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Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 20:00

Now we get to a set of biographies that are both intriguing and maddeningly skimpy. After chapters where the every movement and conversation of the subject is reconstructed from correspondence and memoirs, we have the story of a woman who -- without recourse to inheritance or marriage -- appears from obscurity with evidence that she somehow ammassed a comfortable fortune. How? Why? Where? When? No idea. She becomes the mentor, companion, and most likely lover of a woman widowed in her early 20s, also left with a comfortable fortune (and four children!) and they go traveling across Europe, hanging out with the famous and talented. Like many intriguing real-life stories, you'd have to work a bit to make it believable in a novel. But in keeping with the theme of mining history for plots and characters, I think you could do worse than examine the lives of Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 12 – Friends: Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges

This chapter, though just as packed with the confusion of life details as the previous ones, provides a much clearer picture of a particular configuration of companionship. The two women in the relationship were both from the comfortable middle class, but each with disadvantages to be overcome, and each had a certain amount of good fortune--or at least a good outcome that left them quite happy and comfortable. I’m going to take each of their stories separately at first and then blend them together.

Molly Carter was the youngest of 12 children of a well off middle-class family. Her father was a member of Parliament and the family had an estate to be handed on, although entirely too many children for all of them to be benefited by that resource. Molly Carter never married and, by unknown means, she ended up with a fairly significant fortune. Rizzo works backwards from the size of her establishment and the amount of the bequests she made in her will to determine that she must have had a fortune of at least 20,000 pounds.

While she may have made good investments to earn some of that, and she may also have received a legacy or legacies from unknown sources, unfortunately her position and status was of so little interest to posterity that we have almost no information about the period of her life when she acquired her fortune.

Molly was intelligent, strong-minded, and contemporaries frequently remarked on her “masculine“ intelligence and personality. (Keep in mind that intelligence and intellectual ability were defined as masculine qualities, so this isn’t necessarily a comment on her gender presentation.) She spent most of her life on the fringes of high society, being an acquaintance of people of rank and status, but not a close friend of any of them. Even those known to have been close friends of hers said little about her in their correspondence and memoirs. There is a sense of something ever so slightly “off” about her life—something that made her acceptability questionable in society—such that she was not entirely welcome or at home among fashionable people.

In later years, she was strongly rumored to be a lesbian, although specific relationships are not mentioned with the possible exception of Louisa Clarges.

Louisa had something of a checkered background herself. Her mother had been the mistress of Lord Sandwich and after he cast her off, she took up with a young man of comfortable wealth who was not entirely averse to picking up forsaken mistresses of the great. The two were not married at the time Louisa was born, thought they did marry shortly thereafter, but it appears that her father didn’t formally acknowledge her until after his death. Louisa’s mother died a few years after the marriage during a tour on the continent. She left Louisa a set of diamonds (no doubt a gift to her from Lord Sandwich) and appointed her husband to be Louisa’s guardian.

Louisa was charming, musically talented, somewhat giddy, and popular among the artistic set. Her musical talent and social connections brought her into fashionable society despite the moral lapses of her mother’s past and her own birth. She attracted the attention of Thomas Clarges, a rich man who, like her, was devoted to music, and it appears to have been a love match.

In the five years they were married, they had four children, including one pair of twins, and Lady Clarges was the toast of fashionable society. Unfortunately her husband died leaving her a 22-year-old widow with four children (but sufficient wealth to ease the sorrow).

Louisa and Molly had become friends at some point earlier and Molly appears to have lived in the Clarges household before and after Sir Thomas‘s death. Afterward, she became Louisa’s main emotional and logistical support while she regained her equilibrium. There was a significant age difference between the two. Molly was older and Rizzo—following her usual pattern of imposing parental roles on companions—suggests she took something of a motherly role. That might create an unfortunate impression in the reader given what followed.

Before Sir Thomas’s death, they had planned to make a stay on the continent for his health, and after afterward Louisa determined to continue with plans for the tour. Molly had previous experience with continental travel and so provided not merely personal support, but this expertise as well.

There are implications that Louisa had some mild scandal associated with her, and that she had reason to absent herself from England for a while so that talk with die down, but the specifics of that are nowhere provided. In any event, the two women, the children, and all the associated retinue went abroad and mixed in fashionable society in France and Italy.

Contemporaries who commented on them implied some interesting things. Molly was referred to as Louisa’ “chevalier” and it one point is called “her Sappho”. There are suggestions that she was regarded as masculine in some way, and given the direct references to her reputation as a lesbian it is a natural conclusion to suppose that the two women were known--or at least suspected--to be lovers.

These rumors don’t seem to have impeded their acceptance in society, or their enjoyment of travel and the social opportunities it brought. Louisa enjoyed at least one offer of marriage (or a near-offer) that she turns down. When they eventually returned to England several years later, they separated on amicable terms and remained excellent friends for the rest of their lives.

Luisa was no longer the glamorous and lighthearted socialite she had been before marriage, but had settled down to sensibility, devoting herself to her children and to music. She had unfortunate luck in her children’s health: one son being killed in the Navy, and two being of delicate health (possibly tuberculosis), for which reason she settled the family in the north of Wales where the air was said to be better. But to no avail in the end. Her last son survived to adulthood but never married.

Molly Carter continued to visit her in Wales. She had settled in London, but having no social or historical prominence of her own is rarely mentioned. We know a fair amount about her financial situation based on the wealth she was able to leave behind. She lived a long and active life, continued to travel, and was remarked upon regularly as a remarkable and memorable woman.

They both were buried in the same churchyard very close to each other, and it’s hard to imagine that this was by accident. Even though they spent only a portion of their lives in the same household, they were clearly close, and given the rumors it’s likely their relationship was at least romantic and possibly sexual.

Rizzo points out that for a positive companion relationship it is not sufficient for the participants simply to be benevolent and of similar temperament, but that financial comfort goes a long way to ensuring private success in one’s relations. And by whatever means they came by it, Molly and Louisa were sufficiently fortunate in their finances to be able to enjoy their partnership with no clouds for the time that it lasted.

Time period: 
Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 19:00

We're finally getting to some examples of positive companionship in different forms. This chapter emphasizes three components that are one way of achiving that goal: a benevolent and good-tempered mistress, a carefully hand-picked companion, and sufficient inequity in their positions that the lines of authority are clear. These are not women who are infantilized by having a hyper-competent housekeeper-companion, or who drive away a good prospect by the sort of bullying that comes from insecurity and narcissism. But neither are these specific examples particularly good models for building a fictional romantic prospect. (Perhaps the Spencer-Preedy relationship could be adjusted to fit, but not as it is, in my opinon.) So despite Rizzo's titling this chapter in reference to romantic friends, the relationships don't quite fit the model as I understand it. We have two more chapters to go, and we're getting closer.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 11 - Sensibility and Romantic Friendship: Frances Greville and Lady Spencer

This chapter provides a somewhat more coherent theme with regard to companionship, and it presents an entirely positive model. It contrasts the lives of Frances Greville, the wife of Fulke Greville who has been mentioned previously, and Georgianna Spencer. But I must clear up the identity of this Georgiana because I spent half the chapter being confused. This is Georgiana married-name-Spencer, who is the mother of the Georgiana Spencer who married William Cavendish and thereby became the unhappy Duchess of Devonshire.

The Spencer and Greville were close friends though rather unalike in personality. Frances Greville was renowned for her outspoken wit, strong opinions, and preference for disdaining sensibility and emotionalism. She had rather hostile relations with her husband and they separated because of that, leaving her is difficult financial circumstances. Greville’s relations with her companions were shaped, in part, by her inability to support a companion of her own rank. In fact, most of her companions also served as lady’s maid, though she was willing to forgo some expertise in that field as long as they were skilled at reading to her and were good company. A side effect of these requirements was that they were women who were not at risk of challenging her authority or expecting much in terms of intimacy.

Georgiana Spencer, on the other hand, had a very happy marriage, but her husband was significantly older and died, leaving her a widow at a relatively young age. Both of Georgianna’s daughters led tumultuous lives, and one of the things Georgiana seems to have looked for a companion was a substitute daughter who would provide less drama.

Greville and Spencer were both consistently pleasant and benevolent in their relations to their companions, not the domineering tyrants of earlier chapters. Frances Greville took good care of the succession of maid/companion figures in her life, seeing to them when they were ill and ensuring that they were taken care of once they left her service. Some of the young women who filled this role had been selected and trained up by her friend Georgiana, who seem to have a hobby of identifying and providing suitable young women for her friends’ households.

After her husband‘s death, and with her two daughters married off, Georgiana engaged the services of the daughter of a clergyman who was a client of the family. Elizabeth Preedy. While Greville’s companions needed to do double-duty as ladies maid and companion, Spencer attached Elizabeth Preedy purely for the sake of company. Georgiana chose to live a relatively quiet life after being widowed, with a turn to charity and good works, and Preedy suited her very well in that state of mind.

Preedy might have retained the post of companion for the rest of their lives, but a wealthy widower who was a friend of the Spencers settled on her as the ideal second wife to manage his household and look after his children. Georgiana was hesitant to forbid the match. Not only was it an unlooked-for opportunity for Preedy herself, but the larger Preedy family was in dire need of the support such a match could bring.

But as the possibility of the marriage was discussed between Spencer and Preedy, it became obvious that women were far more attached to each other than they had previously realized. Rizzo frames this as a romantic attachment and although the language they used about each other is ambiguous regarding the nature of their feelings, the extended agonizing over the possible separation, and whether it was the best choice, tells it’s own story. Despite their clear emotional distress at the thought of their separation, in the end Preedy did marry the wealthy widower and seems to have been reconciled to finding happiness on that path. But it seems clear that she might have preferred to stay as Georgiana‘s companion for the rest of their lives, if family pressures hadn’t intervened.

Both women, Georgiana Spencer and Frances Greville, deliberately chose companions who were of lower status than themselves, but for different purposes and functions. This choice may have contributed to the success and happiness of the arrangements, but the temperament of the women as mistresses must also be taken into account.

