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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 139-160

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Twilight Moments

University of Minnesota

In 1863 the Codrington divorce trial exposed to the light of day what had long been concealed in darkness. Although married to an admiral, for years Helen Codrington had spent her nights in bed with the mannish feminist Emily Faithfull without exciting suspicion. In fact, when their marriage broke down, the admiral charged Helen with having affairs with male officers. Defending her honor, Helen countercharged that one night, as she slept with Emily, the admiral silently entered her bedroom and slipped into the bed—by implication, to molest Emily. At the time, it appeared, this incident was one of those private quarrels that mark unhappy marriages. But in the legal proceedings Emily initially verified Helen's accusation. To ward off this damaging information the admiral acquired a "sealed packet" of incriminating information about Emily, who, in response, withdrew her testimony. What was in the packet? Nobody knew for sure, but rumors spread that this "romantic and credulous" woman had formed an attachment to a "dangerous friend"; Emily was said to be "of impure mind," and the poet Robert Browning gossiped that she lied to "interest" another female poet, a new twist to the "sportings of the fancy." As Martha Vicinus recounts, no one openly expressed the suspicion that the two women had a sexual relationship, but vague rumors and gossip served to police their behavior all too effectively. As a result of the trial both Helen and Emily [End Page 139] had to withdraw from society—Helen permanently and Emily temporarily. Admiral Codrington, however, remarried soon after the divorce.1

This incident does not fit comfortably into the dominant model of the history of sexuality, which has been inspired by Foucault's delineations of sexual identities in the first volume of his History of Sexuality. Had the case occurred in the late 1920s, according to the model, Faithfull would have been stigmatized as a perverted lesbian spinster, a danger to young women.2 By then discourses incorporating the concept of sexual identities were widely employed to define and discipline those with unconventional desires. In the 1860s, however, the public was presumably aware only of deviant sexual acts, not of sexual identities. However, the absence of both the stigmatized identity "lesbian" and any evidence that she had committed deviant sexual acts did not permit Emily Faithfull to elude harmful rumors and gossip. We need additional conceptual tools to discuss cases like Emily Faithfull's, which involved sexual desires, relationships, and practices that did not produce identities, that were half-understood, expressed only by oblique gestures, veiled in silence. Looking at the period before modern sexual identities, historians sometimes claim that societies "uneasily tolerated" unconventional sexual behavior such as interracial sex or sex between women, but it is all too easy for readers to confuse toleration and acceptance.3 Hidden desires could still be subject to discipline. This article uses the metaphor of "twilight" to explore these issues, drawing upon histories of interracial sex, prostitution, sex between men and between women, and unmarried motherhood.

I propose "twilight" as a metaphor for those sexual practices and desires that societies prohibit by law or custom but that people pursue anyhow, whether in secret or as an open secret. Twilight can be a metaphor for those silent moments when a married man picked up a boy on the street, when a wife caressed her female friend, or, more sinisterly, when the master crept into the slave quarters to rape a woman. These people's desires did not create a fixed identity; they indulged in these forbidden moments and then returned to their ordinary lives, just as twilight fades into darkest night, and night is succeeded by the dawn. Just as one can see only vague shapes in the dim light of dusk, twilight words conveyed sexual desires and practices that were only half-understood—like the abortion information whispered in the aisles of the pharmacy or the pornography hidden in a respectable man's library. The metaphor of twilight...


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