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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #95 Levin 1997 “What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney’s New Arcadia”

Full citation: 

Levin, Richard A. 1997. “What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney’s New Arcadia” in Criticism 39:4 : 463-49.

I'm still working my way through the latest batch of journal articles, but since I'm coming to the end of this group, I've run out of accidental thematic groupings. Today we have a study of one of those "Oops, I'm not really in love with another woman, it's a man disguised as an amazon!" stories. The fact that there is an entire genre of stories of this type is only half the fascination. Since the LHMP is interested in how women in history might have imagined or understood desire between women, the simple fact of representing that desire is powerful. But the other half is the depiction (however flawed and male-filtered) of how these characters process, and even come to accept, their transgressive desire--even when that desire is eventually resolved in an "acceptably" heteronormative fashion.

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Levin looks at the motif and expression of the apparent desire of one woman for another in the late 16th century Arcadia and considers whether and to what extent that representation reflected the everyday experience of romantic--and potentially erotic--female friendship in Renaissance England. Were such friendships viewed as acceptable because it was assumed they could not be sexual? Or despite a fear that they might become sexual? Or was the possibility of sexuality between women not considered problematic?

The author is in dialog, to some extent, with Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) which focused on male friendships and proposed that homoerotic relations between men in that context were not considered a personal identity, a distinctive "life style", nor a subculture, but rather only one example of the range of disapproved sexual activity. Bray's position was that there were structural similarities in how people viewed sexual relationships between men and other problematic male friendships, such as ones involving a difference of status. Bray's earlier writings suggested that there was no special anxiety associated with male homoerotic friendships, while he later came to a position that there was an identifiable anxiety about close male friendships in general, and that it represented an acknowledgment of their homoerotic potential, thereby suggesting that a concept of homosexuality was beginning to emerge. More recent work by scholars such as Goldberg (on men) and Traub (on women) have more clearly identified social anxieties around same-sex erotic friendships in early modern England.

The present paper looks at a tale within the Arcadia concerning what purports to be an erotic friendship between women, but is instead the erotic advances of a man disguised as a woman, and the developing response and anxiety of the female object of his affection to the lover she believes to be a woman like her.

Philoclea's father, in response to a prophecy about the dire consequences of a future marriage of his daughter, has secluded himself, his wife, and his two daughters against the presence of any eligible bachelors. Pyrocles, shipwrecked in their vicinity, disguises himself as the Amazon Zelmane in order to gain access to Philoclea and sets out to woo her, leveraging the forms of courtesy and homosocial friendship. Zelmane ardently praises Philoclea's beauty, pays her close attentions, and begins to evoke an erotic response from her.

A certain amount of narration is devoted to describing how Philoclea is innocent of previous sexual awakening and therefore does not have a basis for immediately rejecting what she begins to feel. Philoclea's attitude turns from appreciation to "liking and silent admiration" to "a most friendly affection" to "passions." She takes Zelmane's devotion to her as inspiration and permission to feel the same towards Zelmane. " Zelmane did often eye her, she would often eye Zelmane...If Zelmane took her hand and softly strained it, she also, thinking the knots of friendship ought to be mutual, would with a sweet fastness show she was loath to part from it. And if Zelmane sighed, she would sigh also."

Eventually Philoclea realizes that what they share is more intense than what ordinary friendship would permit and begins to wonder how to resolve her growing anxiety. She also realizes that she is jealous of her special bond with Zelmane, not wanting to "live all their lives together like two of Diana's nymphs" if it meant sharing Zelmane with Diana and the other nymphs! She tries on the notion of them living as sisters and rejects that as well as, again, a sister might have to be shared with a husband.

Finally she turns to imagining a heteronormative resolution to what she feels: "[Philoclea] would wish either herself of Zelmane a man, that there might succeed a blessed marriage betwixt them." She begins expressly equating her emotions and responses to heterosexual love and passion and only hesitates from "desiring she knew not what, nor how, if she knew what." Within this wording, Levin notes an implied acceptance that there is a "what" and a "how" to be discovered.

Philoclea struggles for a while with the idea that she should desire a chaste and virgin life, then gives herself over to an acceptance of her love, only regretting that she considers the fulfillment of it "an impossibility". She declares her love to Zelmane and then invites Zelmane to bathe with her and her sister in the river, with clear intent for the necessary disrobing to lead them to other activities. Zelmane makes excuses for remaining dressed but is so aroused by the naked Philoclea that they "touch, embrace, and kiss" to which Philoclea responds. The activity is broken off only due to Zelmane's conscience intruding. Throughout these events, Zelmane is consistently referred to with female pronouns, heightening and foregrounding Philoclea's point of view that this is a same-sex romance.

The dilemma is, of course, eventually resolved by disclosure, after which Philoclea continues to be focused on the persona of Zelmane, using the Amazon name when addressing Pyrocles, "for so I love to call thee."

Levin identifies several emergent hypotheses that he considers implicit in how this relationship is treated:

  • 1. Friendships between young women sometimes included sexual desire and the desire was occasionally consummated.
  • 2. A sexual relationship between women was taboo; a young woman's discovery of desire for a woman was traumatic.
  • 3. A woman's discovery of desire for her own sex affects her sense of who she is and of her place in her culture. In particular, Philoclea believes that she must not be the first woman to desire another woman. This understanding is closely tied to the image of the Amazon.
  • 4. Female-female sex sometimes involved a differentiation of roles into "male" and "female".

[I'm not sure that this is implicit. The notion that one of them must become a man in order for marriage to be possible reflects heteronormativity, but the lack of an attachment to one or the other of the gender roles does not suggest a sort of butch/femme dichotomy, but simply a lack of other role models. This "either/or" motif shows up in a number of stories of this type and strikes me as distinctly different from those stories and biographies where a female-bodied individual feels or expresses desire for a woman while presenting--and possibly identifying--as male.]

  • 5. The forces functioning to convert female-female sexual desire to sexual activity include (1) the strength of the passion; (2) access to an ideology praising commitment to passion; (3)confidence others feel female-female desire.
  • 6. The early modern period included fundamentalist believers in heterosexuality and proponents of a tolerant attitude towards deviation from a heterosexual norm. [Various characters in the story represent these positions.]

The apparent same-sex desire between Philoclea and Zelmane are not the only potentially transgressive interactions in Arcadia. There is a parallel, if backgrounded, male-male bond between Pyrocles and the character Musidorus (who is set up as Philoclea's sister's match). But there is also a scene hinting at eroticism between the sisters when Philoclea comes upon her sister in her bedroom lamenting over Musidorus and they disrobe and get in bed together to "talk better as they lay together" and are described as "cherishing one another with dear though chaste embracements, with sweet though cold kisses." The need to emphasize the chastity of the actions only foregrounds their erotic potential.

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