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Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Contents summary: 

The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts? Or did they represent parts of a single continuum? This was a time when the word “passion” could apply to any strong emotion and had not yet become so closely linked to eroticism. Queen Anne makes an interesting lens for the topic as there were regular concerns regarding the nature and influence of her favorites—concerns that may have been rooted in issues of class and family but were often expressed in terms of suspect sexuality. Donoghue’s aim in this book is to break past artificial conceptual barriers between sex and friendship and explore the diversity of both as they apply to women’s relationships in the “long 18th century” in a variety of British sources.

In this introduction, Donoghue addresses the claim that a lack of vocabulary to discuss a topic such as lesbianism indicates an inability to conceive of the idea—a claim used to assert that lesbianism as a concept could not have existed before the late 19th century, based on the usage dates given in the Oxford English Dictionary for “lesbianism, “lesbic”, “lesbian” (as a noun and adjective), “Sapphism” and “Sapphist”. Setting aside the clear examples of earlier usage for many of these words, Donoghue points to other terms—now fallen out of use—that clearly referred in some fashion to a lesbian-like identity and category as early as the 16th century. Terms such as tribade and fricatrice, as well as descriptive phrases such as “donna con donna”, “lovers of their own sex”, the “game of flats”, as well as earlier examples of “lesbian” and “sapphist” that—contrary to the OED editors’ assumptions, can clearly be seen to refer to same-sex passion in context. But beyond that, Donoghue points to descriptive texts, such as the diaries of Anne Lister, that—regardless of the absence of a technical vocabulary—clearly reference not only individual attractions and inclinations, but a concept of inherent sexual orientation and categories of women who share them.

With these as signposts, we can also identify systematic though less explicit circumlocutions such as references to “feminine congression” or “uncommon/unaccountable/irregular/unnatural” tendencies. Taken as a whole, the picture emerges of a concept of sexual passion between women that was neither as invisible nor as absent as some have claimed, nor as tolerated as others have asserted. Donoghue notes that, given this context and given that the specific word “lesbian” is relatively uncommon in a sexual meaning during this era, she will use that word throughout this book precisely because it is both meaningful to modern readers and lacks the specificity or narrow connotations of more common 18th century terms such as “tribade” or “tommy”. In doing to, she notes that she will apply the term more broadly to include bisexual women than is usual today. (A distinction between exclusive lesbianism and female bisexuality can be found in some cases, but is relatively rare to in the 17th and 18th centuries.) Thus, the “passions between women” of the title is not meant to indicate an exclusive orientation but an inclusive one.

There is a discussion of the differences in types of historic evidence between the study of male and female homosexuality, in part derived from differences in social and legal attitudes toward the two (as well as the general tendency toward ignoring women’s activities). In spite of the problems of discoverability, Donoghue notes that she found a much larger body of evidence than she expected and notes the benefits of considering female same-sex history independently rather than as an appendix to the study of men. Because of this unexpected wealth of evidence, Donoghue chose to focus her work on texts published in English in the British Isles (including Ireland). Note “published” rather than “written” as she is interested in texts that participated in creating public culture, not simply commenting on it. The focus on the “long 18th century” was driven, not by an assumption that there was no female homoeroticism prior to that, but because it was an era of open debate on female sexuality and a time when there were large numbers of female authors being published, meaning that the topic is not forced into being filtered through male perspectives. Despite shifts and changes in the types of texts that addressed lesbian activity, Donoghue found a fairly consistent amount of material throughout the period studied.

The book is structured around four primary topics that emerged from the data: gender blurring, friendship, sex, and community. In general, it was a combination of these factors that might lead to suspicions regarding a particular woman. Therefore the division is not one of clear and distinct categories, but of different angles on how lesbianism was viewed, identified, and understood. Gender issues are covered in the first three chapters, friendship in the next two, and sex and community in the last two .

In looking at the body of literature under consideration, the question arises of who the readership of those texts was, and thus who could participate in the discourse that they helped create. Female literacy rates were generally lower than male rates throughout the period, but overall literacy was rising, in part due to the influence of charity schools. Further, many women may have had reading literacy but not writing literacy, and so may not have been counted in those statistics while still being literary consumers. Differences in literacy as well as access to texts would have varied enormously based on class and geographic circumstance. But many of the texts under consideration were popularly available via ballads, broadsheets, chapbooks, newspaper serialization, circulating libraries, and communal reading aloud. Novels often had bawdy content, and the more popular forms of literature even more so, and moral censorship or bowdlerization of books had not yet become a significant force. Visual representations are another part of this culture, although not a major consideration in the present text.

Despite this general availability, it is difficult to tell more specifically what knowledge or understanding particular individuals had, especially given the general atmosphere of condemnation. Many of the texts show an open anxiety about the intersection between acceptable interactions between women (such as friendship or “medical” stimulation) and the potential for an unacceptable eroticism, with the latter possibility veiled in denials or claims of disbelief, though frequently undermined with a bit of a literary wink and nudge. There is a generally accepted position that “nice women don’t” and therefore that a woman’s reputation can be a shield against giving an erotic interpretation to behavior that might be looked askance in a woman of lesser reputation. This last, Donoghue notes, lies behind Lillian Faderman’s interpretation of the larger part of late 19th century “romantic friendship” as being non-sexual in nature.

Donoghue stakes out a position firmly in the middle of the essentialist/social-constructionist debate, accepting that the forms of female homoeroticism are certainly likely to be shaped by their culture, but that evidence suggests the existence of the phenomenon in some form is a historic constant. Questions of the development of a notion of “lesbian identity” are hard to pin down, with any particular date giving way to earlier evidence, at least in individual cases. And Donoghue calls into doubt the idea that women of the early modern era had no general access to knowledge of the possibilities of lesbian behavior, or that they necessarily understood it through a strictly heteronormative filter: i.e., “if I desire a woman, I must be a man.” (In this, she criticizes some of Dekker & Van de Pol’s assertions.)

The introduction concludes by discussing other researchers in the field and noting the value of a multi-valent approach to texts and categories of texts to find the patterns and commonalties that allow interpretation to emerge.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 1: Female Hermaphrodites

The combination of the phallocentric model of sex and a heteronormative model for desire contributed to an early modern fixation and anxiety about physical hermaphroditism. If an apparent woman desired another woman, and particularly if sexual activity were involved, it raised a suspicion of the presence of a penis, or at the very least of an enlarged clitoris capable of penetrative sex. While unfamiliarity with normal variation in the size of genitalia may have inspired some part of this idea, and true intersex individuals may have contributed in some way, the magnitude of this preoccupation can only be understood as representing social anxieties about female sexuality far more than anatomical reality. This model of female same-sex passion served, among other things, to portray lesbians as a physically separate and identifiable class, driven by anatomical destiny rather than desire.

