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Full citation: 

Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0

Publication summary: 


This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.

Contents summary: 

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

The overall message is that if you are a woman who desires a woman, you are either monstrous, or mistaken, or you must actually be a man.

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532) -- (Translated) Within the context of a heroic poem, an amazon enounter involving a woman falling in love with a cross-dressed woman.

Pontus de Tyard “Elegy for a Lady Fallen for Another Lady” (1573) -- (Translated) A poem in the voice of a woman who is confused and upset by having fallen in love with another woman.

Ambroise Paré “Memorable Stories About Women Who Have Degenerated Into Men” (1573) -- (Translated) A collection of case studies of individuals assigned as female at birth who, at puberty, developed male genitalia. (The relevance to lesbian history is in how this concept was used as a precedent in cases of individuals assigned female at birth who desired/married women, even when there was no evidence of male genitalia.)

Michel de Montaigne from The Journal of Montaigne’s Travels in Italy by Way of Switzerland and Germany (1581) -- (Translated) Case history from the town of Montirandet of an individual assigned female at birth who lived as a man and married a woman, and was condemnded to death for this. Also a duplication of one of the anecdotes contained in Paré’s work above.

Anonymous “Poem XLIX” from The Maitland Quarto Manuscript (1586) -- A Scottish poem in the voice of a woman who has fallen in love with a woman and desires to change her sex in order to be able to marry her.

Sir Philip Sidney from The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590) -- An excerpt involving the love of the maiden Gynecia for the Amazon Zelmane (who is actually a man in disguise). The passage shows Gynecia coming to terms with what she genuinely believes to be love for another woman.


John Lyly from Gallathea (1592) -- The concluding scenes of this play based on Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe in which the two maidens, Phyllida and Gallathea, who have fallen in love while both were disguised as men, maintain their love and convince Venus to allow them to marry by changing one or the other into a man.

Contents summary: 

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise. The rise of anti-lesbian attacks on social trends (Hic Mulier) or specific public figures is noteworthy, particularly at the same time that the renewed interest in Sappho’s poetry (including her love for women) leads to male authors appropriating her imagery for their own purposes.

William Shakespeare from As You Like It (1600), from Twelfth Night (1602) -- Excerpts from two of the plays that involve women falling in love with cross-dressed women.

The King James Bible The Book of Ruth (1611) -- The Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, as an example of overwhelming love and loyalty between women.

Anne de Rohan “On a Lady Named Beloved” (1617) -- (Translated) Possibly the first French poem written by a woman to directly invoke the poetry of Sappho. The context is clearly that of love between women.

Anonymous from Hic Mulier: or, The Man-Woman (1620) -- Excerpts from a polemical pamphlet decrying women who take on the clothing and behavior of men.

George Sandys from Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished (1626) -- A translation of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

John Donne “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633) -- A poem in the persona of the poet Sappho, with a positive emphasis on her homoerotic desire for Philaenis.

T. W. “To Mr. J.D.” (1633) -- A poem, understood to be addressed to John Donne (JD), who had addressed several poems to a man identified as “TW”. The imagery of the poem depicts the two men’s poetic muses as engaged in lesbian sex with each other.

Ben Jonson “Epigram on the Court Pucelle” (1640) -- A somewhat nasty poem, believed to have been aimed at the courtier Cecilia Bulstrode, depicting her as a “tribade” and satirizing her for daring to present herself as an intellectual. Part of a long literary tradition of attacking female intellectuals by accusing them of lesbianism.

Edmund Waller “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645) -- A poem complaining that two women scorn male suitors because they love each other.

François de Maynard “Tribades, or Lesbia” (1646) -- A crude satirical poem accusing an unnamed woman of performing manual sex on other women.

Andrew Marvell from Upon Appleton House (1650) -- A poem combining anti-Catholic and anti-lesbian themes, about the “rescue” of a young woman from a convent.


Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin “Two Beauties, Tender Lovers” (ca. 1650) -- A short poem in the genre of “it isn’t fair for these two women to have sex with each other and refuse us men.”

Contents summary: 

Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.

Nicholas Chorier from Dialogues on the Arcana of Love and Venus by Luisa Sigea Toletana (1660-78) -- Excerpts from the pornographic Satyra Sotadica that describe sexual activity between two women as part of a wider range of transgressive sexual adventures.

Anonymous from The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Moll Cutpurse (1662) -- Excerpts from a biography of a woman who openly cross-dressed and refused to follow expected feminine behavior.

Katherine Philips “To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship”, “Parting with Lucasia: A Song”, “Orinda to Lucasia”, “Friendship’s Mystery: To My Dearest Lucasia”, “Injuria Amici” (1664) -- A selection of homoerotic poetry addressed to Anne Owen by her poetic name Lucasia. The language goes beyond the conventions of romantic friendship but without being overtly sexual.

