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Reviewed by:
Ruth Vanita. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the Literary Imagination. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 289 pp.

Reading against the current critical practice in feminist and lesbian studies of locating sites of lesbian erasure, Ruth Vanita’s study of Sapphic and Marian images in the works of English writers from the Romantics onward presents a compelling counternarrative of literary ancestry that claims a pervasive and generative space for literary tropes of lesbian love. According to Vanita, Sapphic and Marian “models of love between women creators” can be seen as occupying a privileged space in the English cultural imagination because they can be read as the generative force behind many “dominant ideals of human relations and creativity” expressed in English literature since Romanticism.

In its early chapters, this study offers an engaging analysis of the cultural and historical constructions of Sappho and the Virgin Mary, taking into account the politics surrounding translations of Sappho as well as the ideological complexities inherent in various Catholic and Protestant Marian myths. Thereafter, Vanita explicates and analyzes an impressively vast array of texts ranging from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” to Woolf’s Flush in order to expose the literary deployment of the Sapphic ideal—which “develops passionate dialogue between women as a paradigm for lyric intensity and sublimity”—and/or the Marian ideal—which “eroticizes the mother-daughter relationship and gives rise to triangles in which the primary energy is between two [End Page 1032] women.” In this process Vanita occasionally relies on a few other exegetical touchstones, such as the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare and Plato’s Symposium.

Vanita frames her study as “[i]mplicitly” refuting Teresa de Lauretis’s contention that “‘Western cultures’” hegemonically represent “‘lesbianism as phallic pretension or male identification’”; Vanita is true to her word in that her engagement with de Lauretis as well as other theorists of sexuality, such as Foucault and Sedgwick, remains essentially implicit, for her study favors close reading over heavily theorized discourse. Among the most compelling refutations of de Lauretis’s aforementioned claim that lesbianism has primarily been constructed within phallocentric narratives is Vanita’s significant expansion of Paula Bennett’s study of the “primacy of clitoral imagery” in the writing of women poets to include a large number of canonical male writers, ranging from the Romantics to Oscar Wilde. For example, Vanita demonstrates in a number of well-orchestrated readings that the primacy of clitoral imagery is an integral part of the poetry of Shelley; Keats, whose “erotic landscapes and images generally suggest female autoeroticism or oral eroticism”; and Coleridge, whose “Kubla Khan” “envisions a self-sufficient female erotic power (what would today be called lesbian) that inspires a similar vision of a self-sufficient male erotic power (homoerotic male).”

Sappho and the Virgin Mary is especially helpful in beginning to map new textual strategies for reading tropes of male and female homoeroticism as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In a provocative reading of Walter Pater’s last sentence in The Renaissance—“‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame [. . .]’”—Vanita argues that Pater created “an immensely influential trope for homoerotic, specifically, lesbian love,” as the image is “suggestive of clitoral sexuality that is not linear but continuous.” Furthermore, Vanita contends that Pater’s disciples, Wilde and the painter Simeon Solomon (whose work graces the book’s cover) “developed a homoerotics that foregrounded love between women.”

Pater and Wilde (along with da Vinci, Freud, and Shelley) figure in more than one of Vanita’s nine chapters, in which she weaves together a usually impressive, but sometimes unwieldy, array of readings in the service of mapping the Sapphic and Marian literary terrain. Among the texts that receive more than a few pages of commentary and analysis [End Page 1033] are the writings of Michael Field, two women who wrote under one pseudonym; the writings of the Ladies of Llangollen: Shelley’s The Cenci; Austen’s Emma; Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways; Forster’s Howards End; Woolf’s Orlando and The Waves; and finally, in a chapter that explores “Nonhuman Creatures in Homoerotic Texts,” Woolf’s Flush and the poetry of...

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