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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #100h Donoghue 1996 - Passions Between Women (Chapter 7)

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 7: Communities

Today we'll finish up with the chapter in Donoghue that really hit home with me when I first read it. Too often when we think about pre-modern lesbians, there's a tendency to think in terms of isolation: that every woman's story will be a lonely coming-out story of thinking she's the "only one" and having to invent her identity and relationship from scratch. This idea has been reinforced by the popularity of the "social constructionist" school of homosexuality, which holds that there is no such thing as an innate sexual orientation identity, only patterns and concepts of social behavior that are structured and limited by the particular culture a person lives in. This school holds that there was no such thing as a "homosexual identity" before it was invented by medical sexologists in the late 19th century, and that there is no valid conceptual connection between modern gay and lesbian identities and historic persons who happened to engage in same-sex sexual activities.

Whatever one's emotional response to such a position, the research done on the history of women's same-sex desires and sexual activities in the last couple of decades has rather blown out of the water the notion that a concept of "lesbian identity" and even "lesbian community" didn't exist until doctors invented it around 1900. And that research helps provide a basis for telling stories about historic lesbians who didn't have to invent themselves from scratch, without having to throw historicity out the window to do so.

* * *

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends. Researchers looking for closely parallel institutions for women are often led to conclude that there was no pre-modern sense of a community of lesbians (or even to conclude that this lack indicates an absence of lesbian activity entirely). But this approach ignores gender differences in social and economic opportunities, as well as prioritizing certain types of erotic encounters.

An absence of 18th century lesbian “cruising places” should not be taken as proof that there was no such thing as “lesbian culture” or “lesbian community” in that era. For example, there is some evidence from late 18th century Amsterdam for small social groups of tribades, but the rarity of evidence is linked to a large extent with the general disinterest in prosecution outside of special circumstances.

In this final chapter, Donoghue looks at representations (including clearly fictional ones) of groups of women socializing around a common interest in lesbianism. Sometimes these representations are displacements of hostility against some other factor, such as the regular portrayal of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism. In other cases, suspicion of women’s political influence, especially when implemented through female networks, was expressed as a suspicion of lesbianism. In other cases, a conceptual tradition—such as the association of Sappho with lesbianism—was converted into the idea of an actual ongoing cultural tradition. Aside from fictional portrayals, there has often been a shying away among historians from an examination of the erotic aspects of women’s social and political networks.

The nun’s smooth tongue

Women-only institutions, such as convents and harems, were a common site for male fantasies about women’s sexual activities, not only with each other, but under an assumption that women with restricted access to men will be sexually frustrated and voracious in general. The heterosexual version of this assumption led to the borrowing of convent terminology as slang for prostitutes and brothels. Combine a prurient interest in what women might do in the absence of men with the virulent strain of anti-Catholicism present in England during this era and the fictional portrayal of orgies in convents or sexually predatory abbesses becomes a tempting blend of pornography and polemic. Examples mentioned in earlier chapters include Barrin’s Venus in the Cloister and Diderot’s The Nun. Less explicitly, works such as Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” weave a lesbian sensuality into a (hostile) depiction of the attractions of convent life, finishing with the image of the postulant sharing her bed “chastely” with a “fresh and virgin bride” every night “embracing arm in arm”.

The convent of pleasure

Among protestant writers, a positive vision of a convent-like all-female community is presented in works such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762). The potential for passionately-charged relationships among the women of these communities is still implicit, but without the overlay of religious hostility. Another genre of fictional portrayals of all-female communities grows out of a revived interest in classical Amazons. But in general Amazonian stories mock the idea of women-only communities, and avoid the erotic potential of such an arrangement.

Within this context, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure stands out as unusual. The story revolves around Lady Happy, who has been blessed with sufficient fortune (and an absence of male authority figures) to be able to reject marriage and disdain male suitors in favor of setting up an all-woman community to enjoy “all the delights and pleasures that are allowed and lawful.” Lady Happy’s male suitors, feeling themselves unjustly cheated of the chance to claim her fortune and her person, plot to infiltrate the community and, when this fails, to destroy it for spite.

