Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus
001. The general public continues to see Victorians as terribly repressed, while specialists have by and large accepted Foucault’s assertion that our own contemporary obsession with sex originates with the Victorians.
002. Historians of kinship argued endlessly about exactly when it first became common to think of marriage as the union of soulmates, but most agree that by 1830 that ideal had become a norm.
003. Women, sexuality, and marriage began to change dramatically in the 1880s. Eugenics shifted the meaning of marriage from a spiritual union to a reproductive one that depended on heterosexual fertility and prompted racial purity.
004. In the 1890s, a discourse of lesbianism began to emerge in Edward Carpenter’s homophile writings, Havelock Ellis’s sexological studies, and women’s responses to them.
005. Awareness of sex between women also increased after two well-publicized trials raised issues of sapphism and female inversion: the Maud Allan trial of 1919 and the Radclyffe Hall trial of 1929. Women in female couples continued to use marriage as a model for their relationships—think of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas—but many female couples began to identify either with an ideal of pure, sexless love, or with a bohemian modernism that rejected marriage and monogamy as patriarchal institutions.
006. At the same time, it is also notable that four of this book’s six chapters concentrate on one decade within that broader time span—the 1860s. It is not surprising that a “fast” decade of feminist activism, avid consumerism, and obsession with the bold and showy “Girl of the Period” coincided with debates about marriage and with a rising number of publications revolving around feminine display and aggressive female fantasies. Nevertheless, the broader temporal framework still holds. Throughout the period, society encouraged women to cultivate female friendships, and a variety of people acknowledged female marriages without demonizing them.
007. French poets, novelists, painters, and social investigators were notoriously interested in sex between women. Baudelaire wrote about it, as did Zola, Gautier, and Balzac; Courbet and Toulouse-Lautrec painted it; and Parent Duchaˆtelet wrote about its prevalence among prostitutes. By contrast, the only British discourse to portray explicit sex between women was pornography, although occasional references also appeared in medical texts. In researching an essay called “Comparative Sapphism,” I found The Female Relations of Victorian England that British reviews of French literature about lesbians proved that Victorians were capable of deciphering even very coded allusions to sex between women. At the same time, however, they dismissed sapphic characters as morbid, diseased, perverse, exotic, and abnormal, and linked lesbianism to adultery, sodomy, and incest, all unnatural realities too degraded to mention .
008. Here is Jane Eyre befriending schoolmate and moral paragon Helen Burns: “Resting my head on Helen’s shoulder, I put my arms round her waist; she drew me to her, and we reposed in silence.” Dying of consumption, Helen invites Jane into bed with her: “ [Y] our little feet are bare; lie down and cover yourself with my quilt” (113). Jane “nestle [s] close to her” in bed and before Helen dies, “clasp [s] ” her “arms closer round” her as the girl sex change a last kiss (113–14). Half-sisters Marian and Laurain Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) offer another example of passion ate devotion when one declares of the other, “I won’t live with out her, and she can’t live without me….I…love her better than my own life.” The night before Laura weds, she creeps into Marian’s bed, announcing, “I shall lose you so soon, Marian….I must make the most of you while I can.” In Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market(1862), one character tells another, “Did you miss me?/ Come and kiss me. / Nevermind my bruises,/Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/…/Eat me, drink me, love me;/Laura, make much of me.”
009. Portraits of women together usually focused on sisters, but friends often had themselves photographed together, and British fashion magazines portrayed women gazing at each other and touching, without identifying the relationship between them . [photos of them together in vic. style and dress? e takes this photo.]
010. It is well known that Victorian pornographers were obsessed with flagellation, but the scholarship I had read insisted that birching was a strictly masculine affair, that only men wrote or read about such things and that men were always the central figures in beating scenarios. Here, however, were women engaging in precisely the same fantasies; indeed, many of the letters published in women’s magazines resurfaced in pornography, either reprinted verbatim or cited in Victorian bibliographies of erotic literature. In a magazine directed at middle-class housewives, interspersed with recipes, household hints, and news about The Female Relations of Victorian England the latest Paris fashions, were dozens of letters like this one from an “English Mamma”: “I made her take off her trousers [underpants] in order that she might feel the chastisement properly. I then put her across my knee in ‘the old-fashioned style,’ and gave her about twenty sound strokes with the birch.” Some correspondents accused women who punished girls of prurient motives; others wrote in asking where they could buy a birch rod or recommending slippers as a more ladylike instrument for punishing disobedient daughters.
011. Fashion magazines presented mothers and daughters as objects for one another and showed women indulging with remarkable freedom in public fantasies about exposing, humiliating, and punishing girls.