Several Classical texts were available as models for the idea of hermaphorditism: Ovid’s “Iphis and Ianthe”, Martial’s Epigram 91, and Lucian’s fifth courtesan dialogue. (These have been touched on in other entries so they will only be referenced here.) English writers of the 18th century discussed these as ancient texts but also interpreted them in relation to contemporary figures and practices.

Beyond these classical references, most serious mentions of hermaphrodites occur as case histories in “medical” texts (often barely-disguised sensational titillation), of which an index is given here:

Nathaniel Wanley's Wonders of the Little World (1678) was a book of “curiosities” that includes a list of “magical” sex-changes, all but one being female to male. Wanley followed an older classical model that saw the newly-appeared organ as a sort of prolapsed vagina, often appearing due to trauma or violent activity.

Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671) takes note of women with an enlarged clitoris which is thought to lead to sexual deviance with other women. As is common in literature of this vein, the phenomenon is exoticized, being described as rare in England but common in places such as Asia or Africa. As with many of the other references to foreign examples, female genital mutilation is described as being a response to this enlargement.

Joannes Benedictus Sinibaldus (mid 17th century) translated among others by Richard Head as Rare Verities (1687) described enlarged clitorises as the result rather than the cause of “feminine congression” (sex between women).

The English translation of Nicholas Venette’s sex manual as The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d (1707) discusses “unnatural” sexual practices as a warning, as well as the acceptable ones the manual is intended to instruct in. He discusses the use of an enlarged clitoris in “vice” between women (citing “the Lesbian Sappho” as one practitioner), but is ambiguous as to cause and effect. He also lists five types of “hermaphrodites” with a range of variation in genitalia and functionality.

Thomas Gibson’s 1682 anatomy textbook takes as a given the existence of enlarged clitorises and their association with lesbian sex, as does John Marten’s early 18th c. treatise on venereal disease which cites him. The phenomenon is once again displaced into “exotic” locations such as Arabia, Ethiopia, Florida, and Virginia.

Richard Carr’s Medicinal Epistles (1714) notes the story of two nuns, examined due to suspicion, who were determined to have developed enlarged clitorises (presumably due to sexual activity) and were ejected from the convent, after which they took to living as men. But Carr dismisses the notion that size necessarily indicates “wanton practices” as he notes the enlargement may be seen in very young children and may, he asserts, be due to chafing clothing.

Anti-masturbation treatises such as The Onania (1708) saw enlargement both as a consequence of “self-pollution” and then as a means of enabling lesbian activity.

Several publications offer stories of a person originally understood to be a woman who, on official reconsideration of anatomy, was re-classified as male and required to wear masculine clothing. This reclassification may later be reversed with a corresponding required reversal of presentation. But desire as well as anatomy might be the trigger for such reclassification, as in the story of Anne Grandjean of Grenoble who, on confessing her desire for girls, was told by her confessor that she must therefore really be a boy and should dress and act accordingly.

The Onania (an anti-masturbation periodical) included a “letters column” of the true confessions type. Among many rather formulaic examples, there is one purporting to be from a woman who, after having her mind expanded (he says “debauched”) by Martial, Juvenal, and Ovid, began enjoying a sexual relationship with her mother’s chamber maid and as a result developed an enlarged clitoris. Somewhat refreshingly, the persona of the letter seems rather joyful and unashamed of her history and, although she has left off her sexual practices due to the enlargement, is still living in an affectionate relationship with her former lover.

Giles Jacob’s A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718) clings to the “anatomy causes desire” model but believes that the well-endowed woman can only give sexual pleasure and not achieve it herself due to the lack of an ability to ejaculate. This last position is countered by several literary examples representing pairs of sexual women who alternate in providing gratification to each other. In the examples above, taking on a masculine social role has been mentioned as something imposed by authorities, but Robert James’ Medicinal Dictionary (1745) gives the example of Henrikje Verschuur of Holland who, impatient with a female social role, crossdresses and enlists as a soldier, later enjoying sexual relationships with several women who apparently were aware of her original sex.

Samuel Tissot’s Onanism (1766) focuses primarily on the evils of mutual sexual stimulation between women, but includes a somewhat unusual note on the emotional side: “Women have been known to love girls with as much fondness as ever did the most passionate of men, and conceive the most poignant jealousy, when they [the girls] were addressed by the male sex upon the score of love.” [Note that the relationship is being portrayed as an older jealous aggressor and a younger object of affection who evidently is receptive to the affections of both men and women.]

Literary texts that include the motif of either physical or metaphoric hermaphroditism include Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont (1713); The Toast (1736) a vicious satirical piece by William King against the Duchess of Newburgh after failing to prevail in a lawsuit against her; and more positively, Aphra Behn’s 1688 poem “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More than Woman”.

Contents summary: 

Donoghue’s second conceptual cluster in this analysis is the “female husband” motif. That is, not simply women passing as men, but doing so in a context where they courted and/or married other women. The chapter begins with a general note on the prevalence of this type of event and the wide variety of superficial motivations for passing. Previous studies are noted that have focused on passing in the context of the military (Wheelwright 1989) or in popular culture (Dugaw 1989) but notes that they downplay the sexual possibilities. But conversely, studying cases of “female husbands” in the context of lesbian history can be problematic due to themes of deception and the adoption of misogyny along with male clothing, as well as the (often prurient) focus on phallic sexual aids.

Donoghue mostly passes over possible transgender interpretations, other than explicitly disagreeing with Dekker & van de Pol’s interpretation of passing as being the only psychologically available model for an Early Modern woman who desired another woman. Donoghue points out (indeed, this whole book speaks to) the wide variety of popularly available models for desire between women that did not involve such an overtly heterosexual model. But the “female husband” approach provided a much stronger social protection for a relationship between two women than cohabitation without the appearance of marriage.

Historians have made a variety of arguments for the place (or lack thereof) of sexual desire in the motivations of female husbands. Donoghue points out that while economic opportunity might be sufficient motivation for passing in general, marriage would seem to call for some more specific motivation. Before moving on to the specific case studies, Donoghue notes that, by definition, we have evidence almost exclusively for those cases where the disguise failed at some point, and that the predominance of working class women in the data could be due to the lesser vulnerability to discovery of those of higher class.