Time period: 
Monday, September 28, 2020 - 20:00

OK, maybe I've been working through this book too long and I'm just getting bored. Or maybe it's the sense that Rizzo is trying to build a narrative that she's already established in her mind, rather than study the sources. Whatever the reason, I'm feeling a bit snippish. The book is starting to feel like a random series of 18th century biographies that can in some way be related to the idea of "companions". (Given the social patterns of the time, I'm guessing that almost every household could be related to this concept in some way at some point.) People seem to be painted with broad brushes and Rizzo is fond of forcing them into fixed narratives. Husbands are expected to be jealous of their wives live-in female company. Companions are either bullies, toadies, or saintly martyrs. And there seems to be an underlying assumption that women are naturally in conflict with each other even when they appear to be performing voluntarily complementary roles. Moralism worms its way in with an assumption that being a competent household manager makes one a better person than being witty or charming or socially ept. Being frail or depressed is a personal failing or a means of manipulating others. Sometimes each of these may be true, but I've come to wonder whether Rizzo actually likes women as human beings. Because she regularly puts the worst interpretations on their actions. Well, I have three more chapters and will finish up this week. I've gotten some very useful ideas that can be applied to plots and characterization in my own work. So there's that.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 10 The Domestic Triangle: The Veseys and Handcock

This chapter feels a bit incoherent, as if Rizzo is simply trying to put together biographies of minor 18th century personalities who happen to have left significant correspondence, which can be forced into a narrative by means of random excerpts.

The subject of this chapter is Elizabeth Vesey and her sister-in-law and longtime companion Something-or-other Handcock. so little is known about Handcock’s life as an individual that although it’s known that she was one of the sisters of Vesey’s first husband, the question of which of three possibilities is left unspecified. Her first name is never recorded in any of Vesey’s memoirs or letters.

The two women formed a partnership that is familiar from other examples: one being the practical, managing sort, the other being the social person. Typically, of course, it is the companion who is the practical, managing person because that’s her means of adding value to the household and gaining a stable and secure position.

Mr. Vesey was somewhat set apart from the circle created by those two women. The marriage seems to of been a fairly typical one when not arranged for love. The two were indifferent companions to each other and never close. Mr. Vesey seems to have taken a certain pleasure in using his power as the patriarch to exclude the other two not only from household decisions but even from knowledge of his plans regarding travel and lodging.

Rizzo forces the three into an interpretation that she’s mentioned in previous chapters, where she sees the wife as being either allowed or encouraged to be childlike and ornamental, and then casting the female companion into the role of surrogate mother, and the husband into the role of surrogate father. It isn’t it all clear to me that this template correctly applies to some of the people Rizzo applies it to, and the more I work through this book the more annoyed I am by some of Rizzo’s interpretations. In this chapter, for example, there is a great deal of speculation regarding the motivations and feelings of the two Veseys that seems to be done purely to create a structured narrative, but for which little evidence is offered in support.

At any rate, Elizabeth Vesey and Handcock kept each other close company for many years until both were elderly and infirm and died--in somewhat straitened circumstances, due to the lack of provision in Mr. Vesey’s will, which may be seen either as carelessly improvident or as malicious. But in the meantime, the two women had created a fairly functional partnership, with Hancock being the practical one and Vesey the ornamental one. Their own contemporaries referred to them as “body” and “soul” with Handcock being the practical body and Vesey the soul.

There isn’t really much else to say about this household and the companion dynamics it illustrates, for all that the chapter goes into a great many random details of the Veseys’ life and social circles. Elizabeth Vesey was a minor hostess of the bluestockings. Not a brilliant one like Elizabeth Montagu, but with a certain social set of her own. She had artistic interests expressed in typical 18th century upper class directions: home decoration and landscaping. If she was not a brilliant mind she seems at least have been well beloved by her contemporaries. And Handcock? Handcock was always there for her, looking out for her, managing her household, being her constant companion. We have almost no idea what she thought of the arrangement as she seems to have left no correspondence or memoirs of her own, and visitor to the Veseys rarely commented on her presence or existent.

What does this chapter contribute to an understanding of the dynamics of companion relationships in the 18 century? I guess it demonstrates that some of them were functional, long lasting, stable, and loving, without very much in the way of drama other than what typically comes to women in a patriarchal society.

Time period: 
Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 177 (previously 50d) - 17th Century Poet Katherine Philips - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/09/26 - listen here)


I’ve been thinking of doing a podcast on Katherine Philips for some time, and was finally inspired to do so by the coverage of Philips in Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations, which I blogged recently. On a more practical basis, it’s a good time to tackle this subject because I have enough material on Philips summarized in various blog entries that putting together a podcast was only a matter of editing, rather than writing anew.

So why should we be interested in a minor English poet of the 17th century? Other than the fascination of any woman who wrote passionate poetry to her close female friends, Philips is a great example of how debates over applying the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from studying the actual ways in which same-sex desire was expressed, regardless of label. It does equal damage to the historic reality of Philips’ life to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of whether she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus only on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence, and to dismiss the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.


Philips was born into a bourgeois family, the daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, but her personal charm and talents bought her entry into court and literary circles. She was raised in Puritan and Parliamentarian households in the era of the English Civil War, but her personal sympathies were royalist. Much of her early poetry was in private circulation among a circle of royalist women, serving both to express her political opinions in carefully coded symbolism, and to maintain bonds of personal intimacy within the group.

She was married at age 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. Full disclosure compels me to note that Wikipedia has a reference suggesting that newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. Either age difference is plausible in the context of the time, though the larger gap may be more likely. The difference in political sympathies might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict, but instead proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded Philips from the consequences of her royalist connections, and she in turn was able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.

Their differences went beyond the political. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. And though she didn’t disparage her husband, neither does he seem to have been a source of personal satisfaction. Separation from him (and her children) never provoked the anguish that Philips expressed when separated from her female friends.

Poems of Friendship

In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. They may have met together in London or in Wales, as well as by correspondence. Philips herself was “Orinda”. The first of the women Philips addressed poetry to, Regina Collier, was not assigned a classical nickname. But the next two women who feature prominently in her poetry had nicknames. The first was Mary Aubrey, a school friend, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” Some of the poems were conventional praise poetry, as in this excerpt from a poem addressed to Rosania.

Rosania Shadowed whilst Mrs. Mary Aubrey

If any could my dear Rosania hate,
They only should her Character relate.
Truth shines so bright there, that an Enemy
Would be a better Orator than I.
Love stifles Language, and I must confess,
I had said more, if I had loved less.
Yet the most critical who that Face see
Will ne'er suspect a partiality.
Others by Time and by Degrees persuade,
But her first Look doth ev'ry Heart invade.
She hath a Face so eminently bright,
Would make a Lover of an Anchorite.

It goes on at some length enumerating Rosania’s charms and attractions.

The more memorable of Philips’ poems address the nature and proper expression of intimate friendship. These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.

The following, titled L’Amitié (The Friend) expresses the sense of oneness that true friendship brings.

L’Amitié: To Mrs. Mary Aubrey

Soul of my Soul, my Joy, my Crown, my Friend,
A name which all the rest doth comprehend;
How happy are we now, whose Souls are grown,
By an incomparable mixture, one:
Whose well-acquainted Minds are now so near
As Love, or Vows, or Friendship can endear?
I have no thought, but what’s to thee reveal’d,
Nor thou desire that is from me conceal’d.
Thy Heart locks up my Secrets richly set,
And my Breast is thy private Cabinet,
Thou shed’st no tear but what my moisture lent,
And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent.
United thus, what Horrour can appear
Worthy our Sorrow, Anger, or our Fear?
Let the dull World alone to talk and fight,
And with their vast Ambitions Nature fright;
Let them despise so Innocent a Flame,
While Envy, Pride, and Faction play their game:
But we by Love sublim’d so high shall rise,
To pity Kings, and Conquerours despise,
Since we that Sacred Union have engrost,
Which they and all the factious World have lost.

Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing a poem on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” It was the fate of all of Philips’ closest friendships to falter when her friends married and found their time and attention pulled in other directions. Philips considered herself steadfastly devoted and had a hard time forgiving a lesser commitment in others. The following verse reflects a shift in primacy from Rosania to Lucasia (Anne Owen), although Philips had a propensity for writing multiple “farewell to friendship” poems, so this needn’t be seen as marking a specific event.

Rosania’s Apostacy and Lucasia's Friendship

Great Soul of Friendship, whither art thou fled?
Where dost thou now chuse to repose thy Head?
Or art thou nothing but Voice, Air, and Name,
Found out to put Souls in pursuit of Fame?
Thy Flames being thought Immortal, we may doubt
Whether they e'er did burn that see them out.

Go weary'd Soul, find out thy wonted rest,
In the safe Harbour of Orinda’s Breast,
There all unknown Adventures thou hast found
In thy late Transmigrations, expound
That so Rosania's Darkness may be known
To be her want of Lustre, not thy own.

Then to the Great Lucasia have recourse,
There gather up new Excellence and Force,

Many of Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. In “Friendship’s Mysteries” she creates a symbolic equivalence between the bonds of friends and that of marriage, emphasizing the superiority of the former as it allows for free choice of association.

Friendship's Mystery: To my dearest Lucasia

Come, my Lucasia, since we see
That Miracles Mens faith do move,
By wonder and by prodigy
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love.

For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.

Our hearts are doubled by the loss,
Here Mixture is Addition grown ;
We both diffuse, and both ingross :
And we whose minds are so much one,
Never, yet ever are alone.

We court our own Captivity
Than Thrones more great and innocent :
’Twere banishment to be set free,
Since we wear fetters whose intent
Not Bondage is, but Ornament.

Divided joyes are tedious found,
And griefs united easier grow :
We are our selves but by rebound,
And all our Titles shuffled so,
Both Princes, and both Subjects too.

Our Hearts are mutual Victims laid,
While they (such power in Friendship lies)
Are Altars, Priests, and Off’rings made :
And each Heart which thus kindly dies,
Grows deathless by the Sacrifice.

But the central theme of this podcast comes from the poems that reached beyond the ideals of platonic love to express more deeply personal feelings, as the following.

To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship

I did not live until this time
Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee.

