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Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801

Emma Donoghue, author of Room and various other novels and short story collections, is also a fancy scholar lady with a PhD from Cambridge. Back when I got all into Helena/Rosa from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I became very frustrated with the fact I had no idea if the language surrounding their interactions was normal for the period or was imbued with some subtle code, so I checked out a mess of books from the library about romantic friendship and the history of lesbianism in England. That was in January. Being me, I have just finished the second of those (the first, if you will remember, was the fabulous but unfortunately-named Surpassing the Love of Men).

Donoghue's survey, which is more historically-based than literary, looks at the years 1668-1801 in Britain. She covers "female hermaphrodites" (as lesbians were thought of for some time); women who crossdressed and then married women; romantic friendship; and lesbian communities, which might not have existed in the same way gay male clubs did, but were nonetheless a genuine part of society.  

She disagrees with Lillian Faderman's conclusion that "even slight suspicions...concerning female same-sex affection are quite rare" in 18th century texts. Part of the reason for this disagreement is that in the ten year gap between Faderman and Donoghue's books, many new documents came to light which show the snarky 18th century having a general field day with insulting poems using barely disguised names of Ladies of the Day and discussing their "unnatural" relations with each other (relations which were, of course, sometimes fabricated by the author in an attempt to defame the women).

thank you, Mindy.

What I found fascinating near the end of the book was the 18th century shift in translational practice for Sappho's poetry. Most everyone knows about how the Restoration court of the 17th century was famous for being a BIT risqué, right? And that Restoration comedies are the filthiest? And that one of the most famous dramatists from that period, Lord Rochester, basically died from a million STDs + booze? 

Right, so we come off that into the 18th century, and at first, people are like "Hey, here's a poem where Sappho's jealous of a guy for sittin' by her lady." Then as the century progressed, it changed to "It's QUITE obvious that she is, in fact, jealous of the lady for sitting by her gentleman friend. I know the first two lines completely belie that but I WILL THINK WHAT I WANT TO THINK." Someone changed the line "Bless'd as the immortal gods is he,/The youth who fondly sits by thee" to "Bless'd as the immortal Gods is she,/The maid who fondly sits by thee." So that happened.

I remember as a freshman in college being taught Sappho and being SO UPSET that it was impossible to interpret her poems as being anything but...well, sapphic. I remember having the same level of frustration as these 18th century men, but took solace along with them in the (disputed) fact that she ended up killing herself over a man. When you want to claim everyone for heterosexuality, you became easily exasperated by anyone saying ANYONE is otherwise, and instead of admitting "Yes, there are people like this in the world and always will be," you get to fall back on the delightful "Well, they just want to say everyone's that way, so they'll twist facts about people who are THE STRAIGHTEST when you just see them in their proper historical context."

Sometimes things are gay. And that's all right. Some ladies in the 18th century loved each other and didn't want to be with men. And it was hard for them to do, but some, like the Ladies of Llangollen, did it.

Tumblr has all the answers

I'll conclude with a hilaaarious anecdote, which pretty perfectly expresses the difference in interpretation even ten years of new research can make. A brilliant woman named Hester Thrale kept a diary in the late 18th century, and while she was deeply suspicious of all her friends who were in a "romantic friendship" situation, she praised the Ladies of Llangollen, which scholars saw as rather paradoxical, as these women's romantic friendship was the flagship for the movement. Faderman and Randolph Trumbach use Thrale's different attitude towards them as proof that said ladies were seen as chaste friends by the public.

Recently, however, Liz Stanley has unearthed an unpublished diary in which Hester Thrale describes the Ladies of Llangollen as "damned Sapphists."


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