The following cases appear with relatively little data in the historic record:

  • A 1678 account tells a “friend of a friend” story of a Spanish woman who escaped an abusive husband by cross-dressing and in that guise married another woman. The story indicates she was never “discovered” but told her history to a friend who passed it on to the author.
  • The 1744 travel accounts by Busbequius in Turkey have been mentioned in previous entries, providing an exoticized account of desire between women in Turkish bathhouses, including an attempt at marriage while disguised as a man.
  • A private letter of 1694 describes the legal case of a young woman passing as a man who married another young woman, but who was accused of fraud when then attempting to marry a second woman, allegedly for financial reasons, although the fraud aspect might be called into doubt by the love letters that were presented in evidence.
  • A 1720 prison record notes that a woman named Sarah Ketson tried to marry Ann Hutchinson, using the name John.
  • Marriage registers sometimes noted a clergyman’s suspicions about the couple requesting his services, as when in 1734 a clergyman refused to marry John Mountford and Mary Cooper with the notation “suspected 2 women”, or similarly in 1737 when John Smith and Elizabeth Huthall were married despite the annotation “I almost could prove them both women, the one was dress’d as a man: thin pale face & wrinkled chin.” And in 1747 after the marriage of John Ferren and Deborah Nolan it was noted “The supposed John Ferren was discovered…to be in person a woman” though there is no indication that the marriage was therefore voided.
  • Two even more curious records from 1707-8 in Cheshire list marriages between two persons recorded with feminine names: Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill, and Ane Norton and Alice Pickford. No comment on gender is made at all.
  • A soldier being treated for a wound in 1759 was discovered to be a woman and it was noted that she had a wife who had kept her secret from the regiment.
  • In 1760, a newspaper account gave the story of a woman named Barbara Hill trying to enlist under the name John Brown who was recognized by a former acquaintance. She had held a variety of male jobs, including stonecutter and postchaise driver, and had married a woman “with whom she has lived very agreeably ever since.” The account further notes that after the discovery, her wife pled not to be separated from her, and the writer appears to be sympathetic to their position.
  • Two cases from the 1770s were characterized as for monetary fraud: a young woman passing as a man came close to marrying an older, richer woman with the implication that the “husband” would make off with her money after the marriage (which was foiled). Another passing woman succeeded in marrying three different women (presumably simultaneously) for their money.
  • There was an entire genre of broadsheet ballad telling stories of women discovering (typically due to sexual frustration) that their new husbands were really women.

Some cases of female husbands provide a more detailed record of the circumstances and history. In 1760, Samuel Bundy was discovered to be a woman (Sarah Paul) and convicted for defrauding a woman of money by marrying her, though the details of her story undermine the identification of the admitted economic difficulties as fraud. Sarah claimed to have been abducted at age 13 and forced to live as a boy, then after several years at sea began working as a painter and married Mary Parlour at age 19. It is implied that the marriage occurred at Mary’s instigation. Mary discovered Sarah’s sex shortly after the marriage but made no protest at that time. But after Sarah lost her job and the two were trying to survive only on Mary’s money (whether savings or income is unclear), the resulting strain on the relationship gave rise to the charge of fraud. Mary evidently had second thoughts about the charge, as the record notes that she joined her spouse in prison, motivated by “a strong love or friendship”. And in the end Mary declined to appear to press charges in court and the case was dropped, though Sarah’s masculine clothing was seized and she was warned not to cross-dress again.

A death report in 1764 records that the respectable farmer John Chivy was discovered after death to have been a woman. John had been married for 20 years but the couple had separated a few years before her death. (Many more details of the relationship are given.)

A very detailed story is reported in 1766 of Mary East who lived as husband and wife with another woman, keeping a public house together as Mr. and Mrs. How. The public version of the story given after the masquerade was discovered was that both had been jilted in love in their teens and had decided to shun the company of men for that reason and live together, using the appearance of marriage “to keep themselves safe from male advances.” The report takes pains to stave off the suspicion of unnatural passions, but the arrangement is difficult to understand unless some cover was needed for a marriage-like relationship. The arrangement worked successfully for many years until they fell victim to a blackmailer who recognized them from their youth, and the situation was further complicated by Mrs. How’s confession of the arrangement to her brother shortly before her death. Between the blackmail case being brought before the courts and the wife’s brother bringing a claim to inherit half the property, the entire history came out. The couple was as successful as they were, in part, by living a very isolated existence (despite keeping a public house), employing no servants and having no close friends.

Donoghue presents two even more detailed case studies in this group. The first is a fictionalized account of Mary Hamilton who was charged with “posing as a physician” (as Dr Charles or George Hamilton) and of marrying a woman named Mary Price, though neither item was sustained as a legal judgment. The original case was only briefly mentioned in newspaper accounts, but the novelist Henry Fielding fictionalized it as The Female Husband. In the fictional version, Mary is seduced by an older woman and leaves her mother’s house to join the woman’s household. The story swings between titillation and moralizing, and unambiguously indicates a sexual relationship between the two women. Mary’s seducer, however, abruptly abandons her to marry a man, at which point Mary begins living as a man and continues in romantic relationships with women, some merely courted, some married, though the author is careful in ensuring that the sexual aspect of the relationships, though enjoyable, is always portrayed as inadequate in the end.

The second case is perhaps less fictionalized, but still mediated through a fairly hostile informant: John Cleland’s An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751). The account is clear about Catherine’s exclusive and passionate attachment to women. She was born around 1718, the daughter of a carpenter, who worked as a servant. By adolescence she is confirmed in her sexual attraction for women but in contrast to the medicalized model of the previous chapter, this is not attributed to anatomy, nor was there any claim that she was initially seduced by some other woman. Catherine pursues her attraction to a young woman named Margaret under cover of embroidery lessons and begins cross-dressing in order to have cover for wooing her at night under her bedroom window. The courtship continued for two years (the author takes the position that it was “a whimsical prank” and not consummated) before being put a stop to by Margaret’s father who evidently viewed the matter more seriously.

Catherine flees, still in male disguise, and makes her way through the world as a man, becoming somewhat notorious as a womanizer. She remains in contact with her parents who are aware of her disguise and romantic activities, and in fact provide cover for her disguise by obtaining job references for her male persona. She has a number of sexual relationships with women using a strap-on dildo (though it is unclear whether her lovers were deceived or simply content to go along with it). Catherine almost succeeds in marrying, but is foiled when her lover tells her sister of the planned elopement and in the resulting change of plans they are set upon by the girl’s family. Catherine is shot in the process and dies of her wounds at age 24, requesting (according to the account) that she be buried in women’s clothing.

