- Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778–1928
Women have always found ways to love women, even if the explicitness of their eroticism has varied considerably. Even Victorian women, for all their reputed naïvété, explored lesbian desire [End Page 760] through adroit sexual self-fashioning. As Martha Vicinus stresses of women whose love lives are not fully archived, "it would be foolish and arrogant to assume that none of these women knew their bodies well enough to practice sexual relations to orgasm with another woman" (230). The women of bourgeoning bourgeois modernity—the era covered by this book—not only knew their desires but also knew them well enough to invent new forms of satisfying intimacy. Female "friends" found ways to supplement or revise heterosexual marriage, or to resist and replace it altogether, appropriating, adapting, and surpassing prescripted heterosexual roles and ideals to cultivate and enhance their passion. "Sex matters" to women who love women, and no less to the women who appear in these pages as bold instigators and innovators of lesbian eroticism. If scholars have dwelled circumspectly on the emotional pole of the lesbian continuum, Vicinus stresses unequivocally that female friends of the past were having sex, and having it with fashionable flare.
Intimate Friends sets out to redress a historical avoidance of erotic love between women by documenting the abundance and importance of that love to women's social and cultural prosperity, as well as by specifying and theorizing the startling variation, complexity, and fluidity of women's sexual identifications. From 1778 to 1928, women-loving women embarked on a courageous adventure of erotic self-fashioning, commencing with Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby's flight from Ireland to Wales to become the celebrated married "Ladies of Llangollen," and closing with the publication of Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, which was subsequently confiscated and tried for its "obscene" ennoblement of female homosexuality. Between these landmark events, women—mostly wealthy, white, upper-middle class, Anglo-American women who left written evidence of their erotic lives—were able to exploit growing confusion over what constituted the ideal marriage in bourgeois society, the place of unmarried women, and the nature of female sexuality and homosexuality, and they ventured to make of desire what they wanted, pressing sexual social respectability to its legal, moral, and imaginable limits. Nathalie Barney's 1930s Paris salon, which openly held court to Sapphic free-lovers and theatrical cross-dressers, will be familiar to readers of modernism. But possibly less familiar will be that Barney and company were preceded by the much-respected Victorian thespians, Charlotte Cushman and protégé Harriet Hosmer, who cultivated trend-setting same-sex eroticism within their homosocial "Rome Community" of the mid-1800s. Lesbianism flourished before women identified publically as "lesbian" or had a language to represent lesbian sexuality and autonomy, ethics, and politics. Authors of lesbian self-fashioning were most successful and most innovative when they did this together, in community, coinciding with, but not overlapping or invading, the familial heterosexual domain.
In referring to the women of this period, Vicinus defends an anachronistic use of the terms "lesbian" and "same-sex desire" to underscore the overt eroticism that characterized woman's love of woman. "The lesbian," she asserts, "is integral to society," not merely marginal or exceptional. Accordingly, lesbian self-fashioning actively rescripts and recasts normative heterosexuality, fitting the husband-wife pairing to woman-woman couples and creating a host of new sexual personae, including manifold variations of the "mannish woman." Vicinus invokes a "more embodied" understanding of lesbian subjectivity than Judith Butler's idea of gender as performance under social and cultural constraints. These women, Vicinus argues, expressed their desires not just by acting out "unstable identities" but by practicing and cultivating "complex identifications, embedded in class, national and racial associations" (xxii).
A hybrid metaphor, the phrase "intimate friendship" condenses the terms and traditions of "Romantic sentimentality" and "Sapphic sexuality" of the preceding era. Intimate friends did not affect an easy dialectic but undertook a soul-searching experiment to...