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  • "When it ceases to be silly it becomes actually wrong":The Cultural Contexts of Female Homoerotic Desire in Rose Terry Cooke's "My Visitation"
  • Kristin M. Comment, Independent Scholar

In a popular antebellum conduct book titled The Young Lady's Friend, Eliza W. R. Farrar advises young female readers of "a custom among young ladies of holding each other's hands, and fondling them before company, which had much better be dispensed with." She instructs, "All kissing and caressing of your female friends should be kept for your hours of privacy, and never be indulged in before gentlemen." "There are some reasons for this," Farrar explains, "which will readily suggest themselves, and others, which can only be known to those well acquainted with the world, but which are conclusive against the practice" (269). The advice contains an interesting paradox: "[K]issing and caressing" between girls is simultaneously encouraged and condemned, innocent and dangerous—innocent for young girls not yet "well acquainted with the world," but dangerous in the eyes of "gentlemen" and mature women like Farrar, who evidently knew better. Only a tenuous line between knowledge and ignorance separates pure "girlish friendship" from its more threatening sexual possibilities (252).

The passage is striking for the way it complicates more idealized contemporary images of female romantic friendship. The "custom" to which Farrar refers—"kissing and caressing" between girls—has been well documented in countless letters, diaries, and literary works of the era, leading a number of cultural historians, most notably Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lillian Faderman, to conclude that female homoerotic behavior was condoned and even celebrated during this period. While these historians are correct to caution against ascribing twentieth- and twenty-first-century attitudes about sexuality to the previous century, the dichotomy they create between pre- and post-sexology culture over-states [End Page 26] the degree to which female homoerotic behavior was casually accepted in nineteenth-century America. While some scholarship has briefly addressed the anxiety over female homoeroticism revealed in conduct books by Farrar and others, the topic warrants more discussion, especially with regard to texts written before the beginning of the medical discourse on homosexuality produced by German sexologists around 1870.1 One such work is Rose Terry Cooke's 1858 story "My Visitation,"2 which overtly fictionalizes the tension between "girlish friendship" and female same-sex desire that appears in conduct books. The date and mainstream publication of this story, as well as Cooke's popularity, make a particularly compelling case for an expansion of thinking about how women's romantic friendships were perceived by pre-sexology nineteenth-century culture and also for how modern lesbian identities have evolved.

Susan Koppelman includes "My Visitation" in "Two Friends" and Other Nineteenth-Century Lesbian Stories by American Women Writers. She finds it surprising that the editors of Harper's New Monthly Magazine published the story because they had specifically called on writers "to exercise moral self-censorship so that nothing in the magazine would 'violate the house policy of printing only material that could be read aloud in any family circle'"; nevertheless, she concludes that perhaps they did so because, at the end, "this woman who so passionately loves another woman, is learning to love a man." Indeed, the lesson of the story is far from subtle. Koppelman suggests the obviousness of female homoeroticism despite a "double remove . . . provided by a ghost story and an unreliable narrator" ("Rose Terry" 22); however, Cooke overtly depicts female homoeroticism as the very problem her narrator must overcome. I suggest that Cooke's story presents a model of what Sarah Emily Newton calls "conduct-fiction," a "hybrid" fiction that "combin[es the] behavioral advice" of conduct literature with popular fiction. According to Newton, this fiction, which emerged during the colonial period and continued until about 1900, "develops a mythic model to test female virtue as well as affirm women's entitlement through motherhood and self-control" (140). In this context, "My Visitation" becomes a morality tale fictionalizing the threat that female same-sex passion poses to a woman's desire for heterosexual marriage.

In Our Famous Women, Harriet Prescott Spofford claims that Rose Terry Cooke's "power of wringing tears and forcing...


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