Throughout the various English accounts, one notable feature is how unsensational most of them are presented as being. Although the details of fraud or discovery might be dwelt on, the fact of disguised women marrying other women seems to be taken utterly for granted in the 18th century. Donoghue notes that the falling off of reported cases of female husbands in the 19th century may be due in part to strengthened marriage laws in England, but perhaps also to a change in focus of what was being reported or how these arrangements were interpreted.

Contents summary: 

There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.

Theatrical female cross-dressers were often described in ways that indicated that a large part of the appeal was the chance (for men) to appreciate women in form-fitting lower garments, or the frisson of an androgynous sexual appeal. While male fans of female beauty might be offered a visual spectacle, the possibilities offered to a female audience were even more daring. Breeches parts frequently included romantic male heroes, creating a scenario where women were openly courting (and winning) women on stage and audiences (of both men and women) were expected to enjoy seeing them do so. Some have argued that the increasing anxiety about female homoeroticism in the later 18th century was part of why breeches parts fell out of fashion.

Theatrical opportunities for female homoeroticism also included a fashion for assertive female characters who--as part of the script--seized on excuses to cross-dress for extended periods and to flirt with other female characters in this guise. Less formal theatricals, such as masques, were another context where cross-dressing might lead to same-sex flirtation and more, and several early 18th century pamphlets warned against the practice for exactly this reason.

The rest of this chapter looks at several specific contexts where cross-dressing created homoerotic opportunities. (The distinction here from the previous chapter is that marriage was not the object.)

Memoirs (whether true or fictionalized) of women cross-dressing for military careers often included scenes of same-sex flirtation, or sometimes unexpected attentions toward the passing woman from another. These attentions sometimes resulted in discovery, as in the 1692 record of an Englishwoman serving (in disguise) in the French army until discovered when “playing with another of her sex”. The celebrated Hannah Snell seems to have had no special romantic interest in women but became the object of female attention due to warning a woman of a fellow soldier’s plan to assault her. Her story thereafter includes a number of incidents where she is both intrigued and anxious about women’s romantic interest in her.

The fictionalized life of Christian Davies portrays her as happily heterosexual until her husband is press-ganged and she disguises herself to join the army to follow him. But in this guise, she participates in flirtations with women, perhaps initially as part of her disguise, and begins expressing a misogynistic double standard with regard to her partners. (In particular, too-eager women are dismissed as sluts.) In cases where the object of her affection behaves “modestly”, however, she is shown wooing them with sincere affection.

Another fictionalized biography that flirts with the idea of same-sex desire in the context of cross-dressing is the description of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in A General History of the Pyrates (1724), both of whom were passing as men when they met.

The autobiography of actress Charlotte Cibber Charke (1755) was undoubtedly fictionalized to some degree to cater to its expected readership (given that the publication was for commercial purposes), but it had the merit of not having a separate person mediating between the experience and the writing. Charke was famous for playing “breeches parts” on stage, but describes how she was attracted to masculine clothing and activities from an early age, with mixed reactions from her parents. She ditched an ill-suited husband and, with the additional burden of supporting a child, surrounded herself with a supportive circle of female friends while developing her stage career. Off stage, she frequently traveled and socialized as “Mr. Brown”, attracting the interest of women who variously were and were not aware of the disguise, though she seems to have always been scrupulous about laying out the facts before going further. She had one very long-term female partner and this relationship is discussed later in the book.

An entirely fictitious portrayal of a cross-dressing woman who pursues other women sexually occurs in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda. The character, Harriot Freke, is set up as the stereotype of an aggressive, mannish lesbian who takes delight in discomfiting the objects of her affections. Eventually, as the novel progresses, she moves from a threatening figure to one of ridicule and scorn, and the plot punishes her at the end for her transgressive behavior.

Cross-dressing to the point of passing was not a requirement for signaling a character’s erotic interest in other women. Aphra Behn’s 1682 play The False Count has a character comment on the sexual danger to a female character hidden under “petticoats”. And other fictions focus on masculine-framed behavior as a signal of a woman’s sexual interest in other women, as in Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753). In other cases, masculine behavioral signals are used to hint at “unnatural” passions within a close female friendship, as in Charlotte Lennox’s novel Euphemia (1790) which mocks a couple consisting of the stereotypes of Amazon and Bluestocking. The same sort of language was used to hint around about the real-life couple Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (the “Ladies of Llangollen”), framing Butler as the “masculine” member of the pair.

Contents summary: 

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”. [Like a number of other historians, Donoghue implicitly criticizes Faderman for considering “romantic friendship” to be incompatible with sex.] But even the women under consideration themselves sometimes challenged the label “romantic” as implying a non-serious, fanciful approach, rather than the deep and often practical devotion they experienced.

This dichotomy has often been used to shield the upper class women who participated in the culture of romantic friendship from accusations of lesbianism, arguing that the openness and pervasiveness of the phenomenon must mean that it could not have indicated sexual desire or sexual orientation. This thinking has a strong streak of “nice girls don’t” where women capable of expressing the elevated sentiments of friendship in literature or in their own lives couldn’t possibly have been so perverted as to participate in lesbian sex. These interpretations are further confounded by the different attitudes and language used by 18th century women regarding physical expressions of love. “Chaste kisses” can mean something different to a woman who perceives only penetrative sex with a man as unchaste.

The class differentiation in how women’s relationships were viewed and described comes in part from differences in women’s ability to present their own lives for posterity, with poetry and literature being largely the provenance of the educated classes, while working class women’s lives and relationships were often filtered through the legal system and sensationalist popular media.

The specific examples Donoghue offers fall in several categories: some lesser-known poems celebrating friendship between women, household arrangements and marriage patterns such as the issues of spinsterhood and reconciling relationships with both sexes, and finally the rumors and gossip of the time that clearly linked alleged romantic friendships with imagined lesbian activity.


