- Transcendental Erotics, Same-Sex Desire, and Ethel's Love-Life
Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat's 1859 novel, Ethel's Love-Life, has been variously identified as a legible "treat[ment] of Lesbianism"; as a rendering of the physical intensity of women's friendship in a world of female love and ritual; and as a fiction that evinces the increasing pathologization of erotic friendships between women. 1 It is little surprise that this strange and compelling novel should prompt such a range of responses. Ethel's Love-Life energetically embodies the fluidity of its own mid-nineteenth-century moment, upholding Sharon Marcus's astute insistence on the Victorians' "particular indifference" to "a homo/hetero divide for women" by situating the title character in a "love-life" that figures women and men without clear discrimination. 2 And yet it is also a harbinger of the cultural change to come, as it pointedly attends to passionate love between women.
Attempting to dispense with anachronistic questions of sexual identity in "romantic friendship," recent scholarship has observed that nineteenth-century Americans held in sight a different binary—the spiritual versus the carnal—as far more determinative of a relationship's cultural acceptance than its homo- or heteroeroticism. 3 But such novels as Sweat's remind us that this historical binary is not to be subsumed under our own nonsexual/sexual binary. Rather than drawing our attention to the emotional, intellectual, and "spiritual" at the expense of the erotic and sexual, or casting the spiritual as a [End Page 51]
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sublimation of sexual desire, as studies of romantic friendship often do, 4 a consideration of Ethel's Love-Life opens new, post-secular critical arenas in which, as Elizabeth Povinelli has suggested, to "multiply the ways we can coordinate spirituality and sexuality." 5 For many Americans of the nineteenth century, the carnal was a surprisingly narrow category while the spiritual was a supple and capacious realm permeated with pleasure and sensation and bearing its own relationship to embodiment. In featuring the reach and power of spirit and casting even the social and sexual realms in its terms, Sweat's novel actively builds on, and elaborates in unprecedented detail, a transcendentalist model of sexual relations that allows her to articulate and portray erotic love between women.
Sweat's novel is of interest, then, not as a historical illustration of the intensity and physical intimacy of women's friendships, but as an articulation of the sexual results of the transcendentalist urge toward a world attuned to the spiritual needs of the self. In fact, a utopian social architecture emerges from Sweat's desire to think through and portray more flexible sexual arrangements. If George Ripley's Brook Farm erected a social system on Fourier's privileging of personal passion but excised the sexual consequences from its official doctrine, Ethel's Love-Life reunites radical American experimentalism with passional freedom. An expert Francophile, Sweat wed her interest in social theory to her study of George Sand's novels, which she translated and for which she wrote critical introductions. Through Sand, Sweat recognized the potential of the novel as a testing ground for social theory, and she used the form, merging it with a transcendentalist-inflected interest in epistolarity, to work out the larger social consequences of her own system of spiritual attraction. In Ethel's Love-Life, a spirituo-sexual vision comes alive at the intersection of transcendental idealism and social thought, a meeting place that has prompted lively debate in recent years. The novel goes beyond demonstrating that transcendental idealism could foster engagement with social activism to show how crucially spiritual matters could underpin and shape a social vision—and in so doing, it illuminates such a dynamic in previous figures like Margaret Fuller. [End Page 53]
Margaret Sweat was not a card-carrying transcendentalist, but her life and work register the reach and resonance of transcendentalist thought in its second generation. While neither a Unitarian nor a member of the transcendentalist coteries in...