This carcass breathed, and walked, and slept,
So that the world believed
There was a soul the motions kept;
But they were all deceived.

For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine:
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;

Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast:
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.

No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I’ve all the world in thee.

Then let our flames still light and shine,
And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
Immortal as our soul.

Philips’ work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating, and maintaining bonds between women. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. She regularly traveled away from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career, but wrote no sad poems of parting on those occasions.

Contradictions and contrasts come out between her works on abstract friendship, which emphasize mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. Though it must be kept in mind that Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may sometimes have affected the nature of their friendship and the tone of the verses.

In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Philips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, as in this next poem “Injuria Amici” Injury to a friend”.

Injuria Amici

Lovely apostate! what was my offence?
Or am I punish'd for obedience?
Must thy strange rigours find as strange a time?
The act and season are an equall crime
Of what thy most ingenious scorns could doe,
Must I be subject and Spectatour too?

Or were the sufferings and sins too few
To be sustain'd by me, perform'd by you?
Unless (with Nero) your uncurb'd desire
Be to survey the Rome you set on fire
While wounded for and by your power, I
At once your martyr and your prospect dy.

This is my doome, and such a riddling fate
As all impossibles doth complicate:
For obligation here is injury,
Constancy crime, friendship a heresy;
And you appeare so much on ruine bent,
Your own destruction gives you now content:

For our twin-spirits did so long agree,
You must undoe your self to ruine me
And, like some frantique Goddess, you'r inclin'd
To raze the Temple where you were enshrin'd;
And (what's the miracle of Cruelty!)
Kill that which gave you imortallity
Whiles Glorious Friendship, whence your honour springs,
Ly's gasping in the croud of common things;

And I me so odious, that for being kind
Doubled and study'd murders are design'd.
Thy sin's all paradox! for shouldst thou be
Thy self again, 'twould be severe to me;
For thy repentance, comming now so late,
Would onely change, and not relieve the fate
So dangerous is the consequence of ill,
Thy least of crimes is to be Cruell Still;

For of thy smiles I should yet more complain,
If I should live to be betray'd again
Live then (faire tyrant) in Security,
From both my kindness and revenge be free;

While I, who to the Swains had sung your fame,
And taught each Eccho to repeat your name,
Will now my private sorrows entertain,
To Rocks and Rivers (not to you) complain

And though before our Union cherish'd me,
Tis now my pleasure that we disagree;
For from my passion your last rigours grew,
And you kill me, because I worshipp'd you.
But my worst vows shall be your happiness,
And nere to be disturb'd by my distress.

And though it would my sacred flames pollute,
To make my Heart a scorned prostitute;
Yet I'le adore the Authour of my death,
And kiss the hand that robbs me of my breath.

There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems. Philips wanted their love—however they defined it—to be engaged in actively, to be spoken and exchanged, not passively taken for granted, as she argues in “To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship.”

To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship

O My Lucasia, let us speak our Love,
And think not that impertinent can be,
Which to us both doth such assurance prove,
And whence we find how justly we agree.

Before we knew the treasures of our Love,
Our noble aims our joys did entertain;
And shall enjoyment nothing then improve?
'Twere best for us then to begin again.

Now we have gain'd, we must not stop, and sleep
Out all the rest of our mysterious reign:
It is as hard and glorious to keep
A victory, as it is to obtain.

Nay, to what end did we once barter Minds,
Onely to know and to neglect the claim?
Or (like some Wantons) our Pride pleasure finds
To throw away the thing at which we aim.

If this be all our Friendship does design,
We covet not enjoyment then, but power:
To our Opinion we our Bliss confine,
And love to have, but not to smell, the flower.

Ah! then let Misers bury thus their Gold,
Who though they starve no farthing wil produce:
But we lov'd to enjoy and to behold,
And sure we cannot spend our stock by use.

Think not 'tis needless to repeat desires;
The fervent Turtles alwayes court and bill,
And yet their spotless passion never tires,
But does increase by repetition still.

Although we know we love, yet while our Soul
Is thus imprisoned by the Flesh we wear,
There's no way left that bondage to controul,
But to convey transactions through the Ear.

Nay, though we reade our passions in the Eye,
It will oblige and please to tell them too:
Such joys as these by motion multiply,
Were 't but to find that our Souls told us true.

Believe not then, that being now secure
Of either's heart, we have no more to doe:
The Spheres themselves by motion do endure,
And they move on by Circulation too.

And as a River, when it once hath paid
The tribute which it to the Ocean owes,
Stops not, but turns, and having curl'd and play'd
On its own waves, the shore it overflows:

So the Soul's motion does not end in bliss,
But on her self she scatters and dilates,
And on the Object doubles still; by this
She finds new joys which that reflux creates.

But then because it cannot all contain,
It seeks a vent by telling the glad news,
First to the Heart which did its joys obtain,
Then to the Heart which did those joys produce.

When my Soul then doth such excursions make,
Unless thy Soul delight to meet it too,
What satisfaction can it give or take,
Thou being absent at the interview?

'Tis not Distrust; for were that plea allow'd,
Letters and Visits all would useless grow:
Love, whose expression then would be its cloud,
And it would be refin'd to nothing so.

If I distrust, 'tis my own worth for thee,
'Tis my own fitness for a love like thine;
And therefore still new evidence would see,
T'assure my wonder that thou canst be mine.

But as the Morning-Sun to drooping Flowers,
As weary Travellers a Shade do find,
As to the parched Violet Evening-showers;
Such is from thee to me a Look that's kind.

But when that Look is drest in Words, 'tis like
The mystick pow'r of Musick's union;
Which when the Finger doth one Viol strike,
The other's string heaves to reflection.

Be kind to me, and just then to your love,
To which we owe our free and dear Converse;
And let not tract of Time wear or remove
It from the privilege of that Commerce.

Tyrants do banish what they can't requite:
But let us never know such mean desires;
But to be grateful to that Love delight
Which all our joys and noble thoughts inspires.

The final break with Lucasia, that is, Anne Owen, came after Owen’s first husband died, when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange another marriage for her with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction, as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes. Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship. The following excerpts are from, “Orinda to Lucasia parting” which is only one of several in this vein.

Orinda to Lucasia Parting 1661 at London

ADIEU dear object of my Love’s excess,
And with thee all my hopes of happiness,
With the same fervent and unchanged heart
Which did it’s whole self once to thee impart,
(And which though fortune has so sorely bruis’d,
Would suffer more, to be from this excus’d)
I to resign thy dear Converse submit,
Since I can neither keep, nor merit it.
Thou hast too long to me confined been,
Who ruine am without, passion within.
My mind is sunk below thy tenderness,
And my condition does deserve it less;
I’m so entangl’d and so lost a thing
By all the shocks my daily sorrow bring,
That would’st thou for thy old Orinda call
Thou hardly could’st unravel her at all.
And should I thy clear fortunes interline
With the incessant miseries of mine?
No, no, I never lov’d at such a rate
To tye thee to the rigours of my fate,
As from my obligations thou art free,
Sure thou shalt be so from my Injury,
Though every other worthiness I miss,
Yet I’le at least be generous in this.
I’d rather perish without sigh or groan,
Then thou shoul’dst be condemn’d to give me one;
Nay in my soul I rather could allow
Friendship should be a sufferer, then thou;
Go then, since my sad heart has set thee free,
Let all the loads and chains remain on me.
Though I be left the prey of sea and wind,
Thou being happy wilt in that be kind;
Nor shall I my undoing much deplore,
Since thou art safe, whom I must value more.
Oh! mayst thou ever be so, and as free
From all ills else, as from my company,
And may the torments thou hast had from it
Be all that heaven will to thy life permit.
And that they may thy vertue service do,
Mayest thou be able to forgive them too:
But though I must this sharp submission learn,
I cannot yet unwish thy dear concern.
Not one new comfort I expect to see,
I quit my Joy, hope, life, and all but thee;
Nor seek I thence ought that may discompose
That mind where so serene a goodness grows.
I ask no inconvenient kindness now,
To move thy passion, or to cloud thy brow;
And thou wilt satisfie my boldest plea
By some few soft remembrances of me,
Which may present thee with this candid thought,
I meant not all the troubles that I brought.
Own not what Passion rules, and Fate does crush,
But wish thou couldst have don’t without a blush,
And that I had been, ere it was too late,
Either more worthy, or more fortunate.
Ah who can love the thing they cannot prize?
But thou mayst pity though thou dost despise.
Yet I should think that pity bought too dear,
If it should cost those precious Eyes a tear.

Oh may no minutes trouble, thee possess,
But to endear the next hours happiness;
And maist thou when thou art from me remov’d,
Be better pleas’d, but never worse belov’d:
Oh pardon me for pow’ring out my woes
In Rhime now, that I dare not do’t in Prose.
For I must lose whatever is call’d dear,
And thy assistance all that loss to bear,
And have more cause than ere I had before,
To fear that I shall never see thee more.

As with many of her other poems, it goes on at some length, and I’ve included the whole poem in the transcript.

After the break with Owen, Philips’ work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. The rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. One additional poetic focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.

The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected. But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women.

Other Themes

The Restoration saw the start of Philips’ wider literary reputation as a translator of plays. Her poetry moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it. The focus that academic study gives the friendship poems sometimes obscures the very large body of work in the court poetry genre, as well as a large number of short incidental pieces dedicated to other people in her social circle beyond her special favorites.

Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. (One of the authors I’m working from suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queerness-equals-death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.)

The Neo-Platonic Tradition

The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited incorporated the precieuse culture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century without the exaggerated formal imagery of the précieuses. These themes were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy, and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those friendships.

The coded classical language of male passionate friendships in the Renaissance was socially sanctioned and more widely available as a model than the few known surviving female examples. Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.

One of the social models that shifted, moving into the 17th century, was the rise of the concept of companionate marriage, reframing heterosexual relationships as a mutual partnership, and necessarily elevating women as worthy of friendship. At least in theory. The emergence of this acceptance is seen in writing like Kenelm Digby’s descriptions of his wife as being capable of such friendships because she has a “masculine soul”. Not actual gender equality, but a move in that direction.

