- Flexible Friendships: Martha Vicinus Explores Women’s Intimacy
Martha Vicinus is one of those rare scholars whose mere name instantly conjures the history of a field of study, a vision of research breadth and depth, of analytical originality and brilliance. Her reputation has transcended the geographical and chronological limits of the context of her primary research, nineteenth-century England. Indeed, the boundaries that define and separate disciplines cannot contain her: she is, herself, professor of English, women’s studies, and history. One suspects that there are other departments, centers, and research fields that would wish to claim her as their own as well. This is the context in which Vicinus’s work is read, and this accounts for the almost unreasonable levels of expectation the reader brings with her. Yet for all that baggage, Vicinus does not disappoint: Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778–1928 is a landmark in whichever field of research the reader wishes to locate it—women’s / gender history, the history of sex / sexuality, nineteenth-century history. This is a work of immense learning, written in an accessible style. It will serve to enlighten, entertain, or even affirm scholarly and popular audiences equally well.
Intimate Friends comprises a series of case studies or microhistories. The intimate life and relationships of various women are recuperated and discussed, as far as possible, based on their own words and those of their friends and relations, both female and male. Stretching from the legendary Ladies of Llangollen (1778–1829) to the equally legendary Radclyffe Hall (1880–1943), Vicinus presents lively portraits of fascinating women alongside her analysis of the qualities, structures, and social contexts that informed their lives. By examining both the internal dynamics of relationships and the external perceptions of them by individual and institutional observers, Vicinus reveals the opportunities and challenges that confronted women as they sought to structure their lives in ways that accommodated and nurtured their same-sex desire. Over the 150 years considered, women employed a variety of models to develop emotional and erotic relationships with other women, to express their feelings to each other, and to present themselves to the world.
Some of the models women invoked to structure their relationships and to make sense of their individual predilections, desires, and identities will be familiar, even comfortable; others may prove disquieting or disturbing. The exemplar available to the earliest couples was that of traditional pairings [End Page 146] between men and women. The husband / wife model sought to mirror the idealistic romance and stability thought to infuse conventional marriage. Thus the Ladies of Llangollen, and Anne Lister and Mariana Belcombe, understood their relationships as a kind of marriage. This could result in conventional crises as well; for example, when the quest for economic security led Belcombe to marry a man, Lister felt herself something of an adulterer by continuing their relationship. The marital model was flexible enough, however, to accommodate individual variations on the theme. So, although Harriet Hosmer and Louisa, Lady Ashburton, rarely cohabited, they enjoyed a lengthy, passionate relationship in which they referred to each other as “hubby” and “sposa.” Charlotte Cushman, in contrast, constructed a complicated extended family household that centered on her “wife,” Emma Stebbins, but which expanded to include her own niece, Emma Crow, with whom she also fell in love. In order to keep them all together, Cushman arranged for Emma Crow to marry her stepson, Ned. This led to the complicated situation of Emma Stebbins becoming Emma Crow Cushman’s aunt, Charlotte Cushman becoming both mother and lover to her own niece, and the veil of family concealing a web of eroticism, love, and betrayal, all tinged somewhat by incest and infidelity.
There are multiple ways that women could fashion their sense of self and express themselves as women whose primary emotional, erotic, and sexual relationships were with other women. Some adapted contemporary gender roles, fashioning relationships in which one partner was traditionally masculine and the other feminine. Many women based their relationships on shared intellectual or artistic...