012. The dynamic between women and girls found in fashion magazines turned out also to structure stories about girls and their dolls, who could represent beautiful ladies for girls to worship, or disobedient subordinates for them to punish. [e's stories for her dolls]
013. Lady Seraphina, the doll who narrates The Doll and Her Friends (1852), declares: “I belong to a race the sole end of whose existence is to give pleasure to others [of] the female sex.” She underscores the power the female sex exercises over dolls who are “mere dependents; some might even callus slaves….forced to submit to every caprice of our possessors.” Tale after tale described dolls as the love objects of girls who were both adoring paramours and harsh, fickle mistresses. [seraphina is e's doll—then becomes Elizabeth]
014. Interpretations of nineteenth-century fashion imagery assert that it objectified women for men, but nineteenth-century fashion imagery was all about women’s beauty being displayed for women’s enjoyment.
015. They had assumed that desire for women was exclusive to men and to lesbians, which made it impossible to see that women who were not lesbians could also eagerly consume images of desirable femininity.
016. our contemporary opposition between hetero- and homosexuality did not exist for Victorians,
017. It seemed unlikely that the middle-class female majority who wrote adoringly of their friends or enjoyed reading about adult women whipping teenage girls were actively engaged in sex with women. But what of the small but real number of Victorian women who did have sexual relationships with other women?Did Victorians who were not themselves in such relationships see them as nothing but chaste friends or recognize them as sexual, and if so, how did they characterize them? Did they treat women in same-sex couples with the fear and contempt that British reviewers directed at the sapphic characters they saw less as women and more as diseased monsters?Or did they accord them the same respect, admiration, and encouragement as female friends? Did they consider women in female couples to be masculine, hyperfeminine, or divided into male and female roles?
018. In pursuing answers to these questions, I was assisted by recent studies that have advanced lesbian history beyond endless debates about whether women in the nineteenth century ever had sex with other women. It is a ridiculous controversy, since if it were true that no women had sex with women in the nineteenth century, that era would turn out to be the only lesbian-free zone in recorded history. Preposterous as that may sound, it is a belief that people articulate all the time, either as a global proposition or on a case-by-case basis. By the time I wrote this book, however, Terry Castle, Lisa Merrill, Julia Markus, and Martha Vicinus had established that women such as Anne Lister, Charlotte Cushman, Rosa Bonheur, Harriet Hosmer, Emily Faithfull, Minnie Benson, Ethel Smyth, and Frances Power Cobbe all had sexual relationships with other women, after the eighteenth-century tribade had faded from polite discourse and before nineteenth-century sexology invented the invert. As I read about those women and their lovers, I was struck that several were married to men, and even more by how many defined their longterm relationships with women as marriages. Furthermore, often both women in a couple identified interchangeably with the roles of husband and wife. They called each other “sposa,” “hubby,” “wedded wife,” “my other and better half,” described themselves as “married,” and were recognized as couples by men and women leading far more orthodox lives. The question of whether or not women in female couples actually had sex became less important than the fact that they themselves and many in their social networks perceived them as married.
019. Women who established longterm relationships with other women, by contrast, saw themselves, and were seen by others, as placid embodiments of the middle-class ideal of marriage: a bond defined by sex that also had the power to sanctify sex. The French sapphist was an antisocial threat to family life, but women in female marriages had a place in the social order, as variations on its domestic ideal
020. The ease with which women in female marriages were assimilated to conjugality helped me to refine the place of sex in what I now saw was my central preoccupation: the different forms of socially valued relationships between Victorian women. Friendship, infatuation, marriage, and women’s objectification of women had to be differentiated, not measured in terms of a single sexual standard. Work in queer studies on same-sex families helped me to understand how, especially in the nineteenth century, marriage signified not only a private sexual bond but also a host of other relations: integration into social networks, the sharing of household labor, physical and spiritual caretaking, and the transmission of property.
021. Having developed a definition of the erotic that helped to explain how important objectifying women was to the constitution of normative femininity, I now saw the importance of understanding how marriage was legitimated by activities other than sex.
022. Between Women offers a history of sexuality and gender that does not focus on power differences or oppositions between polarized genders and antithetical sexualities. Instead it explores what remains to be seen if we proceed without Oedipus, without castration, without the male traffic in women, without homophobia and homosexual panic. Unsettling commonalities emerge. Egalitarian affection turns out to be common to female friendships and marriages between women and men. Matrons, housewives, and ladies of fashion act in ways usually identified with heterosexual masculinity. Aggression, hierarchy, objectification, and voyeurism dominate representations of mothers and daughters, girls and dolls, and images of femininity designed for female consumers. Positing the existence of more than one kind of relationship between women leads us to recognize that many of those relationships worked in tandem with heterosexual exchange and patriarchal gender norms.
023. Past theories and histories have seen the bonds between women as either the quintessence of femininity or its defiant inversion.
024. “I cannot see why [male attentions] should ever be so much the subject of envy amongst women, as to cast a shade upon their intercourse with each other.” Ellis assigned equal value to female friends and male suitors.
025. “friend” itself, which in Old English meant both “a near relation” and “a person joined by affection and intimacy to another, independently of sexual or family love.”By the time of late Middle English, “friend” could mean a beloved who was neither kin nor lover, but also a relative or “a romantic or sexual partner.
