Andreadis, Harriette. 1989. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15(1):34-60.
I should really do a podcast about Katherine Philips sometime, because she's a great example of how debates over how and whether to apply the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from examining the ways in which same-sex desire were expresed in different contexts. It does equal damage to her historic realities to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of wehther she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence and dismiss both the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.
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The English poet Katherine Philips, writing in the mid-17th century achieved a significant reputation during her own lifetime, one of the earliest English female poets to do so. Despite a bourgeois background, her personal charm and talents brought her entry into court and literary circles. Her reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. Her significant body of poetry written for friends and associates was published only after her death, though later re-edited with additional non-poetic material including translations of plays and correspondence. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era. In addition to the evidence of the passionate poems dedicated to her female friends, the evidence of her correspondence, especially with her close friend Sir Charles Cotterell, traces the intensely emotional connections she had with a series of women--connections that were explicitly set in conflict with the marriages of those friends, and contrasted with Philips’ decidedly tepid relationship with her husband.
Since the 18th century, her importance has been trivialized or overlooked and is worth a close examination. The core of her work is her emotional focus on other women and the passionate feelings for them that inspired her poetry. In this, she was creative in manipulating both the conventions of heterosexual love poetry, and that of platonic male friendship (with homoerotic overtones) in ways that can only be read as same-sex love between women.
In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. She framed her emotions in the context of neo-Platonism and although she drew on the conventions of the précieux tradition of the French court, she did not indulge in its exaggerated imagery. After the Restoration, her poetry had moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it.
Several women feature prominently in Philips’ poems. The first was Mary Aubrey, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.
Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.
Philips’ personal life must be considered when interpreting her literary output. The daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, at 16 she married the much older James Philips (54). Although the marriage was amicable, the two had many differences. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. She was a royalist, he was a parliamentarian. (This worked to both their advantages, protecting her during the interregnum, and giving him an advocate after the Restoration.) Separation from her husband (and children) never provoked the anguish that Phlips expressed when separated from her romantic female friends. Her relations with him were described as “duty.”
Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing one on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” A third focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.
Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. [Note: Andreadis suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queeress=death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.]
The public poetry that Philips wrote later in her life retained the forms of her friendship poems while lacking much of their passion and are not counted among the foundation of her genius. The combination of her life story and the content of her poetry makes it clear that it would be wrong to classify her poetry as anything other than homoerotic. She was also conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature, as evidenced by her philosophical correspondence with various men on the topic of the nature and limits of friendship. Their answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.
These responses failed to daunt Philips and her dedication to the topic drew comparisons with the classical poet Sappho, not only for the subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. Interestingly, her contemporaries often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, “solid...and manly.”
This comparison to Sappho was shared with contemporary Aphra Behn, and both were referenced by other woman writers of the time as being an inspiration and model.
The phrase “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to Philips’ work was coined in 1905 in an introduction to a new edition of her work. The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity. There is little direct evidence regarding erotic relations between women in 17th century England, but plentiful literary evidence of what people imagined was possible (see, for example, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Delariviere Manley’s “new Cabal” in The New Atalantis).
One might consider the shift noted by several historians in the later half of the 17th century for male same-sex erotics from an accepted (if not approved) facet of a variety of social institutions, to an increasingly isolated “sub-culture” with the development of molly houses and similar phenomena. The suggestion these historians make is that, before this shift, homosexuality was unacknowledged in import, but not unusual. [Note: but beware of assuming direct parallels between male and female culture.] Regardless of how such relationships were understood by the participants and their society, it is clear that women’s erotic same-sex relationships existed. (Andreadis discusses this in the context of various approaches to modern theories of sexuality and identity.) Philips’ texts can certainly be identified as “lesbian” regardless of one’s position on her own identity.