Literary Predatory Erotics
This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea.
Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.
I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism
The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.
This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.
The increasing divide between the derided image of erotic sapphic relations and the praiseworthy image of female domesticity, epitomized by non-erotic woman+woman couples, is played out in attitudes toward certain couples. The “Ladies of Llangollen” (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were firmly established in the popular imagination as the model of non-sexual romantic friendship.
Lanser examines the conjunction of the novel as a genre with "modernity" as defined in this work and considers its relationship to sapphic themes, despite the superficially overwhelming heteronormativity of the genre. One hallmark of the novel is the way in which it explores the contradictory imperatives of self-determination and socialization. The focus of the novel on the formation of couples and the subjective nature of desire opens the conversation--as previously seen with political and social conversations--to the inclusion or exclusion of sapphic subjects under that rubric.
Literary women who love women often lament being "the only one" or consider themselves outside of nature, but in the 18th century this begins being transformed into a sense of monstrousness. Versions of Ovid's myth of Sappho's late-life conversion to heterosexuality begin to presage this shift in the early modern era. Though a straightforward reading of Ovid's tragic ending would be that heterosexuality was the death of her, it began to be framed as a retroactive punishment for her previous love for women.
Lesbian sex, per se, has rarely been against the law, but in literature the forbidden nature of lesbian relationships encourages entanglement with murder (in both roles), blackmail, and other staples of crime fiction. This chapter, though, focuses more on the act of detection and the ways in which the identification of lesbians and lesbian behavior parallels the solving of mysteries or crimes. As the specific literary examples in this chapter fall after my project cut-off of 1900, I'll just summarize motifs.
While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.
“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.