It’s always tricky to figure out what level of summary to create for a publication. Some works are so dense I throw up my hands and give only a cursory outline. Some are so scanty I can summarize the whole. In the middle, I find the structure of a book influences my approach—if only because I have an idea of a maximum blog length that people are likely to read. (Not sure what it is exactly, but I have a vague idea.)
Rizzo’s book, with its multiplicity of single-focus chapters, is tricking me into being more wordy than the material really calls for. And yet it’s hard to see the more condensed version until after I’ve read and annotated the chapter. At that point, I already have the words, so I might as well post them. For future chapters, I think I’ll put in the time to read the whole thing first and then go through and do my summary. So expect something a bit more condensed (I hope). But it would be useful to know which version my readers would prefer. Do you like more detail that gives you a sense of the book as a whole? Or just enough to know whether a publication is something you'd like to track down for yourself?
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter 5 Frances Bernie and the Anatomy of Companionship
It’s interesting to read about Hester Thrale from a more personal angle. My previous encounters with her in this blog have been less sympathetic. The quoted correspondence from Thrale talking about Frances Burney is full of expressions of love and devotion. The sort that scholars quote when discussing the fuzzy line between conventional social expressions of friendship and ones that hint of erotic attraction.
But I can’t help remembering the other side of Thrale’s writing: her gossipy accusations of close female friends being “a little too devoted to their own sex” and the striking passage in which Thrale referred to the Ladies of Llangollen as “damned Sapphists.“ Though people of the time didn’t necessary see an equivalence between male and female same-sex relations, Thrale was even more vicious in her private writing about men she suspected of homosexuality.
So is Thrale an example of how romantic language doesn’t always indicate erotic same-sex love? Or is there a suggestion that Thrale was conflicted on the topic due to her own disappointment in not achieving the companionship she wanted? Or is this simply a lesson in how affection, romance, eros, and other varieties of love come in different combinations and people draw their lines of acceptable and unacceptable in individual places?
My vote is on the last. One of the reasons that romantic friendship created a space in which homoerotic relationships could exist is that there was always ambiguity. Or rather, the types of emotional relationships that were real for 18th century people included intensely romantic feelings that did not incorporate eros, as well as those that did. And there will always be people like Thrale who embrace one combination of emotions as the only acceptable combination, while disparaging others.
At the same time, it’s clear that Thrale was not always introspective about her feelings. At the same time, she wanted Frances Burney to be present and available to her at all times as a supportive friend and confidant, who would value that friendship not only for Thrale’s presence but for her presents, and Thrale despised companions who were subservient, dependent, and toad-eaters. The latter allowed her to forgive Burney for refusing the former. But that lack of insight into her own conflicts may have contributed to a failure to see common ground with women who enjoyed “companionship with benefits” and concluding that those women were Doing It Wrong.
Novelist Frances Burney [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Burney] has the appearance of the idealized 18th century Englishwoman: altruistic, complacent, self-sacrificing. But beneath it she has a sense of self, of the firmness of purpose to make her own choices and set her own path. She was a dutiful daughter, but refused to marry a man she didn’t care for only to please her father. She chose a life of service, but not to the point of sacrificing her own happiness. And when she found him, she refused to give up the man she loved who wanted to marry her.
She made one unwise decision that placed her in the queen’s household under the thumb of a two-faced tyrant who toadied to the queen but terrorized those under her. But Burney escaped with an annuity, her dignity, and the ability to choose her own companionship.
Frances Burney came from a typical background for companions: genteel, but with no resources other than the father’s income. Both sons and daughters had their futures arranged for by other means. They might have individual talents that gave them an entrance into society, as with Frances’s writing or her father’s music teaching, but marriage was a different matter. And sometimes the talent that bought entrance only moved one further away from good marriages, as with the fuzzy line between being an accomplished musician and being a professional performer.
The Burney family boasted two talented daughters: Frances, the novelist and Esther, a musical prodigy; but suffered under a stepmother who had been accustomed to taking center stage and now found herself sidelined. The family fortunes, such as they were, had been built by the institution of companionship. Mr. Burney had turned musical talent into a household position with Fulke Grevile, who treated him as an equal and educated him in social graces.
Frances saw some of the less appealing sides of companionship in her father’s relations to his patron, but she was unable to escape being assigned as companion to her stepmother, who worked out her social frustrations in physical ailments and emotional demands, as well as a constant stream of sarcasm directed at Frances and her siblings when they failed to treat her with the respect she felt due. Among them all, there was a conspiracy to avoid bothering Mr. Burney with the dysfunctional family dynamics, though it was in general supportive of Frances’s aspirations.
The success of Frances’s first novel gave her some means of escape--socializing with Hester Thrale’s intellectual circle, or retreating to the home of her mentor Samuel Crisp to write--but only if she was able to offer a sacrificial sister in her place. Frances found it impossible to write in her father’s house, yet writing was her hope of escape.
Although a husband might have been less onerous than tending to her stepmother, she declined an offer from a man who wanted her for her “affability, sweetness, and sensibility” but had no use for her talents, intellect, and wit. Frances was staking her future on being able to support herself by writing--a risky plan as it was considered indecorous for a woman.
The characters portrayed in Frances’s novel Evelina reveal the strength of character Frances had herself. It was Evelina that brought her to the attention of Hester Thrale, famed for hosting an intellectual circle at her home. Thrale in turn got a talented woman to adorn that circle. Thrale had social connections but was hungry for female companionship. The extended visits Frances enjoyed with her benefited them both, but Frances also recognized the hazards in Thrale’s patronage. Thrale despised toad-eating even as she expected Frances’s attendance and compliance, so Frances must not be too accommodating or lose her respect. At the same time, Thrale wanted a full-time companion who would travel with her, not just enjoy long visits.
Frances used her family responsibilities as a tool to maintain control over the scheduling of her visits to Thrale, resulting in a constant and sometimes tense negotiation. Thrale thought the most valuable things she could offer were entrance to society circles and access to a good marriage, but Frances had already bartered away respectability for the independence of a writing career and didn’t plan to throw that away.
Frances greatly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of Thrale’s circle, even though keeping up with the social requirements on a writer’s income which meant serving as her own dressmaker and maid. This problem would continue later when she was at court.
At Thrale’s she resisted accepting presents of clothing because they would cement her status as a companion, not as a friend. The status of friend was what made freedom of movement possible, and freedom of movement--especially to visit Crisp--was what made writing possible. And writing was what had made entrance to Thrale’s circle possible. It was all braided together.
Correspondence shows a degree of emotional attachment and need on Thrale’s part that Frances found stifling, despite returning her devotion. Not until the publication of Frances’s second novel did Thrale accept that Frances would never settle for the role of full-time companion.
Once Thrale stopped pushing, Frances stopped resisting quite as much and she was more amenable to being present for Thrale’s needs, as when her husband died after a long illness. But Frances still resisted the role of companion and reacted badly to a newspaper announcement of their new domesticity, comparing them to other notable companionship arrangements of the day, for all the world like a marriage announcement.
Thrale was less insightful about the hazards of companionship then Frances, but their relationship was soon resolved in a different direction when Thrale transferred her demanding attentions to a new target: Gabriel Piozzi, who (like Frances) was in a position of financial need and struggled to avoid being sucked into Thrale’s needy generosity. With Piozzi, Thrale won out and married him, which took the pressure off Frances, though it marked the decline of their friendship.
The dynamics in the Burney and Thrale households show the complex dynamics of the day around real, pretended, and demanded concern for others. The acceptance of family duty was real, but could be negotiated and managed. One might choose to give the appearance of compliance with unreasonable demands from a calculated estimate of the alternatives and consequences.
If Frances‘s stepmother Elizabeth Burney emerges as a two-faced toady and tyrant, Hester Thrale appears as the not-entirely-self-aware emotional manipulator, who is foiled because Frances both genuinely likes her and sees her flaws. Both households revolved around men who had a stake in being oblivious to those dynamics, as long as they were catered to.
Frances directly tackled the negative side of companionship in her novel Cecelia, written during her greatest struggles with Thrale, in the person of an antagonist who is fairly transparently modeled on Frances‘s stepmother (a repeating theme). The work also shows a deep distrust of marriage and male authority figures as sources of security, despite ending in a conventional marriage plot.
But before a third novel could be written, Frances’s life went through major changes. Thrale drifted away after her marriage to Piozzi, and her circle dissolved. Frances’s mentor Crisp died. And when Frances joined an elderly friend in London, the friend (Mary Delaney, who will feature in chapter 8) for complex reasons brought Frances to the attention of the king and queen. The Burney family turned their attention to pressuring Frances to get a post at court that could benefit them all through favors and appointments.
But the post available was a fairly undistinguished one: second keeper of the robes, serving under a tyrannical woman who was a close friend and confidant of the queen. It was not a position likely to offer power or access without a greater willingness to dissemble than Frances was willing to embrace. Rather than supporting her writing time, the social duties of the post offered no easy escape. One could perform submission, or one could suffer.
In many ways, Frances’s relationship to her supervisor and to the queen repeated her relationship to her stepmother and her father. Had she been willing to toady, she might have gained the benefits her family hoped for. She never overtly blamed the queen for her situation, although the queen was almost certainly aware of her friend’s cruelty. (These cruelties are listed in some detail.)
Frances lasted for five years in the position. She left when she decided the situation would literally kill her if it went on. At the last she pressed for the favors her family had wanted, but when they were refused, Frances won some respect by her decision to leave her post with no further negotiation.
She was given a pension. She was now free of responsibilities and had an income that freed her from her father’s home and allowed her to write, but only as she wanted. It also put her in a position to marry a surprising choice: a penniless aristocratic French Catholic emigré (we’re into revolutionary times here) who had fallen mutually in love with her and offered her equal companionship, not patriarchal tyranny.
