Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 5: Female Intimacy and he Problem of Female Communities: Salons, Satire, and the Mystery of the Précieuses
Discussions like this one remind me of the cyclical and complex interaction of male hostility to women's "unavailability" (or simply disinterest in them) and resulting accusations of lesbianism. When these cycles then interact with the polarized attitudes of historians toward female homosexuality (whether negative or positive or simply inordinately skeptical), it makes even explicit historical data about lesbianism tricky to relate to the experiences and desires of actual historic women.
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Turning from how Phillips was sanitized of any suggestion of sexual impropriety Wahl now turns to how women-centered institutions, whether salons, schools, theaters, and on to less voluntary spaces like convents and brothels, became sexualized in the libertine imagination.
The idea of women in gender-segregated institutions engaging in sex was well established from the medieval period on. Convents had rules to try to discourage opportunities for it. But the reformation introduced the idea of the convent as an especially repressed and unnatural environment in which not only f/f sex but perverse practices could flourish. This theme plays out in works like Marvell’s Upon Appleton Houseand Diderot’s La Religieuseand Barrin’s Vénus dans le Cloître. The theme of women being removed from the marriage economy in a physical and social sense extended to removing them from heterosexuality in a psychological context.
Educational institutions didn’t come in for religiously-driven concerns (though in France convent schools were a significant venue for girls’ education in this era) but education manuals included coded language about girls not being left to themselves too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” Given that schools of this era were overwhelmingly single sex, concerns about student sexual activity blurred the issues of masturbation and homosexuality.
While the convent and school offered the excuse of lack of access to male partners, another female-centered institution where female intimacy became a concern was the brothel, under the guise of experienced prostitutes initiating girls into sex as part of their training. See for example Cleland’s novel Fanny Hillwhere some of the prostitutes (though not his protagonist) are depicted as having a preference for f/f sex. 18th century pornographic prostitute narratives depict a culture of bisexual genital-focused sex acts in which the gender of one’s partner is almost irrelevant. [Note: it should be emphasized that these belonged to a fictionalized literary genre written by men.]
Across the 18th century, as the cult of the “proper” domestic woman developed as modest and passionless, her counterpart also became more defined: the libertine woman--whether overtly in the field of sex work, in the demimonde of actresses, artists, and courtesans, or among the aristocracy. Among the accusations leveled at aristocratic women by philosophers of bourgeois morals was that their sexual license included sex with women, and this was viewed as both a symptom and driver of moral decay. 17th century affairs such as that between the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and Madame du Vigean were seen as scandalous, but uncommon and not fatal to one social reputation.
This attitude gave way by a century later to lurid pamphlets attacking Marie Antoinette and her circle, including elaborations on the supposed decadent lesbian sex club called the Anandrine Society. Other literary depictions of libertine f/f sex included mentions of Mademoiselle Rancourt in Diderot’s Correspondences literaires philosophiques et critiquesand novels such as Mémoires Secretsand L’Espion Angloisthough these focused more on actresses.
In England, names that came into mention include actress Mary Anne Yates and aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer. the gossip diarist Hester Thrale provides plentiful examples of how wide-spread rumors of lesbian activity could be in the late 18th century. Any kind of sex not linked to the marriage-based reproductive economy was seen not only as a moral threat but as a political and social threat as well.
But if these overtly sexualized contexts were being seen as a threat to social order, what were attitudes toward more idealized or utopian forms of female community? For that Wahl steps back to look at the origins and context of these idealized communities.
While the French salon was a vibrant context for women’s friendships it was not a homosocial space, unlike the formal male academies it existed in parallel with. But the salons were de facto ruled by women, which made them suspect as a focus of resistance to the patriarchal absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, as well as those male academies. Male criticism and satire of the salons focused on the précieucesas pretentious reformers of French language and morals, who despised marriage for suspicious reasons (and not because of the unequal burden it placed on women). One of those suspicious reasons was same-sex desire. To call someone a précieuse shifted from acknowledging a culture of wit and refinement to a satirical stereotype exaggerated mannerisms, secret codes, and a female cabal that indulged in f/f sex -- “a third species of person.” By the end of the 17th century, the précieuses--which by then was no longer a self identification--were seen as a subversive secret society and a symbol of the hazards of women becoming involved in politics.
Communities of literary women in the first half of the 17th century begin exploring concepts of female heroism or woman-centered societies, as a response to their role in ongoing political disruptions in both France and England, and as a means of maintaining friendships and alliances during those disruptions. The exiled royalist women around Henrietta Maria in France found inspiration among the salons for their own writing which--though coded as focused on love and romance--offered a context for political allegory.
French women didn’t stick to allegory. In this era, women were prominent in the civil conflict known as the Fronde, and the backlash against them became a weapon against women’s direct involvement in politics in general under Louis XIV. The women themselves had seen their actions as part of a tradition of Amazons, but after their fall the image of the Amazon became a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any type of public intellectual activity.
Shut out of direct political participation, these are the women who formed the core of the salons. They were also behind the rise of the historical novel. In these “private” spheres they could exert the influence forbidden them in public institutions. Historic novels could comment allegorically on current politics in a deniable way, and the rules for salon discourse that forbade direct discussion of politics as “not polite” protected all the participants from direct reprisal, even as they offered a context for the discussion of subversive or progressive ideals.
The historical novel also enabled the creation of fictional worlds into which the female-centered world of the salon could be reflected, as in the Sappho interlude in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou Le Grand Cyrus.Scudéry’s use of Sappho not only as a fictional character but as a nom de plume comes at a time when new translations of Sappho’s work were casting doubt on the “abandoned heterosexual Sappho” of Ovid and returning to the image of the great poet.
