to set up a household and spend the rest of your lives together? Well, naturally. For most it will only be a fantasy, but those who achieve it will be admired and envied. And if you do, you refer to your arrangement as a marriage, and to your partner as your spouse or "other half" and no one blinks an eye. What you don't do is expect or demand legal recognition for that relationship, or rub people's faces in the full range of what you might be doing in your shared bed. And if you're active in male-dominated spaces, you can expect to be the subject of rude jokes or sly innuendo (whether or not your relationship is sexual).

I want to see more historical fiction that is aware of and uses these understandings as the framework for f/f relationships. It not only opens up a lot more possibilities, but it counters the myth that any historical era that wasn't as open and public about same-sex relationships as our present time was necessarily devoid of happy endings.

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Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 2: The Rome Community

The community of independent women in Rome and their wider connections in England and the USA are a fascinating subject that would seriously disrupt many people's image of the possibilities for western women in the later 19th century. But one of the things that made their lives possible--lives that involved relatively open same-sex romantic and sexual pairings, the free pursuit of artistic and literary professions, and an intellectual community that recognized their talents--was the sepration from the scrutiny and expectations of "regular" society. Not that there weren't women pursing those same things back in England and the USA, but they spent more of their energy struggling for space and against legal systems that hampered them.

The freedom of an expatriate community wasn't available to everyone. Even though part of the attraction of Italy was the relatively lower cost of living, one still had to have some means of living as well as the means to travel. (One also needed the ability to leave one's home situation, and a freedom from the bonds of family responsibility, whether self-imposed or externally imposed.) Charlotte Cushman was a successful actress with a very keen financial sense. Harriet Hosmer had a supportive family and a wealthy patron. Edmonia Lewis depended on the fundraising of a community in Boston who recognized her talent and wanted to give her the opportunity to succeed as a sculptor. Some members of the community moved in and out as companions and lovers of someone willing to support them. The community wasn't all "big names" but there were many, many women who were prominent intellectuals in their own day, even if they're more obscure today. (I only know about Emily Faithful because of Emma Donoghue's novel The Sealed Letter.) They deserve to be better known, and not only for the lesbian history embedded in their stories.

While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

It has been something of a long tradition for women (and men too) living non-normative lives to go abroad, outside the constraints of the society they were divergent from. (Note: There likely was also an aspect of disregard for the mores of the place they moved to, which puts a slightly uglier colonialist shadow over the practice.)

The private correspondence of these women make it clear that the public face of non-sexual romantic friendship was deliberately created and maintained in contradiction to their private lives. Rumors and gossip often told the truth, but there was public deniability. This deliberate concealment indicates that they did not view their loves as innocent in the eyes of the world, even when they took advantage of the forms and language of romantic friendship. Disapproval was coded in gendered terms against “mannish women”, or in terms of lost opportunities if a woman shunned marriage in favor of a female friend.

Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was the usual end goal of a Grand Tour on the continent, as well as being a destination for artistic study and practice, due to the classical and baroque art available as models. Socially, the Anglophone community in Rome didn’t mix significantly with the Italian upper classes, but formed an independent cultural milieu. The rollcall of famous names is long.

Women sculptors were particularly attracted to Rome. Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd and her friend, journalist Francis Power Cobbe. Americans Louisa Lander and Edmonia Lewis, who--as a biracial black and Native American woman--found professional opportunities impossible to come by at home. And especially Harriet Hosmer.

Cushman’s fame on the stage made the home she shared with partner Matilda Hays a social nexus. Her large circle of female friends included many romantic couples, with a certain amount of regular “musical chairs” going on among them. Cushman’s circle also attracted some men of ambiguous sexual orientation.

Cushman had an extensive overlapping series of female lovers. She may have arrived in Rome with Matilda Hays, but Hays, impatient with the role of wife, began a flirtation with Hosmer, then stormed back to London. Cushman was then courting sculptor Emma Stebbins and the two maintained a partnership until Cushman‘s death, though not without challenges, especially from fan-girl Emma Crow. Her passionate relationship with Crow was eventually disguised by marrying Crow to Cushman‘s nephew and adopted son, while continuing as lovers. It was complicated. (I did an entire podcast on Cushman.)

Harriet Hosmer formed another nucleus in the Rome circle. She was famous for her boyish presentation and refusal to conform to feminine roles. Cushman took her as a protégé, but Hosmer always seems to have been wary of getting entangled with Cushman romantically. Cushman arranged for Hosmer to have the patronage of Wayman Crow, father of Emma (well before Cushman and Emma Crow were a thing). Though Hosmer enjoyed flirtations early in her career, it was a while before she settled into a long-term partnership with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a widow with a history of passionate friendships with women. It was a somewhat loose and open partnership, which may account for its longevity and relative lack of drama.

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