The New Atalantis (Mary Delarivier Manley)
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.
Lanser opens her article with the bold hypothesis that “in or around 1650, female desire changed.” That there was a conceptual shift in gender relations reflected in literature, politics, religion, and individual behavior in which private intimate relationships between women became part of public life, and that this shift shaped women’s emergence as political subjects claiming equal rights.
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
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.
Here Donoghue considers the literature that addresses sexual activity between women. In contrast to some claims, there are a number of home-grown English texts in this period that address non-penetrative sexual activities between women, and during the 18th century there seems to have been a regular dialog between French and English writing in this vein, with works in one language rapidly appearing in translation in the other.
There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.