026. Only through a discreet but marked rhetoric did Victorians qualify that some “friends” were not friends, but special friends, life friends, and particular companions.
027. Victorians accepted friendship between women because they believed it cultivated the feminine virtues of sympathy and altruism that made women into good helpmates.
028. In the eighteenth century, aristocratic women viewed friendship as an alternative to marriage and justified it as the cultivation of reason, equality, and taste; in the wake of Romanticism and Evangelicalism, nineteenth-century women defined friendship as the expression of emotion, affinity, personal inclination, and religious faith.
-029- Victorians recognized women’s friendship as a social bond comparable to kinship and conjugal love, but the last several decades of scholarship on marriage and the family have defined female friendship as external to family life. Studies of family and marriage place friendship outside the purview of their analysis or define it as a social relationship at odds with the isolated nuclear family.
-030- Female friends and female lovers alike expressed affection, shared confidences, and idealized one another’s physical and spiritual qualities. But friends differed significantly from female lovers who threw themselves into obsessive passions or lived together, functioned socially as a couple, merged finances, and bequeathed property to each other.
-031- Indeed, although the lesbian continuum posits female friends and lesbian lovers as united in their opposition to patriarchal marriage, many nineteenth-century lesbian relationships resembled marriages more than friendships—and as a result shared with friendship a high degree of acceptance by respectable society.
-032- The single most influential study of female friendship, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual” (1975), argued that before psychiatrists popularized the concept of the deviant lesbian, passionate friendship between women was not only accepted among a few female couples but was a norm for many women and an integral aspect of family life
-033- After Foucault’s History of Sexuality, scholars are less prone to characterize the Victorians as sexually repressed,
-034- Whether writing of sexual partnerships or asexual friendships, scholars assume that same-sex intimacy was socially unacceptable and severed from the family and marriage, despite mounting evidence that even lesbian relationships enjoyed an unexpected degree of knowing acceptance. No less an eminence than the archbishop of Canterbury, for example, deferred to his wife Minnie Benson’s wish that her female lover move into the home also occupied by their many children.
-035- In her youth, Anne Thackeray (later Ritchie) recorded in an 1854 journal entry how she “fell in love with Miss Geraldine Mildmay” at one party and Lady Georgina Fullerton “won [her] heart” at another. In reminiscences written for her daughter in 1881, Augusta Becher (1830–1888) recalled a deep childhood love for a cousin a few years older than she was: “From my earliest recollections I adored her, following her and content to sit at her feet like a dog.” At the other extreme of the life cycle, the seventy-one-year-old Ann Gilbert (1782–1866), who co-wrote the poem now known as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” appreciatively described “the latter years of…friendship” with her friend Mrs. Mackintosh as “the gathering of the last ripe figs, here and there, one on the top most bough!”
-036- the Reverend Charles Fox wrote to Head in 1877, soon after the birth of her first child: “I want desperately to see you and that prodigy of a boy, and that perfection of a husband, and that well-tried and well-beloved sister-friend of yours, Emma Waithman.” Although Head and Waithman never combined households, the irregular correspondence, extended visits, and frequent travels were sufficient for Fox to assign Waithman a socially legible status as an informal family member, a “sister-friend” listed immediately after Head’s son and husband
-037- The term “lifewriting” refers to the heterogeneous array of published, privately printed, and unpublished diaries, correspondence, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, reminiscences, and recollections that Victorians and their descendants had a prodigious appetite for reading and writing.
-038- Victorian women’s diaries combined impersonality with lack of incident. Although Marian Bradley (1831–1910) wrote, “My diary is entirely a record of my inner-life—the outer life is not varied. Quiet and pleasant but nothing worth recording occurs,” [VC]
-039- Although we now expect diaries to be private outpourings of a self confronting forbidden desires and confiding scandalous secrets, only a handful of authenticated Victorian diaries recorded sexual lives in any detail, and none can be called typical. Unrevealing diaries, on the other hand, were plentiful in an era when keeping a journal was common enough for printers to sell preprinted and preformatted diaries and locked diaries were unusual. Preformatted diaries adopted features of almanacs and account books, and journals synchronized personal life with the external rhythms of the clock, the calendar, and the household, not the unpredictable pulses of the heart. Diaries were rarely meant for the diarist’s eyes alone, which explains why biographers had no compunction about publishing large portions of their subjects’ journals with no prefatory justifications. Girls and women read their diaries aloud to sisters or friends,
-040- Most diarists produced chronicles that testified to a woman’s success in developing the discipline necessary to ensure that each day was much like the rest, and even travel diaries were filled not with impressions but descriptions similar to those found in guide books. When something unusually tumultuous took place, it often interrupted a woman’s daily writing and went unrecorded.
-041- Keeping a diary was a religious discipline for many Victorians, who recorded their daily work and spiritual lives as part of a mission to develop methodical habits. M.R.D. Foot characterizes William Gladstone’s diary as “a mild penitential exercise: a daily occasion for self-criticism.”