Rather than focusing on the most familiar works of Katherine Phillips or Aphra Behn, Donoghue presents works such as Anne Killigrew’s “On the Soft and Gentle Motions of Eudora” (1686), Jane Barker’s “On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow, Mrs. E.D. having Dream’d the night before I heard thereof, that I had lost a Pearl” (1688), one of the less commonly published Behn poems that uses imagery of Diana/Artemis, Anne Finch’s poem to the Countess of Salisbury, and several others. All these works express their authors’ feelings in strongly sensual terms, often dwelling on physical descriptions, and using classical allusions that suggest passionate feelings. And yet it was sufficiently possible to overlook problematic readings that Killigrew’s poems were published posthumously by her father with no apparent qualms for her reputation.


One theme rarely addressed by historians is the conflict between two philosophies. One was the position (taken by their 18th century contemporaries) that romantic friendship between women coexisted peacefully with heterosexual marriage, preparing women (in a safely non-sexual context) for passionate attachment, and perhaps taking pressure off of husbands to fulfill all their wives' emotional needs. The other was a genre of anti-marriage literature in women’s writing of the era that associated romantic friendship specifically with a rejection of—and even revulsion for—heterosexual marriage. Spinsters occupied an ambiguous space in this scheme, on the one hand framed as pathetic “leftovers” of the marriage market, but on the other hand offering a context of pro-woman and anti-marriage sentiment among women who were free to prioritize their own freedom and their relationships with other women.

Non-domestic opportunities for women were being systematically eliminated during the 18th century and yet marriage rates, rather than increasing in response, dropped steadily from the end of the 17th century. By 1725, perhaps a quarter of the daughters of the landed gentry were lifelong singles. Larger economic forces (particularly those regarding inheritance and dowries) may have been involved, but there are open discussions of chosen spinsterhood. While the circumstances of women at various economic levels were different, every level offered opportunities to choose an unmarried life by some means. And there are anecdotal records indicating that for at least some of them it was a deliberate choice, such as the Welsh maid-of-all-work (not the easiest of professions!) who earned enough to refuse 12 proposals of marriage because she “preferred seeing more of the world.”

The rhetoric used in this era against spinsters echoes that heard in the late 20th century against lesbians: they’re single because they’re ugly (or ugly because they’re single), they’re crazy, they’ll come to regret rejecting men. On the other side, treatises such as those by Mary Astell (who identified herself on at least one of them as “a Lover of her Sex”, but one should hesitate to assuming a purely sexual sense of “lover”) argue against marriage due to it requiring a subjugation of women little better than servitude and one that rarely leads to happiness.

Other tracts more explicitly link the unmarried state to the opportunity to find happiness in companionship with other women. The women known as Bluestockings provide key texts regarding the connections between singlehood, lifelong romantic friendships, and intellectualism. These ideas were sometimes highlighted in the context of their difficulties, especially when marriage by at least one party could not be avoided. A variety of female-authored novels of this period explore the themes with a bit more freedom, such as Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762).

These pro-singlehood (or anti-marriage) texts don’t seem to have provoked systematic negative attention from men at the time, who sometimes viewed them as after-the-fact justifications from women unlucky in love or unable to attract a proposal. Only occasionally is there a hint of suspicion, such as the memoirs of George Elers who noted that his efforts to court his 16 year old cousin were in vain and that her female friends assured him that he’d made no impression on her at all. Subsequently she formed a romantic attachment to another young lady which Elers explicitly connects as being similar to the “affection” of the Ladies of Llangollen. The overall impression is one of a young woman who, though not yet specifically attached at age 16, had already discovered a disinclination for heterosexual marriage in favor of female relationships. (The two women evidently formed a joint household and when one died young of consumption left her entire fortune to the other.)

Divided Hearts

One significant genre of literature about passionate female friendship involves a triangularly shared life, typically where one of the women has entered a marriage of convenience, but sometimes involving women who have equally passionate relationships with women and men (though, of course, in a context where the protections and privileges of those relationships were far from equal). Examples include the following:

  • Aphra Behn’s poem “To Mrs Harsenet” (1692), where a woman finds herself attracted to a female “rival” more than to the man who pursues them both.
  • Catharine Trotter’s Olinda’ Adventures was likely a fictionalized account of the author’s complex relationship with Lady Sarah Piers as well as with a series of men.
  • Trotter also wrote a play Agnes de Castro depicting the love triangle of a female character equally attached to male and female loves, even when the man transfers his affections to her female friend. (Trotter wrote other works with similar themes.)
  • Trotter's contemporary Mary Pix wrote two tragedies similarly involving the conflict between the heterosexual imperative and passionate female friendship.
  • Several of the novels of Sarah Fielding involve love triangles where the attachment between two women is challenged by the intrusion of a man.

Another subgenre involves women consoling each other after being done wrong by a man, and having that consolation grown into love (e.g., novels of Eliza Haywood). The female relationship does not always win out as strongest, though, as in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary, A Fiction (1788).

The Distance Between Us

Although similarity is a formulaic focus of female friendship literature at this period, some examples focus instead on the potential for passionate friendship to cross barriers of difference. Differences in social status are seen as particularly hazardous. (Moral literature viewed lower class women as a potential source of dangerous ideas about lesbian sex.) In Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) the class divide between two girls turns a passionate bond into sadistic exploitation.

Power differentials intruded into the real-life friendship between working class poet Ann Yearsley and her bluestocking mentor Hannah More. More often, this differential framed the lower class partner in the stereotype of devoted follower, as in Charlotte MacCarthy’s The Fair Moralist (1745) and Charlotte Lennox’s Henrietta (1758). The trope was also used by working-class playwright Jane Wiseman in her tragedy Antiochus the Great (1702).

Suspecting Impossiblities

Despite the often passionate expressions of affection in the preceding works, typically they stop short of addressing sexual activity, either as a reality or to refute it, but this is not always the case. Horace Walpole’s private letters make clear, if veiled, accusations of lesbianism against two female couples of his acquaintance who were generally accepted as romantic friends.

Accusations that close friendship had slid over into lesbianism generally were politically motivated (whatever the factual basis for them), such as those made against Queen Marie Antoinette, and it was not until the 19th century that such accusations tended to shift towards the bohemian set rather than the aristocracy. Anne Conway Damer fell into both camps and became the subject of relentless, pointed rumors regarding her sexuality for much of her life. (Rumors that most likely were true, but that would not explain why she was singled out for the attention.)

The double-think regarding passionate friendship and the ways in which sexual relationships between women could be both derided and erased are summarized nicely in the writings of notorious gossip Hester Thrale who frequently speculated negatively on the homosexual tendencies of her acquaintances, and yet remained a close friend and visitor of the Ladies of Llangollen (typically held up as paragons of non-sexual romantic friendship) while still describing them in long-overlooked diaries as "damned Sapphists.”

