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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.3 (2006) 408-431

Sexual and Textual Indeterminacy:
Eighteenth-Century English Representations of Sapphism
Catherine Craft-Fairchild
University of St. Thomas

Until fairly recently it has been commonplace in studies of eighteenth-century sexuality to dismiss the cultural fear of female–female erotic unions by comparing popular reactions to "sapphists" with public responses to "molly clubs" of male homosexuals. In her pioneering study Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) Lillian Faderman insisted that "lesbian sexuality was treated more tolerantly than male homosexuality."1 Lynne Friedli, drawing attention to the absence in English law of any criminal code applying to female homosexuality, noted that "women who married [each other] were charged with fraud. Sexual relations between women rarely attracted the attention of the courts, and neither women who merely dressed as men, nor those who married, were the focus of public disapproval in the way that Molly Clubs and effeminate men were."2 Randolph Trumbach agreed, arguing that "sexual relations between women . . . were not prosecuted [in England]. . . . It was . . . always much more possible to be unaware that sexual relations between women existed in any form than it was to be ignorant of the existence of effeminate male sodomites."3 In "London's Sapphists" Trumbach stated succinctly: "The stigmatization [of sapphists] . . . was never as great as that which male sodomites experienced."4

Then in 1993 Terry Castle published a work, The Apparitional Lesbian, that appeared to take a controversial and oppositional position. Drawing [End Page 408] attention to the ways in which lesbianism has remained largely invisible or "ghostly" in historical studies, Castle wrote: "It would be putting it mildly to say that the lesbian represents a threat to patriarchal protocol. . . . The law has traditionally ignored female homosexuality—not out of indifference, I would argue, but out of morbid paranoia. . . . Behind . . . silence, one can often detect an anxiety too severe to allow for direct articulation."5 Castle's observation suggests that the absence of a condemnatory legal statute in England was not, as earlier researchers posited, a sign of tolerance of sapphic practices but a fear of acknowledging and articulating them.

In England, while silence largely prevailed in the legal sphere, erotic relationships between women were being written about in several other venues. Studying many of these documents in her Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment (1999), Elizabeth Susan Wahl concludes that homosexual relations between women developed into an "open secret" during the eighteenth century, becoming "embedded and even coded within a multiplicity of . . . medical, literary, and pornographic discourses."6 In line with Wahl's work on the eighteenth century, recent critics studying the seventeenth century have unearthed a plethora of documents treating female–female eroticism. In The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England Valerie Traub illustrates how, through "a rebirth of classical idioms, rhetorics, tropes, and illustrative examples, . . . female homoeroticism gained intelligibility in early modern England."7 Traub notes, however, that added visibility led to increased cultural sanctions. She writes:

The intertextual circulation of anatomy books, midwiferies, travel narratives, obscenity, and other imaginative literature led to increasing suspicion about those forms of female intimacy previously considered [End Page 409] chaste: the sharing of beds, kissing and caressing, and exclusive friendships. These behaviors, represented as unexceptional until the mid-seventeenth century, begin to be construed as immoral, irrational, a threat to other women as well as to men. . . . [A] discursive regime of impossibility [was] gradually displaced by a governing logic of suspicion and possibility.8

Harriette Andreadis argues along lines parallel to Traub's that "a developing consciousness of the demarcations separating transgressive from conforming behaviors may have provided the impetus for inhibition."9 Andreadis elaborates, saying that "by the mid-seventeenth century . . . conscious understanding about female same-sex relations in England was sufficiently strong and wide-spread, and those behaviors were sufficiently denigrated, that discourse in English literature began to be inhibited."10 She adds: "Imputations of female same-sex relations . . . [came] to be...


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