-042- Philanthropist Louisa Montefiore (1821–1910), later Lady de Rothschild, was an observant Jew who also kept a diary as a form of “strict self examination,” in the hope that carefully documenting how she managed her time and money and regulated her mind and affections would prevent her from being vain, frivolous, and fanciful.
-043- Psychoanalytic theory popularized introspection and encouraged individuals to develop laborate individual mythologies
-044- The many letters included in the published version of Mary Gladstone Drew’s diaries and correspondence were addressed to her cousin and friend Lavinia. The editor of Lady Louise Knightley’s journals identified the central figure of the early volumes as Louise’s cousin and “inseparable companion” Edith, with whom Louise exchanged daily letters when they were separated between 1856 and 1864
-045- Writing in 1865 of the friend who came “to bless my life,” twenty-three-year-old Louisa Knightley
-046- In along passage from The Women of England on women’s duties, what begins as a discussion of friendship between women blurs almost imperceptibly into a peroration on marriage between women and men. By the last sentence of this passage, it is clear that Ellis’s subject has shifted from female friendship to male-female marriage, but where does the shift begin? Have [women] not their young friendships, for those sunny hours when the heart expands itself in the genial atmosphere of mutual love, and shrinks not from revealing its very weaknesses and errors; so that a faithful hand has but to touch its tender chords, and conscience is awakened, and then instruction may be poured in, and medicine may be administered, and the messenger of peace, with healing on his wings, may be invited to come in, and make that hearth is home? Have they not known the secrets of some faithful bosom laid bare before them in a deeper and yet more confiding attachment, when, however insignificant they might be to the world in general, they held an influence almost unbounded over one human being, and could pour in, for the bane or the blessing of that bosom, according to the fountain from whence their own was supplied?Have they not bound themselves by a sacred and enduring bond, to be to one fellow-traveller along the path of life, a companion on his journey.
-047- Anglican novelist Charlotte Yonge (1823—1901) described her life as structured by three great friendships, beginning in childhood with a favorite cousin, “My dear, dear Anne, whom I loved always with all my heart!” .Yonge’s account of her youthful love for Anne provides an unusual instance of a girlhood friendship being checked by adults: [T] he great love of all our lives was getting to be conscious. Anne and I were always together. We wanted to walk about with our arms round each other’s waists, but our mothers held this to be silly, and we were told we could be just as fond of one another without “pawing.” I still think this was hard, and that tenderness would have done no harm. But I do remember a long walk with the nurses and the little ones round Kitley Point….Wegathered [blue-bells] in the ecstasy of childhood among flowers, exchanged our finest clustering stems of blue, and felt our hearts go out to one another. At least I did, so entirely that the Kitley slope—yes, and a white blue-bell—still brings to me that dear Anne and that old love.
-048- The question “did they have sex?” is the first one on people’s lips today when confronted with a claim that women in the past were lovers—and it is almost always unanswerable. If firsthand testimony about sex is the standard for defining a relationship as sexual, then most Victorians never had sex. Scholars have yet to determine whether Thomas Carlyle was impotent; when, if ever, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor consummated their relationship; or if Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, whose diaries recorded their experiments with fetishes, cross-dressing, and bootlicking, also had genital intercourse. Just as one can read hundreds of Victorian letters, diaries, and memoirs without finding a single mention of menstruation or excretion, one rarely finds even oblique references to sex between husband and wife. Men and women were equally reticent about sexual activity inside and outside of marriage. In a journal that described her courtship and wedding in detail, Lady Knightley dispatched the first weeks of wedded life in two lines: “Rainald and I entered on our new life in our own home. May God bless it to us” Elizabeth Butler, whose autobiography included “a little sketch of [her] rather romantic meeting” with the man who became her husband, was similarly and typically laconic about a transition defined by sexual intercourse: “June 11 of that year, 1877, was my wedding day.”
-049-The lack of reliable evidence of sexual activity becomes less problematic, however, if we realize that sex matters because of the social relationships it creates and concentrate on those relationships.
-050- Those types of affairs were in turn worlds apart from the relationships with women that Lister and Cushman called marriages, a term that did not simply mean the relationships were sexual but also connoted shared households, mingled property, and assumptions about exclusivity and durability. We can best understand what kinds of relationships women had with each other not by hunting for evidence of sex, which even if we find it will not explain much, but rather by anchoring women’s own statements about their relationships in a larger context. The context I provide here is the complex linguistic field of lifewriting, which brings into focus two types of relationships often confused with friendship, indeed often called friendship, but significantly different from it: 1 )unrequited passion and obsessive infatuation; and 2) life partnerships, which some Victorians described as marriages between women. The most famous and best-documented example of a Victorian woman’s avowed but unreciprocated passion for another woman is Edith Simcox’s lifelong love for George Eliot,
-051- Tellingly, though twentieth-century scholars often refer to Simcox euphemistically as Eliot’s devoted “friend,” Simcox rarely used the term, and modeled herself instead on a courtly lover made all the more devoted by the one-sidedness of her passion.