Frances return to writing novels in order to buy a house for the couple. As the breadwinner in the family, Frances was no longer in a vulnerable position and her husband seems to have been content to play the role of companion.
The house-buying novel Camilla once more featured a scheming toady of a companion, though played broadly for comic purposes this time. But perhaps her experiences had taught Frances not to expect such characters to meet their just desserts. The book allows the character to pass through the plot untouched and unmarred by the chaos in the wake of her manipulations. Once more, marriage is on display as a poor option, despite it being the eventual fate of the heroine.
Frances’s last novel again returns to the theme of the female tyrant who has bought into patriarchal structures and uses them to persecute the heroine--a transparent stand-in for the author in prevailing by steadfast, but quiet resistance.
In summary, Frances Burney both experiences and describes some of the most pernicious aspects of companionship while also showing that they may be resisted and that a virtuous person may come through them, though not unscathed. Frances is thought by some to be an overly decorous doormat, but in the biting portrayals of her fiction we can see how deliberate and calculated that performance was as a survival tactic. For most of her life she avoided both marriage and the position of companion, insisting on the less profitable role of friend, until she chose for herself an equal companion as a husband.
The problem of altruism runs through all her books. How do you continue to be a good and giving person when those around you are users and abusers?
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 50c - Book Appreciation: 17-18th century Stories in England and France - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/09/19 - listen here)
Between the books that I’m covering on the blog, and this month’s essay on 17th century poet Katherine Philips, I thought I’d complete the theme by looking at some sapphic historical fiction set in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve deliberately cut the list off before anything that has the flavor of a Regency romance, as that’s a distinct separate category. So these books start after the death of Queen Elizabeth of England and go up through the era of the French revolution.
I had about 30 possible titles in my database, although I may not mention them all. The 17th century is rather under-represented with only 5 titles, and only one of those from the first half of the century. But the remaining titles in the 18th century are fairly evenly distributed. England is much better represented than France, and most books set in France are revolutionary stories. A few of the books have fantasy elements or take place in an alternate fantasy version of the setting, but most are rooted in the real world. And when I started sorting them out into thematic groups, there were 5 obvious clusters and one group of “leftovers”. Biographical novels of real people, stories involving complex relationship tangles, stories involving pirates, stories involving highwaymen, stories set during the French revolution, and then the miscellaneous group.
Unlike the new book listings, I won’t be doing dramatic readings of the cover copy, but there will be links in the show notes for all the books I discuss—even the ones that are out of print, alas!
It wasn’t any surprise to me that Emma Donoghue takes pride of place in the biographical group. This is the era that is the focus of her non-fiction book Passions Between Women which, as always, I recommend highly. Neither of the books she contributes to this list can be considered romances, though Life Mask does depict the main character as attaining a happy romantic relationship. Life Mask is a detailed fictional biography of sculptor Anne Damer in the later 18th century. It’s full of a wealth of detail about society and politics of the time—perhaps an overwhelming wealth if you aren’t looking for that sort of read. The book’s strength is exactly that depth of knowledge about the historic period and the emotional lives of the people in it. It was definitely my kind of book; perhaps it will be yours as well.
I haven’t read the other Donoghue book on this list, Slammerkin. Set in roughly the same era, this is a darker story, of a working-class girl who longs to take hold of her own destiny and considers morals and respectability something of a handicap to that end. I should caution potential readers that the book definitely does not have a happy ending, but it’s a gripping and realistic tale imagining the inner life of a real woman.
Kelly Gardiner’s book Goddess, which follows the life of late 17th century French swordswoman, opera singer, and all-around libertine Julie d’Aubigny, defies categorization beyond being the story of a larger-than-life woman who loved both women and men passionately, if not wisely, and dared the world to try to slow her down. The novel is written in a somewhat eclectic narrative style, which may challenge some readers, but I loved the gritty depiction of d’Aubigny’s life.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson has the earliest setting of all the books discussed today. Set during the reign of England’s King James I, in the anti-Catholic wake of the Gunpowder Plot and amid the terror of witch trials, Agnes Nutter a wealthy gentlewoman becomes caught up in an infamous witch trial near Pendle Hill. Based on reviews, Winterson has mixed in a bit of real magic with the history, and there are disturbing depictions of torture—true to the times, but not always what people want in their fiction.
When you look at the lives of historical women in the 17-18th century who had romantic or sexual relations with other women, an aspect that modern readers of lesbian fiction can feel uncomfortable engaging with is the separation between people’s emotional lives and the social and economic pressures of marriage. Yes, there were many women who did not marry, and it’s always possible to design a story the dodges the question that way. But in a context where women didn’t necessarily expect to be in love with the man they married, then not being in love with men at all wasn’t an obvious reason to avoid marriage. And as the historical studies currently being covered in the blog point out, this was an era when people didn’t expect a clear-cut distinction between desire for men and desire for women.
This next set of books are ones that focus on women who have married or expect to marry a man, but don’t see that as incompatible with relationships with women. Again, I’ve only read one of the books in this group, so it’s possible that I’ve been misled by the descriptions.
The glittering court of Versailles is the setting of Saga Hillbom’s Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing. The protagonist, Adélaide is a young—very young—noblewoman, brought to court for an arranged marriage to the king’s grandson. As was often the case, personal fulfilment was not a priority in the marriage and she is caught up in court politics. But in the arms of the servant girl Colette, she may have found love at last. This is a realistic tale of court life, not a fluffy romance. And a romantic relationship with a servant was more likely to be considered forbidden because of class than gender. But the book looks to be solidly written and deserves a closer look. (I just wish her books were available outside of Amazon, since that’s a sticking point for me.)
Kim Finney’s Under the Microscope is about as opposite to court life as you can imagine. Set during the reign of King Charles II, Ezzabell Chetwood is set apart from the vibrant life of London, working as her husband’s assistant in the new scientific field of microscopic investigation and illustration. When her husband pressures her to take on the frivolous Thomasin Dansby as her companion, both of them need to find accommodation to their new relationship. An unusual premise for a historical novel but one with potential for exploring a very specific landscape and setting. I’ve had this one on my iPad since it first came out a year ago and look forward to moving it up my reading schedule.
The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer by Connie Valientis is much more in the fluffy romantic comedy vein. Lavinia is looking for a convenient marriage that won’t get in the way of her ongoing affair with Lady Georgia Suthmeer. But both Lady Suthmeer and Lord Suthmeer have their own reasons for interfering with Lavinia’s marriage plans, and her betrothed has inconveniently decided to defend her honor. The plot is more of an erotic romp than a conventional romance but highly entertaining. Alas the historic grounding is somewhat vague. I have it down in my data base as “maybe 1790?” on the basis of the clothing in the cover illustration, but honestly I have no idea exactly when it’s set.
There’s something of a mid-18th century Gothic tone to the description of L.S. Johnson’s Harkworth Hall. Caroline Daniels has no suitors she likes as much as her friend Diana, but one must marry after all, and Sir Edward Masterson is an acceptable solution to her financial problems. But Edward has also acquired the decrepit Harkworth Hall and its sinister secrets and Caroline may need the assistance from an unexpected new friend to get out in one piece. Note: The cover copy for later books in the series have some spoilers for what’s really going on, so if you dislike spoilers, you might want to just plunge in. Me? I just bought the three book series, so maybe I can tell you more about it sometime in the future.
Given that the 17-18th century form a core part of the so-called “Age of Sail” it may not be surprising to find a number of pirate-themed books in my list. One of these days I really do need to do a pirate-themed show. But for now, let’s focus on the three books in this group where the action sticks close to Europe, rather than those set in the New World. These all appear to be set in the early 18th century and focused around English characters. And they all have a clear romance core, whether or not they fit the exact shape of a classic romance novel.
Lara Zielinsky’s The Queen’s Gift looks like a romantic romp in which prospective lady in waiting Lady Anne Coleridge is sidetracked by an encounter with the pirate captain “Bloody Mary.”
The real-life characters of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade have inspired many a sapphic pirate romance. The one I picked to include here is Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade. Taking the point of view of young Mary as she disguises herself as a boy to run away to sea, we see the gritty side of the pirate life as well as the romantic one.
One of the tropes of the pirate romance, regardless of gender, is that experience of being swept away against your will—whether emotionally or physically—and having your future turned upside down. That happens to Ianna McClarrin in Jessie Gutiérrez’s Spanish Eyes. As her father escorts her to an uncertain future and an unwanted marriage, Ianna’s destiny changes in a moment when their ship is boarded by pirates.
When it comes to highwayman—or rather, highwaywoman—novels, I already did an entire episode on this theme, which I’ve linked in the show notes, including one of my all-time favorites in this genre, Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies. But let’s focus on a couple of books that I discovered after putting that show together.
Eleanor Musgrove’s The Highwayman reimagines the characters of the Alfred Noyes poem as a female couple—as have other works in this genre. It’s a fairly straightforward retelling in short-story form but turns the original poem’s tragic ending into one with hope.
The highwaywoman Alice Payne, in Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives (and its sequel Alice Payne Rides) only starts out in the 18th century, after which this time-traveling adventure takes off for other eras. So not exactly a true-to-the times historic novel, but a great deal of fun.
As the discussion on the blog shows, the French revolution is a time when sapphic themes became mainstream politics, whether in the accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting, or in the mysterious and almost certainly mythical Anandrine Society, said to be a hotbed of lesbian sex among aristocratic women and revolutionaries alike. Two of the three books included here have fantasy elements along with the historical adventure.
