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  • Lesbianism and Romantic Genius: The Poetry of Anne Bannerman
  • Andrew Elfenbein

This essay will focus on sexual representation in the work of Anne Bannerman (1780?–1829), a virtually unknown Scottish poet. 1 Her poetry is challenging because most theoretical models dominating recent work on the relation of sexuality to literature are of surprisingly little help in interpreting her. Since nothing is known about her personal life, sexual representation in her works cannot be seen as an expression of her sexuality unless the critic is willing to invent a psychobiography for her. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality has generally inspired alternatives to psychobiographical readings; such alternatives situate a literary work in a wider set of literary, medical, or legal representations to describe how it was shaped by, and in turn shaped, the discursive construction of sexuality. 2 Yet since journals or newspapers reprinted few of Bannerman’s poems and none of her books reached a second edition, her poetry had no substantial effects on how anyone in the nineteenth century would have represented or understood his or her sexuality. In terms of the possible effects of extraliterary discourses on her poems, her work gives little evidence of them beyond what could be found in any poet of her day.

I write about Bannerman because contemporary attention to issues of sexuality has made her work interesting in ways that may not have been available before. Sexual representation in Bannerman’s work departs strikingly from that found in much Romantic poetry by men and by women. 3 I will describe how these departures can be understood as lesbian writing despite the absence of information about Bannerman’s personal life, the theoretical complexity of describing the history of lesbianism, and the lack in her writing of overt expressions of desire between women. Developments in literary history not obviously connected to the history of sexuality may nevertheless authorize striking departures from heterosexual norms of representation. For Bannerman, such a development was the eighteenth-century exploration of genius. If female authors were expected to be proper ladies, geniuses were not. 4

Readings of pre-nineteenth-century literature that interpret representations of homosexuality often address the frustrations of anachronistic [End Page 929] vocabulary, including “homosexuality” itself. It is difficult to find representations of lesbians or gay men when the concept of homosexuality as now understood did not exist. One critical strategy for overcoming this difficulty is to reconstruct an older vocabulary for sexual deviance by tracing the meanings of words like “molly” for gay men and “tommy” for lesbians. 5 Such investigations look for a distinct vocabulary of sexuality. This essay will suggest that it may be just as useful to read the possibilities in terms that initially, to twentieth-century readers, seem to have nothing to do with sexuality, such as “female genius.” I will reverse the typical procedure in Foucaultian investigations of the relations of literature to sexuality. Rather than seeing how events in extra-literary discourses molded literary sexual representation, I will examine how “genius,” a concept vital to the emerging eighteenth-century category of literature itself, invited in its turn new forms of sexual representation.

Defining Female Genius

Understanding the relationship between genius and lesbianism in Bannerman’s writing involves understanding eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century perceptions of lesbianism. Using “lesbian” as an umbrella term, Martha Vicinus lists four roles for the sexually deviant woman in the eighteenth century: the transvestite, the “mannish” woman, the “free woman” who flaunted sexual relations with men and women, and the romantic friend. 6 Of these roles, the last was the most socially acceptable because romantic friendships “avoided a direct confrontation with male prerogatives, whether sexual or political.” 7 The “direct confrontation” that made the other roles threatening involved gender-crossing: the transvestite assumed men’s clothes; the “mannish” woman, masculine manners and physical appearance; and the “free woman,” masculine sexual license.

Although gay and lesbian criticism has insisted on the important distinction between gender and sexuality, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers treated them as inseparable, though not identical. 8 If a lesbian can be defined in the late twentieth century as a woman “whose primary emotional and erotic allegiance is to [her] own sex...

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