-052- I had told her of my ambition to be allowed to lie silently at her feet as she pursued her occupations”
-053- Like a medieval ascetic, Simcox eroticized her lack of sexual fulfillment, arguing that her love was even more powerful than friendship or marriage because, in resigning herself to living “widowed of perfect joy,” she had felt “sharp flames consuming what was left…of selfish lust”
-054- In an unsent letter to Eliot, Simcox again found herself unable to select only one category to explain her love: “Do you see darling that I can only love you three lawful ways, idolatrously as Frater theVirgin Mary, in romance wise as Petrarch, Laura, or with a child’s fondness for the mother”
-055- In the absence of the sociological and scientific shorthand provided by sexology or a codified subculture, and in the absence of a genuinely shared life that could be represented by a common history or joint possessions, women like Simcox represented their unrequited sexual desire for other women by extravagantly combining incompatible terms such as mother, lover, sister, friend, wife, and idol.
-056- By assuring Warren that she did not side with the jilted fiance´, Edith declared an autonomous interest in her: “‘I wanted you to come here because—because I like you.’ She was sitting at her easel and never looking at me as she spoke for I was standing behind her, but when she said ‘because I like you,’ she looked backwards up at me with such an honest, soft, beautiful expression that any distrust I had still left of her trueness melted up into a cinder”
-057- Just as Warren heightened her relationship with Edith by writing about it so effusively and at such length, the two women elevated it by coyly discussing what their interactions and feelings meant. Before one ofher many departures from London, Edith asked Warren: “‘ [A] re you sorry I am going?…How curious—why are you sorry?’ Then I told her a little of all she had done for me…how much life and pleasure and interest she had put into my life, and she said nothing but she just put out her hand and laid it on my hand and that from her means a great deal more than 100 things from anyone else”
-058- If Warren’s diary reports the two women’s interactions with any degree of accuracy, it is clear that both enjoyed creating an atmosphere of pent-up longing. Edith fed Warren’s infatuation with provocative questions and a skill for setting scenes: “She asked what things I cared for now? And I said with truth, for nothing— except seeing her”. Three days later, just before another of Edith’s departures, Warren paid a call: When tea was over, the dusk had begun and I…sat…at the open window. …By and bye Edith came and sat near me….The room inside was nearly dark, but outside it was brilliant May moonlight….Edith sat there ready to go, looking very pale and very sad with the light on her face….We did not talk much. She asked me to go to the party tonight and to think of her at11. …She said goodbye and she kissed me, for the first time. Warren is exquisitely sensitive to every element that connotes eroticism: a darkened room, physical proximity, complicit silence, a romantic demand that the beloved remain present in her lover’s mind even when absent, a kiss whose uniqueness—“for the first time”—suggests a beginning. Any one of these actions would have been unremarkable between female friends, but comparison with other women’s diaries shows how distinctive it was for Warren to list so many gestures within one entry, without defining and therefore restricting their meaning. Warren’s attitude also distinguishes here motions from those articulated by women who took their love for women in a more conjugal or sexual direction.Her journals combine exhaustive attention to the beloved with a pervasive indifference to interrogating what that fascination might mean. Never classified as friendship or love, Warren’s feelings for Edith had the advantages and limits of remaining in the realm of suggestion, where they could expand infinitely without ever being realized or checked
-059- Because female friendship was recognized as an autonomous social relationship with its own duties and privileges, Hird was not simply trivializing or veiling Bonheur’s relationship with Micas when he called them friends. At a time when marriage was increasingly conceived as an affective relationship as well as a legal and economic one, husbands and wives also expressed love by calling one another companions.
-060- The editor of those reminiscences fleshed out what he meant by the women’s “peculiar friendship”
-061- There are many instances of published writing acknowledging marital relationships between women by calling them friendships. Victorian women in female couples were not automatically subject to the exposure and scandal visited on opposite-sex couples who stepped outside the bounds of respectable sexual behavior. Instead, many female couples enjoyed both the right to privacy associated with marriage and the public privileges accorded to female friendship
-062- To call one woman another’s superlative friend was not to disavow their marital relationship but to proclaim it in the language of the day.
-063- The social network that embraced the two women included Fanny Kemble, John Stuart Mill, Henry Maine, Charles Darwin, and William Gladstone, many of whom recognized that Cobbe and Lloyd formed a conjugal unit who lived and traveled together and were to be jointly saluted in correspondence and invited as a pair to social gatherings.
-064- Like pet names, pets were often away for women to represent a marital bond
-065- Paralepsis, in which one talks about something by stating that one is not going to discuss it, was another aspect of the rhetoric of female marriage.
-066- Cobbe called Lloyd her “lifefriend,” and her autobiography invoked the marital privilege of privacy to explain why she wrote sparingly about Lloyd: “Of a friendship like this…I shall not be expected to say more.”