Scudéry did not directly engage with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but in identifying with the poet, her own f/f friendships could be aligned with Sappho’s. Her fictional Sappho rejects the idea of marriage as tyranny and forms part of an inseparable group of friends, one especially with whom she exchanges professions of perfect love. The novel’s male narrator is never given entrance to Sappho’s circle, and deflect criticisms of her circle without showing the reader the substance of their relations (and thus what Scudéry envisioned as the nature of their friendship). The layers of representation and commentary obscure the exact correspondences of Scudéry to her fictional namesake’s life.
Wahl continues with a detailed analysis of this work and the history of scholarly analysis of it. [Note: This is one of those passages that I suspect originated as an independent article.]
Scudéry’s Sappho eventually retreats into a utopian woman-centered society of Amazons, perhaps an allegory for the salon. The rejection of a conventional marriage plot resolution for Sappho marks a new option for a female protagonist, and the association of women’s literary traditions with sapphic utopias.
In some ways, the political disruption of the Fronde resulted in a shift in women’s writing in France from political discourse to literary forms like the novel or the secret history. With novels that did not conform to the standard marriage plot, these women defined a new understanding of the desires and aspirations of women both before and after marriage. If women couldn’t have a direct political influence, they could influence women’s ambitions in terms of personal freedom for education and an identity outside of marriage, or even the ability to refuse marriage (or at least to refuse a second marriage).
These woman also aspired to an ideal of “honest friendship” that redefined relations between the sexes in a more egalitarian way. This might be realizable only in a utopian “pastorale” context but it offered new visions and interpretations, as in D’Urfe’s pastoral romanceL’Astrée, in which women were idealized as having the ability to discipline carnal desires in favor of neo-platonic friendship and love.
But even as this Platonic ideal was developed, there was a reaction of skepticism that viewed both chastity and marriage resistance as a false prudery--an--implausible contradiction to the idea that all desirable women should be sexually available to men. The libertine point of view saw relations between the sexes is inescapably physical and sexual. This also led them to doubt the alleged innocence of intimate relations between women, viewing them as the inevitable outcome of the inherent sexual voracity of women.
Male reactions to women’s writing always created a hostile environment for women’s self-definition, but the superficial rejection of physical desire creates a dubious impression that early modern women’s discussion of platonic romantic relations corresponded to modern understandings that preclude physical sexuality. In order to break free of the accusation that women were all inherently libertines, early modern women needed to present the appearance of modesty and chastity, only to be accused of hypocrisy on that account.
Within fiction they could create the possibility of a female protagonist who was both sincerely chaste and independent, while accepting that in every day life this might be impossible.
Although women often shared their doubts and uncertainties about the institution of marriage in private correspondence, by the mid 17th century they were increasingly reluctant to do so overtly in public writng. In return, male writers had no hesitation in accusing them of making public demands to abolish the institution of marriage, as it was understood.
By the creation of fictional proponents of extreme versions of female sexual autonomy, men could undercut the far more moderate requests that women made for the reform of marriage. These fictional exaggerations were then labeled as a representation of the précieuse. Their disavowal of passion in the context of marriage was taken as either hypocritical or unnatural in some form, such as an indication of lesbian desire. This stereotype was depicted in a number of satirical works.
Such women were depicted not merely as wanting their own freedom, but as wanting to subjugate men and to destroy establish social structures. The word cabal is frequently raised in this context.
Not all the critics of the stereotype of the précieuse were male. Some female writers may have joined in the mockery as a way of distancing themselves from an image that they felt uncomfortably close to. Though the satires claimed that there might be genuine intellectual women who sought reforms and ideals, somehow no specific women ever met the standard. Thus all women with intellectual aspirations came under scrutiny as belonging to the extremes of the stereotype.
The only way an intellectual woman had of pushing back against the charge of either hypocrisy or frigidity was to embrace the sexual desire she was accused of concealing. But this, of course, would be sexual desire for men. To resist that would result in insinuations of lesbian desire. Even historians who study the topic waver regularly between treating the polite discourse of the salonnières as indicating a general disinterest in sex, or intimating that their female friendships suggested an unconscious lesbian desire.
What is excluded from much of this analysis is the possibility that some of these women genuinely disdained sexual relations with men (whether from a general disinterest in heterosexuality, or from the negative social context it was embedded in) and that they also experienced genuine and perhaps even self-aware sexual desire for their female associates. Without the explicitly sexual writing that the précieuses specifically excluded from salon discourse, there is always room for those who disapprove of same-sex desires to claim that they didn’t exist.
Accusations of latent lesbian desire were not merely coming from modern academics but are implicit in many of the satirical critiques of intellectual women of the 17th century. But this leaves us with the question of whether these accusations being founded on animosity and utterly false, or whether the suggestions of female same-sex desire by their critics were inspired by genuine observation of the relations between female intimate friends.
History keeps coming back to a regular recurring theme that a woman who rejects the sexual advances of men must be either a prude or a lesbian. This was the socio-political context in which women of the 17th and 18th century developed close relations with each other and attempted to establish some degree of personal and intellectual autonomy. But as the 18th century progressed, a new genre emerged in women’s writing: women who wrote about same-sex desire to represent their own erotic desires, though in coded and deniable terms.
This includes writers such as Madame De Murat and Charlotte Charke and this topic constitutes the subject of the final chapter of the book.
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