Ballaster, Ros "`The Vices of Old Rome Revived': Representations of Female Same-Sex Desire in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England", in Suzanne Raitt (ed.), Volcanoes and Pearl-Divers: Lesbian Feminist Studies. Onlywomen, 1993.
This is one of those articles where I had to go check the publication date and then revise some of my knee-jerk reactions to certain details. 1995 doesn’t always feel that long ago (Heather, it was over a quarter of a century ago!) But in terms of queer historical scholarship it’s an entirely different era. Reading through that filter, I become aware of the “academic cohorts” people operate in. Who are they citing? What is taken for granted and what feels new and radical? History is not a static field, and queer history is a very clear example of that principle.
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Ballaster uses the lens of Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, and especially its “New Cabal” as a lens for exploring knowledge of, and attitudes toward, female same-sex eroticism in 17th and 18th century England. (Manley’s book was published in 1709 and so speaks to both centuries.)
Manley’s description of the sex lives of the New Cabal is exaggeratedly coy. This women-only group meets censure for reasons the narrator pretends not to understand, for what could women do together that would be improper? Those who slander them “must carry their imaginations a much greater length than I am able to do mine…they pretend to find in these the vices of old Rome revived.” While accurately noting that 17-18th c texts often refer to female same-sex erotics only by circumlocution, Ballaster interprets “the vices of old Rome” to be a reference to the belief that the fall of Rome was due to rampant male homosexuality, and suggests that this need to find parallels with male behavior might seem to connect with Trumbach’s claim that there were no social models or roles for female homosexuality in the early 18th century—a claim that Ballaster will demonstrate to be false.
[Note: I think Ballaster is mistaken about even the superficial reading of “the vices of old Rome”, given the demonstrated awareness in 17th century writings of Martial’s epigrams and Lucian’s Dialogues in reference to f/f sex, and use of references to those as one of the standard circumlocutions. Furthermore, as Ballaster eventually argues, the satirical context of Manley’s narrative undermines a literal reception of the narrator’s mock-ignorance. But here I am leaning on discussions in more recent work, such as Wahl 1999, which points out the potential legal protection in hiding political satire behind the mask of innocent disbelief.]
The New Atalantis was, first and foremost, a political satire. A separate key to the women of the New Cabal identified them primarily with women in the household of Queen Anne, and Manley was not the only political satirist who used insinuations of lesbianism against Anne’s court. (See e.g., Miss Hobart in Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of the Count de Grammont.) The general view of queer historians at the time this article was written (it cites Faderman, Dekker & van de Pol) was that the potential for f/f sexual relations in the 18th century was either not taken seriously or dismissed entirely, and that even the women who were romantically involved did not see their relations as potentially sexual until the end of the 19th century, with the exception of Hobby whose suggests that the work of Katherine Philips indicates something resembling a “lesbian identity.”. But Ballaster goes on to argue against the prevalent view. [Note: which is a great relief, since otherwise I’d spend most of this article muttering and grumbling, as I did when summarizing the relevant work by Faderman and Dekker & van de Pol, et al.]
Rather, Ballaster asserts, there were a variety of representations of female same-sex desire in circulation during the 17-18th centuries that challenged patriarchal norms. Alongside the image of the gender-transgressing cross-dresser or “hermaphrodite”, and the rise of romantic friendship, the sharpest challenge came from the image of the “tribade”—women whose same-sex relations were explicitly centered around sexual desire.
The article now reviews the state of the field of lesbian historical theory in the mid 1990s, especially the ways in which it conflated gender identity and sexuality in ways that muddle the interpretation of 17-18th century experiences. This distinction becomes most pertinent in comparing the different challenges presented by cross-dressing women--whose transgression was overt, but could be erased by removing the exterior signs, and the tribade—whose transgression was inherently covert, and which could not be subsumed into a heteronormative framework.
In looking for representations of f/f sexual desire, Ballaster reviews the corpus of 16-18th century medical representations of sex between women, including theories of a physiological cause or consequence of f/f sex, and popular pornographic tropes, such as “initiation” or convent scenarios.
While such literature can be discounted in its details as reflecting male fantasies, it does demonstrate that awareness of f/f sexual possibilities was in general currency, at least in certain circles. The contrast between male-authored sexual scenarios, and female-authored romantic/platonic scenarios raises the question of whether it is meaningful to speak of a “lesbian identity” in either context.
Representations of “lesbian desire” in the 17-18th centuries fell in three general models (per Vicinus): “the aristocratic libertine woman depicted in pornography and political satire, the cross-dressing woman of the working classes, and the romantic friend of the middle classes.” But Ballaster notes that real-life exceptions can be found in all cases, such as middle-class cross-dressing actress Charlotte Charke. Ballaster is less interested in whether a class-based distinction is “real” than in how it is given meaning by modern historians. In particular, how the first category is often dismissed as inauthentic due to the prevalence of male authorship. But female authors expressing the other two models were well aware of the social and literary conventions they were operating within, just as much as writers of pornography and satire. The poetry of Katherine Phillips is explored once more regarding what it can tell us about the “real” experiences of the women writing and written about in her work. Regardless of the potential place of sexual expression within Phillips’ life, it’s clear the relationships she depicts disrupted and challenged the centrality of heterosexual marriage.
If female same-sex desire was considered genuinely subversive, this challenges Faderman’s position that romantic relations between women were tolerated and even approved by society because they were considered non-sexual and not perceived as challenging patriarchal structures. But just as Faderman claims that 19th century romantic friendships were viewed as inconsequential, Ballaster points out that earlier authors such as Brantôme viewed f/f sexual relations as inconsequential—both in the sense of “having no consequences for the social order.” So perhaps men’s opinions on the subversive potential of f/f relations are not a reliable guide to women’s experience of that subversive potential?
Both the “marriage” of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler and the explicit sexual details revealed in the diaries of Anne Lister suggest the existence of an “underground” culture available to women who desired women. Lister in particular depicts a variety of means by which such women identified each other and established connections and relationships.
The article now returns specifically to Manley’s New Atalantis and other sexually-charged satirical writings about Queen Anne’s circle. In addition to the roman a clef characters of The New Cabal, a more direct satire, but targeting the queen’s favorite Abigail Masham, The Rival Dutchess: or Court Incendiary depicts Masham as confessing to “having too great a regard for my own sex”. (The context makes it explicitly clear that she is talking about sexual desire.) And these were not the only works that used the motif of communities of aristocratic, learned women inclined toward same-sex desire as a sign of “the world turned upside down”. But they also convey a complicated anxiety about women in positions of power, and women who gain influence over the powerful through sex (whether sex with men or women).
Interpreting Manley’s work as indicating anxiety about all-female networks in general is complicated by her own gender, as well as the clearly political motivations of her attacks. Further, within Manley’s text, women are presented as the wise and knowledgeable commenters on the New Cabal, as well as the subject of that commentary. And the socio-economic structure of the New Cabal, as described within the work, might be considered an idealized, libertine, self-regulating (and verging on socialist) state. The women of the New Cabal, regardless of Manley’s superficial political intent, offer a vision of an entirely different social and sexual economy, centered around women who pledge to devote themselves sexually only to other women. It is not an imitation of heterosexual relations, but another thing entirely.