- Renewed Pleasures: Loving Friendship and Friendly Love in the Long Nineteenth Century
Martha Vicinus’s new book renews the pleasures of returning to women who now seem like old friends and acquaintances—the amazing women who loved women through the long nineteenth century. It also provides the excitement of discovering little-known connections among them; for example, Ethel Smyth, who in her old age was Virginia Woolf’s romantic friend, was in her youth passionately involved with Mary Benson and her daughter Nellie. But as Vicinus points out, this book’s intent is not to “reveal surprises” (xxxi). Most of the women she discusses, such as the Ladies of Llangollen, Anne Lister, Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie, Charlotte Cushman, “Michael Field” (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Natalie Barney, Renee Vivien, Vernon Lee, Romaine Brooks and Radclyffe Hall, have been subjects of full-length biographies or numerous essay-length studies, and, in some cases, of both. Even the “neglected and denied aspects of wellknown women” (xxxi), such as the romantic friendships of George Eliot, have by now been scrutinized by feminist and lesbian historians.
This book attempts to construct a taxonomy of female-female relationships, comparable in some ways to that which Bruce Smith invented for male-male relationships in Renaissance England. While Smith looks to medieval reworkings of Greco-Roman myth for the paradigms used in Renaissance love poetry, such as passionate shepherds or masters and minions, Vicinus’s paradigms are based on such familial relationships as husbands and wives, or mothers and daughters, which the women in question used as metaphors, and which Vicinus interprets in ways colored by psychoanalytic criticism.1 When women whose lesbianism is less-known do pop up, such as the anti-feminist Eliza Lee Linton or Clemence Dane, author of the homophobic Regiment of Women, one wishes (to adapt Vicinus’s words from another essay) for “more facts,” which perhaps a future historian or Vicinus herself may some day provide.2 [End Page 132]
Vicinus, contra pioneering historian Lillian Faderman’s early work, emphasizes the importance of carnal sex and sexual attraction, insisting that we acknowledge nineteenth-century women’s awareness of their own bodies and ability to make choices, sexual and otherwise. Nevertheless, her statement that “for the women discussed here, same-sex love was their primary emotional bond” (xix) renders her view of the lesbian or Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” not readily distinguishable from early definitions by Faderman, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, or even from Adrienne Rich’s controversial formulation of a “lesbian continuum.” Vicinus’s definition of “intimate friendship” as “an emotional, erotically charged relationship between two women” (xxxiv) enables her to include those whom we know to have had sexual relations with women, such as Lister and the women of the Left Bank; those, such as the Ladies of Llangollen, whose long-term exclusive relationships were perceived as sexual by some of their contemporaries and as sisterly romantic friendship by others; and also those, such as George Eliot, who almost certainly did not have sexual relations with women but did have romantic friendships of one kind or another. The common element here is “love,” and in choosing to use that fraught word rather than only the more fashionable “desire,” Vicinus casts her lot with gay and lesbian studies scholars rather than with queer theorists, although she acknowledges and incorporates some of the latter’s insights. It is a sign of the vitality of the field that queer theory has not erased the methods and approaches evolved by lesbian and gay studies.
Like many lesbian and gay studies scholars today, Vicinus invokes the “erotic” to bridge the gap between sexual relations and romantic friendship. This strategy leaves unanswered some probably unanswerable questions that nevertheless do occur to the reader with regard to several of Vicinus’s subjects: namely, when persons of the same sex in the nineteenth century shared a bed, either intermittently or in the long term, embraced, kissed, and wrote letters or poetry to each other sprinkled with romantic endearments, declarations...