Women didn’t always have the same social and economic freedom that men did to engage in and maintain friendships on an everyday level, and from the 17th through 19th centuries, a constant theme in women’s friendship writing is the desire for physical presence, and lamenting the life complications that prevent it. Perhaps for this reason, among others, fantasies of female friendships often focused on an imagined Arcadian retreat from “the real world.” This separate pastoral world would also remove them from the status relationships of urban court life that could interfere with the ideals of equality in friendship.

Philips was conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature. Part of her professional strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her themes of relationships between women as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on male-female friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate women’s friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her queries as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips—considered women’s extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.

In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.

An examination of the boundaries between friendship and love, and the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of them, were being openly debated within Philips’ larger social circle. The existence of expressions of love that “should be kept at a distance” are mentioned, but never specified. But anxieties of this type emerge in the evocation of Sappho, especially as a comparison for Philips’ poetry. In calling Philips “another Sappho”, her contemporaries raised the possibility of unacceptable eroticism, hastily refuted by claims that Philips was “more virtuous than Sappho.” One might call it an early instance of the “no homo” reflex.

When comparing women’s same-sex friendship to heterosexual relations, Philips derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.

To Rosania & Lucasia Articles of Friendship

The Soules which vertu hath made fitt
Do of themselves incline to knitt;
Yet wedlock having priests, allow
That I be friendships Flamen now.

For I can best perform the rite,
Who of the Goddesse had a sight;
To me her oracles she gave,
And did inspire me in her cave.

And 'tis my glory, that I may
My faults redeeme, my debts repay,
No more my uselesse self I loath,
Since I can now oblige you both.

First then, the love you beare each other,
You must no more in silence smother,
Nor Ceremoniously take paines,
To put your friendship into chaines.

Formal addresses then disclaime;
And never must yee Madam name
Shee gaines most, who first Condescends,
For y'are more noble being friends.

Estrangements thus once voted down,
And all the Punctilios of the town,
No time, nor place, believed unfitt
Which will each others sight admitt.

Tho friendship greatest service dares
It's life consists in little cares,
Those frequent tendernesses, which
Make a concerned heart so rich.

You both must weare an open heart,
And freely your concerns impart
By this, your pleasure you will double,
And it will lessen all your trouble.

All distance may this hower destroy,
Confirme your love, begin your joy!
O how much kindnes does afford
That pleasant, & that mighty word!

If you these termes do disapprove,
Ye cannot, or ye will not love
But if ye like these lovely bands,
With them join hearts, & lips, & hands.

Reputation and Legacy

Philips was ambitious as a writer, at a time when being a woman writing publicly was to risk male criticism. She was sheltered, to some extent, by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman, but she also deliberately cultivated the friendship and approval of male literary figures of the day. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era—and from her translations of a more famous male author.

Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her poems about friendship, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the 19th century. Her most anthologized works before that focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also typically arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. Whereas the arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative.

The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer in the 17th century are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing. This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.

The posthumous 1664 edition of Philips’ poems focused on the royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to be considered a stand-in for the absent King Charles II, though this interpretation becomes incoherent in poems written after the Restoration.

Philips’ reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At age 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.

The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her female friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.

The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at the clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.

Given that Philips was considered a respectable and talented poet in her own lifetime, does this mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”? Or does it mean that the sentiments she expressed and felt were acceptable to her peers, given that both she and the objects of her affection were married and not arguing against the institution of marriage?

Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho was being argued to be an essentially masculine figure, more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of female homoerotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry of later 17th century authors such as Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.

Did Philips Write Lesbian Poetry?

The question raised by featuring Katherine Philips in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is: "What does it mean to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" Especially in an era with different categories and expectations about sexuality than our own? A similar question can be asked about queer characters in historical fiction. When we write a character in a historic setting, we're telling two stories: the story of how that character relates to the past, and the story of how that character relates to present-day readers. When the character and the readers fit into dominant cultural defaults (e.g., straight, white, middle-to-upper class, and usually male) the necessary distinctions between those two stories are not as often challenged as when either the character or the readers are marginalized. If someone wrote a study of Katherine Phillips that presented the passionate expressions in her poetry as nothing more than metaphor, and her relationships with women as simply very close friendships, they would not feel the need to proclaim, "Katherine Phillips, Straight Poet".

Philips challenges easy categorization, as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for female friendship in general. And the context of her life indicates she valued those bonds as strongly as, or more so, than her marriage. It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.

Female literary expression in the 17th century engaged with a wide variety of erotic possibilities. Women’s works were addressed to both men and women and used a variety of styles. Toward the end of the 17th century, literature that openly addressed sexual possibilities between women was gaining circulation. That familiarity affected how people reacted to less overt expressions of same-sex affection, and it may have affected Katherine Philips’ legacy and reputation.

But there remains the question of was she, you know, “doing it” with her female friends. My first reaction is always to ask, “Does it matter?” Tying lesbian identity to participation in specific sexual activities is one of the ways lesbian identities in history can be erased. Because, of course, we can’t know. Not to prove it. And we can know that she was having heterosexual sex because pregnancy is an incontrovertible fact. The wider question is not simply what sort of physical relations might Philips have had with her intimate friends, but how she would have classified them.

The 17th century saw little conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognized. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way. Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her female friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for. And that very awareness lends significance to the relationships.

While one cannot assume that the erotic nature of the language used by Philips and her contemporaries is proof that they had sexual relations with each other, neither can one presume that such a possibility is out of the question. Women of her era were having what we would classify as sex with each other. That doesn’t change just because individual women might not choose to record it in their memoirs.

Scholarship has traditionally attempted to explain the homoerotic elements in the work of Philips and similar writers on the basis of individual biography, looking for specific contexts and triggers in their lives that would “explain” why they might be drawn to same-sex relations. But taken as a whole, this body of literature calls for a more systemic analysis. Why would the entrance of women into published literature in the 17th century and later include such public expressions of private same-sex desire. Susan Lanser addresses this topic at some length, though her focus on print publication means that Philips’ work falls in the “pre-history” of her analysis. Lanser proposes that women’s homoerotic writing in the 17th century was part of a collective act of creating and promulgating feminist ideas.

One traditional argument has been to connect sapphic topics with women appropriating masculine forms and conventions, that is, if a writer inhabited an authorial position that was traditionally male, she would address a female object because that was how the literary genre was structured. This strategy works to erase the sapphic potential by essentially transforming women writers into “male” voices. It’s the literary equivalent of theories of sexuality that defined desire for a woman as inherently masculine, and therefore subsumed lesbian desire under an externally imposed transgender identity.

From a different angle, more recent arguments have been that the homoerotic elements in this genre of work are used to re-direct the authors’ same-sex desires into an acceptable literary form, creating an image of “chaste femme love” (per Valerie Traub) to distinguish and distance themselves from the “taint” of both tribadism and masculinity. But this explanation fails to support why the authors would include same-sex desire in their work at all, if the goal were to avoid attracting suspicion.

Scholarship around the poetry of Katherine Philips and whether it can be read as “lesbian” is a useful lens for examining all the various academic approaches to the topic. Was Philips simply imitating an existing heterosexual “poetic love language” that did not reflect her personal desires? Does her work provide unquestionable evidence that both Philips and her poetry can be classified as “lesbian”? Whether or not one considers Philips’ poetry to represent homoerotic desires, the history of Philips scholarship is an object lesson in methods of erasing sapphic possibilities.

When contemporaries of Katherine Philips compared her to Sappho, it was not necessarily for her subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. The 17th century editions of her work are prefaced by a number of laudatory poems by her friends and admirers, in which comparisons to Sappho feature regularly. But attitudes toward Sappho’s subject matter meant those commenters often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, or “solid...and manly.”

The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity, well before the editor of her 1905 edition coined the label “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to her work. When feminist scholars “rediscovered” Philips in the mid 20th century, they had a different reason for wanting to divert accusations of lesbianism. This was, you may recall, the era of the “lavender menace.”

Across the centuries, everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such. And conversely, if her contemporaries wouldn’t have recognized her work as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional leave the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.

Elizabeth Wahl tackles this by suggesting that Philips’ ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in language that appealed to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that conclusion, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian poet” in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. Some queer historians have referred to Philips as “closeted”, and Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze. But to be closeted in the modern sense would, again, require a level of self-aware identity that can’t be demonstrated.

What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her and their marriages, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.

Show Notes

A biography of poet Katherine Philips with a tour through some of her works.

In this episode we talk about:

  • An overview of Philips’ life
  • The poems of friendship
  • Other poetic themes
  • The neo-platonic tradition
  • Reputation and legacy
  • Did Philips write “lesbian poetry”?
  • Poems included
    • Rosania Shadowed whilst Mrs. Mary Aubrey
    • L’Amitié: To Mrs. Mary Aubrey
    • Rosania’s Apostacy and Lucasia's Friendship
    • Friendship's Mystery: To my dearest Lucasia
    • To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship
    • Injuria Amici
    • To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship
    • Orinda to Lucasia Parting 1661 at London
    • To Rosania & Lucasia Articles of Friendship
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Katherine Philips

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Friday, September 25, 2020 - 21:00

I can't help but think that the story of Baddeley & Steele is more fascinating than the rather sordid, mercenary mess that Rizzo presents it as. If I were still doing the more detailed notetaking that I'm trying to step back from, I'm not sure how I would have stopped on this one. It would make a fascinating movie, full of intrigue, drama, and larger than life characters. (Almost none of which is apparent in her rather thin Wikipedia entry. Though it does have a link to Steele's biography of her.)

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 9 - Business Partners: Baddeley and Steele

This chapter looks at a fairly complicated relationship between two women, one a courtesan, and one fulfilling the role of companion, along with also being her manager, her pimp, and her lover.

Sophia Baddeley was a sometime actress and performer who found her talents more acceptably turned to the business of entertaining rich and handsome men. She would have done better in that profession if she had focus more on the rich ones than the handsome ones, but she did spend a significant period being maintained by one of the richest men in England. Unfortunately, she had a habit of spending far more than any reasonable man was willing to consider her worth. That, along with a free-spending lifestyle, an addiction to laudanum, and a series of bad choices in male companionship eventually led to her decline through the ranks of society until she was making a living once more on the stage at the end of her life.

