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  • Response
  • Martha Vicinus (bio)

It is a special thrill and responsibility to receive four detailed, sympathetic responses to one’s book. I am indebted to each of the authors for her searching consideration of the major issues raised by Intimate Friends. It is a sign of the lively state of current research on women and sexuality that we so readily speak across disciplinary fields that can too often divide us. We all have far too many unread books in our own fields, so I confess that I often take down an interesting and relevant title in one of the fields of the reviewers, and then do not read the work. And yet I always find arguments and evidence drawn from scholars outside my field to be especially valuable for suggesting news ways to approach familiar material. Thus, I am especially grateful for the suggestions each reviewer has offered as I begin work on another aspect of women’s sexual histories.

Both Valerie Korinek and Christine Jacobson Carter raise the perplexing issue of how to deal with a large (albeit hardly exhaustive) cast of characters and still include some historical reference points—the struggle to achieve reforms in the marriage laws, or the suffrage movement, which included so many intense friendships, are neglected in Intimate Friends in order to trace the individual lives of specific women. I have mulled over this decision often since turning in the manuscript to the press, for it has perhaps marginalized the very subject that I wish to demonstrate was central to the lives and behaviors of women throughout the long nineteenth century. The focus on detailed readings of archival materials, including fiction and memoirs, came from my training in literature. Although virtually all current historical work can be considered “interdisciplinary,” the precise strengths and weaknesses of combining history and literature are, perhaps, not sufficiently considered. Careful readings of individual works can yield a wealth of insight into the behaviors of women, but sometimes at the price of what Korinek astutely calls “contextual information about how national and international events affected these Anglo-American women’s experiences.” The shift to a more literature-centered reading of the early modern period also troubles Carter and Ruth Vanita for different reasons. By the early twentieth century so much documentation exists of same-sex couples, perhaps it would have been better to focus entirely on lesser known women, such as the elusive Clemence Dane. Nevertheless, I felt that just as Oscar Wilde remains a key figure in men’s history, so does Radclyffe Hall. Her courageous, overwritten book still demands our attention [End Page 156] and respect, and I felt I could not neglect her, even if it meant ignoring such obvious writers as Gertrude Stein.

While I believe that Intimate Friends opens many possibilities for other researchers, it may also mark an endpoint for a certain kind of study, namely the survey of the variety, richness, and scope of single-sex relations. Although a number of historians still insist that the intense friendships of the Victorian period must have been asexual, we are surely ready to move beyond proving that some were and some were definitely not. I have always found it condescending to assume that women in the past had emotionally and erotically simpler lives than we do and were therefore freer to express their feelings in romantic terms. Just as historians of the feminist movement have moved on from debates about equality versus difference, I hope that historians of sexuality no longer need to insist on the erotic component in many of women’s relationships with each other.

The question then becomes, where next? All four reviews present helpful suggestions. Jacqueline Murray offers a refreshing reminder of continuities over a far longer time period than 150 years. Her sensitive response to the “metaphors and silences of earlier periods” has taught me much in the past. She has also demonstrated the importance of seeing how religion enabled a discussion of the body, rather than repressing it. When I look again at my sources, I wish that I had emphasized even more firmly how central religion was in providing women with a language of love, both spiritual and...


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pp. 156-159
Launched on MUSE
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