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Reviewed by:
  • Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928
  • Petra Rau (bio)
Martha Vicinus , Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778– 1928 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 314 pp., ISBN 0–226–85564–3, £17.50 (paperback edition of the original 2004 hardback).

What were lesbians before they became 'lesbians', 'deviants', or 'female homosexuals'? In Surpassing the Love of Men (1981), Lillian Faderman argued that one could just about go as far as 'romantic friends' because modern definitions neither captured the phenomenological diversity of female homosexuality and homosociality, nor could historians always reconstruct the precise nature of relationships women had with one another. 'Friendship' therefore seemed a sufficiently elastic concept that still allowed for physical expressions of intimacy and love. For a long time, however, romantic friendship took the sex out of homosexuality, even though Adrienne Rich's 'lesbian continuum' fully acknowledged the relevance of the non-sexual side of women's relationships with each other. Martha Vicinus's Intimate Friends wants to put the sex back on the agenda.

Vicinus argues that educated middle- and upper-class Anglo-American women had passionate, erotic relationships with each other. Although they recognized the urgency of their desires, some may have struggled to classify what they were feeling precisely because there was hardly a viable category for this emotion before the medicolegal discourse of the late nineteenth century gave us the invert, the Uranian and the female homosexual. As a result, women either adapted pre-existing familial or heterosexual models for their own needs or accommodated their desires in those models. In a series of chronologically arranged small case studies, Vicinus demonstrates the sheer variety of relationships across 150 years. This methodology makes the book particularly attractive to the undergraduate reader who wishes to gain a sense of the principal dramatis personae of lesbian history before moving on to more thorough analyses of individual biographies or texts elsewhere.

The discussion opens with well-known icons of lesbian history, Anne Lister and the Ladies of Llangollen (Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler), who clearly conceived of a lesbian union or longterm companionship in the heterosexual terms of marriage. Even the Sapphically-inclined members of the expatriate artist communities in mid-nineteenth-century Rome, who attracted a great deal of curiosity among visitors on the Grand Tour, seem to have followed this model [End Page 465] in its various amorous rearrangements of couples. How pervasive the heterosexual matrix was in imposing gendered roles on homosexual lovers is clear to anyone familiar with the medical discourse on inversion and homosexuality in late-nineteenth-century sexology and Freudian psychoanalysis. It is therefore quite fitting that the book's trajectory concludes with modernist versions of lesbian self-fashioning and crossdressing, Nathalie Barney's Parisian salon and Radclyffe Hall's pleas for the congenital invert, even if none of the discussions there can reach the differentiation and contextualization that recent re-readings of the mannish modernist or the invert have achieved.

Vicinus offers the most interesting material in the middle section of the book where she discusses 'queer' or familial relationship patterns in less iconic constellations. Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, who ran a very successful boarding school in 1809, come to public attention through a libel trial against Dame Helen Cummings whose Anglo-Indian grandchild accused them of 'indecent and criminal practices' – a rumour that ruined their livelihood. It is less remarkable that they chose to share a bed in the dormitory in which their students slept and became a little too noisy to be ignored by their boarders than that Pirie and Woods won the libel case on the grounds that the imputed vice was not one known to (and therefore practicable by) British women but must be the result of the lewd imagination of the colonial half-breed. If Pirie and Woods don't come out of this trial particularly well, we may reserve greater sympathy for those women who strove to negotiate their erotic desires against a spiritual quest or the demands of their faith. Mary Benson, wife of the archbishop of Canterbury and mother of the novelist E. F. Benson, serves as an excellent example of a passionate woman who...


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pp. 465-468
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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