-067- Women like Bonheur and Cobbe described “friendships” that were de facto marriages by assembling elements of friendship, kinship, marriage, and romance.
-068- Their lifewritings demonstrate that terms we might have imagined were fixed for middle-class Victorians, such as “friend” or “wife,” were deployed flexibly and could have contradictory meanings. As a result, we can distinguish female friends from female lovers only by situating those words in the fullest possible context.
-069- it was so common to destroy personal papers that nothing definitive can be concluded from that fact alone. Sexual relationships between women that conformed to a marital model were not considered so illicit that open discussion of a relationship guarantees that it was not sexual. Conversely, just as it is reasonable to determine that sometimes women who called each other “friends” had sexual relationships with each other, in many cases it is equally reasonable to conclude that women were simply friends, despite writing of and to each other in the language of love. Declarations of love areas insufficient to prove a sexual relationship between Victorian women as lack of evidence of sex is to disprove it. But in iterated, cumulative, hyperbolic references to passion, exclusivity, idealization, complicity, private language, and mutual dependence, we can locate a tipping point that separated Victorian women’s ardent friendships from the sexual relationships they also formed with one another.
-070- One of the most striking differences between Victorian and twentieth century friendship is how often Victorian friends used “love” interchangeably with weaker expressions, such as “fond of” or “like,” and how often women used the language of physical attraction to describe their feelings for women whom a larger context shows were friends, not lovers
-071- The author of The Life and Friendships of Catherine Marsh (1917) wrote of Marsh’s 1836 meeting with her friend Caroline Maitland as love at first sight: “ [F] rom the first meeting the two girls were mutually attracted”
-072- Ann Gilbert, a paragon of domesticity, wrote of reaching “blood-heat-fever-heat on the thermometer of friendship” with a neighbor girl
-073- Addressing her friend Catherine Marshin 1862, twenty years after they first met, a married woman wrote, “My Katie, you were mine in 1842, and you have been twenty times more mine every year since,” reveling in friendship as the proud possession of a beloved intimate
-074- As friends, for example, women were able to exercise a prerogative otherwise associated with men: taking an active stance towards the object of their affections.
-075- “When I was so many years younger I used to fall into the most violent friendships and the one I felt for her was nearly the strongest of my passions.
-076- Aristocratic women had exchanged gifts, miniatures, and poems for centuries, and in the Victorian era the practice became widespread among middle-class women of all ages
-077- Female friendship allowed middle-class women to enjoy another privilege that scholars have assumed only men could indulge—the opportunity to display affection and experience pleasurable physical contact outside marriage without any loss of respectability. Women who were friends, not lovers, wrote openly of exchanging kisses and caresses in documents that their spouses and relatives read without comment. Women regularly kissed each other on the lips, a gesture that could be a routine social greeting or provide intense enjoyment.
-078- Emily Shore, whose Bedfordshire Anglican family was so proper they did not allow her to read Byron, described in a diary later published by her sisters the “heartfelt pleasure” she obtained from a visit to her friend Miss Warren’s room: “She was sitting up in bed, looking so sweet and lovely that I could not take my eyes off her….She made me sit on her bed, and kissed me many times, and was kinder to me than ever [and] held my hand clasped in hers”
-079- Cobbe in turn felt “such tender affection” for Somerville “that sitting beside her on the sofa…I could hardly keep myself from caressing her.” Cobbe never wrote of caressing Mary Lloyd, for respectability required lovers and spouses to avoid public signs of a shared sexual life. Friends, by contrast, could openly exchange material tokens of their affection and exhibit themselves giving and receiving the caresses and kisses of friendship.
-080- Female amity gave married and unmarried women the opportunity to play the social field with impunity, since a woman could show devoted love, light-hearted affection, fleeting attraction, and ardent physical appreciation for multiple female friends without incurring rebuke.
-081- In an era that saw no contest between what we now call heterosexual and homosexual desire, neither men nor women saw anything disruptive about amorous badinage between women, and therefore no effort was made to contain and denigrate female homoeroticism as an immature stage to be overcome. Only in the late 1930s, after fear of female inverts had become widespread, did women’s lifewritings start to describe female friendship as a developmental phase to be effaced by marriage. Since then, erotic playfulness between women has either been over interpreted as having the same seriousness as sexual acts or under-interpreted and trivialized as a phase significant only a straining for heterosexual courtship. Victorian lifewriting demonstrates, however, that expressions of playful attraction and love were strongest precisely between women who never became lovers, and far from being practice for marriage, were as common after it as before
082. Victorian society harshly condemned adultery, castigated female heterosexual agency a sunlady like, and considered it improper for women to compete with men intellectually, professionally, or physically. But a woman could enjoy, without guilt, the pleasures of toying with another woman’s affections or vying with other women for precedence as a friend. In maturity as in youth, women delighted in attracting and securing female friends whom they often singledout for being beautiful and socially in demand
083. Female rivalry over men was discouraged because it implied that women fought for and won their husbands, but women were allowed the agency of competing for one another’s favor.
