- Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England
Sharon Marcus's Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England is an important and ambitious work, one that sets out to change our understanding of the dynamics and cultural valences of female relationships during the mid-nineteenth century. Drawing on a wide range of fiction and nonfiction texts, including fashion magazines, children's stories, letters and autobiographical writings, canonical novels, and more, Marcus explores women's friendships, life partnerships, and homoerotic desire. Juxtaposed with rich historical detail, her textual close readings serve as exemplary case studies in how relationships between Victorian women may point scholars toward new interpretations of even familiar social documents. The result is an accessible work that may be read with profit by graduate students and senior scholars in the fields of nineteenth-century British history, literature, and gender or sexuality studies.
The central premise of Between Women is that male/female and homosexual/heterosexual binaries cause us to miss important insights into femininity and the female experience of Victorian women. Marcus argues that in fiction and memoirs alike, women's friendships serve multiple functions of powerful emotional significance. Such friendships "reinforced femininity" and "licensed forms of agency [that] women were discouraged from exercising with men," especially the right to assert claims over each other's affections and to enter into nonexclusive relationships, even while they also enabled women to further each other's matrimonial projects (2–3). Meanwhile, in a middle-class society that often segregated the sexes, femininity was both offered to and claimed by girls and women as an appropriate focus for female desire. Thus "respectable" discourses such as doll stories for girls and fashion illustrations and correspondence columns in magazines for adult women occupied places on the same continuum of female desire that also included pornography, and no very distant places at that. "Within the realm of domestic consumer culture," Marcus concludes, "Victorian women were as licensed to objectify women as Victorian men" (3). Finally, Marcus identifies "female marriage" as a widespread phenomenon that enjoyed a considerable degree of social sanction both for its similarities to middle-class heterosexual marriage and for its greater flexibility and parity. Far from a slavish and inferior imitation of some heterosexual "real thing," Marcus asserts, female marriage helped to shape the ways in which male-female marriage was evolving.
Between Women is organized as a dialogue between literary and other discourses. Part 1, on female friendship, initially uses conduct manuals and life writing to explore how the gender mores of Victorian society operated [End Page 413] to permit "women latitude through female friendships, giving them room to roam without radically changing the normative rules governing gender difference" (27). The elasticity of the word friend, which could denote same-sex relationships characterized by liking, unrequited love, or life partnership, serves for Marcus as a clue to which all three modalities were considered to complement rather than to challenge heterosexual marriage. Thus, for instance, the conduct-book writer Sarah Ellis contended both that "friendship trained women to be good wives by teaching them particularly feminine ways of loving" and that friendship and marriage shared important traits (39); conversely, Marcus concludes that "one way to acknowledge a female couple's existence while respecting their privacy was to call women who were in effect married to each other 'friends'" (50). Meanwhile, "Victorian society's investment in heterosexuality went hand-in-hand with what we could call compulsory homosociability and homoeroticism for women" (61), so that as part of their training in pleasing men, women learned to appreciate female beauty, dress sense, grace, and talent, while female friendships were encouraged because society perceived that they "develop[ed] in women the loyalty, selflessness, empathy, and self-effacement that they were required to exercise in relation to men" (62). Ultimately, Marcus argues, "Victorian marriage was not defined strictly in terms of sexual difference but as a social relationship that combined sexual passion, economic interests, and spiritual love" and accordingly often existed as "an extension of female...