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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69h Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 8)

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Chapter 8: The quest for origins, erotic similitude, and the melancholy of lesbian identification

This installment concludes the current work. I'm guessing that this may have originated as her PhD thesis--it has that sort of structure and flavor. Hence the concluding chapter primarily addresses theory and methodological questions, although it is more readable than many such passages. With the exception of Amer, I've spent the last couple of months working through Early Modern topics and feel a desire to dig up something a bit earlier to do next. (It'll have to be something I have in-house to get a column together for Friday!) As I follow up on leads, it's clear that there's been something of an explosion of lesbian historical scholarship recently for the 16-19th centuries. Quite a contrast to the picture given in Faderman's 1981 "Surpassing the Love of Men" when the sexual aspect of pre-20th century women's relationships could be doubted. We are less likely to see quite such a wealth of new work on pre-16th century data, but authors such as Brooten and Amer point out what can still be uncovered when the material is approached with an open mind. (Speaking of Amer, yesterday I made a trip to the U.C. Berkeley library to borrow a copy of L'Escoufle as the first step toward some future fictional project based on that story.) And I've started systematically combing through the bibliographies of material I've already blogged to work on filling in the crannies in that earlier material. I still foresee no chance of running out of material to blog any time in the near future. And that's a delightful thing.

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In this synthesizing chapter, Traub reviews the ways in which theatrical representations of female-female desire dwell on the mirror-like similarity between the pair, whether in Lyly’s directly parallel speechifying in Gallathea, or Sandys’s 1626 translation of Iphis and Ianthe which lists their physical and behavioral likenesses, or Shakespeare’s Helena describing her and Hermia as “Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition.” This contrasts with the homoerotic figures and practices that emphasize difference and distinction between an active “masculine” tribade and the “feminine” object of her desire. Traub then discusses various historiographical approaches that differentially focus on historical continuity versus historical change. She notes that lesbian historical scholarship has often emphasized continuity--or been accused of over-emphasizing continuity--to serve the desires of modern lesbians for a sense of connection and identification. (Perhaps, in itself, a desire for the mirror-like self.) In this context, she asks, "What does it mean to identify a historical figure or work as 'lesbian'?" But the remainder of the chapter is largely analysis along this line and falls outside the scope of the LHMP.

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