Elizabeth Steele was Baddeley’s companion from the very beginning of her career. Sorting out the relationship between the two women is not easy. Rizzo doesn’t make it any easier by having some very fixed ideas about the nature of the relationship that aren’t always supported by the evidence she presents. Suffice it to say that Steele was the businesswoman. She was the one who made arrangements for living places. She was the one who discussed finances with Baddeley’s lovers. And she was the one who scraped together the money to pay off debts when the men didn’t come through.

Rizzo asserts that the two women were lovers and though the specific evidence for that isn’t presented, it fits with some of the patterns of behavior. Certainly there was a codependent relationship between them and Steele (in the posthumous biography she wrote of Baddeley, which was in part a context for extortion) depicts them as having a close and intimate relationship. They usually lived together (and shared a bed when Baddeley didn’t have a lover around), had explosive separations in the context of Baddeley’s aforementioned “bad choices”, and had tender and forgiving reunions (usually when Baddeley needed to get her finances back in order after a lover had cleaned her out).

Baddeley was clearly emotionally dependent on Steele, as well as relying on her for business sense. But I’m not sure I entirely buy Rizzo’s depiction of Steele as being focused primarily on using Baddeley as a source of income. Time and again, Steele retrieves Baddeley from unfortunate situations, puts her on her feet again, and sees her back into some semblance of functionality. There are situations presented where Steele’s actions make no sense unless she had a genuine attachment to her.

Rizzo also asserts that the women’s story is an example of a principle that she has identified that when women’s alliances are used in support of patriarchal structures, they are successful, but when they ally to oppose patriarchal structures, they’re doomed. Baddeley and Steele regularly scorned the men whose desires supported them, mocking many of Baddeley’s suitors and playing cruel tricks on others. But I don’t see that Baddeley’s eventual fall from fashion can be pinned on that attitude, except by treating it as some abstract moral accounting. Based on the evidence presented, it strikes me that Baddeley‘s fall was caused by her extravagant personality, her lack of common sense when it came to business, and her addictions.

In fact the more I read through this book the more it feels like there’s an underlying streak of misogyny in how Rizzo interprets many of the biographies. Women’s motivations and actions are interpreted negatively whenever possible. Not that the men’s actions are depicted any more positively, so perhaps we might say an underlying misanthropic streak. This may be turned around in the next few chapters, where the topic turns to biographies of women considered to be altruistic.

Time period: 
Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 17:00

I could have sworn I posted this yesterday, but I'm so busy getting the legacy podcast episodes up it's not surprising a lose track of all the rotating tasks. I needed to take a day off anyway, it's just a matter of which one. Again, not much commentery on this one other than to recommend watching The Duchess, and not just because I'm a Keira Knightly fan-girl.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 8 – Agents, Rivals, and Spies: Empowering Strategies II

While the previous chapter looked at examples of women conspiring together against the man in the household, this chapter looks at cases where a female companion enters the household to conspire with the husband against her mistress. Three of the examples are biographical and one fictional.

The first case is Mary Delaney, whom we met in a previous chapter. Mary was married at age 18 to a much older man--a close ally of her uncle--and made the strategic mistake of letting her husband know that she felt no attraction to him and considered his person to be somewhat disgusting. As one might imagine this did not endear her to him, though she was a willing participant in the marriage.

The problem was her husband’s sister Jane. Jane was decidedly ill-tempered and had been left in the lurch in her own marriage. Mary had asked her husband to promise never to have Jane live with them, but when the couple moved to London, she found Jane ensconced in their house as housekeeper, companion, and spy.

Mary suffered it, having nothing to hide, but the constant tension between the women meant that the marriage never improved.

 Mary outlasted the situation by silent obedience. In the end she did convince her husband to send his sister packing and it looked like their relationship might turn around, but he died shortly after, having left no inheritance to Mary except the portion she brought into the marriage.

Mary Delaney then spent most of the rest of her life being not quite an official companion but certainly a long-term guest in the house of various friends, including the Duchess of Portland who shows up as a hostess in the lives of a number of women’s biographies in these pages. At one point, Mary Delaney did find a happy marriage, but to an impoverished man who did not improve her situation. After his death she lived only by means of a pension granted to her by the king and queen--the situation she was in when she met Frances Burney as previously mentioned.

The second example is much darker. Elizabeth Cathcart (we’ll refer to her by the highest title she achieved) managed an incredible climb in society and wealth through a series of strategic marriages and conveniently early deaths of the men she married. she began by marrying a wealthy man to please her parents and inherited a considerable estate from him on his death. Whereupon she married another wealthy man who died a scant six years later leaving her a fabulous amount of money and properties and the ability to make whatever choices in life took her fancy.

Her fancy was to marry a significantly younger Irishman who had risen in the Royal service, who it turned out was after her only for her money. He was able to secure it but means of an alliance with a young protégé of Elizabeth Cathcart who conspired against her mistress and then even impersonated her to pull the job off. Maguire essentially kidnapped his wife, took her off to Ireland where legal action couldn’t touch him, forced her to sign over various incomes to him, and then imprisoned her for 20 years in a castle belonging to one of his brothers.

The peculiar thing about this situation is that lady Cathcart’s relatives and friends back in London were well aware of the situation--of the fact that she had been kidnapped and that she was being held against her will--but did nothing except mention it in letters to each other. There is a sense that they felt she was getting her just desserts, having risen higher than she had a right to and then making a foolish marriage--possibly with the added crime of marrying a foreigner. She survived her husband and was freed and regained some part of her property, surviving to the age of 98.

The third example of a spy within the walls is much more ambiguous. When Georgiana Spencer was married at age 16 to the Duke of Devonshire there was no reason why the marriage shouldn’t have been happy…except that the Duke was a notorious cold fish and ill suited to compatibility with a very young, innocent wife. Their marriage was decidedly unhappy, which Georgiana took out in enormous gambling debts and the duke managed with reference to other women.

At some point, Lady Elizabeth Foster came into their lives. She was separated from her husband in an unhappy marriage, and from her two sons, with no income allowed to her. She moved in with the Devonshires under the story that she was a companion to Georgiana, but it soon became evident that she was a much more intimate companion to the Duke.

Without going into many of the long details, they formed an interesting triangle with both Georgiana and the Duke being devotedly in love with Foster and her playing the role of go-between for them. Lady Foster had several children attributed to the Duke and Rizzo suggests that she may have been a sexual facilitator to enable Georgiana to get pregnant eventually as well. There is also some evidence that the Duke was not the only Devonshire that Lady Foster was mistress to. There is some decidedly romantic poetry surviving that Georgiana wrote to Lady Foster and even given the power dynamics of the marriage it’s hard to imagine such not merely cordial, but loving, sentiments that Georgiana expressed to Lady Foster without there having been some genuine love underlying it.

(Since I’m periodically mentioning cinematic portrayals of the people mentioned here, I’ll note that The Duchess is the story of Georgiana’s life and includes the subplot about her having a sexual relationship with Lady Foster. IMDB link)

The fictional example used to top this off is Frances Burney’s novel Cecelia, discussed in an earlier chapter. Here again is a case where the companion figure in a household makes common cause with a male authority figure to undermine and betray her mistress.

The four examples in this chapter had varying relations with both the man they were allies to and the woman they were some type of companion to. The mistresses may in some cases have been oblivious although in Georgiana’s case she may have--to some degree--been a willing participant in the three cornered marriage.

Time period: 
Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 17:00

I think the "read through then dictate" process is working as intended. No really comments on this one. Written in haste...

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 7 - Deputy Labor: Empowering Strategies

This chapter looks at the lives of women who, in their function as companions, provided significant economic and managerial benefit to the households they were attached to. In some cases, I feel that the category “companion” is being stretched a little, but I’ll go with Rizzo’s classification. The examples include using those talents for both good and ill (or perhaps, for the benefit of the household as a whole versus for personal enrichment) and include both biographical and fictional examples.

The first example is that of Anne Fannen, who began in a fairly low position in the household service of the Duke of Richmond and, by working her way up the servants hierarchy, became lady’s maid to the oldest daughter, Caroline. By assisting Caroline in her elopement with Henry Fox, Fannen established both her loyalty and resourcefulness and secured her future, though at some initial risk.

As a side note: Caroline’s story is central to the miniseries Aristocrats (IMDB link) although Fannen’s part is not featured.

Having thrown her lot in with the eloping couple, Fannen was rewarded with a secure position in their household and rose to become housekeeper—a significant function for the household of a rising politician—and supervisor of their two children. Her success relied on the fact that Henry Fox was reliably rewarded those who had helped him, and showed loyalty to those who were loyal to him.

Given this, when Fannen engaged in her own secret marriage with Fox’s new steward, it was a reasonable gamble that not only would he see the fair play in forgiving the subterfuge, but would value both their talents enough to give them increasingly significant responsibilities. The couple became mainstays of the Fox establishment and each served not only as valued servant but as companion and confidant.

Carolyn Fox had a interestingly symbiotic relationship with Fannen. The break with her family due to her elopement had hit her hard and contemporaries often described her as somewhat child-like in personality. Fannen stepped in and stepped up to the responsibilities of managing the household and serving as Carolyn’s surrogate in all manner of social tasks.

It might have been easy for a woman such as Caroline to resent or tyrannize over someone who was, after all, a servant, and yet had become such an essential part of the functioning of the family. But they were on good social terms until the end of Caroline’s life. After Fannen retired due to health and moved into a separate house with her husband, Caroline and her sons often visited them socially.

It must be emphasized that this was not a companionship of social equals. It was a case of a very able servant being given the opportunity and the permission to become an essential foundation of the household structure, but also treated as a friend and confidant. Because her skills were recognized, valued, and rewarded, the relationship among all parties was beneficial to them all.

