- Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel
“This Coyness, Lady, IS no crime”: The Criminal Omissions of a Guiltless Romantic Friendship
Lisa L. Moore’s Dangerous Intimacies (DI) has a crime at its heart. At the book’s physical center and moral crux, Moore reads an 1810 trial transcript previously published as Lillian Faderman’s Scotch Verdict (SV) (1983) to contravene Faderman’s doctrine of romantic friendship. Briefly, in Woods-Pirie vs. Cumming Gordon, two teachers sued a wealthy dowager for libel, contending that her gossip about an unnatural passion between them closed their school. As in Oscar Wilde’s lawsuit against the Marquis of Queensbury, the plaintiffs risked criminal prosecution themselves, for bringing this suit meant airing details of their intimate attachment. Early in the trial, Lord Glenlee wrote, “If [the] evidence is true, it is enough to exonerate Lady Cumming Gordon. And I have very little doubt that in all ages and countries, women have enjoyed this mode of seeking pleasure” (SV, 87). Yet, the judges returned a verdict of “undecided”—due, if Faderman is right, to their accurate recognition of the blameless nature of romantic friendship. Here, Faderman disputes what Misses Woods and Pirie were up to in 1810 with her partner Ollie: “Ollie thinks. . .their choice to sleep in one bed together proves they were lovers. I agree. I never said they were not. I only said they did not have genital sex. Of course they kissed and caressed as romantic friends did” (SV, 154). As in Surpassing the Love of Men (1981), Faderman memorializes a pregenital sapphism, in the process, wresting from Marvell an anti-carpe diem motto: “This coyness, lady, IS no crime. We do have world enough and time. Two hundred years to adore each breast is about right, because we’ll be waiting those centuries for our brash feminist successors to find more concentrated nerve endings.”
Moore deduces from the racist abhorrence in the trial notes that Woods and Pirie were released, not because coyness is no crime, but because the judges diverted their wrath onto Jane Cumming, the half-Indian “natural” granddaughter of the defendant, who first reported the intrigue between her teachers. Lord Meadowbank speculated that Jane Cumming learned of “the imputed vice hitherto unknown in Britain” from harem concubines in her native India. Cumming’s “dark and distinct hints” of lesbianism, and her mimetically “dark, unscrutable” complexion figure as the origin of perversion in the judges’ trial notes, which one judge closed by [End Page 403] asserting the immunity of all white women to sapphism: “I have no more suspicion of the guilt of the plaintiffs than I have of my own wife” (233). Faderman herself “only become[s] surer of this Indian girl’s villainy” as she reads the trial notes in 1982, though she attributes Jane’s precocious sexual knowledge to “a pornographic novel smuggled into the school” or “working-class girls” at Elgin (192; 244–46). Without wishing for the spectacle of Woods and Pirie remanded to Reading Gaol, Moore divulges that there is a crime in this story, the scapegoating of a young girl to achieve a harmonious national portrait of romantic friends.
Recently, Terry Castle and Emma Donoghue have also taken the chaste, dilatory romantic friends to task for their belated sortie to the genitals. Castle’s Apparitional Lesbian (1993) attributes the “no lesbians before 1900” prohibition to Foucault rather than to Faderman, but she does not linger over the ancestry of this school for long, confidently and rapidly dismissing any “condescending belief in the intellectual and erotic naïveté of women of past epochs” (9). “What Lesbians Do in Dictionaries,” Emma Donoghue’s charming meditation in Passions between Women (PBW) (1993), joins Castle in asking why modern sexology’s naming event of lesbianism was ever thought a necessary precondition to the practice of sex between women (2–8). Donoghue prefigures Moore’s contention that the exclusive focus in feminist criticism on “approbatory accounts” of romantic friends has impoverished our discussion of eighteenth-century female...