Contents summary: 

In this chapter Donoghue examines texts, both fictional and biographical that examine close and long-term friendships between women. The selection here is focuses on the complexity and difficulties of real lives rather than those that idealize friendship.

One genre concerns the relationships that form in mutual devotion to some third party, especially in a religious context. The work of Mary Astell is an example. Astell often expressed her human friendships in stronger terms than her intense passion for God and then, when finding the former not reciprocated, considered it a judgment on this. This tone changes when Astell bonds with Lady Catherine Jones, to whom her publications are dedicated, and Astell found an enhanced and very personal spiritual fulfillment from their devotion together.

In the novel "Some Particulars Relating to the Life and Death of Rebecca Scudamore" (1790) the title character and her protegée Sarah, through many trials, find religious devotion to be their path to togetherness. The use of religious-tinged language to justify close friendships is also seen in the response of Eliza Frances Robertson to accusations related to her relationship with her friend and partner in a school. The school’s financial difficulties seem to have been one precipitating factor for the accusations, but charges against Robertson that she was sexually promiscuous, a man, a cross-dresser, or a lesbian (presumably not all at once!) indicate that the women’s relationship had come under scrutiny. Robertson held up Biblical examples such as Ruth and Naomi and even Christ and his most favored disciples as support for not merely the acceptability of close same-sex friendship, but its desirability.

The long and tempestuous relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough has been mentioned earlier. This chapter examines it through Churchill’s memoirs, where she tracks and justifies the nature and changing fortunes of their friendship. When Anne turned away from Churchill and seemed to replace her in her affections with Abigail Hill Masham, Churchill’s statements regarding the rumors that this was a lesbian relationship would seem to contradict the interpretation that her own relationship with Anne had sexual aspects. And yet the overall shape of that relationship--including intense passions and fierce jealousies--is indistinguishable from a romantic one.

A pamphlet satirizing Masham--most likely put out at the instigation of Churchill--shows some of the stratagems an upper class lesbian (wither Masham was one or not) might find herself taking. The fictionalized Masham is made to confess that she is “rather addicted to another sort of passion, of having too great a regard for my own sex, insomuch that few people thought I would ever have married.” Whereupon she determines to enter a marriage of convenience to throw off the scent. Whatever the facts in this particular case, it is clear that the audience for this satire accepted that a woman might be exclusively sexually attracted to other women, and that such a woman might be expected to avoid marriage or to use it only as a blind.

The long-term partnership between actress Charlotte Cibber Charke and her actress “friend” identified in Charke’s memoirs only by the alias “Mrs. Brown” (Charke used the alias “Mr. Brown” when cross-dressing) is given in some detail. Overall, it is the story of two women supporting each other financially and emotionally through adventures and difficulties. Together they raise Charke’s daughter from a very brief early marriage.

A less happy theatrical partnership is told in the biography The Memoirs of Sophia Baddeley which tells how Sophia is constantly cared for, looked after, and rescued by her close friend Elizabeth Hughes Steele who, it is clear, has a deep and rather dysfunctional passion for her. Although Sophia returns her affection and is always deeply distressed at the thought of being separated from Elizabeth, she is also repeatedly drawn to abusive or exploitive men, or simply to the benefits of being mistress to wealthy patrons, much to Elizabeth’s distress and censure. The pair eventually drifts apart, but Elizabeth is still repeatedly drawn back into Sophia’s life as rescuer or nurse until Sophia dies of consumption.

Devoted friendships across class lines most typically involve a supportive and loyal devotion on the part of the lower class partner, but two literary examples follow a more complex script. In Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) the maid Amy begins as Roxana’s devoted servant, but as they make their way in the world, with Roxana setting up as a courtesan, they eventually become more equal as business partners. There is no direct suggestion of a sexual relationship between the two, but the possibilities are suggested in the parallelism of their lives. Eventually they fall out over Amy’s fierce protectiveness of Roxana against Roxana’s own daughter.

The second story “The Unaccountable Wife” appears in a collection of tales (A Patchwork Screen for Ladies, 1723). A married woman becomes “unaccountably” enamored of her servant who was also her husband’s mistress, and turns their roles upside down to cater to the servant woman and do her chores for her and so forth. When family friends pressure the husband to send the servant away, the wife goes with her and they set up housekeeping together and, through various other incidents, the two remain together the rest of their lives. Although framed as an incomprehensible role-reversal, it’s hard not to read the story of two women’s devotion outlasting the barriers in their way.

Contents summary: 

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. The majority, to be sure, are written by men, and it can be difficult to distinguish to what extent they represent typical sexual practices of the time as opposed to male fantasies. When these texts are studied today, the lesbian material is often glossed over or ignored, adding to the impression that little, if any, actual sex was occurring. Donoghue approaches the material by way of several groupings: an older experienced woman attempting to seduce an innocent younger one, sexual activity presented as “frolicsome exploration”, the use of lesbian activities as an initiation preparing a young woman for marriage (or at least for heterosex), and sexual activity involving dildoes.

Seducing Innocence

In the first motif, the young woman typically escapes with her innocence intact, if not her ignorance, from the attentions of a knowledgeable and predatory seducer. Often there is a running tension between the victim being portrayed as entirely unaware of what her seducer intends, and a sense of peril or guilt that requires an understanding of the possibilities.

In the classic gothic novel Pamela the title character, having fought off the advances of her male employer, finds herself the uneasy subject of similar attentions by her employer’s housekeeper Mrs. Jewkes while the two travel together. A running stream of physical compliments and casual embraces and kisses leave Pamela simultaneously claiming ignorance that another woman might be a sexual danger, while reacting to these otherwise friendly attentions with revulsion. Also interesting is that Mrs. Jewkes is described in a way that implies a specific orientation toward women, with one contemporary commenter on the novel noting “There are…too many who assume the Characters of Women of Mrs. Jewkes’s Cast. I mean Lovers of their own sex.” That is, the writer perceives that there is a “type” of woman who love women, and other women without the innate inclination can “assume the character” of this type.

The sexual shenanigans in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), in its original French or in English translation, focus mostly on heterosexual seduction and revenge, but there is a running thread where the Marchioness de Merteuil contemplates taking the innocent Cecile on as a “pupil” in love, taking advantage of opportunities to embrace her and expressing jealousy of the man she is setting up to seduce Cecile. Cecile, in her turn, expresses an attraction to the Marchioness that goes beyond innocent friendship, though she falls short of expressing a passionate response.