A rather different dynamic is illustrated by the second family in this chapter, illustrating that even the ablest woman was not able to engage in managerial contributions to the household unless the man in charge allowed it. Jane Parr was intelligent and highly accomplished but made the mistake of marrying a misogynist who had no respect for women’s abilities. The frustration she felt in this arrangement came out in spiteful sarcasm on both sides, as duly witnessed by various members of their social circle. They had two daughters, the elder of whom took after her mother in being intelligent, personable, and very able. But as her mother’s confidant and companion she was persuaded to take an entirely different approach to marriage, than she had.

 Rather than marrying a poor but brilliant scholar as her mother had, she was advised to marry a wealthy fool whom she expected to manage and dominate.

Unfortunately, marrying a stupid man, even one significantly her junior, did not achieve the independence in her personal life that she desired. She ended up with a husband just as misogynistic as her father, furthermore he was abusive to her. In the end, in a complex catastrophe of circumstances, the fallout from the daughter’s marriage resulted in the illness and rapid death of both women.

It’s not entirely clear how this example fits into the discussion of companions but Rizzo treats it as an example of women colluding together socially to achieve their end--unsuccessfully in this case.

The topic of economic motivations in family dynamics is last illustrated by two fictional examples. Samuel Johnson’s novel Rambler involves a courtship and marriage in which all parties are focusing solely on the expectation of economic gain, with love playing no part. By the time the wedding is celebrated, all parties feel cheated. The young bride brings with her into the marriage an older companion who, in theory, is to teach her domestic management, but in reality is her partner in plans to recover her expectations from the marriage financially.

Given that her husband married her for her money it’s hard to fault her for taking an equally mercenary view of the match. But the moral of the story as presented is that a man should marry a virtuous woman rather than marrying for money and should keep power over his estates in his own hands rather than allowing women to take it over. The conspiring women are punished in the end for their efforts.

The last example of the manipulation of economic power by a companion is Charlotte Smith’s novel The Old Manor House involving a housekeeper-companion to a tyrannical woman, who is happy to place the management of her affairs in the hands of someone whose feelings she considers of no value. The housekeeper companion is an able manager, but her morals have been destroyed by the need to toady to a woman less able than herself. Gradually she ousts anyone not loyal to her from the household and takes control of ever more of her mistress’s affairs.

But having taken her mistress as a model of behavior, the housekeeper eventually over steps and is betrayed by others in turn. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but the moral of the story is that a woman who abuses power for her own ends will meet a deserved come-upance, as well as the continuing theme that being companion to a tyrannical mistress will inevitably corrupt all but the most virtuous companion.

In this case the housekeeper-companion had the opportunity to turn her business and management skills to the advantage of the entire household, but not only was this end blocked by her mistress’s ill-will but by the companions moral flaws as well.

Time period: 
Monday, September 21, 2020 - 19:00

For today’s entry, I experimented with reading through the chapter, then dictating the summary directly. It probably shows a little in the flow of the blog, even with some editorial clean-up. But it means I’m better able to condense the notes down to the highlights rather than going off into the weeds of details as I’m reading. We’ll see how it continues.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 6 - Parent and Child: Montagu and Gregory

This chapter looks at the relationship between noted bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu [] and her protégé Dorothea Gregory, who was taken on functionally as an adopted daughter and raised to continue Montagu’s career and projects.

Montagu had married a man somewhat beneath her own social status, but with extensive business interests and who was willing to indulge her social projects, in particular a circle of intellectuals who regularly met at their London house and came to be known as the Bluestocking Society.

Montagu was not simply a good wife but, in effect, a business partner although she represented herself as having no will or desires of her own, but simply implementing her husband’s policies and wishes. She gradually took over the management of his affairs, especially as he became ill towards the end of his life. For the most part she did genuinely play the role of obedient righthand man, though there is clear evidence that she was able to divert him to her own positions when she felt strongly about an issue. Once her husband died, leaving her as sole heir to his wealth and business interests, it was clear that Elizabeth had always had her own ideas but was content to be patient to implement them.

The Montagus only child died young and Elizabeth Montagu took on the daughter of an impoverished relative as a substitute daughter. Her intent, as well as gaining companionship, was to train her up to provide the sort of assistance and support that she had given her husband. After the death of Mr. Montagu, Dorothea Gregory did serve this function for an extended period. She repeated Elizabeth’s path in appearing to have no will or desires of her own but ably serving as Elizabeth’s surrogate in business affairs and social arrangements.

The sticking point in this companionate relationship came from the question of inheritance and legacy. If Dorothea had genuinely been intended as a daughter, Elizabeth could have adopted her, named her as heir, and ensured her permanent financial security. But for reasons that can only be teased out with effort and guesswork, this didn’t happen. It’s likely that Elizabeth’s need to always be the controlling figure and the center of flattery and attention was a major factor. (These features were commented on within the context of her salon, including by her sister Sarah Scott, the author of Millenium Hall.)

Instead of establishing Gregory clearly as her heir, Montagu named her much younger nephew. It’s unclear at what point Montagu hit on the plan of retaining Gregory’s services as companion, assistant, and surrogate without needing to provide her with independence, but at some point when the nephew was still in his teens (and a decade younger than Gregory), it was proposed that the two of them should make a match. Gregory responded with a soft refusal, while still giving the impression of compliant obedience. (And, to be fair, it does seem that Gregory was devoted to Montagu and would have liked to make her happy. She just had this idea about preferring to be in love before marrying.)

With the nephew plan delayed but still on the table, Gregory—while on an extended visit with family in Scotland—fell in love with an poor but aspiring clergyman and eventually broached the subject to Montagu about receiving her blessing to marry him.

This was not forthcoming, but at this point Gregory found that “will of her own” that she had previously professed not to have. Montagu was pressured into agreeing that she would agree to the marriage once Gregory’s suitor gained a position with a living sufficient to support a family. And then she appears to have gone to some lengths to sabotage his prospects.

The conflict lasted over an extended period of nearly 2 years with negotiation, conflict, emotional confrontations, and finally an outright break. A family friend of Gregory who had been trying to help make arrangements before being undermined by Montagu helped the couple cobble together sufficient income to bridge the gap until a living was forthcoming. Throughout this time, Gregory showed the ability and resources that not only had attracted Montagu’s attention and approval at the beginning, but that Montagu’s mentorship had helped to develop and solidify in her.

While the Montagu-Gregory relationship had benefitted both of them significantly, it broke at last due to Montagu’s vanity and pride. She had established a name for herself with the Bluestocking circle, but her goal was aggrandizement of her own reputation and the attraction of people who would flatter her personally.

What could have become a social and economic dynasty with Montagu succeeded by a woman who was just as able and talented as she has been, instead resulted in the two women breaking off any connection for the rest of their lives. Given Montagu’s personality, the break was inevitable, given that Gregory was as strong, confident, and determined as she was herself—and just as able to conceal her own goals and ends as Montagu had been, during the course of her marriage.

The form that different companionship relations take: whether that of friend, or spouse-substitute, or child stands independent of the dynamics of the relationship that determine its success or failure. In the past few chapters we’ve seen several specific examples of different relationships that failed due to the controlling nature of the woman in power, but this was not always the case. A companion had the ability to reshape the nature of the relationship with sufficient skills and the context in which those skills were both recognized and valued. As we will see in the next chapters.

Time period: 
Sunday, September 20, 2020 - 09:00

It’s always tricky to figure out what level of summary to create for a publication. Some works are so dense I throw up my hands and give only a cursory outline. Some are so scanty I can summarize the whole. In the middle, I find the structure of a book influences my approach—if only because I have an idea of a maximum blog length that people are likely to read. (Not sure what it is exactly, but I have a vague idea.)

Rizzo’s book, with its multiplicity of single-focus chapters, is tricking me into being more wordy than the material really calls for. And yet it’s hard to see the more condensed version until after I’ve read and annotated the chapter. At that point, I already have the words, so I might as well post them. For future chapters, I think I’ll put in the time to read the whole thing first and then go through and do my summary. So expect something a bit more condensed (I hope). But it would be useful to know which version my readers would prefer. Do you like more detail that gives you a sense of the book as a whole? Or just enough to know whether a publication is something you'd like to track down for yourself?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 5 Frances Bernie and the Anatomy of Companionship

It’s interesting to read about Hester Thrale from a more personal angle. My previous encounters with her in this blog have been less sympathetic. The quoted correspondence from Thrale talking about Frances Burney is full of expressions of love and devotion. The sort that scholars quote when discussing the fuzzy line between conventional social expressions of friendship and ones that hint of erotic attraction.

But I can’t help remembering the other side of Thrale’s writing: her gossipy accusations of close female friends being “a little too devoted to their own sex” and the striking passage in which Thrale referred to the Ladies of Llangollen as “damned Sapphists.“ Though people of the time didn’t necessary see an equivalence between male and female same-sex relations, Thrale was even more vicious in her private writing about men she suspected of homosexuality.

 So is Thrale an example of how romantic language doesn’t always indicate erotic same-sex love? Or is there a suggestion that Thrale was conflicted on the topic due to her own disappointment in not achieving the companionship she wanted? Or is this simply a lesson in how affection, romance, eros, and other varieties of love come in different combinations and people draw their lines of acceptable and unacceptable in individual places?

My vote is on the last. One of the reasons that romantic friendship created a space in which homoerotic relationships could exist is that there was always ambiguity. Or rather, the types of emotional relationships that were real for 18th century people included intensely romantic feelings that did not incorporate eros, as well as those that did. And there will always be people like Thrale who embrace one combination of emotions as the only acceptable combination, while disparaging others.

At the same time, it’s clear that Thrale was not always introspective about her feelings. At the same time, she wanted Frances Burney to be present and available to her at all times as a supportive friend and confidant, who would value that friendship not only for Thrale’s presence but for her presents, and Thrale despised companions who were subservient, dependent, and toad-eaters. The latter allowed her to forgive Burney for refusing the former. But that lack of insight into her own conflicts may have contributed to a failure to see common ground with women who enjoyed “companionship with benefits” and concluding that those women were Doing It Wrong.

Novelist Frances Burney [] has the appearance of the idealized 18th century Englishwoman: altruistic, complacent, self-sacrificing. But beneath it she has a sense of self, of the firmness of purpose to make her own choices and set her own path. She was a dutiful daughter, but refused to marry a man she didn’t care for only to please her father. She chose a life of service, but not to the point of sacrificing her own happiness. And when she found him, she refused to give up the man she loved who wanted to marry her.

