Literary Sexual Education
A comparison of the popular reactions in 18th century English literature to “sapphists” as contrasted with male homosexual institutions like molly houses gives the appearance of unconcern about women’s relationships, as does the absence of English laws against sex between women. When women in same-sex relationships ran afoul of the law, they were typically charged with fraud. Nor were women who cross-dressed as men treated with the same public scorn as effeminate men.
The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.
Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there).
This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate.
The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.
The book opens with an examination of female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman).
There is less segregation of content by the gender of the author in this group. Men continue to translate or emulate the poetry of Sappho, often downplaying but never entirely erasing the homoeroticism. There’s also an example of satirizing a historic individual with crude stereotypes of the predatory “butch” lesbian. While the women continue to write poems of romantic friendship, we also have a social satire envisioning an all-female society, complete with romantic and sexual relationships between women.
Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.
The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.
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.