Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 4 “The Gift of Love” – Religion and Lesbian Love
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One approach to acceptance of same-sex desire was to view all love as a gift of God and therefore acceptable. This chapter looks at two examples of f/f love embedded in religious structures. Lesbians had far from a unified attitude toward religion, aligning themselves more often based on class or family attitudes, sometimes embracing them, sometimes rejecting.
The use of passionate and erotic language to express spiritual experiences provided an acceptable context for using similar language about a same-sex beloved. In some cases, women might embrace such feelings as non-erotic, while in other cases the spiritual nature of their feelings excused the erotic.
The first focus of this chapter is Mary Benson, the dissatisfied wife of a successful Anglican clergyman, who found fulfilment in a series of relationships with women.
The Benson family is extensively documented through their correspondence, diaries, and books. Not only Mary, but her two daughters and three of her sons had a preference for their own sex. In Mary’s case, she had experienced several crushes on women before marrying Reverend Benson, who had identified Mary as a prospective wife when she was 11.
Mary did not love him, appears to have disliked marital relations, and found her life being micro-managed. After 12 years and six children, she had a breakdown, and while convalescing at a spa in Germany, fell in love with a fellow female boarder, finding in that relationship the self-confidence and self-love lacking in her marriage. She returned to the marriage with boundaries around her emotional and erotic life that thereafter excluded her husband.
With this new arrangement, Mary supported Reverend Benson in his career advancement and found her own religious vocation as a spiritual “mother” to other women, that combine both religious and erotic love. The taboo against divorce, particularly for the clergy, gave them both a motivation to find accommodation.
Mary saw carnal desire as a weakness – something to strive to master – but not only in the context of same-sex relations. In defining the boundaries of carnal versus spiritual love, kissing, embracing, and sleeping together fell on the “spiritual” side.
The second focal couple in this chapter is Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and Katharine’s mother helped raise her Edith and her sister, with Katharine taking over guardianship at her mother’s death when the two sisters were in their teens. Katherine’s shift from “elder sister” to mother figure to lover with respect to Edith may strike the modern sensibility as problematic, but the relationship was mutual and devoted and confirmed to be erotic.
Together they developed their literary talents and chose to write under a single name. “Michael Field’s” work was acclaimed, but when their authorship was revealed, public opinion turned fickle, considering their work “unwomanly”. That, combined with changes in poetic tastes and with Edith’s health problems decreased their literary output.
Having always had a free-spirited and eclectic approach to religion, the reasons why they converted to Catholicism are convoluted. But one consequence was a turning to themes of sacrifice, but in different directions that made their prior mode of collaboration more difficult. Cooper found her new religious vocation in conflict with her poetic muse, while Bradley embraced the near-pagan ritual and symbolism in her work.
While they continued to promote the image of perfect unity, conflict crept into the nature of that unity. Cooper began to lose interest in the sexual aspect of their relationship and agonized over how to frame it in her confessions. Bradley struggled with the apparent involuntary renunciation of her erotic life. Bradley’s poems from this era express a sense of loss.