The very recent release Belle Revolte by Linsey Miller takes place in an alternate fantasy-France in which the aristocratic Emilie des Marais, who longs to study medicine, and the working-class Annette Boucher, who wants nothing more than to learn magic, swap places to realize their dreams on the eve of revolution. Although this is a queer story, be aware that it’s not a romance.
Kat Dunn’s Dangerous Remedy similarly has elements of magic, but is more solidly grounded in our own France. We are offered a rag-tag group of misfits, saving people from the guillotine in Scarlet-Pimpernelish fashion. But Camile, daughter of a revolutionary, finds herself torn between ideals and love when their latest rescue is a mysterious woman with strange powers. A central romance without being a romance novel, and possibly the start of a series?
Reflected Passion by Erica Lawson is a more traditional sapphic romance, with a bit of cross-cultural, cross-class longing. Widowed countess Françoise Marie Aurélie de Villerey was broken by her unhappy marriage and settles for sex without love until the encounters nouveau-riche Bostonian Dale Wincott, groomed for a promising marriage but trying out a sideline as a furniture restorer. That’s…an unexpected twist. Oh, wait, this one has a fantasy twist too. The two women are also from different times, and connect through a portal in an antique mirror. In a weird way, that makes the plot make a bit more sense. This could go in almost any direction with that premise. But it’s interesting that, in the end, all my revolutionary picks have fantasy elements.
There are three other books that didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories that I want to spotlight. The first two are out of print, alas, and like several other f/f historicals written in the ‘90s, I’d love it if someone arranged for them to come back into print. This is a duology by Jay Taverner: Rebellion and Hearts and Minds. I say “duology” though the cover copy doesn’t mention any overlapping characters. Let’s go ahead and give the full descriptions of them.
Rebellion is a lesbian love story. It's 1715 in Somerset, a feudal world of aristocrats, peasants and the remnants of religious freedom. But this is a year marked out for political violence on a grand scale, the first of the Jacobite uprisings. Hope, a gamekeeper's daughter, and the Lady Isabella are girls of sixteen when all around them a way of life is changing. Perforce, the teenagers of Rebellion learn as fast as they can about the perils of war. More importantly, they unravel the devious, loving attentions of class and family to find each other.
Hearts and Minds takes up where Rebellion left off, but is complete in itself. Into a far from peaceful English village comes the charismatic actor Mr Brown and his touring company. Lucy, a young black washerwoman, soon finds that Brown is not quite what he seems. But their snatched moments together will not keep her happy for long. As the atmosphere in the poverty-stricken village intensifies, charges of witchcraft and child murder lead to a series of tragedies and close escapes.
I read Rebellion back when it first came out in 1997 and would love to find time to re-visit it. Somehow I missed Hearts and Minds and now it only seems to be listed at collector prices. I’d love to find out if the reference to the touring actor “Mr.” Brown is actually gender-queer actress Charlotte Charke, who went by that name sometimes. When I did some research to see if I could track down Jay Taverner, it turns out it’s a pen name for a writing duo who are both now enjoying careers in academia. (Why am I not surprised?)
The last title I want to mention follows a classic gender-disguise trope. The book is Passing as Elias by Kate Bloomfield. In 18th century England, Elizabeth Searson must pose as a man to claim inheritance of an apothecary’s shop, but what happens when she falls in love? There are a lot of advantages to living as a man that she isn’t eager to give up. And, hey, there it is in the iBooks store! Bought! Having peeked at the ending, I can note that despite the gender-disguise trope the character identifies as a woman—something I usually want to represent accurately and which isn’t always clear from the cover copy.
So there you are: a small shelf’s worth of sapphic fiction set in 17th and 18th century England and France. But as you can see, there’s plenty of scope for more—especially outside these few favored tropes. It’s interesting to me that this list doesn’t deeply delve into the possibilities of the female-centered world of the salons, the Bluestockings, or the convenient proximity of a lady’s companion. So much scope! So many possibilities!
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
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OK, maybe that isn't the nicest tag line for this chapter in Rizzo's book, but Elizabeth Chudleigh wasn't a very nice person. And yet, as I summed up this chapter, I couldn't help but dwell on how very gendered our impressions of people's behavior can be. Someone who is strong-willed, knows what they want and goes after it in clever and single-minded ways, knows how--and when--to be charming, and when they don't have to bother with it. These are all things that can either be admirable or hateful depending on our relation to the person and our expectations for their behavior. Chudleigh treated the women who were her companions abominably. She was a user, and couldn't bear not to be the star of every show. But neither did she bother to play the accommodating and submissive mistress to the various noblemen she cut a swath through. When she found one she wanted to marry, she strategized like a general and accomplished her goal. And somehow she escaped serious consequences for any of her transgressions. It's hard not to have at least a crumb of admiration. Just never rely on someone like her for anything you seriously need.
And if you ever need a colorful antagonist for your heroine, you could do worse than Elizabeth Chudleigh! Who knows, the right romance plot might even redeem her. But I doubt it.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter 4: Elizabeth Chudleigh and her Maids of Honor
Elizabeth Chudleigh’s life and career read like a fictional character--perhaps Manley’s Duchess of Cleveland in The Adventures of Rivella. Manley’s characters were powerful, profligate, and passionate. Chudleigh took as her model the Restoration image of the courtly woman, though her own career started around 1740. But the allowances made for larger-than-life figures in that previous era were no longer made when Chudleigh was tried for bigamy in her 50s and escaped penalty only through rank and exile.
She wrote a memoir in her 80s that reveals a startling lack of reflection and insight, but matches the characters in Manley’s fiction--nearly a century earlier--very closely. She spent lavishly on display while-being miserly behind the scenes. Her moods were mercurial and exaggerated, following every whim. Manley had been writing a satire on women of her day. But Chudleigh was out of step with changing ideals of behavior. While Rizzo’s portrait is severe, she notes that Chudleigh’s contemporaries were even harder on her.
Elizabeth Chudleigh was born into a respectable gentry family of moderate means. Both her parents were impulsive and pugnacious in temperament, setting a model for her own behavior. Elizabeth was beautiful, charming, and ambitious. She was witty, though not particularly intelligent. And she was used to having her own way. She gained a reputation for being brave in defense of her own interests--traveling with pistols at hand to protect the jewels she was never without.
At age 20 she became a maid of honor in the household of the Prince of Wales (the son of George II and father of the future George III). Having been taken on as a protégé by the Earl of Bath, one thing she learned was how to arrange favors for people without any expense to herself, which helped build her sphere of influence.
She had no loyalties except to herself and openly proclaimed that she changed her friends as she changed her dress. Chudleigh climbed the ladder of influence at court despite a secret marriage (disclaimed after the death of their son).
She had the knack of making powerful nobleman fall in love with her, including King George II who evidently was charmed by her performance in a court mask in a costume so revealing it was considered scandalous. She was mistress to a succession of powerful men and used the opportunities to live lavishly and enrich herself. She traveled extensively in Europe, leaving her ducal lover of the time to stew at home in order to leverage a marriage proposal from him.
This required the expedient of getting an annulment of her discarded marriage. While the marriage lasted, no one seriously challenged the fiction. But her greed to be named heir to the duke’s fortune was the last straw for the duke’s sister (and mother of the heir to his title). After the Duke‘s death, Chudleigh was indicted for bigamy. The charge was upheld, but conveniently Chudleigh’s discarded first husband had just become an Earl. That meant Chudleigh still had the necessary rank to avoid physical punishment for bigamy (branding).
She took her fortune into exile on the continent where her charm and never fulfilled promises to make various people her heir gained her welcome at various courts until her eventual death in Russia.
But how does all this relate to the topic of companions?
Chudleigh maintained three to six companions at any given time that she referred to as her “maids of honor” in reference to her time in that position for the Princess of Wales. She was not part of fashionable society--her circles tended more toward the Duke’s associates, and women who owed her favors, or hoped for them. For companionship she surrounded herself with young beautiful accomplished women…but fell into a rage if they were paid attention in place of her. Chudleigh attracted them with promises of making connections for good marriages or help securing pensions, but never actually carried through.
Rizzo suggests that her jealous behavior towards her companions implied they might have been her lovers on occasion as well, but the footnote for this offers no direct evidence. Chudleigh would definitely have been aware of lesbian activity around the court, and two of her intimate friends in her youth (back when she still had actual friends) were said to frequent a lesbian bordello.
[Note: What’s this, you say? A lesbian bordello? Well, clearly I need to track down this reference. The citation is from E.J. Burford in Wits, Wenches, and Wantons (London: Robert Hale, 1986) which, per Rizzo, “notes that eighteenth-century lesbian bordellos existed at Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street and Frances Bradshaw’s in Bow Street and that Harrington and Ashe [Chudleigh’s friends] were patrons, but he gives no sources.” Well, I’ll see for myself because I just ordered it.]
In addition to accompanying her to social events, Chudleigh’s companions were expected to attend when she went visiting (and to wait in the carriage while she did so). They kept her company at meals, sat with her while she napped, suffered her temper if she lost at cards, served as ushers at her entertainments, and during one. Period when she was denying the duke her bed, had them sit up in shifts through the night while she slept.
Brief biographies are offered of some of Chudleigh’s companions: an impoverished cousin (she often chose relatives), a woman who had worked her way up through the servants’ hierarchy (an atypical case of not sticking to one’s own class), and one woman, ostensibly a foundling left on Chudleigh’s doorstep, but rumored to be her own daughter, raised by Chudleigh’s mother, than taken on as an attendant. After a somewhat confused episode in Chudleigh’s absence, when the Duke was either made to take the girl (presumably his daughter as well) as mistress, or may even have done so, the girl was so badly treated by the jealous Chudleigh that she appears to have committed suicide.
