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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #66 Lanser 2010 “Tory Lesbians: Economies of Intimacy and the Status of Desire”

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2010. “Tory Lesbians: Economies of Intimacy and the Status of 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.

Lanser, Susan S. “Tory Lesbians: Economies of Intimacy and the Status of Desire”

Today, we often think of same-sex relationships as being inherently "progressive" as well as transgressive, but one needn't look too far in contemporary GLBTQ politics to find the same tensions between "safe" and "unsafe" presentations of non-heterosexual relationships. Lanser provides an intriguing look at the interactions of class and politics in how 18th century women with same-sex relationships managed their public image (and likely their internal self-image as well).

This entry concludes the collection by Beynon & Gonda.

* * *

Lanser opens with a letter from the intellectual Elizabeth Montagu in 1750 deploring the plan of two female friends to live together as it will "hurt us all" if women "make such a parade of their affection" leading to suspicion regarding all female friendships. Lanser argues that Montagu's objection is unlikely to be to romantic friendships as such. The sister to whom the letter was addressed would later pen Millenium Hall, a celebration of separatist female friendship. Nor, she argues, is Montagu's characterization of gossip about the two friends as "a lie" likely due to ignorance of the possibilities for women together. She details how the social and political circles these women moved in were well aware of popular and politically-motivated representations of women's erotic relationships. Rather, Lanser suggests that the concern was with management (or mis-management) of their public image. This concern operated in a context where female friendships could be said to define the image of gentility and where superficially transgressive personal lives were balanced by political conservatism.

These relationships, often among women with intellectual interests (Montagu was considered queen of the "Bluestocking circle"), required negotiation around issues of kinship (often sharing the stage with heterosexual marriage), the nature of the relationship, the economic means to maintain it, and the public performance of their relationship and its reception. Couples such as Sarah Scott and Barbara Montagu, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, and Anne Lister and her several partners negotiated this public performance in different ways, inspired by, and taking cover in, the ideals of their respective eras. In some cases, the logistics that kept women physically separate allowed them to frame their otherwise questionable passions as a sort of martyred virtue: praiseworthy because (and to the extent that) they must be denied or deferred. Thus they could express intense desires to share a life together, safe knowing the reality was unlikely.

This was the case for two romantic friends in the immediate circle of Elizabeth Montagu (the woman who "deplored the hazard to us all" of female partners living together). Catherine Talbot wrote to her passionate friend Elizabeth Carter (to whom Montagu had her own long-standing attachment) about the "thwarting, awkward circumstances that forbid all possibility of spending our lives together." The three women often wrote to each other about fantasies of each other's presence, and imagined visitations in romantic circumstances or surroundings which, by displacing fulfillment into a fantasy world, gave it safe license.

Butler and Ponsonby cloaked their otherwise flagrant marriage-like arrangement in the garb of class privilege, and set themselves up as a shrine for intellectual and upper class devotees of romantic friendship. Strict political and class conservatism may have helped them to ovoid accusations (if not suspicions) of "lower class" erotic interest as a basis for their relationship. Despite significant personal shortcomings, the Ladies of Llangollen (as they were known) became an icon of female romantic friendship. Interestingly, Anne Lister visited them and wrote that the visit left her with "a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy". Lister's life had many parallels with the Ladies, though their written records and the public performance of their desires stand in stark contrast. Like them, she was rather a snob and politically conservative, but her more transgressive gender presentation (and her greater visibility due to the less stable nature of her personal relationships) led to regular challenges to her assumption of social immunity.

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