She made one unwise decision that placed her in the queen’s household under the thumb of a two-faced tyrant who toadied to the queen but terrorized those under her. But Burney escaped with an annuity, her dignity, and the ability to choose her own companionship.

Frances Burney came from a typical background for companions: genteel, but with no resources other than the father’s income. Both sons and daughters had their futures arranged for by other means. They might have individual talents that gave them an entrance into society, as with Frances’s writing or her father’s music teaching, but marriage was a different matter. And sometimes the talent that bought entrance only moved one further away from good marriages, as with the fuzzy line between being an accomplished musician and being a professional performer.

The Burney family boasted two talented daughters: Frances, the novelist and Esther, a musical prodigy; but suffered under a stepmother who had been accustomed to taking center stage and now found herself sidelined. The family fortunes, such as they were, had been built by the institution of companionship. Mr. Burney had turned musical talent into a household position with Fulke Grevile, who treated him as an equal and educated him in social graces.

Frances saw some of the less appealing sides of companionship in her father’s relations to his patron, but she was unable to escape being assigned as companion to her stepmother, who worked out her social frustrations in physical ailments and emotional demands, as well as a constant stream of sarcasm directed at Frances and her siblings when they failed to treat her with the respect she felt due. Among them all, there was a conspiracy to avoid bothering Mr. Burney with the dysfunctional family dynamics, though it was in general supportive of Frances’s aspirations.

The success of Frances’s first novel gave her some means of escape--socializing with Hester Thrale’s intellectual circle, or retreating to the home of her mentor Samuel Crisp to write--but only if she was able to offer a sacrificial sister in her place. Frances found it impossible to write in her father’s house, yet writing was her hope of escape.

Although a husband might have been less onerous than tending to her stepmother, she declined an offer from a man who wanted her for her “affability, sweetness, and sensibility” but had no use for her talents, intellect, and wit. Frances was staking her future on being able to support herself by writing--a risky plan as it was considered indecorous for a woman.

The characters portrayed in Frances’s novel Evelina reveal the strength of character Frances had herself. It was Evelina that brought her to the attention of Hester Thrale, famed for hosting an intellectual circle at her home. Thrale in turn got a talented woman to adorn that circle. Thrale had social connections but was hungry for female companionship. The extended visits Frances enjoyed with her benefited them both, but Frances also recognized the hazards in Thrale’s patronage. Thrale despised toad-eating even as she expected Frances’s attendance and compliance, so Frances must not be too accommodating or lose her respect. At the same time, Thrale wanted a full-time companion who would travel with her, not just enjoy long visits.

Frances used her family responsibilities as a tool to maintain control over the scheduling of her visits to Thrale, resulting in a constant and sometimes tense negotiation. Thrale thought the most valuable things she could offer were entrance to society circles and access to a good marriage, but Frances had already bartered away respectability for the independence of a writing career and didn’t plan to throw that away.

Frances greatly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of Thrale’s circle, even though keeping up with the social requirements on a writer’s income which meant serving as her own dressmaker and maid. This problem would continue later when she was at court.

At Thrale’s she resisted accepting presents of clothing because they would cement her status as a companion, not as a friend. The status of friend was what made freedom of movement possible, and freedom of movement--especially to visit Crisp--was what made writing possible. And writing was what had made entrance to Thrale’s circle possible. It was all braided together.

Correspondence shows a degree of emotional attachment and need on Thrale’s part that Frances found stifling, despite returning her devotion. Not until the publication of Frances’s second novel did Thrale accept that Frances would never settle for the role of full-time companion.

Once Thrale stopped pushing, Frances stopped resisting quite as much and she was more amenable to being present for Thrale’s needs, as when her husband died after a long illness. But Frances still resisted the role of companion and reacted badly to a newspaper announcement of their new domesticity, comparing them to other notable companionship arrangements of the day, for all the world like a marriage announcement.

Thrale was less insightful about the hazards of companionship then Frances, but their relationship was soon resolved in a different direction when Thrale transferred her demanding attentions to a new target: Gabriel Piozzi, who (like Frances) was in a position of financial need and struggled to avoid being sucked into Thrale’s needy generosity. With Piozzi, Thrale won out and married him, which took the pressure off Frances, though it marked the decline of their friendship.

The dynamics in the Burney and Thrale households show the complex dynamics of the day around real, pretended, and demanded concern for others. The acceptance of family duty was real, but could be negotiated and managed. One might choose to give the appearance of compliance with unreasonable demands from a calculated estimate of the alternatives and consequences.

If Frances‘s stepmother Elizabeth Burney emerges as a two-faced toady and tyrant, Hester Thrale appears as the not-entirely-self-aware emotional manipulator, who is foiled because Frances both genuinely likes her and sees her flaws. Both households revolved around men who had a stake in being oblivious to those dynamics, as long as they were catered to.

Frances directly tackled the negative side of companionship in her novel Cecelia, written during her greatest struggles with Thrale, in the person of an antagonist who is fairly transparently modeled on Frances‘s stepmother (a repeating theme). The work also shows a deep distrust of marriage and male authority figures as sources of security, despite ending in a conventional marriage plot.

But before a third novel could be written, Frances’s life went through major changes. Thrale drifted away after her marriage to Piozzi, and her circle dissolved. Frances’s mentor Crisp died. And when Frances joined an elderly friend in London, the friend (Mary Delaney, who will feature in chapter 8) for complex reasons brought Frances to the attention of the king and queen. The Burney family turned their attention to pressuring Frances to get a post at court that could benefit them all through favors and appointments.

But the post available was a fairly undistinguished one: second keeper of the robes, serving under a tyrannical woman who was a close friend and confidant of the queen. It was not a position likely to offer power or access without a greater willingness to dissemble than Frances was willing to embrace. Rather than supporting her writing time, the social duties of the post offered no easy escape. One could perform submission, or one could suffer.

In many ways, Frances’s relationship to her supervisor and to the queen repeated her relationship to her stepmother and her father. Had she been willing to toady, she might have gained the benefits her family hoped for. She never overtly blamed the queen for her situation, although the queen was almost certainly aware of her friend’s cruelty. (These cruelties are listed in some detail.)

Frances lasted for five years in the position. She left when she decided the situation would literally kill her if it went on. At the last she pressed for the favors her family had wanted, but when they were refused, Frances won some respect by her decision to leave her post with no further negotiation.

She was given a pension. She was now free of responsibilities and had an income that freed her from her father’s home and allowed her to write, but only as she wanted. It also put her in a position to marry a surprising choice: a penniless aristocratic French Catholic emigré (we’re into revolutionary times here) who had fallen mutually in love with her and offered her equal companionship, not patriarchal tyranny.

Frances return to writing novels in order to buy a house for the couple. As the breadwinner in the family, Frances was no longer in a vulnerable position and her husband seems to have been content to play the role of companion.

The house-buying novel Camilla once more featured a scheming toady of a companion, though played broadly for comic purposes this time. But perhaps her experiences had taught Frances not to expect such characters to meet their just desserts. The book allows the character to pass through the plot untouched and unmarred by the chaos in the wake of her manipulations. Once more, marriage is on display as a poor option, despite it being the eventual fate of the heroine.

Frances’s last novel again returns to the theme of the female tyrant who has bought into patriarchal structures and uses them to persecute the heroine--a transparent stand-in for the author in prevailing by steadfast, but quiet resistance.

In summary, Frances Burney both experiences and describes some of the most pernicious aspects of companionship while also showing that they may be resisted and that a virtuous person may come through them, though not unscathed. Frances is thought by some to be an overly decorous doormat, but in the biting portrayals of her fiction we can see how deliberate and calculated that performance was as a survival tactic. For most of her life she avoided both marriage and the position of companion, insisting on the less profitable role of friend, until she chose for herself an equal companion as a husband.

The problem of altruism runs through all her books. How do you continue to be a good and giving person when those around you are users and abusers?

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Saturday, September 19, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 176 (previously 50c) - Book Appreciation: 17-18th century Stories in England and France - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/09/19 - listen here)

Between the books that I’m covering on the blog, and this month’s essay on 17th century poet Katherine Philips, I thought I’d complete the theme by looking at some sapphic historical fiction set in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve deliberately cut the list off before anything that has the flavor of a Regency romance, as that’s a distinct separate category. So these books start after the death of Queen Elizabeth of England and go up through the era of the French revolution.

I had about 30 possible titles in my database, although I may not mention them all. The 17th century is rather under-represented with only 5 titles, and only one of those from the first half of the century. But the remaining titles in the 18th century are fairly evenly distributed. England is much better represented than France, and most books set in France are revolutionary stories. A few of the books have fantasy elements or take place in an alternate fantasy version of the setting, but most are rooted in the real world. And when I started sorting them out into thematic groups, there were 5 obvious clusters and one group of “leftovers”. Biographical novels of real people, stories involving complex relationship tangles, stories involving pirates, stories involving highwaymen, stories set during the French revolution, and then the miscellaneous group.

Unlike the new book listings, I won’t be doing dramatic readings of the cover copy, but there will be links in the show notes for all the books I discuss—even the ones that are out of print, alas!

Biographical Novels

It wasn’t any surprise to me that Emma Donoghue takes pride of place in the biographical group. This is the era that is the focus of her non-fiction book Passions Between Women which, as always, I recommend highly. Neither of the books she contributes to this list can be considered romances, though Life Mask does depict the main character as attaining a happy romantic relationship. Life Mask is a detailed fictional biography of sculptor Anne Damer in the later 18th century. It’s full of a wealth of detail about society and politics of the time—perhaps an overwhelming wealth if you aren’t looking for that sort of read. The book’s strength is exactly that depth of knowledge about the historic period and the emotional lives of the people in it. It was definitely my kind of book; perhaps it will be yours as well.

I haven’t read the other Donoghue book on this list, Slammerkin. Set in roughly the same era, this is a darker story, of a working-class girl who longs to take hold of her own destiny and considers morals and respectability something of a handicap to that end. I should caution potential readers that the book definitely does not have a happy ending, but it’s a gripping and realistic tale imagining the inner life of a real woman.