Two companions are particularly noteworthy. Miss Bate was with Chudleigh for an extended period and was a mainstay during the lead-up to her marriage to the Duke. She was included in travels to Europe. Miss Bate was half-sister to two of Chudleigh’s male friends and Chudleigh arranged that a pension that had been paid to Miss Bate’s mother was transferred to Miss Bate (saving Chudleigh from having to cover her expenses). Miss Bate might well have continued attending her in her exile after the Duke’s death except that the Duke had left her a small annuity in his will, which enraged Chudleigh so much she cast her off. Whereupon Miss Bate married a clergyman in Bath and lived as happily as may be expected.
Miss Penrose, a rather younger woman than Miss Bate, was also with Chudleigh through her marriage and the death of the Duke. She accompanied Chudleigh into exile on the continent. She was a clergyman’s daughter and a distant relative of Chudleigh and was probably the model for the “virtuous companion” character in Foote’s play “A Trip to Calais.” But Penrose evidently kept Chudleigh’s goodwill to the end. The evidence of this is the legacies Chudleigh left various members of the Penrose family, though they were mostly worthless or had already been sold or lost before the will was executed.
Rizzo points out that the behavior that seems so outrageous in Chudleigh can be seen as unremarkable or only mildly exaggerated male behaviors. She broke the rules of feminine behavior of the time, claimed male prerogatives, performed male-coded actions, and exploited the women around her with the same callous disregard that men were wont to. Except for the matter of a lack of female solidarity, she might be viewed as a feminist icon.
She had no close friends among fashionable women but was never actually ostracized. She was received at court and her entertainments were well attended. But to those dependent on her provision and good will, she was a tyrant who would allow no rival or equals.
As I read through Rizzo's book, a number of thoughts have been coalescing with respect to plotting out historical f/f romances. Those thoughts aren't necessarily tied directly to the subject of the chapter, but are building as the various threads weave together.
Today I was thinking about how the avoidance or disparagement of marriage is treated in history as contrasted with how it is typically expressed in f/f historicals. The modern approach tends to be: "A distaste for heterosexual marriage is either a consequence of, or a telling symptom of a sexual preference for women. You can tell the heroine is a lesbian because she has always thought of marriage with revulsion."
But when you look at historic attitudes in the 18th century, women had all sorts of reasons for wishing they didn't have to marry. A fear of repeated pregnancy might be enough. Many women--though sometimes only in private correspondence--saw marriage as a form of servitude. Marriage generally meant an end to having the autonomy to pursue one's own interests, especially intellectual interests. A wife was legally at the mercy of her husband's commands and whims, and even a benevolent husband could control her associations, her movements, and her experiences.
Outside of marriage, a woman's reputation was far more at risk from an intimate relationship with a man than his was in the same circumstance. A male lover might not have legal power over a woman's life, but he had the social power to ruin her at no detriment to himself.
All of these are perfectly good reasons for an 18th century woman to find reasons not to marry, without any need for people to assume that she preferred women sexually.
In fact, sexual preference was generally considered irrelevant to the question of marriage, in both men and women. One married for reasons of economics, family connections, and social aspirations. "Enthusiastic consent" to the resulting sexual relationship was not a consideration. And given patterns of socializing, marriage was little hindrence to a woman pursuing a sexual relationship with a female friend, as long as her husband didn't feel rejected as a result.
Of course, the conventions of romance novels lead one to expect the romantic leads to aspire to an exclusive relationship with the object of one's affections. But perhaps we need to expand the paradigms for queer historical romances, rather than confining ourselves to a model invented for heterosexuals.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.
Chapter - 3 Satires of Tyrants and Toad eaters: Fielding and Collier
“Toad eater“ was first recorded in the 1740s, with the explanation (whether true or not) that it was based on a traveling performer’s show trick demonstrating the ability of the performer to neutralize poison by having his assistant eat toads, which were thought to be poisonous. Thus the term referred to someone forced to do something nauseating in a subservient position.
The name toad-eater (eventually “toady”) was applied at the time to both political and social contexts, including domestic employees. Once having been named, this relationship became more of a focus of observation and discussion than it had been previously. It was regularly associated with the position of companion, though in fictional portrayals, it is often accompanied by disappointment and failure of the companion’s goals. (Perhaps as punishment for socially stigmatized behavior?) From a different angle, companions were also the depicted as holding grudges against their patrons and taking opportunities for revenge, whether small or great.
The defining of toad-eating as a behavior of a subservient companion or client also highlighted the role of the tyrant in the relationship. toad-eating would not be necessary except as a response to the tyrannical exercise of power.
In both politics and at home, tyranny was most easily recognized in others, and when experienced, not in oneself when wielded.
Within the context of domestic tyranny, authors regularly saw the parallels of marriage and companionship. The book gives extensive examples of fictional characters making this overt comparison in novels by Sarah Fielding.
Fielding‘s friend Jane Collier wrote books even more pointedly exploring the dynamics of domestic tyranny and how women might escape it. Education was considered key to eliminating the situation. Collier wrote biting satires similar to those of Jonathan Swift. One chapter of her essay “On the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting” is devoted to the relationship of mistress and companion. As a tendency to tyranny was endemic in mankind, she explains, it could only be prevented by careful attention to children’s education in benevolence and the proper treatment of others. Her work explored this concept by means of satirical instruction in psychological and emotional abuse. Collier’s book is brief on the subject of husbands, and declines to directly attack the institution of marriage, but though less detailed, her treatment of tyrannical husbands again focuses on the techniques of emotional abuse.
A common moral theme of this and similar works is that in subjugating her own judgment and integrity and performing according to the demands of her mistress, a companion’s moral character may be undermined in actual fact. But while this lesson appears in works authored by both women and men, male authors tended to see the performance of tyranny--when situationally available--to be a female trait. Put women in a position of power and they will abuse it. Male authors were less apt to recognize a pattern of similar male behavior in marriage. Female authors saw this parallel clearly. The same analysis of the negative possibilities inherent in the companion arrangement led men to conclude that women will inevitably of abuse power, and women to conclude that all those with power will inevitably abuse it.
This masculine interpretation of the effects of female authority generated a trope of the abusive mistress and angelic, complying companion. While female authors saw that compliance as a moral hazard on its own, male authors saw it as a test and proof of the companion’s suitability as a wife. They anticipated a willingness to perform the same compliance within marriage for a husband. The companion character in a male-authored novel typically found resolution in being rescued by an offer of marriage. She would continue to perform the same subservient role, but now within the approved context of marriage where such behavior was “natural” (as in Samuel Foote’s farce “A trip to Calais”).
The introduction to this book uses various characters in Jane Austen's Emma to illustrate the social dynamics of companions. But once you start looking for companionate relationships in Austen, you see them all over the place. And that variety helps illustrate the function and dynamics of what's going on. Let's take a little tour.
In Sense and Sensibility, we don't see any of the central characters in a formal position of companion, but we see plenty of examples of the sort of extended visiting that could shade into a de facto companion role. When Elinor and Marianne travel to London with Mrs Jennings, they are clearly in a sort of "client" position to her--getting room and board in return for their company, and sometimes decidedly under pressure to put up with her whims and behaviors. The two Miss Steeles also spend time getting their "living" from being company to the mistress of the household who hosts them They are depicted as much more willing to perform the role of companion, cozying up to their hostess with flattery and a willingness to put up with their children's whims.
In Pride and Prejudice, we again see unmarried women varying their circumstances socially through extended serial visiting, whether which relatives (the Gardiners in London and while traveling) or friends (Lizzie's visit with Charlotte after her marriage). Caroline Bingley serves as her brother's hostess in what would be a companion role if she were performing it for a woman. A more direct example is Lydia's invitation to be companion to Colonel Foster's wife. As Mr. Bennett notes, the excursion costs him little--she will be supplied with room and board. And Mrs. Foster gains a social companion in the context of a military camp where even an officer's wife might be subject to harrassment if she went about on her own.
In Mansfield Park, we see many of the fictional themes about companionship. From the start, Fanny Price is trained up as a compliant and biddable companion to her aunts. Her presence and willingness to perform household tasks are taken for granted and taken advantage of. She is treated as having no desires, needs, and will of her own. And yet all of this occurs under the veneer that she is a member of the family and that there is no social stigma on those occasions when she is treated as such in public. Another theme (which is discussed later in Rizzo's book) is that a "good companion" is viewed as proving herself as a good prospective wife. Edmund may stand up for Fanny on occasion, but in the end he recognizes that Fanny's steadfast virtue through her trials has proven her to be an ideal wife.
Examples of companion themes in Emma have been discussed already. In Northanger Abbey we again see the "extended serial visiting" theme, as well as the precarious position that a single woman is placed in when her day-to-day life relies on the benevolence of her hosts. But it's in Persuasion that we see the companion role from multiple angles. Anne Elliot has, in essence, been turned into a companion within her own family. She is passed off to whichever relative or family friend has a use for her company. While living with her sister Mary, she is expected to tend the children, negotiate between Mary and her in-laws, and be the solid rock in every crisis. (And, of course, in the end, this is what convinces Captain Wentworth that she's still the woman for him.) But Elizabeth Elliot's friend Mrs Clay is set up to be a bad example of a companion. She is widowed (with children who are somehow conveniently dispensed with) and of a lower social class than the Elliots, which is pointedly remarked on as making her an unsuitable companion for Elizabeth. (There's an interesting contrast between how Mrs Clay's social background is held against her, while Captain Wentworth is allowed to rise above his origins by virtue of his accomplishments.) Mrs. Clay is an obvious "toad-eater", constantly flattering the Elliots in order to maintain their good graces. But she also emobodies one of the negative tropes about fictional companions, in that she is shown to have underhanded goals that are at oddes with those of her hosts,, with a suggestion of malice or revenge as a motivation.
