Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
I.B.4 Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Literature
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This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage). Financial privilege enabled them to share not one but two homes together and to establish the charity that inspired Millenium Hall. The protagonists of the novel--like the author and her companion--are intelligent, educated women who desire little more than to spend their lives together. A husband briefly causes an unhappy breech but he conveniently dies a short time later. The two, along with friends that include another romantic couple, set up an idyllic existence in the country and establish several charitable projects. The blissful same-sex relationships in the story are contrasted with the invariably unhappy heterosexual ones, though the characters are not portrayed as set against marriage, as such, and one of their charities is to provide dowries for poor women.
Not all such fictional friendships had happy endings, some being separated by marriage, some culminating in the ultimate act of love, a self-sacrificing death. Although a significant portion of this literature is by female authors, male authors wrote admiringly of female affection as well. Faderman speculates on why these all-consuming relationships between women were depicted positively even when clearly elevated above marriage. Perhaps, she suggests, the real-world inevitability of marriage eroded their subversive potential, and perhaps men had voyeuristic enjoyment in watching two women showing affection to each other, as some male writers suggest.
Somewhat in contradiction to the main thesis of the book, Faderman quotes from the Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry who, undoubtedly familiar with the lesbian accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette, traveled to America in the late 18th century and commented frankly on what he perceived to be the social independence of American women and their apparent lack of passion toward men, concluding that “they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Faderman immediately dismisses this possibility as “doubtful”.
But if language is an indication, literary women in America saw little difference between the love they felt for each other and what they were expected to feel for men. And among the expressions of admiration and affection there are regular indications that women considered their passionate friendships to be in direct competition with heterosexual marriage, such that they would swear never to marry for each other’s sake. The intellectual pleasures they describe are not infrequently enjoyed together in bed and accompanied by embraces and kisses. “But,” says Faderman, “since decent women of the eighteenth century could admit to no sexual desires and decent men would not attribute such desires to them, the sensual aspect of their relationship goes no further in fiction, as it probably would not in life.” [Presumably, by this definition, de St. Méry was not a “decent man”.]
This assumption of innocence that is extended to literary female friends is not always offered to close male friends in literature, where the specter of homosexuality is more likely to intrude. Charles Brockden Brown left a fragment of an unfinished novel touching the “depravity” of a male character due to the nature of his friendships with other men, while raising no such suspicions in his work Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1798) which concerned female friends, which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself to be reunited with her beloved friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for the friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. And that friend’s marriage is considered easier to dispense with, if necessary, than their need to remain together.
The indistinguishability of women’s passionate friendships and the passion expected in marriage is seen in Helen Williams’s Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) in which, in a sort of reverse Iphis and Ianthe, the female protagonist discovers that the person she has developed a deep and very physical affection for while students in a convent together is actually a boy disguised as a girl (and ignorant of his own gender). Up until the reveal, the nature and intensity of their love is considered not outside the bounds of what would be normal between girls, and after his gender is revealed, their love is described as being the same as before...except now they can get married.
When men wrote of women having sexual relationships with each other (as in the memoirs of Casanova), the focus tended to be purely on genital activity and their bond is treated as ephemeral and eagerly abandoned for a man. When women wrote of women’s passionate friendships, they encompassed autonomy, economic independence, and a compete intimacy of the mind. But in summarizing this, Faderman overlooks the physical aspects of those relationships, erasing them from the equation, as if a relationship between women could either be genital or emotional, but not both.