084. Women took note of other women’s attractions not only as models to emulate but as pleasurable objects to consume. Women who felt physically attracted to other women were not seen as less feminine because of the attention they lavished on other women’s bodies, but more so. Luxuriating in women’s charms and viewing women as physical objects are activities some now think of as the prerogative of men. Lesbian enjoyment of women’s bodies is considered an appropriation of masculine desire, while heterosexual women are often imagined as inspecting one another in a spirit of hostile rivalry, unable to enjoy feminine beauty unless narcissistically admiring their own
-085- Women’s lifewriting shows an acceptance of that idealized and ideological version of female friendship; few women left records of conflict or rivalry with friends, though some acknowledged engaging in jealous competition with relative strangers over prized acquaintances and intimates
-086- In an 1834 letter, Mary Lundie Duncan described longing to find “a friend to whom I could unfold all my heart.”
-087- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has shown how the suppression of men’s homoerotic desires surfaces in Victorian novels as a Gothic strain of paranoia among male characters who must renounce homoerotic desires but cannot mourn them.
-088- Symptomatic reading is an excellent method for excavating what societies refuse to acknowledge, and the twentieth century did indeed define gay and lesbian existence through repression and the resistance to it.
-089- In the place of symptomatic readings, the interpretations I offer in this chapter are what I call “just readings.” Just reading attends to what Jameson, in his pursuit of hidden master codes, dismisses as “the inert givens and materials of a particular text”
-090- Just reading strives to be adequate to a text conceived as complex and ample rather than as diminished by, or reduced to, what it has had to repress.
-091- Friends were clearly distinct from spouses and family members in many ways: less physically intimate, more prone to be idealized as perfect than idolized despite their imperfections.
-092- Like the women in female marriages who accumulated metaphors for their relationships (supreme friend, sister, mother, wife, lover),
-093- The friend could be a surrogate mother, and many women called their friends sisters. Conversely, writers often portrayed close affection between sisters as the highest form of friendship. As Christina Rossetti put it in her poem Goblin Market, “ [T] here is no friend like a sister.” In a more circumspect vein, Sarah Ellis wrote, “ [T] here may be faithful friendships formed in after years; but when a sister is a sister’s friend, there can be none so tender, and…so true”
-094- When Margaret Warren rescinded her betrothal to her cousin Amyas in 1871, she was as distressed about upsetting his mother as she was about disappointing him. One of her diary’s most heartfelt entries recorded telling Amyas’s mother she was ending the engagement even before she informed Amyas himself: “I rose to go and asked if I might take her hand. She gave it me and kissed me—and then all my pride gave way and as I knelt by her sofa with my hands in hers as she has often held them before—we both cried together…I remember saying ‘Oh if I had but loved Amyas one quarter as much as I love you it would have been all right’ and indeed that was true. Her hand was lying on my hands—her pretty long white fingers with the old blue rings on them and I could not help it—I stopped down and kissed them before I went”
-095- Symptomatic readings of sexuality in the Victorian novel have assumed that the genre takes shape in relationship to an opposition between a dominant heterosexuality exemplified by marriage and a marginal, repressed homosexuality at odds with marriage and family life,
-096- marriage was often considered an extension of female friendship and sometimes construed as the best name for sexual bonds between women as well as between women and men
-097- Dorothea takes off her gloves; Rosamond reads Dorothea’s face attentively and sees a gentleness there that disarms her; she cannot “avoid putting her small hand into Dorothea’s” nor noticing its “firm softness”
-098- not factored in how “dangerously responsive” she feels when she sees Rosamond—“she suddenly found her heart swelling and was unable to speak”. As the two women sit on chairs that “happened…to be close together”, Dorothea talks to Rosamond about Lydgate’s troubles. As she does so, the narrator notes, “she had unconsciously laid her hand again on the little hand that she had pressed before,” and even after Rosamond has “withdrawn” hers, Dorothea’s is “still resting on Rosamond’s lap”
-099- Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect— could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck. “You are thinking what is not true,” said Rosamond, in an eager half-whisper, while she was still feeling Dorothea’s arms round her—urged by a mysterious necessity to free herself from something that oppressed her as if it were blood-guiltiness….Rosamond had delivered her soul under impulses which she had not known before.
-100- The kiss Rosamond bestows on Dorothea is a version of the “earnest sacramental kisses” Janet bestows on Mrs.Pettifer in Scenes of Clerical Life—“such kisses as seal a new and closer bond between the helper and the helped” and reinforce the social fabric. The physical embrace that transports Rosamond and Dorothea to a higher plane of consciousness, connection, and “serious emotion” is inseparable from the resolution of Middlemarch’s marriage plot
-101- Rosamond and Dorothea’s connection is social, if not public, and therefore affects their connections to others.