Various of these companionate relationships have been used as jumping-off places for sapphic Austen fan-fiction, especially those in Emma. But even more than the specifics of these particular stories, they show how unmarried women might be brought into close physical and emotional proximity within the ordinary structures of society in ways that can provide all manner of inspiration for the f/f historical romance writer.
Chapter 2 - The Social Economics
The chapter begins with a list of advertisements from 1772 either from people looking to hire female companions or from women offering themselves as such. The ads represent a wide variety of situations and job requirements. When compensation is discussed it’s in terms of room and board or, in some cases, only partial room and board. The ads—surprisingly--include requests or offers of female companions for men. In some cases, explicitly excluding the possibility of sexual services. Some ads explicitly specify that no wage is asked because the woman in question is not looking to be a servant.
These ads show the variability of the concept of companion. In addition to the tasks of providing company, the positions might include housekeeper, governess, lady’s maid, and in some cases--in coded language--a suggestion of sexual services for men. Men looking for a female companion were typically looking for a substitute wife, without the bonds of marriage involved.
For middle-class households, the position of companion typically involves multiple job. Only in an upper class household was the position likely to be purely that of a social companion and attendant. The higher the companion’s social status, the more unseemly it would be for her to receive payment for this position. The primary goal was to secure a place to live. The status of a companion was precarious and was affected by what tasks she was asked to perform, and how she was included in the activities of the family (or not).
Despite the variety of companion positions, some clear patterns emerge which this book will illustrate. Compared to ads for servants, ads for companions were relatively few. Most companionship arrangements were set up within the extended family or among social acquaintances.
Companions filled a genuine need in the household. Single women generally didn’t have the financial resources to live a solitary life. In public, companionship was needed for respectability. Much of everyday life, and most daily socializing, was gender-segregated. The mistress might be accompanied by her maid for shopping, but she couldn’t turn to servants for company out in society, or for emotional support.
In novels, when women go into public alone it is a marked state and one of overwhelming purpose. Women alone were subject to insult and harassment. Women novelists were much concerned with the hazards and difficulties for solitary female protagonists, even when their characters overcame them. Working-class women, of course, had different expectations, and some fictional heroines used working class disguise as a means of surviving alone in the world.
Upper and middle class women who lived “alone“ had a staff, both male and female. But even in this context, it was more acceptable for an older woman then a younger one to live alone.
A companion solved many problems for an unmarried woman but was also convenient for a married one. In social negotiations, even friends might have competing agendas. A companion was an advisor and confidant assumed to be loyal. A companion could serve as social secretary, shouldering some of the complex burdens of being an active hostess. The companion was expected to be available at any time to “fill in” socially as needed without having social needs of her own. They also removed the burden of wives being expected to provide sole company for their husbands--a key role, given that marriages weren’t particularly arranged for the satisfactory emotional lives of the couple.
The understanding that a companion was of an equivalent social status to her mistress was essential for pride on both sides of the relationship. A companion needed the illusion of being a member of the family to maintain her own social status, and a mistress could not present the possibility that she was treating an inferior as a social companion.
Because this understanding precluded the possibility of offering a salary, the needs and desires of companions were met via a delicate negotiation of gifts. (A companion might also have a small income of her own from other sources that weren’t enough to support her, but might be enough for personal expenses.)
Economic forces behind companionship revolved largely around gendered inheritance practices. To enhance and maintain family position, resources primarily went to the oldest son. Providing an unmarried daughter with enough to live independently was impractical and undesirable. Middle or upper-class women of this era had few opportunities for paid labor that wouldn’t destroy their, and their family's, reputation. Paid work was a last resort if no family support was available.
Single women who had enough funds to maintain a household fell in several general categories. They might be widowed, with a sufficient settlement, or even inheriting her husband’s property if there were no higher claim on the inheritance. She might be a daughter with no brothers (if the property were not entailed).
Marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal dowery to a livable independent income, but it required the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right number and type of children, and good financial choices at all stages. (Dowries were not the only enticement women had to attract husbands. Family connections and influence could be just as important.)
Women who declined marriage or failed to secure one were considered to be at fault for their financial circumstances. So economics were as strong--if not stronger—a force in women’s ability to live alone than social conventions. One must also remember that living “alone“ in a respectable fashion meant supporting a multi-person household, to say nothing of the expenses of a social life.
Barring the luck to have an “independence”, acceptable sources of income for a single woman might include combining the income (that is, annuities, interest, and family stipends) of multiple women living together. Another method was accepting money from what were, in effect, lodgers. Or one could reduce expenses by living outside London and not participating in high society.
Sarah Scott’s utopian novel Millenium Hall goes into these economic negotiations in great detail, when her characters brainstorm how to set up the living arrangements of their commune. Scott’s attitudes, as expressed in the novel, disparage marriage for women who could work, but she was outright scornful of the “occupation“ of companion. While not overtly equating it with marriage, the implication is there.
Like Mary Astell before her, Scott envisioned an independent community of single women whose shared resources and skills could remove the need for marriage as women’s only viable option. Many of Scott’s ideas came out of discussions among a group of women living in Bath who are concerned with women’s status and place in the world. Several members of this circle expressed their ideas in fiction.
A common theme in their work is that women who enter unworthy marriages or become companions do so to avoid losing the standard of living and social position they were raised in. (Though who can blame them.) These works often featured women in intentional communities, and their own circle could be seen as an implementation of some of those ideals.
The greatest moral hazard from companionship, they asserted, was toadying to those who had power over your life. Toadying is a small step to other immoral behaviors, because it focuses on hypocritical actions to establish and maintain one’s position and security.
The utopian communities the Bath circle envisioned were egalitarian--except for the servants of course--and allowed for autonomy in daily life once the administrative responsibilities were shared out. Millenium Hall was not a democracy but a means of freeing middle and upper class women from marriage and the marriage-like position of companion.
Scott did attempt a limited real-life Millenium Hall, unsuccessfully, but that it was attempted at all is noteworthy. Scott’s Bath circle itself speaks to one driving force in the institution of companionship: the need for women to create a supportive community in the face of social structures that excluded them.
Both Wahl's study that I just finished covering, and Rizzo's, which will take up the next couple weeks, have very practical applications for authors of f/f historical romance. They explore the spaces in society where women came into close and intimate social contact in ways that were publicly established and accepted. Although Wahl pointed out how suspicions of lesbianism intruded on women's social structures, and Rizzo includes examples of how the potential abuses of companionship included sexually-tinged ones, the fact remains that we're looking at social structures in which romantic and sexual relationships between women who were so inclined could flourish.
I bristle when f/f romance novels set in the 17-19th century make a big deal out of trying to get the characters alone in close proximity. Study the normal lives of women of these times and you'll find opportunities galore. Do you adore the trope "...and there was only one bed"? Bed-sharing was utterly normal and expected in many contexts. Your characters shouldn't be shocked or embarrassed. Tuck them in between the covers and let a heart-to-heart conversation inspire something more.
Need to find an excuse for your characters to share a household together? The oddity would be for an unmarried woman to live without another woman of her social class in the household. There can be any number of rational excuses: combining incomes, long-term visiting, a distant relationship. Some single women with no home of their own spend their entire adult lives as guests in a rotating succession of other people's households. Surely in one of them she can be delightfully surprised to find a permanent invitation?
Historical romance feels most realistic when the situation of the characters, their challenges, their misunderstandings, and the nature of their happy ending grow out of the actual circumstances and social dynamics of the time. There's so much inspiration here!
Chapter 1 - Companionship a Range of Possible Choices
The content of this book is taken from letters, memoirs, and fiction produced by middle and upper class women. This is primarily a choice made due to the availability of materials. These woman talk about themselves, their lives, and their living conditions, both in personal and fictional representations. Less literate women must be studied by other means, alas.
The book focuses specifically on the institution of “female companions”. This was recognized as a specific social role, comprising the relationship of an employer, usually referred to as the mistress or sometimes patroness, and her companion. This arrangement resulted in an inherent difference of social status, although in theory the women were drawn from the same class. In functional ways, companionship mirrored the marriage structures of the time.
The book is organized as a collection of case studies or biographies that show the great variety of individual relationships. The mistress--especially if she is economically autonomous--has similar powers to that of a husband, with the same range of options for expressing them, from autocratic to benevolent. These expressions can be seen as a commentary on the ways in which the similar power was expressed by a husband.
Men’s views on companions mirrored their attitudes towards marriage: generally approving of a submissive, humble companion (who is viewed as ideal material for a good wife), while a tyrannical mistress was taken as evidence that women shouldn’t have authority. In the earlier 18th century, suspicions regarding women in authority were expressed as women being too irrational and passionate to use power properly. In the later part of the century, women were depicted as being by nature submissive and subordinate and thus unsuited to wielding authority. Men might recognize the dysfunctions within of marriage only when they saw them within companionship relationships.
This is one reason for including fictional accounts in the examples: they show how people thought about gender and relationships, not just how they were enacted in real life. Women’s writing reflects a range of comforts and dysfunctions that could be present within a companionship relationship that men were often oblivious to.
Not only were the power dynamics similar to marriage, but the day-to-day responsibilities were as well. They might begin with simple companionship, but also encompass household management, overseeing servants, and interfacing with neighbors, as well as tending to the mistress’s emotional needs. This social role being labeled “companion” sheds a different light on the underlying meaning of the term “companionate marriage”. A woman’s companion was not her equal in a functional sense, any more than a wife was equal to her husband. Both wives and companions were, in essence, the “head servant” of the household. (And many women used these exact terms to describe what was expected of them as a wife.)
This experience of marriage led many women to decline to enter it again, if widowed, even if their late husband had not been particularly tyrannical. Intelligent, educated women often found marriage constraining and tedious. Some went so far as to argue against the institution entirely, though recognizing the futility of such a call. The more radical expressions of anti-marriage sentiment faded after the reign of Queen Anne. Calls for women’s equality and fair treatment in marriage after that time were expressed primarily in fiction and plays. Even those were typically softened by being played for satire.
Disinterest in marriage due to the risk of pregnancy was expressed even more covertly, since procreation was considered to be woman’s purpose. Women’s negative commentary on perpetual pregnancy begin to surface more toward the end of the century.
During eras when direct negative commentary on marriage was out of favor, commentary via the function of companion was available as a substitute. Fictional portrayals in particular depicted the moral harm to a woman whose livelihood depended on subservience and devious work-arounds. At the same time, fictional depictions of the mistress in the relationship could counter the claim that women were submissive by nature.
Men saw the wife/companion parallel in a different way. A woman who has proven herself a compliant and useful companion to a woman was seen as a good marriage prospect.
Even independent women who found themselves in companion-like relationships, such as positions within the court hierarchy, use the marriage analogy as a means of accommodating themselves to a less than ideal work environment. (E.g., “my boss is a bitch, but I’m functionally married to her so I’ll just deal with the situation like I would with an unpleasant husband.”) Rizzo suggests that these analogies indicate that women didn’t think of marriage primarily in terms of sexuality, but of social and economic contracts.
An example of companionate relations can be found in Jane Austen’s Emma where Mrs. Weston is explicitly described as being prepared to be a wife by being Emma’s companion, and similarly that Emma treats Harriet as a wife-in-training. The personality traits that critics view as flaws in Emma would be unremarkable in a man of that era and class. In this context, the resolution of Emma’s marriage plot degrades her from full human being (i.e., husband-equivalent) to wife, and thus inferior.
There was an inevitable conflict when a woman was both a wife and the mistress of a companion. That was often the case: companions were not at all restricted to the households of single women. There is an example of this conflict provided from the marriage of Henry Fox and Lady Caroline, played out in correspondence when Caroline went to Bath accompanied by a woman who was usually the companion of one of her husband’s relatives. Caroline comments on the unwanted subservience of the woman and her husband bristles a bit at the implications that he expects that same subservience from Caroline.
The 18th century was an era concerned with identifying and challenging tyranny but domestic tyranny wasn’t easy to label. It was raised as a public topic most often by sons. Even when women’s complaints about a husband’s tyranny could only be made in private, men might publicly complain about the tyrrany of wives and mistresses purely on the grounds of having their authority and power questioned. (The problem of “if you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression.”)
With the rise of the concept of sensibility--an empathic reaction to the feelings and needs of others--this trait was assigned primarily to women, emphasizing how it naturally suited them for tending to those needs and feelings in others. Conduct manuals directed primarily at women worked to reinforce this trait, as well as others intended to shape women for a subservient role, such as modesty and delicacy. These traits were all defined as women’s “nature” without recognizing the contradiction that anything that must be so relentlessly taught and enforced can’t be natural. The men enjoining these traits on their wives and daughters presented themselves as having only benevolent intentions, but the end was to teach learned helplessness and hypocrisy.
Women might respond to domestic tyranny in various ways. One was to identify with the tyrant and become one when the opportunity arose, either in respect to one’s own subordinates or--as in fictional examples--women who became the “right-hand man” to assist a man in his domination of other women. Another response was to refocus one’s agency on situations where one could do good for others in a way one couldn't for oneself--to adopt altruism as a defense against helplessness. For 18th century women, altruism was obviously a more acceptable outlet. The literary example of this path is Sarah Scott’s utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall.
When studying women’s companionate relationships it is evident that successful ones were those involving benevolent and altruistic responses both within the relationship and generally among communities of women. Negative reactions were best saved for outside the relationship and especially toward men. When both members of a companionship behaved benevolently toward each other, the result (as shown in the biographies in this collection) was greater prosperity for both.
If such women did not overtly call for the benevolence and equality that that were a goal within their relations to be made general in society, it was often due to placing those calls within a subversive, indirect context, such as the representation of companionship within fiction--an indirection necessary for them to be heard.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 50b/175 - Interview with Nyri Bakkalian- transcript
(Originally aired 2020/09/12 - listen here)
A transcript of this episode is pending.
An interview with Dr. Nyri Bakkalian about her historical research and her cross-time novel.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Nyri Bakkalian Online
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Complexity and ambiguity is a hard thing to depict in overviews of history. People have an uncomfortable desire to get "the real story" with the implication that there's a single story. There's a desire to be able to interpret historic sources at face value, rather than struggling with the possibility that they may have been prescriptive rather than descriptive, or may have been deliberate fictions designed to obscure realities the author didn't want to acknowledge, or even that they simply reflected the incomplete and limited understanding of a contemporary of events that were incoherent at the time.
The one big take-away I hope readers get at this conclusion of my summary of Wahl's book is that the study of queer history can't take any historic sources at face value--not when the social structures that shaped and gate-kept those sources were not simply antagonistic toward non-normative sexuality, but were actively and persistently misogynistic. And yet, that doesn't mean that the student of these times can simply discard evidence that doesn't suit the history we want there to have been.
As we get historians looking more deeply at the complexities and shifts of understandings of gender and sexuality across time, a theme that comes up again and again is cyclicity. Any history book that tells you that a specfic understanding or expression of gender or sexuality first dates to year X should be looked askance. (I dedicate this observation to seeing yet another claim in an online queer history timeline that "Anne Lister had no language to express an understanding of lesbian identity -- the word hadn't even been invented yet." I paraphrase.)
Too often we're served one extreme or another of historic interpretation. "Homosexuality didn't exist before the 19th century." "Our modern queer identities have always existed throughout time." "If women't didn't write the equivalent of a diary entry saying, 'Today I fucked my female lover' then they were sexless prudes who don't earn the label of lesbian." "How dare you suggest that these beloved platonic friends sullied the purity of their love by feeling sexual desire?"
Although it isn't necessarily her intention, Wahl shows how all these things can be both true and false at the same time. That women may be depicted as experiencing only non-erotic love for other women because that's what they genuinely felt, or because the social mores of the day pressured them not to publicly express erotic desire at all, or because the writer was so freaked out about the thought of two women together that they needed to deny the possibility, or as a satirical wink-wink-nudge-nudge disclaimer because the writer wanted you to conclude the opposite, or many other reasons. And similarly, women may be depicted as engaging in sexual relations with each other becuase they genuinely were doing so, or because the writer didn't believe that such devotion was possible without being driven by eros, or because the writer wanted to destroy their reputation and could think of no worse accusation, or because the writer got off on imagining the act, or for many other reasons. And all of these things can be going on simultaneously.
In writing historical fiction, there is never only one history to choose from Indeed, all these overlapping and contradictory versions of history are a wealth of motifs to complexify your characters lives.
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 6 - Regulating the “Real” in Fictional Terms: The (Auto)biography of the Tribade in Erotic and Documentary Texts
Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”
Madame de Murat’s upper class status caused problems in the collection of evidence, particularly given that so many of the alleged crimes occurred in the privacy of her own home. There are details of domestic disputes, jealousy, and violence driven by underlying romantic or sexual relationships. Many of the potential witnesses seemed disinclined to get involved, one noting that it was “not compatible with his dignity” to testify.
The police records don’t label Madame de Murat’s activities as lesbian in as many words, but they give a very different picture of women’s erotic relationships that is found in libertine literature. These records don’t show the tolerant amusement reflected by the libertines, but rather distaste and horror. Madame de Murat is viewed as a bully, liable to punish her accusers.
She is eventually imprisoned, but the police feared her continued correspondence with family and friends and her ability to continue to exert power in the external world.
Compare her to fictional portrayals, such as Miss Hobart in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont who is easily defeated and humiliated by male rivals. In the conventions of satiric literature f/f desire is no serious threat to men. But in the early 18th century we see an increase in male anxiety about the lesbian or tribade as a genuine challenge to male prerogatives.
Miss Hobart represents the overlap and transition from the image of lesbian-as-hermaphrodite to the lesbian-as-tribade, driven by personal desire not by anatomical abnormality. Madame de Murat represented the reality of how many saw female same-sex possibilities. [Note: Female homosexuality was illegal in France, but not in England at that time, so the circumstances must be kept in mind.]
Comparing the fictional and real narratives of female same-sex activity can remove the illusion of the insignificance of female homoerotic relations claimed by the libertines. This is important as these have sometimes been accepted as factual by later scholars.
In this chapter Wahl looks at several libertine or pornographic texts from the late 17th and 18th centuries to compare their depictions of female homosexuality to the satires by male authors on actual women such as Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting and Marie Antoinette, as well as texts written by women themselves of their own experiences.
The first text to be examined is the Satyra Sotadicaand the Academie des Damesboth of which represent themselves as a dialogue between women engaging in a sexual education that involves increasingly exaggerated and unusual sexual behaviors. Wahl goes on at great length to dissect the dialogs and discuss the behaviors they depict.
Next she looks at two texts by Cleland: his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure(Fanny Hill) and his translation and revision of the memoirs of Catherine Vizzani. These texts either conflate the lesbian and the prostitute as a single archetype, or in the case of Catherine, depict the lesbian as an entirely separate type of being.
The use of a female narrator was another technique in depicting the activities of supposed tribades, often given either a an allegorical name such as The Confessions of Mademoiselle Sapphoor borrowing the name of a woman reputed for such scandals, as with the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt.
