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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82e Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 5)

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0

Publication summary: 

Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.

Chapter 5 - Rereading the "Rise" of the Novel: Sapphic Genealogies, 1680-1815

When Lanser explores themes in 17-19th century novels that fall into her category of "sapphic" themes, I think it's useful to read the term in the context of Bennett's "lesbian-like" or Rich's "lesbian continuum". Motifs like the "female confidante" or "the rescue by a woman from a toxic heterosexual relationship" are not included to imply that such motifs necessarily have an erotic component. Rather, if one is beginning with a central focus on characters, themes, and plots that do have a same-sex erotic component, then extensions and attenuations of that focus will necessarily encompass motifs such as the confidante and the rescuer. This is a context where it's all too easy to cast a wider net than the individual instances would seem to warrant. But part of the point of Lanser's study is the overall high-level impression given by these motifs as a whole. That is: that the presence of non-erotic literary themes involving paired women cannot be separated from the context and history provided by clearly erotic examples.

* * *

Lanser examines the conjunction of the novel as a genre with "modernity" as defined in this work and considers its relationship to sapphic themes, despite the superficially overwhelming heteronormativity of the genre. One hallmark of the novel is the way in which it explores the contradictory imperatives of self-determination and socialization. The focus of the novel on the formation of couples and the subjective nature of desire opens the conversation--as previously seen with political and social conversations--to the inclusion or exclusion of sapphic subjects under that rubric. And viewing the development of the novel from the viewpoint of sapphic presence highlights how traditional versions of that development erase the significant contributions of works by and about women.

In this context Lanser notes the key themes of female intimacy, as with the common trope of the female confidant as narrator, the themes of women saving each other in gothic and Romantic plots, and the overt sapphic content of early examples and precursors of the genre such as La Celestina, Orlando Furioso, Rosalynde, and Ragionamenti.

The motif of a woman's sexual initiation by another woman is common in early erotic novels, such as L'academie des dames. (The discusstion mentions many more titles than I include here.) Moving into the 18th century, the sapphic dialogue (i.e., two women discussing sapphic activity or possibility) shifts to the sapphic anecdote (i.e., a third party describing sapphic activity), reducing its presence (or at least its centrality) in the erotic novel. At the same time, connections between women continue as a central theme in the domestic novel and in the use of an intimate female confidant as a narrative device.

The picaresque novel (literally, the story of a rogue) seems outwardly to be a male preserve, given its themes of mobility, class struggle, and social satire, but there are female-centered examples among the earliest in the genre, and female presence continues in works that emphasized gender by prefixing "female" to roles such as wanderer or traveler in the title. More than these, Lanser notes a sizable body of 17-18th century examples involving a transgressive, often morally ambiguous woman, moving through places and episodes, outwitting male characters and often deploying gender disguise. Another common theme is the coupling of female characters in partnerships of variable intimacy either as allies against men who have wronged them in specific, or in general rejection of men and heterosexual marriage.

The most explicitly sapphic novels include several styled as (auto)biographical such as The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, the story of Catherina Vizzani Romana, De Bredashe Heldinne, and Journey Through Every Stage of Life. A unifying feature at these stories is a tendency toward first person narration and a deep sympathy for the narrator. The protagonists in some of the most overtly sapphic novels, such as Mademoiselle de Richelieu and Catharine Vizzani, are acquitted of being driven by physiology, but then must be understood as being attracted to women by personal preference.

Unlike domestic novels where female intimacy co-exists with heterosexual marriage, the picaresque typically rejects it. [It occurs to me to wonder if someone has drawn up an annotated bibliography of novels in this general category. I suspect there is such a list in at least one of the book's I've covered already.] Lanser notes the common thread of the relationship between sexual liberty and economic means, whether it is wealth enabling the freedom of the characters or the need for mutual economic support that brings them together.

The plentiful sapphic picaresque fiction of the mid 18th century challenges the assumption that a shift to “domestic realism” was a natural evolution of the novel in that period. Lanser suggests that this shift was not at all natural, but was a way of countering and containing fictional women in the face of the mobility and freedom of the women in these books. More libertine subgroups of fiction were reducing sapphic encounters to passing anecdotes rather than a central theme. But as with Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and other similar but less famous works, sapphic themes follow women into domesticity even in the face of apparent heterosexual triumph.

Here we find a different version of the metamorphic plot: rather than the woman herself transforming to resolve the question of woman+woman, the story focuses on a female protagonist’s change of intimacy and allegiance from a female friend to a male partner. The sapphic character is introduced evidently solely for the purpose of being rejected--an intrusion that makes sense more in the context of the prior genre prevalence of sapphic success. The bold, independent, “mannish” woman is now framed as an object of scorn and ridicule from whose influence the heroine must be rescued and domesticated. Alternately, in novels like Clarissa and Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, the sapphic character is faded into a long-suffering but endlessly loyal friend to a heroine suffering from male oppression (but without a structural alternative to that oppression).

The figure of the confidant creates a context for expressions of intimacy between women in the disguise of discussing heterosexual relations. The female confidant--either as participant in the story, or as invisible recipient of the narrator’s story--becomes a hallmark of the domestic novel. It would be easy to view plots of this type as faded and attenuated versions of the sapphic novel, but the continuing presence of female intimacy as an essential plot element is worth noting in contrast to a hypothetical absence of relations between women. [Note: Consider in this context the ongoing discussion around the “Bechdel test” regarding the presence of women and their relationships in media. The erotic potential of women’s relationships might be challenged in these novels, but the central importance of women’s friendships and relationships was taken for granted.]

The rise of the “gothic” novel in the late 18th century continues the themes seen in Clarissa and Julie, but where the toxic heterosexual domesticity is presented as a situation in need of rescue rather than a default that must be endured (or perhaps outlasted). In a context where concerns about women’s rights and revolutionary sentiments are rising, the sapphic relationship often appears to stand in for these challenges to the existing social order. Women are allowed to rescue women, driven by the intensity of their emotional bond.

Taking a geographic view, around 1800, the sapphic presence in novels is more visible in Germany than in France and England, where it had flourished previously. Both the novel as a format, and attention to sapphic themes in particular, emerge in parallel in Germany in the late 18th century. The English novel is moving toward more conservative themes with a focus on “realism”. But while English novels continued to have a strong domestic presence, France sees increasing masculinization of the novel, especially first person narratives--a turn not conducive to presenting female confidants and intimacies. Sapphic themes are relatively absent in French novels ca. 1800, though a few sapphic plots slip through even in this masculinized context, as in Mademoiselle de Maupin and La fille aux yeux d’or.

The fate of sapphic themes in English novels in this period can be explored in Austen, where intimate female friendships are lightly satirized as overly sentimental and fraught with peril if made unworthily. Close friendships between sisters are valorized, while those between non-kin (as in Emma or Sense and Sensibility) are seen as unwise, unequal, and potentially treacherous.

Time period: 

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