Previously mentioned has been the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont in which the “mannish” Mistress Hobart is presented in increasingly derisory terms as a predator on the young maids on honor who come under her care. In a series of three courtships, she is shown losing the object of her affections to men who are, when it comes down to it, equally or more predatory to herself. The third attempt is told in the greatest detail. She works on Mrs Temple’s love of praise and flattery (as well as her fondness for sweets, by which Temple is framed as childlike in her desires). Taking advantage of the need to change clothing and bathe after the two have gone riding together, Hobart embraces and undresses her but they are interrupted by the intrusion of a servant. Others put a word in Mrs. Temple’s ear about Hobart’s inclinations and reputation and the next time Hobart tries to take advantage of her, she responds as to a sexual assault.

Though the previous two stories don’t seem to take the activity much past kissing and embraces, Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (1796) takes things further, though Susan, the object of the predatory Mother Superior’s attention, goes beyond all believability in maintaining her ignorance of the sexual nature of those attentions. At the same time, her seducer seems bent on inducing some recognition or response from Susan, not merely taking advantage of her position for her own gratification.

When Susan is accused of having a “suspicious intimacy” with another nun and of enjoying improper desires, she protests that she doesn’t even understand what they could be talking about. It is after that incident (which primes the reader for the topic) that she comes under the authority of the Mother Superior who immediately fastens on Susan as her new favorite, giving her compliments and caresses and undressing her. Susan’s protestations of innocence/ignorance are undermined by the way she uses her influence over the Mother Superior to win concession and favors for others, by offering and allowing kisses and caresses.

There are two scenes (censored in the English translation) where a shared erotic encounter involving kissing bosoms and “squeezing all over the body” results in orgasmic swooning of both parties…which Susan still fails to recognize as sexual in nature. It isn’t until the Mother Superior is strongly pressuring Susanto admit her own erotic awareness that Susan finally recognizes an encounter together in bed as something in the category of sin. There follows much angst and finally a realization, at which point Susan flees the convent and immediately comes to a bad end.

Foolery from woman to woman

Texts that show sexual activity between women as more mutual often frame it as “play” that must ultimately be abandoned as unfulfilling or simply as preparation for heterosexual enjoyment. A typical example is Satyra Sotadica which takes the form of dialogues between two cousins: the married, experienced Tullia and the initially betrothed (later married) and innocent Octavia. At first, Tullia introduces Octavia to tribadism as a diverting pleasure to be enjoyed when men are not available or for fear of pregnancy. Although the practice is presented in contradictory terms as both orgasmic and unsatisfying, unnatural but universal, Tullia notes that, having herself been initiated in the practice in the context of an earlier friendship, she’s grown to prefer it to sex with her husband. They move on to manual stimulation and eventually to an even wider variety of “deviant” sexual practices that include their husbands as well.

A similar set of dialogues between two sexually involved nuns (Venus dans la Cloître 1683) is less daring, never going much beyond deep kissing and manual stimulation, but generally devolving into conversation rather than moving on to climax. (The more experienced of the two nuns also has male lovers.) A more exclusive sexual passion between women is described in the orientalist text The Indiscreet Toys in which a Sultan uses a magic ring that causes women’s vulvas to tell their own stories. To his surprise, two of the women of his court passionately desire each other and at the end of the narrative he “left them to entertain each other.”

The most famous of the “initiation” genre is Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1749) in which the sexual initiation of young Fanny by her fellow inmates at the brothel is among the tamer sexual activities in the book. Beginning with kissing and embracing, then “squeezing all over”, there is detailed description of caresses on the breasts and genitals, followed by digital stimulation to orgasm. But all this is in service to Fanny’s incipient career as a prostitute and she is portrayed as eagerly moving on to men.

The dildo tribe

Some writers seemed to feel that sex between women required a penis substitute, although the contexts where this motif appears generally downplay any emotional relationship between the women and focus on the dildo simply as a sex toy. There is also a strong theme in this genre of women finding the dildo inadequate or at least less satisfying than a man. In the Restoration play Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, when the men of the court turn to homosexual pleasures, the ladies turn to using dildoes on each other in frustration. In the anonymous A New Atalantis for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-Eight a sexually voracious woman is served by her French dildo-wielding maid who, on proving inadequate to the challenge, brings in a willing footman to finish the job more organically.

Another variant that centers desire among women even when introducing a man into the scenario involves the motif of a man disguising himself as a woman to gain access to an exclusively lesbian woman who then, on pretense of using a dildo, has heterosex with her. These stories are often self-contradictory regarding whether the substitution is unnoticeable or whether men provide more pleasure.

Something more of a genuine romantic relationship between the women appears in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718) where two young Italian women, having lost their suitors to death, set up a house together as inseparable companions and take turns pleasuring each other with a strap-on dildo. This idyllic life, however, is interrupted by a male suitor who, in order to gain access to their closed circle, disguises himself as a woman and seduces the object of his affection, after which he is revealed and she takes off with him.

A rather more lighthearted look at sex toys comes in the doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, detailing the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London. The poem, while sympathetic towards single women (or unsatisfied wives) who use the device, is more hostile toward those engaging in same-sex activities.

Two Orgies

Group sex among women was not at all a common motif in this period, but adaptations of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which details a competition of tribadry between the ladies and courtesans of Rome, provide varying levels of detail in how such a thing might be imagined.

A thrilling joy, 'till then unknown

The chapter finishes with what may be the most positive portrayal of overt sexual desire between women: the anonymous poem An Epistle from Signora F_a to a Lady (1727) which offers praise and pleas from the author to her beloved, pledging devotion and faithfulness, and expressing a love that culminated in “that happy day when melting in each other’s arms we lay. With velvet kiss your humid lips I press’d, and rode triumphant on your panting breast.”

Contents summary: 

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. Researchers looking for closely parallel institutions for women are often led to conclude that there was no pre-modern sense of a community of lesbians (or even to conclude that this lack indicates an absence of lesbian activity entirely). But this approach ignores gender differences in social and economic opportunities, as well as prioritizing certain types of erotic encounters.

An absence of 18th century lesbian “cruising places” should not be taken as proof that there was no such thing as “lesbian culture” or “lesbian community” in that era. For example, there is some evidence from late 18th century Amsterdam for small social groups of tribades, but the rarity of evidence is linked to a large extent with the general disinterest in prosecution outside of special circumstances.