These narratives created the illusion of reality by reference to specific actual persons and events. They depict a sexual awakening of one woman by another, though they are vague about the details of the relationship. The protagonists life is eventually resolved away from the same-sex relationship, one way or another.
In conclusion, Wahl suggests that the wide-spread awareness of female same-sex possibilities constrained the ability of women to depict and enact idealized forms of female intimacy. This awareness served to widen the conceptual gap between the popular image of the lesbian and the experiences of “respectable” women even when those experiences included same-sex intimacy.
[Note: I thought that Wahl indicated this chapter was also going to cover texts such as Charlotte Charke’s fictionalized autobiography and the like, but the book ends without touching on that genre.]
I'm experimenting with some new tech in the context of this blog. Not "new" as such, but applied in new ways. Writing up long entries like this one has traditionally meant taking notes on post-its as I read, then transcribing them into electronic format. (Plus cleaning up my typing and reviewing for sense, given that the post-its are often disjointed and repetitive.) I've been meaning to take another look at speech-to-text systems that could eliminate at least one of those processes and experimented on this entry.
To cut a long exploration of speech-to-text options short, the most efficient (and reasonably accurate) method I have currently available is the voice notes feature on my iPhone. It only deals with relatively short passages, but has an audible signal so I can start a new note. And it syncs the notes with the laptop automatically. There are a few issues I need to work on (like not reflexively straining my voice when what I want to do is enunciate very clearly) but it saves me a lot of keystrokes, which is becoming more and more desirable on arthritis days. *sigh*
The second experiment was to try "taking notes" from my reading directly by dictation. This requires the same sort of mental realignment as when I started dictating fiction. I could actually hear my brain creaking and grinding its gears. But there isn't anything inherently less natural in reading something and describing it verbally than there is in describing it in writing. So I'll keep trying. I suspect it will be easier when transforming highlighted article pdfs into text, but it'll be a while before I get back to those.
In the last two days I've also plunged into the project of setting up the new podcast account and starting to upload the legacy episodes. I'll blog about that separately at some point. It's being both easier than I was afraid it would be and more complex. It helps that I've given myself enough time and space to work on it before the official podcast changeover.
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 5: Female Intimacy and he Problem of Female Communities: Salons, Satire, and the Mystery of the Précieuses
Discussions like this one remind me of the cyclical and complex interaction of male hostility to women's "unavailability" (or simply disinterest in them) and resulting accusations of lesbianism. When these cycles then interact with the polarized attitudes of historians toward female homosexuality (whether negative or positive or simply inordinately skeptical), it makes even explicit historical data about lesbianism tricky to relate to the experiences and desires of actual historic women.
Turning from how Phillips was sanitized of any suggestion of sexual impropriety Wahl now turns to how women-centered institutions, whether salons, schools, theaters, and on to less voluntary spaces like convents and brothels, became sexualized in the libertine imagination.
The idea of women in gender-segregated institutions engaging in sex was well established from the medieval period on. Convents had rules to try to discourage opportunities for it. But the reformation introduced the idea of the convent as an especially repressed and unnatural environment in which not only f/f sex but perverse practices could flourish. This theme plays out in works like Marvell’s Upon Appleton Houseand Diderot’s La Religieuseand Barrin’s Vénus dans le Cloître. The theme of women being removed from the marriage economy in a physical and social sense extended to removing them from heterosexuality in a psychological context.
Educational institutions didn’t come in for religiously-driven concerns (though in France convent schools were a significant venue for girls’ education in this era) but education manuals included coded language about girls not being left to themselves too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” Given that schools of this era were overwhelmingly single sex, concerns about student sexual activity blurred the issues of masturbation and homosexuality.
While the convent and school offered the excuse of lack of access to male partners, another female-centered institution where female intimacy became a concern was the brothel, under the guise of experienced prostitutes initiating girls into sex as part of their training. See for example Cleland’s novel Fanny Hillwhere some of the prostitutes (though not his protagonist) are depicted as having a preference for f/f sex. 18th century pornographic prostitute narratives depict a culture of bisexual genital-focused sex acts in which the gender of one’s partner is almost irrelevant. [Note: it should be emphasized that these belonged to a fictionalized literary genre written by men.]
Across the 18th century, as the cult of the “proper” domestic woman developed as modest and passionless, her counterpart also became more defined: the libertine woman--whether overtly in the field of sex work, in the demimonde of actresses, artists, and courtesans, or among the aristocracy. Among the accusations leveled at aristocratic women by philosophers of bourgeois morals was that their sexual license included sex with women, and this was viewed as both a symptom and driver of moral decay. 17th century affairs such as that between the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and Madame du Vigean were seen as scandalous, but uncommon and not fatal to one social reputation.
This attitude gave way by a century later to lurid pamphlets attacking Marie Antoinette and her circle, including elaborations on the supposed decadent lesbian sex club called the Anandrine Society. Other literary depictions of libertine f/f sex included mentions of Mademoiselle Rancourt in Diderot’s Correspondences literaires philosophiques et critiquesand novels such as Mémoires Secretsand L’Espion Angloisthough these focused more on actresses.
In England, names that came into mention include actress Mary Anne Yates and aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer. the gossip diarist Hester Thrale provides plentiful examples of how wide-spread rumors of lesbian activity could be in the late 18th century. Any kind of sex not linked to the marriage-based reproductive economy was seen not only as a moral threat but as a political and social threat as well.
But if these overtly sexualized contexts were being seen as a threat to social order, what were attitudes toward more idealized or utopian forms of female community? For that Wahl steps back to look at the origins and context of these idealized communities.
While the French salon was a vibrant context for women’s friendships it was not a homosocial space, unlike the formal male academies it existed in parallel with. But the salons were de facto ruled by women, which made them suspect as a focus of resistance to the patriarchal absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, as well as those male academies. Male criticism and satire of the salons focused on the précieucesas pretentious reformers of French language and morals, who despised marriage for suspicious reasons (and not because of the unequal burden it placed on women). One of those suspicious reasons was same-sex desire. To call someone a précieuse shifted from acknowledging a culture of wit and refinement to a satirical stereotype exaggerated mannerisms, secret codes, and a female cabal that indulged in f/f sex -- “a third species of person.” By the end of the 17th century, the précieuses--which by then was no longer a self identification--were seen as a subversive secret society and a symbol of the hazards of women becoming involved in politics.
Communities of literary women in the first half of the 17th century begin exploring concepts of female heroism or woman-centered societies, as a response to their role in ongoing political disruptions in both France and England, and as a means of maintaining friendships and alliances during those disruptions. The exiled royalist women around Henrietta Maria in France found inspiration among the salons for their own writing which--though coded as focused on love and romance--offered a context for political allegory.
French women didn’t stick to allegory. In this era, women were prominent in the civil conflict known as the Fronde, and the backlash against them became a weapon against women’s direct involvement in politics in general under Louis XIV. The women themselves had seen their actions as part of a tradition of Amazons, but after their fall the image of the Amazon became a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any type of public intellectual activity.
Shut out of direct political participation, these are the women who formed the core of the salons. They were also behind the rise of the historical novel. In these “private” spheres they could exert the influence forbidden them in public institutions. Historic novels could comment allegorically on current politics in a deniable way, and the rules for salon discourse that forbade direct discussion of politics as “not polite” protected all the participants from direct reprisal, even as they offered a context for the discussion of subversive or progressive ideals.
The historical novel also enabled the creation of fictional worlds into which the female-centered world of the salon could be reflected, as in the Sappho interlude in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou Le Grand Cyrus.Scudéry’s use of Sappho not only as a fictional character but as a nom de plume comes at a time when new translations of Sappho’s work were casting doubt on the “abandoned heterosexual Sappho” of Ovid and returning to the image of the great poet.
Scudéry did not directly engage with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but in identifying with the poet, her own f/f friendships could be aligned with Sappho’s. Her fictional Sappho rejects the idea of marriage as tyranny and forms part of an inseparable group of friends, one especially with whom she exchanges professions of perfect love. The novel’s male narrator is never given entrance to Sappho’s circle, and deflect criticisms of her circle without showing the reader the substance of their relations (and thus what Scudéry envisioned as the nature of their friendship). The layers of representation and commentary obscure the exact correspondences of Scudéry to her fictional namesake’s life.
Wahl continues with a detailed analysis of this work and the history of scholarly analysis of it. [Note: This is one of those passages that I suspect originated as an independent article.]
Scudéry’s Sappho eventually retreats into a utopian woman-centered society of Amazons, perhaps an allegory for the salon. The rejection of a conventional marriage plot resolution for Sappho marks a new option for a female protagonist, and the association of women’s literary traditions with sapphic utopias.
In some ways, the political disruption of the Fronde resulted in a shift in women’s writing in France from political discourse to literary forms like the novel or the secret history. With novels that did not conform to the standard marriage plot, these women defined a new understanding of the desires and aspirations of women both before and after marriage. If women couldn’t have a direct political influence, they could influence women’s ambitions in terms of personal freedom for education and an identity outside of marriage, or even the ability to refuse marriage (or at least to refuse a second marriage).
These woman also aspired to an ideal of “honest friendship” that redefined relations between the sexes in a more egalitarian way. This might be realizable only in a utopian “pastorale” context but it offered new visions and interpretations, as in D’Urfe’s pastoral romanceL’Astrée, in which women were idealized as having the ability to discipline carnal desires in favor of neo-platonic friendship and love.
But even as this Platonic ideal was developed, there was a reaction of skepticism that viewed both chastity and marriage resistance as a false prudery--an--implausible contradiction to the idea that all desirable women should be sexually available to men. The libertine point of view saw relations between the sexes is inescapably physical and sexual. This also led them to doubt the alleged innocence of intimate relations between women, viewing them as the inevitable outcome of the inherent sexual voracity of women.
