Skip to content Skip to navigation

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

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.

In France in the later 18th century there arose the motif of secret societies of sapphists "more mysterious than the Freemasons" that existed to initiate women into lesbianism, to serve the pleasures of their members, and to achieve unsavory political ends. The existence of these formal organizations was purely fictitious. Their alleged membership typically included unpopular political and social figures. And their alleged purpose was ostensibly to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society, as an allegory for disrupting other social frameworks.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

This article traces the relationship, documented in letters, between two black women during the period around the end of the American Civil War. Both women were free-born and lived the earlier part of their lives in Connecticut, but one of the two spent time in the south after the war as a teacher, so a wider variety of social issues came into their lives. The two correspondents were Addie Brown, a domestic worker, and Rebecca Primus, a school teacher.

In this chapter, Donoghue addresses the concept of “romantic friendship”, both as the term was use in the 18th century, and as applied by modern historians in situations when no irrefutable evidence of genital sexual activity is available. In both cases, the use of the term “friendship” tends to dismiss the strength of the bond (which frequently involved a lifelong partnership) and set up a false dichotomy between these relationships and more overtly sexual ones identified as “lesbian”.

Renaissance philosophy tackled the question of friendship: who is an appropriate friend, what behavior should a friend exhibit, what is the relationship between the love of friends and sexual desire? Given the times, the majority of texts addressing this topic were concerned with friendships between men, though a nod was often given to Sappho as a proponent of female friendships, or to the possibility of “Platonic love” between women, which is given explicit license in the Symposium as well as by Renaissance writers commenting on it, as Agnolo Firenzuola did.

Lanser opens with a letter from the intellectual Elizabeth Montagu in 1750 deploring the plan of two female friends to live together as it will "hurt us all" if women "make such a parade of their affection" leading to suspicion regarding all female friendships. Lanser argues that Montagu's objection is unlikely to be to romantic friendships as such. The sister to whom the letter was addressed would later pen Millenium Hall, a celebration of separatist female friendship.

Male-centric views of sexuality frame singlewomen either as lonely and frustrated (spinsters) or as dangerously promiscuous (whores), but this dichotomy ignores the possibility of the sexual desires of singlewomen being satisfied by other women. There is an idealized image of pre-modern lesbian that finds its epitome in the Ladies of Llangollen type from the late 18th century.

Pages

Subscribe to romantic friendship
historical