In this final chapter, Donoghue looks at representations (including clearly fictional ones) of groups of women socializing around a common interest in lesbianism. Sometimes these representations are displacements of hostility against some other factor, such as the regular portrayal of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism. In other cases, suspicion of women’s political influence, especially when implemented through female networks, was expressed as a suspicion of lesbianism. In other cases, a conceptual tradition—such as the association of Sappho with lesbianism—was converted into the idea of an actual ongoing cultural tradition. Aside from fictional portrayals, there has often been a shying away among historians from an examination of the erotic aspects of women’s social and political networks.

The nun’s smooth tongue

Women-only institutions, such as convents and harems, were a common site for male fantasies about women’s sexual activities, not only with each other, but under an assumption that women with restricted access to men will be sexually frustrated and voracious in general. The heterosexual version of this assumption led to the borrowing of convent terminology as slang for prostitutes and brothels. Combine a prurient interest in what women might do in the absence of men with the virulent strain of anti-Catholicism present in England during this era and the fictional portrayal of orgies in convents or sexually predatory abbesses becomes a tempting blend of pornography and polemic. Examples mentioned in earlier chapters include Barrin’s Venus in the Cloister and Diderot’s The Nun. Less explicitly, works such as Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” weave a lesbian sensuality into a (hostile) depiction of the attractions of convent life, finishing with the image of the postulant sharing her bed “chastely” with a “fresh and virgin bride” every night “embracing arm in arm”.

The convent of pleasure

Among protestant writers, a positive vision of a convent-like all-female community is presented in works such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762). The potential for passionately-charged relationships among the women of these communities is still implicit, but without the overlay of religious hostility. Another genre of fictional portrayals of all-female communities grows out of a revived interest in classical Amazons. But in general Amazonian stories mock the idea of women-only communities, and avoid the erotic potential of such an arrangement.

Within this context, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure stands out as unusual. The story revolves around Lady Happy, who has been blessed with sufficient fortune (and an absence of male authority figures) to be able to reject marriage and disdain male suitors in favor of setting up an all-woman community to enjoy “all the delights and pleasures that are allowed and lawful.” Lady Happy’s male suitors, feeling themselves unjustly cheated of the chance to claim her fortune and her person, plot to infiltrate the community and, when this fails, to destroy it for spite.

Among the descriptions of sensual luxury, a rather overt lesbian aspect is introduced when a new guest notes to Lady Happy, “Observing in your several recreations some of your ladies do accoustre [i.e., dress] themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” The implication here is that romantic role-playing, accompanied by cross-dressing, is a routine part of the community. Lady Happy consents to this courtship and finds herself romantically attracted to the newcomer, asking herself, “Why may not I love a woman with the same affection I could a man?” She balks a little when the other woman, though using the vocabulary of friendship and platonic love, initiates kisses and embraces, claiming that they are not “sin” among friends. Just at the point when Lady Happy is overcoming her qualms and pledging her love to the other, there comes an accusation that a man has entered the community in disguise and—of course—it turns out to be Lady Happy’s lover. Other characters note that, in retrospect, they should have known when they saw how Lady Happy reacted to being kissed because “women’s kisses are unnatural”. Thus, even in a context which seems at first to embrace and endorse same-sex love within a women’s community, heteronormativity is restored at the end.

In contrast to Shakespearean plays with similar motifs, however, the audience is not in on the secret until the final reveal. In experiencing the play real-time, they would have been shown a genuine and convincing love story between women, only very artificially “saved” at the very end.

New cabals

If the preceding examples show contexts where an all-female environment creates the potential for same-sex passion, a different set of texts show that passion as the purpose of forming the community. The roman à clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean (1709) has one episode (among a much larger quantity of material) giving an account of a group of women who are clearly indicated as joining together for the celebration of same-sex passion.

The narrative voice coyly frames the description with assertions that there could be no “irregularity” in their affections and activities because what could women do together, after all? But in the publishing context of the day, this was (among other reasons) a necessity to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. Although the descriptions of the activities mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the community not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).

The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) do not indicate gender role play or cross-dressing, but there are a few exceptions. One woman (meant to represent Lady Frescheville) is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another (representing Lady Anne Popham) is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in the fictionalized Memoirs of Europe (1710) by the same author. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

Although the formal organization of this lesbian community is most likely fictional, the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age create a plausible picture of how lesbian-oriented women may have found each other and gained at least some social and emotional support for their relationships. The accuracy of the specifics, though, is suspect given that all the women disguised in this characters were connected in some way to Whig politics.

A similar, transparently disguised social network of “tribades” is portrayed in William King’s viciously satiric The Toast, created primarily to express his personal hatred and feud against the Duchess of Newburgh. Images of organized associations of lesbians also feature in a group of late 18th century French texts that take a more libertine and pornographic look at what are depicted as sex clubs. While these are fictional and of dubious relation to actual practice, a non-fictional travelogue by a German visitor to London in the 1780s notes matter-of-factly the existence of organized societies for “females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex…called Lesbians.”


The most pervasive connection or network for 18th century lesbians was a conceptual and historical one, tracing the practice back to Sappho. Despite the counter-claims of some Sappho scholars such as Joan DeJean [whose work I will cover at some future date], Donoghue points out the extensive awareness of the connection between the historic poet Sappho and the tradition of Sappho as a lover of women, giving rise to the use of “Sapphic” and “lesbian” as descriptors in this sense. Thus even superficially innocent references to the ancient poet were available as allusions to passion between women.

This section goes into some detail regarding the translations and versions of Sappho’s work that were popularly available in the 18th century and the ways in which they acknowledged or deliberately concealed the references to love between women. There was also the complication that, for many, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general, and therefore female scholars even more than male ones found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian. This tension is played out in various fictional portrayals of the poet.

Sappho enters, as well, into the tension between viewing same-sex passions as a new development in the 18th century, or as a continuation of a longstanding phenomenon. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from the “unaccountable” affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as an ongoing tradition.

This chapter concludes with a somewhat confused collection of polemical tracts against what was perceived as the rise of lesbian behavior in the 18th century, making reference not only to classical sources such as Sappho and Diana, but to pernicious foreign influences either from that default source of vice, France, or more exotic locations such as Turkey. The clear lesbian context of these writings gives us the connection for unambiguously identifying slang terms for lesbians and lesbian sex such as “the game of flats” and “Tommy”. There are extensive excerpts from the writings of Hester Thrale, whose venom against both male and female homosexuality led her to speculate extensively on the sex lives of her contemporaries.