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romantic friendship


Romantic friendship refers to a specific set of behaviors and social circumstances, largely confined to the 17-19th centuries, where close and intensely emotional “friendships” between women were normalized by society and even considered expected or desirable. Romantic friendship were generally considered not to preclude heterosexual marriage although they were often seen in conflict with it.

LHMP entry

Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.

As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion.

This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage).

Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult.

As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.

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.

Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis. 

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.


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