- Intimate Friends: Women Who Love Women, 1778–1928 by Martha Vicinus, and Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 34, Number 1, Spring 2008
- pp. 171-173
- View Citation
- Additional Information
171 Reviews Intimate Friends:Women Who Love Women,1778-1928 by MarthaVicinus; pp. 314. London and Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004. $35.00 cloth; $27.00 paper. Between Women: Friendship,Desire,and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus; pp. 356. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. $65.00 cloth; $19.95 paper. There has long been a critical controversy about the history of women’s friendships and/or lesbian relationships—most of the controversy inhering in that “and/or.”Various formulations, such as Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum,” Lillian Faderman’s “romantic friendship,” and Carroll SmithRosenberg ’s “women’s world of love and ritual,” have been proposed and contested.The debate centres on questions such as, Did emotional relationships between women have a sexual component or not? Were women’s relationships necessarily subversive of and in conflict with heterosexual bonds? Was lesbianism totally unrecognized or widely accepted? Both of the two books under review here throw fresh light on these questions and provide some new answers. Both are also influenced by the recent trend to see gender in terms of performance rather than identity. MarthaVicinus’s is the earlier book, and Sharon Marcus both builds on her material and disagrees with her argument.Vicinus wants to make visible what she defines as “women’s erotic friendships” in the period 1778–1928. She is concerned with the language women themselves used to describe their relationships , their “self-fashioning,” through the creation of “sexual narratives.” She presents them as drawing from two categories—“romantic friendship” and “Sapphic sexuality”—to create a new and fluid vocabulary. In particular, these women made creative use of metaphors from family relationships—not so much the expected “sisterhood,” but husband and wife, or mother and daughter.Vicinus provides a rich and deeply researched fund of fascinating case studies to exemplify the dynamics of these different types of relationship. She also charts encounters with the language of the law, which seems unable to articulate sexual relationships between women, and of religion, which was well able to provide a framework for them. Her final chapter moves on to the modernist period, when the metaphor of the network, rather than the family, provides a structure for women’s love relationships.The emphasis throughout the book is on women’s agency, as women take over and refashion existing vocabularies to narrate their lives. Sharon Marcus, perhaps unfairly, dismisses Vicinus’s book in her introduction . From its title, she takes it to be in thrall to the “continuum” argument —that friendship and lesbianism are on the same graduated scale. But Vicinus herself problematizes her title, as either an“enabling metaphor” or an “obfuscating term” or, preferably, embodying“indeterminacy” (Introduction, p. xxiv). Marcus’s argument is twofold and approaches the material from a fresh victorian review • Volume 34 Number 1 172 angle. In the first place, she argues that there were clear distinctions between the way Victorians talked about women’s friendship and the way they talked about marriage-like relationships between women. But neither of these types of relationship was seen in opposition to heterosexual relationships.Women’s friendship was crucial to facilitating courtship and continued its recognized importance after marriage.And same-sex marriages were not only recognized and accepted, they played an important part in reconceptualizing heterosexual marriage as a more equal, contractual relationship. So while Vicinus presents her case studies as representing a minority, a beleaguered group, Marcus sees women’s relationships as central to the structure ofVictorian society. It is by removing our preconceptions that women’s close relationships are necessarily antagonistic to heterosexuality, and that same-sex marriage necessarily undermines the social structure, that Marcus sees new patterns and meanings emerge. She marshals a number of different kinds of evidence to prove her points. In part 1, she reads women’s friendship first as it appears inVictorian women’s life-writing, and then through the way it functions to enable the marriage plot in Victorian fiction. A large number of instances prove her point, but she also does not neglect exceptions, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, where female friendship is refused, and the marriage plot miscarries. Marcus has a refreshing approach to literary interpretation, which she...