-102- with respect to female friendship, Victorian novels succeed in making the reader actively desire that nothing will happen
-103- In this sense, female friendship defies Peter Brooks’s equation of plot with the dynamic forward movement of plotting, and circumvents the classic distinction D.A. Miller makes between the necessary instability of the narratable and the quiescent plenitude of the non-narratable.
-104- The narrator is quite clear, however, that Madame Neroni is not a woman but a predatory “spider” and diabolical “basilisk”. The novel locates the quintessence of true womanhood in sisters who are the antithesis of Madame Neroni,
-105- “Having…fixedly resolved [on] … the pre-eminence of the exalted Green, the two girls went to sleep in each other’s arms, contented with themselves and the world”
-106- One does not have to go outside the canon, however, to show the importance of female friendship in the Victorian novel. It is present in Middlemarch, in David Copperfield,
-107- The bond between female friends, in contrast, is either established before the novel begins or coalesces almost instantaneously, intensifies almost effortlessly, and can be expressed clearly and openly. The relative stability of friendship makes it the motor rather than the subject of plot; it generates enormous energy without itself moving much or melting down. The tendency of female friendship to remain constant over the course of a plot is a sign both of its narrative weakness (not much happens to the friendship) and of its narrative strength (because of its stability, friendship makes things happen)
-108- The plot of female amity is the Victorian novel’s purloined letter, hiding in plain sight in the genre’s every permutation
-109- Sensation novels, which characteristically emphasize occult powers and deceptive social ties, make female friendship an equally baroque narrative force. In Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife (1870), for instance, the attachment between two female friends, Blanche and Anne, is all that can disentangle a marriage plot mired in complex wills, obscure legal loopholes, and vindictive relatives
-110- Blanche makes her refusal to “give…up” Anne a condition of marriage when she tells her suitor: “There’s time to say No, Arnold—if you think I ought to have no room in my heart for anybody but you.”
-111- One young woman’s “enthusiasm” for Agnes, the heroine—whom she finds so attractive “it is with difficulty that I keep my eyes away from her”
-112- When Agnes first meets the “tall, elegant-looking woman” whom she does not yet know is her male beloved’s sister, her “whole attention seemed captivated”. Once she identifies the woman as the sister of the man she loves, Agnes goes into a paroxysm, “trembling from head to foot with here yes timidly fixed on the beautiful countenance of Colonel Hubert’s sister…. [T] here was timidity certainly in the pleasure with which she listened to the voice and gazed at the features of Colonel Hubert’s sister; but still it was pleasure, and very nearly the most lively she had ever experienced”. Within pages, she and Hubert’s sister have exchanged the embraces and kisses
-113- Hubert’s sister approves her brother’s choice, exclaiming, “I too am very much in love with Agnes”. Trollope can so graphically represent the erotic delight women take and inspire in each other for the obvious reason that the “lively…pleasure” of female homoeroticism poses no phallic threat to virginal virtue. But she can also depict their attraction so floridly because a woman’s susceptibility to another woman defined rather than defied femininity—because even the most erotic bond between women could sustain opposite-sex desire.
-114- The novel’s last sentences describe Emma’s “exaltation” as she “held her beloved in her arms under the dusk of the withdrawing redness.” That “beloved” is the female friend who has just returned from her honeymoon, and the novel’s last lines focus on the women’s reunion: “They sat embraced, with hands locked, in the unlighted room, and Tony spoke of the splendid sky. ‘You watched it knowing I was on my way to you?’
-115- Deerbrook also ends at dusk, an erotic threshold that blurs light and darkness, public visibility and shaded privacy, in which day tremulously balances night and finality seems momentarily suspended
-116- “…and just put her affectionate arms round Agnes’s neck, and laid her innocent cheek against her face”
-117- Dora declares her friendship to Agnes soon after meeting her: “I am so glad…that you like me….I want, more than ever, to be liked, now Julia Mills is gone”. David’s fragmentary memories of his wedding day recall Dora actually holding Agnes’s hand when she makes her wedding vows: “Of our kneeling down together, side by side; of Dora’s trembling less and less, but always clasping Agnes by the hand”. On the verge of departing on her honeymoon, Dora finds it difficult to leave Agnes, “giving Agnes, above all the others, her last kisses and farewells”. After her wedding, Dora conjectures that a longer friendship with Agnes would have made her a better helpmate: “I wish…that I could have gone down into the country for a whole year, and lived with Agnes!
-118- Dora dies on Agnes’s “bosom, with a smile”
-119- Marian and Aurora realize Dora’s fantasy of living with Agnes before marrying David, and Romney and Aurora disclose their love only after Aurora has shared a household with Marian and her son. After Aurora glimpses Marian in Paris, she imagines proposing friendship to Marian: “Marian! I find you. Shall I let you go?…/Come with me rather where we’ll talk and live/And none shall vex us. I’ve a home for you/And me and no one else”
|by V. L. Craven|
Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus