Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #293 Vicinus 1984 Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships

Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 1984. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships" in Signs vol. 9, no. 4 600-622.

If there is one weakness in this paper, I feel it is a failure to clearly distinguish between the dynamics of "raves" as experienced by those involve in them, versus the ways in which those relationships were interpreted and depicted by outsiders, and especially how they were depicted in retrospect when societal attitudes toward them may have shifted. There are some delightful glimpses from within rave culture from letters and diaries. But on several occasions I had a hard time sorting out the author's interpretation (or the interpretation of contemporary authorities) from what the subjects of her study expressed.

* * *

Vicinus begins the paper by placing it in the context of lesbian historiography in general and the focus on when same-sex emotional friendships came to be labeled “deviant” and looked askance. There is a conflict between the ability of labeling to enable self-identity and community formation, and the ways in which those labels had a spreading effect over practices and experiences that shared a context. Thus, the “morbidification” of women’s emotional friendships due to association with homosexuality had consequences for phenomena like boarding school friendships regardless of the actual nature of those friendships.

Those studying this shift face the difficulty of determining when sexological “knowledge” became widespread enough in the general public to affect the attitudes and experiences of those in the education sector. But this hyper-focus on “when it changed” has also left lesbian historians overly concerned with external labeling rather than with exploring what homoerotic friendships were actually like from the inside and how they functioned and were understood.

 This paper looks at only one specific aspect of the history of women’s friendship: the adolescent “crush” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of English boarding schools. The paper discusses the social origins of the crush, how it was performed both publicly and privately, and its impact on both the “crusher” and the “crushee.” During this specific historic era, shifts in women’s lives and expectations encouraged an age-differentiated idealized love, for which boarding schools were an especially fertile ground. [Note: It may be important to keep in mind that in this paper Vicinus is not looking at the entire phenomenon of schoolgirls’ homoerotic friendships, but specifically at a point in time when the understanding and performance of those friendship was changing due to external social shifts.]

It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these friendships (on either side) were conscious of a sexual aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke of them in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been so forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.

Women’s homoerotic friendships require certain preconditions. The women need to be at least somewhat freed from familial constraint (although some such friendships developed within the extended family). If a life together was desired, then a certain degree of economic independence was necessary. But more commonly, the evolution of such friendships did not involve sharing a household and existed in parallel with heterosexual marriages on the part of one or both women. It was common for friendships of this type to have begun during school years.

Beginning by the later 18th century, middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States might be sent to (gender-segregated) boarding schools. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family of birth. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards.

This increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools created a new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on and older student or a teacher.

The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from “gone on”), flame. Vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was the same, deriving from similar social conditions.

As the 19th century progressed, women were being trained for an expectation of new roles in society, with greater responsibility and independence, rather than being educated with the expectation of returning to the family and recapitulating the roles of the previous generation. The “smash” on an older authority figure was inspired by the need for emotional closeness, the admiration for a role model, and the balancing of intimacy and individuality. Emotional needs were attached to a more distanced object and the non-fulfillment of those needs was framed as providing the satisfaction of personal sacrifice, just as the girls were being trained for a life of professional sacrifice and service to others.

[Note: While reading this, I question whether these descriptions are emerging from data on how the girls themselves understood their experiences, or whether is it describing how “smashes” were framed and interpreted by external authorities.]

Love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was excluded from the model because it would have meant a failure of self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The object of the rave or smash might be better situated to understand the emotional urge as sexual, but acted to channel those feelings in emotional rather than sexual terms, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements.

In contrast to the older style of school friendships [see, e.g., Smith-Rosenberg 1975] these hierarchical raves tended to bring the schoolgirl into conflict with her mother and family, where connections to the family were displaced to the school and society at large. Girls might be advised to be aware of this and be attentive to family ties when at home, treating this temporary familial re-focusing as yet another form of virtuous self-sacrifice. Age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor.

“Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussion that normalized the practice and socialized new students in its performance. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provide to the target of devotion. These acts didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks there. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination.

The age-difference aspect of rave relationships--especially ones focused on a teacher--meant that they were inherently temporary as either a beloved older student or the younger “ravee” moved on from the school environment. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. Vicinus suggests instead that it was temporary only due to emerging from a particular set of circumstances: isolation, seeming powerlessness, and a willingness to devote oneself entirely to the experience. Some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling.

But the depth of feelings that raves engendered could tip the delicate balance between rousing feelings and subjecting those feelings to the desired self-control. As raves became a focus on psychological concern, school authorities might feel the need to speak out against raves as being disruptive and self-indulgent.

Some of those extremes of feeling are noted in the personal recollections of the recipients of raves, though they were rarely recorded in similar detail. Some considered that being the object of a student’s devotion was an opportunity to inspire and mentor them and guide them into a life of service or religious devotion. Indulgence or special attention to a particular girl might be regretted if it inspired emotional breakdowns or possessive behavior. Despite being in a position of greater social power, the target of devotion--especially if a teacher--had more to lose if the formalized emotional distance were broken down, as they were expected to have more emotional self-control.

Almost lost in this analysis are the examples--especially at the level of women’s colleges rather than boarding schools--of student-teacher friendships that then evolved into lifelong partnerships. Vicinus notes one example where a teacher who had to deal with a particularly problematic obsession from a student, was in turn the devoted romantic friend of her headmistress, with whom she used the language of marriage and spouses. The vocabulary of family relationships could help to sublimate concerns about the physical basis of such love. [Note: I’m once more being confused with the degree to which Vicinus is reporting the attitudes of her subject, versus describing her own interpretation of the dynamic.]

An example is given of an author who--much later--fictionalized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush in a novel. The novel adds a tragic finale in which a schoolgirl’s crush on a teacher, who is in something of a Boston marriage with another teacher, breaks up that relationship resulting the apparent suicide of the teacher-partner. Whereas the real life models for the incident did not involve any such tragedy and the two teachers continued to share their life and work. By the time the novel was written in the 1930s, attitudes and understandings of such school dynamics had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.

The emotions and passions of adolescent girls were to be appreciated, but controlled: channeled into self-sacrificing modes and sanitized with self-control. Their “raves” were not considered deviant, as such, but were treated as a passing phase. This left the system open to disruption when any of the parties failed to follow the rules--rules that were even explicitly laid out in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.

But just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting blurring of women’s roles with regard to the domestic and public spheres resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, either between teachers or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. [Note: I feel that Vicinus presents this section as received fact, rather than building it via evidence, but other writers such as Faderman present the process in more detail.]

This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were they regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.

Time period: 

Add new comment