Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #57 Traub 2010 “’Friendship So Curst’: Amor Impossibilis, the Homoerotic Lament and the Nature of Lesbian Desire”

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2010. “’Friendship So Curst’: Amor Impossibilis, the Homoerotic Lament and the Nature of Lesbian Desire” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Traub, Valerie. “’Friendship So Curst’: Amor Impossibilis, the Homoerotic Lament and the Nature of Lesbian Desire”

* * *

In a future entry, I will be covering Traub's magnum opus ( The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England) where she traces changes in the rhetoric around relations between women during the 17th century. The present article is adapted from one chapter of that work that looks at concept of "Nature" and the theme of love between women as being an "impossibility".

The poet Katherine Philips wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women in the mid 17th century and argued for the primacy of female friendship over the bonds of marriage. She established a Society of Friendship to promote social, political, and artistic bonds between women, using the pastoral imagery and language popular at the time. Philips was not, of course, able to avoid the demands of convention entirely and was married at 16 to a much older man. Her poetry operated within the theme of "amor impossibilis" in the tradition of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, but focused, not on the alleged impossibility of her love, but on the pain of the barriers to achieving it. Unlike her contemporaries such as Cavendish, she represents these ideas and responses in a relatively personal form, rather than through allegory.

Traub explores the meaning of Philips' assertions of her love for women as being "innocent" in the context of classical and neo-classical traditions of Platonic love. The focus by many critics on the question of whether Philips' relationships could or should be viewed as erotic is considered somewhat beside the point. Also contrasted are Philips' familial relationships, primarily with Parliamentarian connections, and her social relationships, primarily on the Royalist side. This has led some to seek political symbolism in her poems addressed to these (royalist) women. Traub seems to argue for viewing Philips' claim of "innocence" as contrasting with the "rough rude world" of heterosexual marriage and represents not an echo of the older view of the "impossible" insignificance of female friendships, but a harbinger of a new, more significant (and thus more transgressive) attachment. This new understanding would later be framed as an illicit and stigmatized desire. The next generation of poets, following on her heels, dismissed Ovid's gender-changing resolution of his tale as unnecessary, arguing, in essence, that Iphis and Ianthe can and should love as women and not be shoehorned into a heterosexist framework.

As the 18th century evolved, the literature of the relationship between friendship and marriage, in arguing for the virtues of "companionate marriage", ironically introduces the idea of marriage resistance (at least among those upper class women who could afford it) in favor of a "separatist singleness" that implicitly allowed for the privileging of female friendships. Anxieties around the female friendships of Queen Anne and their political implications get transformed into male hostility toward the female-centered social ties that appear to exclude them from power. This hostility then settles on the erotic potential of those female relationships to vilify the entire range of ties between women. An assortment of polemics against women's same-sex affections in the first half of the 18th century is offered in support of this shift.

A near contemporary to Philips, Aphra Behn, was far less ambiguous in treating eroticism between women while also working with in the neo-classical tradition, Behn's writing touches on the whole gamut of possible gender interactions, though with different approaches. In combining the motif of female friendship with the undeniably sexual motif of the hermaphrodite, she presages the increasing sexualization of erotic friendship to come. This transition included a move away from a medical/physiological view of sexual desire between women (i.e., that such women are--or at least the active partner is--physically masculine in some way, and therefore set apart from women in general) in favor of a purely behavioral model. But this model understood that same-sex erotic possibilities existed between all women. This, in combination with the increasing focus on an ideal of femininity and female sexuality focused around chaste heterosexual marriage, led to a shift from same-sex relations being viewed as impossible and therefore innocent to being possible but unnatural and anti-social.

Time period: 

Add new comment