Poetry: Love Between Women
This chapter tackles the public discourse around intense same-sex friendships among both women and men. Male friends took as their model the concepts of Platonic friendship expressed by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The language could be quite passionate, but did not assume a sexual component.
In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.
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).
Hobby looks at the work of 17th century English poet Katherine Philips, and in particular the subset that expresses sentiments of deep emotional attachment to women that could reasonably be classified as erotic, though never in an overtly sexual manner.
The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning).
In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.
Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.
Male and anonymous authors continue to focus on lesbians in male-gaze pornography and crude sexual satire. The female authors in this group are instead writing of their own lives, whether the continuing poems on the theme of intensely romantic friendship, or the somewhat banal diaries of the most famous female romantic couple of the age, or the somewhat more transgressive (and likely sensationalized) memoirs of the cross-dressing/genderqueer Charlotte Charke.
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.