Kelly Gardiner’s book Goddess, which follows the life of late 17th century French swordswoman, opera singer, and all-around libertine Julie d’Aubigny, defies categorization beyond being the story of a larger-than-life woman who loved both women and men passionately, if not wisely, and dared the world to try to slow her down. The novel is written in a somewhat eclectic narrative style, which may challenge some readers, but I loved the gritty depiction of d’Aubigny’s life.

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson has the earliest setting of all the books discussed today. Set during the reign of England’s King James I, in the anti-Catholic wake of the Gunpowder Plot and amid the terror of witch trials, Agnes Nutter a wealthy gentlewoman becomes caught up in an infamous witch trial near Pendle Hill. Based on reviews, Winterson has mixed in a bit of real magic with the history, and there are disturbing depictions of torture—true to the times, but not always what people want in their fiction.

Complex Relationships

When you look at the lives of historical women in the 17-18th century who had romantic or sexual relations with other women, an aspect that modern readers of lesbian fiction can feel uncomfortable engaging with is the separation between people’s emotional lives and the social and economic pressures of marriage. Yes, there were many women who did not marry, and it’s always possible to design a story the dodges the question that way. But in a context where women didn’t necessarily expect to be in love with the man they married, then not being in love with men at all wasn’t an obvious reason to avoid marriage. And as the historical studies currently being covered in the blog point out, this was an era when people didn’t expect a clear-cut distinction between desire for men and desire for women.

This next set of books are ones that focus on women who have married or expect to marry a man, but don’t see that as incompatible with relationships with women. Again, I’ve only read one of the books in this group, so it’s possible that I’ve been misled by the descriptions.

The glittering court of Versailles is the setting of Saga Hillbom’s Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing. The protagonist, Adélaide is a young—very young—noblewoman, brought to court for an arranged marriage to the king’s grandson. As was often the case, personal fulfilment was not a priority in the marriage and she is caught up in court politics. But in the arms of the servant girl Colette, she may have found love at last. This is a realistic tale of court life, not a fluffy romance. And a romantic relationship with a servant was more likely to be considered forbidden because of class than gender. But the book looks to be solidly written and deserves a closer look. (I just wish her books were available outside of Amazon, since that’s a sticking point for me.)

Kim Finney’s Under the Microscope is about as opposite to court life as you can imagine. Set during the reign of King Charles II, Ezzabell Chetwood is set apart from the vibrant life of London, working as her husband’s assistant in the new scientific field of microscopic investigation and illustration. When her husband pressures her to take on the frivolous Thomasin Dansby as her companion, both of them need to find accommodation to their new relationship. An unusual premise for a historical novel but one with potential for exploring a very specific landscape and setting. I’ve had this one on my iPad since it first came out a year ago and look forward to moving it up my reading schedule.

The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer by Connie Valientis is much more in the fluffy romantic comedy vein. Lavinia is looking for a convenient marriage that won’t get in the way of her ongoing affair with Lady Georgia Suthmeer. But both Lady Suthmeer and Lord Suthmeer have their own reasons for interfering with Lavinia’s marriage plans, and her betrothed has inconveniently decided to defend her honor. The plot is more of an erotic romp than a conventional romance but highly entertaining. Alas the historic grounding is somewhat vague. I have it down in my data base as “maybe 1790?” on the basis of the clothing in the cover illustration, but honestly I have no idea exactly when it’s set.

There’s something of a mid-18th century Gothic tone to the description of L.S. Johnson’s Harkworth Hall. Caroline Daniels has no suitors she likes as much as her friend Diana, but one must marry after all, and Sir Edward Masterson is an acceptable solution to her financial problems. But Edward has also acquired the decrepit Harkworth Hall and its sinister secrets and Caroline may need the assistance from an unexpected new friend to get out in one piece. Note: The cover copy for later books in the series have some spoilers for what’s really going on, so if you dislike spoilers, you might want to just plunge in. Me? I just bought the three book series, so maybe I can tell you more about it sometime in the future.


Given that the 17-18th century form a core part of the so-called “Age of Sail” it may not be surprising to find a number of pirate-themed books in my list. One of these days I really do need to do a pirate-themed show. But for now, let’s focus on the three books in this group where the action sticks close to Europe, rather than those set in the New World. These all appear to be set in the early 18th century and focused around English characters. And they all have a clear romance core, whether or not they fit the exact shape of a classic romance novel.

Lara Zielinsky’s The Queen’s Gift looks like a romantic romp in which prospective lady in waiting Lady Anne Coleridge is sidetracked by an encounter with the pirate captain “Bloody Mary.”

The real-life characters of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade have inspired many a sapphic pirate romance. The one I picked to include here is Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade. Taking the point of view of young Mary as she disguises herself as a boy to run away to sea, we see the gritty side of the pirate life as well as the romantic one.

One of the tropes of the pirate romance, regardless of gender, is that experience of being swept away against your will—whether emotionally or physically—and having your future turned upside down. That happens to Ianna McClarrin in Jessie Gutiérrez’s Spanish Eyes. As her father escorts her to an uncertain future and an unwanted marriage, Ianna’s destiny changes in a moment when their ship is boarded by pirates.


When it comes to highwayman—or rather, highwaywoman—novels, I already did an entire episode on this theme, which I’ve linked in the show notes, including one of my all-time favorites in this genre, Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies. But let’s focus on a couple of books that I discovered after putting that show together.

Eleanor Musgrove’s The Highwayman reimagines the characters of the Alfred Noyes poem as a female couple—as have other works in this genre. It’s a fairly straightforward retelling in short-story form but turns the original poem’s tragic ending into one with hope.

The highwaywoman Alice Payne, in Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives (and its sequel Alice Payne Rides) only starts out in the 18th century, after which this time-traveling adventure takes off for other eras. So not exactly a true-to-the times historic novel, but a great deal of fun.

French Revolution

As the discussion on the blog shows, the French revolution is a time when sapphic themes became mainstream politics, whether in the accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting, or in the mysterious and almost certainly mythical Anandrine Society, said to be a hotbed of lesbian sex among aristocratic women and revolutionaries alike. Two of the three books included here have fantasy elements along with the historical adventure.

The very recent release Belle Revolte by Linsey Miller takes place in an alternate fantasy-France in which the aristocratic Emilie des Marais, who longs to study medicine, and the working-class Annette Boucher, who wants nothing more than to learn magic, swap places to realize their dreams on the eve of revolution. Although this is a queer story, be aware that it’s not a romance.

Kat Dunn’s Dangerous Remedy similarly has elements of magic, but is more solidly grounded in our own France. We are offered a rag-tag group of misfits, saving people from the guillotine in Scarlet-Pimpernelish fashion. But Camile, daughter of a revolutionary, finds herself torn between ideals and love when their latest rescue is a mysterious woman with strange powers. A central romance without being a romance novel, and possibly the start of a series?

Reflected Passion by Erica Lawson is a more traditional sapphic romance, with a bit of cross-cultural, cross-class longing. Widowed countess Françoise Marie Aurélie de Villerey was broken by her unhappy marriage and settles for sex without love until the encounters nouveau-riche Bostonian Dale Wincott, groomed for a promising marriage but trying out a sideline as a furniture restorer. That’s…an unexpected twist. Oh, wait, this one has a fantasy twist too. The two women are also from different times, and connect through a portal in an antique mirror. In a weird way, that makes the plot make a bit more sense. This could go in almost any direction with that premise. But it’s interesting that, in the end, all my revolutionary picks have fantasy elements.


There are three other books that didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories that I want to spotlight. The first two are out of print, alas, and like several other f/f historicals written in the ‘90s, I’d love it if someone arranged for them to come back into print. This is a duology by Jay Taverner: Rebellion and Hearts and Minds. I say “duology” though the cover copy doesn’t mention any overlapping characters. Let’s go ahead and give the full descriptions of them.

Rebellion is a lesbian love story. It's 1715 in Somerset, a feudal world of aristocrats, peasants and the remnants of religious freedom. But this is a year marked out for political violence on a grand scale, the first of the Jacobite uprisings. Hope, a gamekeeper's daughter, and the Lady Isabella are girls of sixteen when all around them a way of life is changing. Perforce, the teenagers of Rebellion learn as fast as they can about the perils of war. More importantly, they unravel the devious, loving attentions of class and family to find each other.

Hearts and Minds takes up where Rebellion left off, but is complete in itself. Into a far from peaceful English village comes the charismatic actor Mr Brown and his touring company. Lucy, a young black washerwoman, soon finds that Brown is not quite what he seems. But their snatched moments together will not keep her happy for long. As the atmosphere in the poverty-stricken village intensifies, charges of witchcraft and child murder lead to a series of tragedies and close escapes.

I read Rebellion back when it first came out in 1997 and would love to find time to re-visit it. Somehow I missed Hearts and Minds and now it only seems to be listed at collector prices. I’d love to find out if the reference to the touring actor “Mr.” Brown is actually gender-queer actress Charlotte Charke, who went by that name sometimes. When I did some research to see if I could track down Jay Taverner, it turns out it’s a pen name for a writing duo who are both now enjoying careers in academia. (Why am I not surprised?)

The last title I want to mention follows a classic gender-disguise trope. The book is Passing as Elias by Kate Bloomfield. In 18th century England, Elizabeth Searson must pose as a man to claim inheritance of an apothecary’s shop, but what happens when she falls in love? There are a lot of advantages to living as a man that she isn’t eager to give up. And, hey, there it is in the iBooks store! Bought! Having peeked at the ending, I can note that despite the gender-disguise trope the character identifies as a woman—something I usually want to represent accurately and which isn’t always clear from the cover copy.

So there you are: a small shelf’s worth of sapphic fiction set in 17th and 18th century England and France. But as you can see, there’s plenty of scope for more—especially outside these few favored tropes. It’s interesting to me that this list doesn’t deeply delve into the possibilities of the female-centered world of the salons, the Bluestockings, or the convenient proximity of a lady’s companion. So much scope! So many possibilities!

Show Notes

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 


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