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).
II.A.2 Kindred Spirits
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Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.
The sexes were considered almost as different species in terms of their natures, abilities, and even biology. In some American literature, the anxiety around sexual activity extended from a concern for its debilitating effects on women to considering it to be hazardous to the health of men as well. Women were expected to be so naive and ignorant about sexual matters that marital relations were expected to be a major trauma, and a woman who showed too much interest in sex, even within marriage, was morally suspect.
For middle and upper class women, the majority of their lives involved separation from men, both in the public and private sphere. Within this context, the only socially acceptable way to experience and express deep emotion was within relationships with other women. Faderman here presents excerpts from the correspondence of a number of women expressing passionate feelings for each other and focusing on descriptions of it as “pure” and “unprofaned”. [I’ve skipped citing specific publications and individuals for the most part, unless there is a more direct relevance to the themes of the Project.]
In America, one external event further strengthened the importance of women’s friendships in the later 19th century: the heavy mortality of men during the Civil War. The “surplus women” were encouraged to find solace in each other when marriage became less available as a life path. The rhetoric around female friendships in England was quite similar in the 19th century to what had been seen in the 18th, with men viewing it as harmless and unlikely to present a barrier to marriage.
Sometimes when there was a disparity of feeling between female friends we get glimpses of the depths of feeling involved. Writer and reformer Edith Simcox expressed her devotion to George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in strong terms: “my Darling, lover-wise” speaking of kissing her over and over again murmuring “broken words of love”. But we hear of this, in part, due to Simcox’s frustration that Eliot returned only a more intellectual friendship. In many similar friendships, such as that between Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle (the wife of historian Thomas Carlyle), support from a close female friend was the only encouragement an intellectual woman might receive for her own work, as husbands rarely encouraged their wives to be their colleagues (or rivals).
As the end of the century approached, there was a growing frustration among intellectual women that marriage itself was a chain to be cast off in order to fulfil their potential. Examples of such independent women appear in novels such as Florence Converse’s Diana Victrix (1897), and as in that novel, these women typically achieved success with the support of a female companion. Men, both in life and in fiction, are often at a loss when confronted with their apparent irrelevance. These are the “New Women” who will feature in the next chapter.
Novels, up through the end of the century, could still depict women in relatively sensual physical relationships, as in the description of two sisters kissing and embracing in bed together in Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market”. Only a few decades later, even much more subdued physical affection would attract censorship. In this context, Faderman discusses the beginnings of sexology in the late 19th century, contrasted with professional opinions even into the early 20th century that there could be no clear dividing line between friendship and love, but rather a continuum of emotional and intellectual passions. What was it, then, that tipped the balance and made intense female friendship suspect of being “deviant”?
Faderman concludes the chapter by examining the topic that first inspired this book: the drastic shift in attitudes that must have occurred between the period in the 1850s when Emily Dickinson could write letters to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert saying things like, “If you were here--and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” or “I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you--that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast” and the period in the 1920s when Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Sue Gilbert’s daughter, felt the need to excise those passages when editing the correspondence for publication, leaving only more subdued expressions of affection. Clearly something changed, but what?