Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #114 Zimmerman 1190 “’The Dark Eye Beaming’: Female Friendship in George Eliot’s Fictions”

Full citation: 

Zimmerman, Bonnie. “’The Dark Eye Beaming’: Female Friendship in George Eliot’s Fictions” in Jay, Karla & Joanne Glasgow (eds). 1990. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-4177

Publication summary: 


This is a collection of literary studies relating to the theme of lesbianism, whether of the author or content, and specifically within the framework of lesbian/feminism. There are 22 papers in all, however I’ll be holding strictly to my pre-1900 scope. Literary critism is already marginal to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, except to the extent that the articles highlight literary works that themselves are of interest.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. “’The Dark Eye Beaming’: Female Friendship in George Eliot’s Fictions”

I tend to get twitchy around historical and literary studies that take at face value the…I don't know, "claim"? "assumption"? "understanding"?…that the "romantic friendships" of the 19th century (and earlier) had no erotic or sexual component, regardless of how much language and symbolism is involved that would automatically be interpreted as erotic/sexual if used in relation to a m/f couple. One of these days, the Project will cover Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men and I'll probably have to have a full double-track commentary: one to summarize and one to critique.


The thing is: given the solid historic evidence that some of these relationships were sexual (cf. Anne Lister), such a position flies in the face of truth. (Though, to be sure, Lister's diaries are so valuable precisely because that sort of evidence is so rarely available.) But even more, this apparently obsessive need to deny the possibility of an erotic/sexual component on the part of modern researchers reinforces the position that there is something inherently negative about sex between women. That to suggest even the possibility (between women who are writing very passionately to each other and identifying themselves with the roles "husband" and "wife"!) is to besmirch their reputation. To lessen their literary or social importance. To slander their virtue. Such a reaction betrays the (modern) writer's lingering prejudices and makes their conclusions as suspect as those of the "find all the lesbians in history" crowd on the other extreme who turn every kiss into a certificate of sexual orientation.

* * *

As the paper’s title indicates, this is a study of both the depiction of friendships between women in Eliot’s novels, and the close friendships--some of them clearly romantic and passionate--she had with other women. These relationships fall solidly into the patterns and expressions of mid-19th century “romantic frienship”, focusing on the emotionally and intellectually transformative nature of the bond, but without any overt sexual element.

The language used--as we see in Eliot’s letters to Sara Hennell--is indistinguishable from what would be considered the language of romantic love if expressed within a heterosexual relationship. Equally relevant is the exclusive nature of the attention. During the period of her correspondence and friendship with Hennell, this romantic language is directed to her alone among Eliot’s correspondants. Eliot even uses explicit language of marriage when speaking of their bond: “I have not been beyond seas long enough to make it lawful for you to take a new husband, therefore I come back to you with all a hsuband’s privileges and command you to love me.... But in the veriest truth and simplicity my Sara, thou art vey dear to me and I sometimes talk to you in my soul as lovingly as Solomon’s Song.” Despite this marriage imagery, Eliot seemed to consider her relationship with Hennell as being no bar to contemplating heterosexual marriage.


The article then moves on to exploring the depictions of supportive female frienships in Eliot’s novels. As with Eliot’s own experience, these friendships supplement, rather than replacing, the characters’ relationships with men. And as Eliot’s career progressed (and with a new general suspicion of desire between women arising in the 1860s), there is a shift in both her personal life and her characters toward a “morbidification” of intense female friendships.

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment