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Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes by Lisa L. Moore (review)
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Moore’s archivally dense and methodologically suggestive exploration of the lives, works, and communities crafted by four eighteenth-century women—the literary and visual artist Mary Delany (1700-1788); collector Mary Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-85); poet Anna Seward (1747-1809); and writer and educator Sarah Pierce (1767-1852)—locates itself amongst recent important reconsiderations of the affective work of lesbian and gay history by Chris Nealon, Carla Freccero, L. O. Aranye Fradenburg, and others, which foreground the dynamic interplay between historical narratives and the contemporary communities that both shape and draw sustenance from them. Moore’s engaging and beautifully written book is enlivened by the authoritative location of her subjects within complex cultural and relational contexts, as it is by her sharp eye for telling biographical details. Her archive is capacious: the range of its contents and close readings offer remarkable insight into the diversity of its subjects’ artistic and affective practices. As her title suggests, Moore does not shy from employing the term “lesbian” in historical contexts predating its contemporary usage, gesturing towards the strategic deployment of taxonomical anachronisms in the work of Freccero, Valerie Rohy, and others.

Moore’s participation in what has been termed “the queer turn” in lesbian and gay historiography is signaled by the assertion, “I am more interested in what people made than in whom they may have had sex with or how their self-fashioning might line up with current categories of sexual identity” (p. 2). Accordingly, Moore defines “lesbian” not as a form of subjectivity but as “an art-making practice, a form of relationship or community, and sometimes as a kind of art object” (p. 3). Similarly, she appropriates the concept of “the sister arts”—the Horatian designation for the representational similarities between poetry and painting—to characterize a variety of landscape-focused artistic practices including garden design, illustration, poetry, gift exchange, and epistolarity, through which the eighteenth-century women under consideration expressed desire for and among women. These “lesbian genres,” Moore declares, draw not only on the traditional association between nature and female eroticism but also on the feminine and amateur connotations of popular, ephemeral, and craft-making practices of shellwork, collage, and embroidery, even as women such as Delany paired such practices with purportedly masculine practices such as scientific botanical illustration (p. 3). Taking seriously not only the content but the circulation of such art forms, Moore declares that such individuals and artistic practices may be deemed queer in their deployment of a “promiscuit[y] of genres” (p. 11), which breach boundaries of form, gender, and artistic hierarchy, as well as sexual identity (p. 3).

Moore’s first chapter, “Queer Gardens: Mary Delany’s Flowers and Friendships,” offers a compelling reading of the life, work, and relationships of Delany, whose status as an aristocratic amateur and focus on the feminized genres of the letter, memoir, shellwork, collage, and landscape illustration has led to critical neglect of her prodigious cultural productions. Locating Delany’s life, work, and relationships within the cosmopolitan communities of elite women that flourished in eighteenth-century London and Dublin, Moore reveals the way in which Delany rebutted the classical-inflected tradition that gendered both friendship and collecting as masculine prerogatives (pp. 24-25). Moore offers close readings of Delany’s extensive landscape improvements of the gardens at Delvile and Bulstrode, arguing that they created location-specific and literally vibrant spaces for female intimacies such as her fifty-year relationship with Bentinck. Detailing the eighteenth-century tradition of “ribald gardens,” in which stonework and mounds of earth were fashioned to create grottos suggestive of the female sexual organs, Moore explores Delany’s appropriation of this libertine tradition in her construction of a “Beggar’s Hut” that echoes the “Venus Temple” constructed by members of the Hell Fire Club (pp. 34-36). Intriguingly, Moore also suggests that Delany’s transformation of her husband’s garden at Delvile serves as an overlooked Irish influence upon eighteenth-century English landscape design. Moore thus brings Delany’s queer aesthetics and life practices vividly to life, offering an absorbing account of her centrality to the histories of both landscape design and queer cultural production.

Moore then turns to Bentinck, whose...

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