Male reactions to women’s writing always created a hostile environment for women’s self-definition, but the superficial rejection of physical desire creates a dubious impression that early modern women’s discussion of platonic romantic relations corresponded to modern understandings that preclude physical sexuality. In order to break free of the accusation that women were all inherently libertines, early modern women needed to present the appearance of modesty and chastity, only to be accused of hypocrisy on that account.
Within fiction they could create the possibility of a female protagonist who was both sincerely chaste and independent, while accepting that in every day life this might be impossible.
Although women often shared their doubts and uncertainties about the institution of marriage in private correspondence, by the mid 17th century they were increasingly reluctant to do so overtly in public writng. In return, male writers had no hesitation in accusing them of making public demands to abolish the institution of marriage, as it was understood.
By the creation of fictional proponents of extreme versions of female sexual autonomy, men could undercut the far more moderate requests that women made for the reform of marriage. These fictional exaggerations were then labeled as a representation of the précieuse. Their disavowal of passion in the context of marriage was taken as either hypocritical or unnatural in some form, such as an indication of lesbian desire. This stereotype was depicted in a number of satirical works.
Such women were depicted not merely as wanting their own freedom, but as wanting to subjugate men and to destroy establish social structures. The word cabal is frequently raised in this context.
Not all the critics of the stereotype of the précieuse were male. Some female writers may have joined in the mockery as a way of distancing themselves from an image that they felt uncomfortably close to. Though the satires claimed that there might be genuine intellectual women who sought reforms and ideals, somehow no specific women ever met the standard. Thus all women with intellectual aspirations came under scrutiny as belonging to the extremes of the stereotype.
The only way an intellectual woman had of pushing back against the charge of either hypocrisy or frigidity was to embrace the sexual desire she was accused of concealing. But this, of course, would be sexual desire for men. To resist that would result in insinuations of lesbian desire. Even historians who study the topic waver regularly between treating the polite discourse of the salonnières as indicating a general disinterest in sex, or intimating that their female friendships suggested an unconscious lesbian desire.
What is excluded from much of this analysis is the possibility that some of these women genuinely disdained sexual relations with men (whether from a general disinterest in heterosexuality, or from the negative social context it was embedded in) and that they also experienced genuine and perhaps even self-aware sexual desire for their female associates. Without the explicitly sexual writing that the précieuses specifically excluded from salon discourse, there is always room for those who disapprove of same-sex desires to claim that they didn’t exist.
Accusations of latent lesbian desire were not merely coming from modern academics but are implicit in many of the satirical critiques of intellectual women of the 17th century. But this leaves us with the question of whether these accusations being founded on animosity and utterly false, or whether the suggestions of female same-sex desire by their critics were inspired by genuine observation of the relations between female intimate friends.
History keeps coming back to a regular recurring theme that a woman who rejects the sexual advances of men must be either a prude or a lesbian. This was the socio-political context in which women of the 17th and 18th century developed close relations with each other and attempted to establish some degree of personal and intellectual autonomy. But as the 18th century progressed, a new genre emerged in women’s writing: women who wrote about same-sex desire to represent their own erotic desires, though in coded and deniable terms.
This includes writers such as Madame De Murat and Charlotte Charke and this topic constitutes the subject of the final chapter of the book.
So I'd love to say something really clever in this introduction, but it's 110F currently and my brain has melted. You'll have to wait for cooler temperatures for me to be clever.
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part II Chapter 4 - Female Intimacy and the Question of “Lesbian” Identity: Rereading the Female Friendship Poems of Katherine Philips
Stepping back from the cynical take on “tender friendship” that developed by the end of the 17th century, this chapter looks at an example of the sincere version, via a deep dive into the life and work of English poet Katherine Philips. Half a century before Manley’s New Cabaland in contrast to Behn’s overt eroticism, Philips represents the “polite” culture of female intimacy...or does she?
“Polite” doesn’t mean her work was void of passion. Embracing the ideals of egalitarianism and mutuality, her poems -- and even more, her correspondence -- is subtly charged with eroticism, couched in the courtly language hat the precieuseswere mocked for.
Philips was also ambitious as a writer, rather than shying away from the notoriety of being a woman writing publicly. At the same time, she was sheltered by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman. She challenges easy categorization as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for f/f friendship in general, and the context of her life indicates she valued the bonds as strongly or more so than her marriage.
Known by her poetic nickname “the matchless Orinda” her public legacy faltered between 1710 when the last complete edition of her poems came out, and 1905 when her work came back into publication. More modern scholars have battled over whether to claim her as a proto-lesbian poet or to reject associating her with lesbian sensibility, either as a calumny or because she is viewed as insufficiently explicit to have earned the title. But newer studies of her writings that examine them within their proper chronological context reveal an interplay with shifting attitudes toward f/f friendship.
Philips began writing at an early age and was a supporter of the exiled future Charles II, although the political content of her poetry was often coded in symbolism. Her poetic work served more to maintain a social network of royalist sympathizers, focusing more on bonds of personal intimacy than political purpose. Her royalist sympathies are at odds with her early upbringing among Puritan and Parliamentarian households. She was married at 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. [Note: Wikipedia has a reference that suggests newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. But either is plausible in the context of the time.] What might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded her from the consequences of her personal connections, and she in turn as able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.
The Restoration saw the start of her wider literary reputation as a translator of plays, though this was cut short by her death by smallpox at age 31. Her poems had been circulated privately in manuscript during her lifetime but were only published in any form shortly before her death.
The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.
The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her f/f friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.
The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at he clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.
There is more discussion of critical interpretations of her work, this time from feminist scholars who also wanted to divert accusations of lesbianism. Pretty much everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such, but if people wouldn’t have recognized it as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional raise the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.
Wahl winds up this discussion by suggesting that Philips ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in the language that appeals to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian” poet in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. IN response t some queer historians referring to Philips as “closeted”, Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze.
Philips and her associates were unlikely to have access to the more explicit imported literature that raised awareness of female homoerotic possibilities in England in the later 17th century. That wave began shortly after her death and certainly hadn’t happened yet when she was writing her most passionate poems in the 1650s. The “open secret” of lesbianism came to England after her time, if just barely. Therefore it only makes sense to consider her work and life in terms of popular understanding while she was still alive and writing.
Philips operated in an earlier literary tradition of manuscripts in private circulation and fanciful pastoral pseudonyms. (Hence, she was Orinda, and two of her intimate female friends were Rosania and Lucasia. Her husband was also assigned a nickname.) While the era had access to motifs like female transvestites and hermaphrodites, they were likely to envision f/f desire in the context of romances and Traub’s “femme-femme desire”.
Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. But her work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating and maintaining f/f bonds. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. Her correspondence shows her regular efforts to travel apart from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career.
Royalist allegiances defined her friendships during the interregnum, but politics was expressed in courtly language in her work, with some more overt exceptions. Some have suggested that the poetic persona of Orinda was created ot separate her public/married self from her private/literary self. But she shifts regularly between coded language and declared transparency of sentiment.
The poem “To my Lucasia” expresses this conflict, reaching for an idealized vision but pessimistic about its attainment. True friendship can only be achieved by lowering one’s expectations. Contradictions and contrasts also come out between work on abstract friendship, which emphasizes mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. (Though it must be kept in mind that Anne Owen/Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may have affected the nature of their friendship.)
In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Phlips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, culminating in imagery of wave overflowing that some have interpreted as orgasmic metaphor.
There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems.
The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited was the precieuseculture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century. These were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. (And not, as some have suggested, that the fact of her marriage meant that her ideals of friendship were false or hypocritical.) Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those relations.
When comparing f/f friendship to heterosexual relations, Philip derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.
Part of Philips’ strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her f/f relationships as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on m/f friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate f/f friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her request for validation as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips--considered extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.
In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.
Philips’ insistence on the “innocence” and “purity” of f/f friendship does raise the suspicion that she protested over-much -- that she did have anxieties that her relationships might be viewed as morally or sexually suspect. Her poetic request for a “declared” friendship--a public recognition--shows this uneasiness as does the addressee’s apparent reluctance to perform such a declaration.
The final break with Lucasia/Owen came when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange a marriage for the widowed Owen with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes.
After the change in her relations with Owen, Philips’ rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected.
But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women. (After the breakup with Lucasia/Owen, Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship.)
The conclusion of this chapter looks at how Philips was converted from a complex three-dimensional human being into the iconic “Matchless Orinda” for posterity.
While there is some agreement on finding “lesbian sensibility” in Philips’ poetry, to identify Philips herself as a “lesbian” in the modern sense is to ignore the social context of her times. The 17th century saw no conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognize. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way.
Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her f/f friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for.
What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her (and their) marriage, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.
[Note: It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.]
Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her friendship poems, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the last century. Her most anthologized works focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. The arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative, including an initial poem on the occasion of her husband’s extended absence which left her imaginatively free to begin constructing her own intellectual and emotional community with other royalist women.
The collection then tracks her successive friendships with Regina Collier, Mary Aubrey (Rosania), and Anne Owen (Lucasia), each fragmenting on the question of marriage and separation. After the break with Owen, her work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. It was these that found general circulation in the period after her death and before her obscurity.
The posthumous 1664 edition of her poems focused on a royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to become a stand-in for the absent Charles II, but this interpretation becomes incoherent after the Restoration.
If this was how her poetry was understood and treated in her own day, does that mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”?
The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing.
[Note: This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.]
Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho as being argued to be an essentially masculine figure more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of f/f erotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry, e.g., of Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.