- Passion is Political: An Analysis of Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends
Martha Vicinus’s recent tour de force, Intimate Friends, provides an exquisitely detailed account of one hundred and fifty years of Anglo-American women’s erotic friendships. This work is valuable for all scholars in women’s and gender history, as well as those in lesbian history, histories of sexuality, and women’s literature and letters, as Vicinus insightfully reconceptualizes ground covered twenty-five years ago by Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men.1 Faderman’s work was groundbreaking, for she was the first to draw corollaries between eighteenth-and nineteenth-century women’s romantic friendships and contemporary lesbian relationships. Much as scholars applauded her bold recasting of those relationships, since the publication of Surpassing the Love of Men scholars have worked to clarify or challenge a couple of key assertions of her work, namely whether or not there was a sexual component to such romantic friendships and whether or not Faderman’s chronology of the development of “lesbian identity” (which she yoked to the work of sexologists) was legitimate. In the ensuing twenty-five years, many historians have contributed to this literature, attempting to advance beyond Faderman’s chronological, methodological, and theoretical notions of what constitutes lesbian history. In particular, scholars have debated the key chronological moments of the Anglo-American lesbian past. Considerable debate has, not surprisingly, ensued about the issue of when lesbian identities were forming/formed, where they tended to form, and of what those various formulations consisted. We have equally concerned ourselves with what happened in the bedrooms, dorms, and apartments of female “friends,” while often debating whether or not, to quote an important Sheila Jeffreys article, did it actually matter if “they did it?”2 For Vicinus, the answer very clearly is yes, sex matters, and Intimate Friends restores the erotic and sexual component of romantic friendships.
Many years in the making, this book is Vicinus’s answer to some of these chronological and terminological quagmires. Few are as well-positioned as Vicinus, an eminent scholar whose impressive list of publications on women’s same-sex communities, friendships, and lesbian history allows her to speak and write authoritatively about this field of historical inquiry.3 In Intimate Friends, Vicinus admonishes the scholarly community for “being over-concerned with finding that invisible moment in the past when ‘the modern lesbian identity’ came into being” (xxi). Instead, Vicinus proffers a [End Page 151] different approach, stating: “identity history can be limiting: more interesting and difficult questions can be asked about friendship, intimacy, sexuality, and spirituality than who had what kind of identity when” (xxiii). Those questions underpin this work as Vicinus takes us on a journey into the lives and writings of a small group of elite women who managed to prioritize love for each other as the central organizing principle of their lives.
While the cast of characters we meet in this book is not new to us— including such lesbian history notables as Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, the intriguing couple who refashioned themselves the Ladies of Llangollen; the provocative rake Anne Lister; actress Charlotte Cushman; and sculptor Harriet Hosmer; the ill-fated school teachers Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie; through to Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, and Una Troubridge—Vicinus offers us a detailed tapestry of their lives and loves. This meticulously researched work of cultural history utilizes a number of private and public papers and correspondence, as well as published poems, novels, and essays. Her lengthy immersion in the archives, along with some considerable detective work piecing fragmentary evidence together, allows her to reconstruct vibrant portraits of couples, lovers, long-term friends, and their social circles. She seeks ultimately to establish continuities in writing the history of women who loved women, eschewing a linear narrative focused on lesbian identity formation. This is a key strength of the work, as readers are able to compare the similarities of experiences covered during the century and a half under examination. Her intense deconstruction of...