Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #137e Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men I.B.1 The Revival of Same-Sex Love: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.B.1 The Revival of Same-Sex Love: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Not meaning to sound like a broken record, but this chapter once again relies on circular arguments. Even though John Donne’s poetry concealed sexual desire under the language of playful seduction, the similar poetry of Katherine Philips directed at female friends could not be expressing erotic desire because she wrote it openly (as did Donne) and therefore  it must not have contained anything objectionable. And since sexual desire between women must have been objectionable, it must not have been present. And how do we know that erotic desire between women would have been objectionable? Because it wasn’t expressed openly in literature.

Setting aside the question of whether there was literature in that era that combined friendship and erotic desire between women, and setting aside the question of whether erotic desire between women would have been objected to (which I’m willing to grant), there are large gaps in the demonstrated logic here.

* * *

This chapter tackles the public discourse around intense same-sex friendships among both women and men. Male friends took as their model the concepts of Platonic friendship expressed by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The language could be quite passionate, but did not assume a sexual component. And unlike the existing models for male homosexual relationships which tended to involve differences in age and status, these ideals of Renaissance friendship focused on equality and mutuality, sharing “one bed, one house, one table, and one purse” and barely troubled when one or the other married. This emphasis on equality meant that there was a resistance to the idea that such friendships could exist between men and women. But women, too, could partake of passionate friendships of equals. The literature of female friends--whether in their own words or as characters in male-authored fiction--is directly comparable to that between male friends.

Intense statements of lifelong commitment can be found in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, in the correspondence of French noblewomen such as Madame de Sévigné, and in the works of poets such as Katherine Philips. Faderman asserts, however, that the passionate language of seduction that Philips borrows from the work of John Donne does not mask sexual desire, as it did for Donne, but only a literal request for declarations of love. She holds that the fact that Philips’ contemporaries considered her work a model of platonic friendship meant that it held nothing deeper. And that when men expressed jealousy of women’s bonds with each other, as in Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645), they could do it in a teasing way, assured that the women would still turn to men for sexual satisfaction. Whatever sensuality existed within those expressions of friendship “must have been within the realm of the acceptable” since it was expressed publicly. And since it was acceptable, it must not have been erotic.

This general acceptance of intense romantic (but non-sexual) friendships, Faderman holds, was inherited by the 18th century and left a legacy of male unconcern for such expressions.

Time period: 

Add new comment