Among the descriptions of sensual luxury, a rather overt lesbian aspect is introduced when a new guest notes to Lady Happy, “Observing in your several recreations some of your ladies do accoustre [i.e., dress] themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” The implication here is that romantic role-playing, accompanied by cross-dressing, is a routine part of the community. Lady Happy consents to this courtship and finds herself romantically attracted to the newcomer, asking herself, “Why may not I love a woman with the same affection I could a man?” She balks a little when the other woman, though using the vocabulary of friendship and platonic love, initiates kisses and embraces, claiming that they are not “sin” among friends. Just at the point when Lady Happy is overcoming her qualms and pledging her love to the other, there comes an accusation that a man has entered the community in disguise and—of course—it turns out to be Lady Happy’s lover. Other characters note that, in retrospect, they should have known when they saw how Lady Happy reacted to being kissed because “women’s kisses are unnatural”. Thus, even in a context which seems at first to embrace and endorse same-sex love within a women’s community, heteronormativity is restored at the end.

In contrast to Shakespearean plays with similar motifs, however, the audience is not in on the secret until the final reveal. In experiencing the play real-time, they would have been shown a genuine and convincing love story between women, only very artificially “saved” at the very end.

New cabals

If the preceding examples show contexts where an all-female environment creates the potential for same-sex passion, a different set of texts show that passion as the purpose of forming the community. The roman à clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean (1709) has one episode (among a much larger quantity of material) giving an account of a group of women who are clearly indicated as joining together for the celebration of same-sex passion.

The narrative voice coyly frames the description with assertions that there could be no “irregularity” in their affections and activities because what could women do together, after all? But in the publishing context of the day, this was (among other reasons) a necessity to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. Although the descriptions of the activities mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the community not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).

The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) do not indicate gender role play or cross-dressing, but there are a few exceptions. One woman (meant to represent Lady Frescheville) is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another (representing Lady Anne Popham) is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in the fictionalized Memoirs of Europe (1710) by the same author. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

Although the formal organization of this lesbian community is most likely fictional, the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age create a plausible picture of how lesbian-oriented women may have found each other and gained at least some social and emotional support for their relationships. The accuracy of the specifics, though, is suspect given that all the women disguised in this characters were connected in some way to Whig politics.

A similar, transparently disguised social network of “tribades” is portrayed in William King’s viciously satiric The Toast, created primarily to express his personal hatred and feud against the Duchess of Newburgh. Images of organized associations of lesbians also feature in a group of late 18th century French texts that take a more libertine and pornographic look at what are depicted as sex clubs. While these are fictional and of dubious relation to actual practice, a non-fictional travelogue by a German visitor to London in the 1780s notes matter-of-factly the existence of organized societies for “females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex…called Lesbians.”


The most pervasive connection or network for 18th century lesbians was a conceptual and historical one, tracing the practice back to Sappho. Despite the counter-claims of some Sappho scholars such as Joan DeJean [whose work I will cover at some future date], Donoghue points out the extensive awareness of the connection between the historic poet Sappho and the tradition of Sappho as a lover of women, giving rise to the use of “Sapphic” and “lesbian” as descriptors in this sense. Thus even superficially innocent references to the ancient poet were available as allusions to passion between women.

This section goes into some detail regarding the translations and versions of Sappho’s work that were popularly available in the 18th century and the ways in which they acknowledged or deliberately concealed the references to love between women. There was also the complication that, for many, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general, and therefore female scholars even more than male ones found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian. This tension is played out in various fictional portrayals of the poet.

Sappho enters, as well, into the tension between viewing same-sex passions as a new development in the 18th century, or as a continuation of a longstanding phenomenon. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from the “unaccountable” affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as an ongoing tradition.

This chapter concludes with a somewhat confused collection of polemical tracts against what was perceived as the rise of lesbian behavior in the 18th century, making reference not only to classical sources such as Sappho and Diana, but to pernicious foreign influences either from that default source of vice, France, or more exotic locations such as Turkey. The clear lesbian context of these writings gives us the connection for unambiguously identifying slang terms for lesbians and lesbian sex such as “the game of flats” and “Tommy”. There are extensive excerpts from the writings of Hester Thrale, whose venom against both male and female homosexuality led her to speculate extensively on the sex lives of her contemporaries.

Time period: 

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