Part I - We “Other Victorians”
Part I - We “Other Victorians”
Bray’s book was inspired by trying to understand the meaning behind various joint funeral memorials of pairs of non-related men. The study expanded to “the distinctive place friendship occupied in traditional society” in Europe from the 11th to the 18th centuries. The focus is on friendship as a public rather than a private phenomenon. He also touches on the relationship of homosexuality to same-sex friendship.
In 1886 Lois Schwich was tried and sentenced in London for stealing expensive clothing from her employer. But the bare facts of the crime were not what attracted extensive media attention. Schwich had done this while passing herself off as a fifteen-year-old boy, and had done so for several years. Her case illustrates the various narratives around crossdressing in Victorian England as well as the intersections of gender, criminality, sex work, and competing images of masculinity.
Faderman’s book came out of several articles she wrote on the topic of love between women, how that love was expressed in literature and correspondence, how and when love between women became pathologized by sexological theory, and how self-conscious lesbian identity arose within that context. The work had come from a very personal place for her: entering the lesbian social world in the 1950s at a time when that identity was still heavily stigmatized and working through the process in the decades that followed of embracing lesbian identity as a positive force.
Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other.
Smith-Rosenberg takes an in-depth look at the nature and dynamics of women’s intense and intimate same-sex friendships in 19th century America, as documented in the correspondence from 35 middle-class families dating between the 1760s and 1880s, from a variety of geographic regions, both rural and urban, and belonging to a variety of Protestant denominations. Private correspondence and diaries have the advantage of presenting the best available approximation of unfiltered personal reporting. They were never intended for public consumption and therefore are able to reveal private thoughts.
Vicinus begins the paper by placing it in the context of lesbian historiography in general and the focus on when same-sex emotional friendships came to be labeled “deviant” and looked askance. There is a conflict between the ability of labeling to enable self-identity and community formation, and the ways in which those labels had a spreading effect over practices and experiences that shared a context.
Bodek does a compare-and-contrast study of the 18-19th century salon movements in France and England. It becomes apparent in the course of the article that the author has a decided sympathetic preference for the English “bluestockings” as opposed to the French salonières, but this needn’t undermine the usefulness of the article.
Salons emerged out of 18th century French and English reformist ideals of egalitarianism, especially around the question of women’s education. Those ideals failed to create any overall improvement in the situation of education for girls and young women.
It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.
Gubar looks at the ways in which poets and writers have used and reinterpreted both the poetry and the image of Sappho across the ages, particularly in the context of sexuality. In the early decades of the 20th century, as translators were shifting to honoring the female pronouns in Sappho’s work and classicists were re-examining the myths of her life, a wide range of women writers focused on Sappho as an inspiration and model for their own work.