Pierre de Bourdeilles, Seigneur de Brantôme from Lives of Gallant Ladies (1665-1666) -- (Translated) An extensive collection of anecdotes involving sexual encounters between women.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) “To the Fair Clorinda, Who Made Love to Me Imagin’d More than Woman”, “Verses Design’d by Mrs. A. Behn to be sent to a Fair Lady, that Desir’d She Would Absent Herself to Cure her Love” -- A collection of love poems addressed to women.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz “Accompanying a Ring Bearing the Portrait of la Señora Condesa de Paredes. She Explains”, “Inés, Dear, with your Love I am Enraptuerd” (ca. 1686) -- Poems addressed from Sor Juana to her patroness, using romantic and erotic imagery.

Anne Killigrew “On a Picture Painted by Herself, Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s, One in a Posture to Hunt, the Other Bathing”, “On the Soft and Gentle Motions of Eudora” (attributed) (1686) -- Two poems that emphasize a sensual appreciation for the recipient’s beauty.

John Dryden from The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (1693) -- A translation of a Roman satire on women having sexual encounters with each other (although the intended imagery takes a bit of extraction from the text).

Elizabeth Singer Rowe “Love and Friendship: A Pastoral” (1696) -- A poem celebrating female romantic friendship that subtly equates it with heterosexual love.


Anonymous “Venus’s Reply” (1699) -- A ribald poem that was written in answer to the poem “The Women’s Complaint to Venus”, which spoke in the voice of women complaining that the prevalence of male homosexuality was depriving them of lovers. In this poem, Venus tells the women it’s their own fault for turning their desires to other women (described in quite graphic terms). Given the unambiguously sexual context, the poem is valuable for examples of the slang term “game of flats” and use of the word “odd” to imply homosexuality.

Contents summary: 

There is less segregation of content by the gender of the author in this group. Men continue to translate or emulate the poetry of Sappho, often downplaying but never entirely erasing the homoeroticism. There’s also an example of satirizing a historic individual with crude stereotypes of the predatory “butch” lesbian. While the women continue to write poems of romantic friendship, we also have a social satire envisioning an all-female society, complete with romantic and sexual relationships between women. We also have a European woman’s “insider” description of homoeroticism in single-sex bath houses in Turkey. The anonymous works are once more of mixed nature.

[Mary] Delarivier Manley “The Ladies of the New Cabal” from The New Atalantis (1709) -- Something midway between a satire and eutopian depiction of an all-female society, with extensive discussion of their romantic/erotic adventures.

Joseph Addison Spectator No. 223 (1711) -- A discussion of the poet Sappho and transations of some of her poems, but with emphasis on her supposed suicide over a male lover.

Ambrose Philips translation of Sappho Fragment 31 “Blest as th’Immortal Gods is He” (1711) -- A translation of the poem that retains the homoerotic flavor.

Alexander Pope “Sappho to Phaon” (1712) -- A poem that evokes the Sappho-Phaon incident while not entirely erasing Sappho’s homoerotic reputation.

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea “Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia” (1713) -- A poem celebrating romantic female friendship.

Anthony Hamilton from Memoirs of the Life of Gount Grammont (1713) -- An excerpt from a somewhat fictionalized biography, featuring an unflattering portrayal of Mary Hobart who used her position in the household of the Duchess of York to sexually pursue a young woman of that household.

Pauline de Simiane “Madrigal” (1715), “Letter to Madame la Marquise de S[--], On Sending her Tobacco” (1715) -- Poems celebrating romantic female friendship with an erotic tinge.

Mary Wortley Montagu from the Embassy Letters (1716-18) -- Descriptions of lesbian encounters in the women’s baths in Turkey, where her husband was ambassador.

Anonymous “Cloe to Artimesa” (1720) -- A poem favorably comparing love between women to heterosexual relations.

Anonymous Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or Seignor D---o’s Adventures in Britain (1722) -- A pornographic poem about women using dildoes to satisfy each other.

Anonymous from A Supplement to the Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (ca. 1725) -- A lesbian encounter from a publication that, while purporting to be a polemic against masturbation, reads more like the letters column from Penthouse.

Contents summary: 

There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations). With the rise of the novel as a literary form, we begin seeing how lesbian themes are used in that sphere, often setting up conflicts between the portrayal of romantic friendships between women and the emerging stereotype of the predatory agressive lesbian.

Anonymous “The Female Cabin Boy” (ca. 1730) -- Text of a broadside ballad involving a cross-dressed woman who, it is implied, had sexual relations with both the ship’s captain and his wife.

John Addison (N.D.) translation of Sappho fragment 31 “Happy as a God is He” and 130 “Dire Love, Sweet-Bitter Bird of Prey!” (1735) -- Translations of poems with clearly homoerotic content.

Anonymous from The Sappho-An. An Heroic Poem of Three Cantos, in the Ovidian Style, Describing the Pleasures with the FAIR SEX Enjoy with Each Other (ca.1735) -- A somewhat satirical poem attributing to Sappho the origin of lesbianism in general and certain sexual practices in specific.

Samuel Richardson from Pamela (1740-41) and from Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54) -- Excerpts from two early novels that depict the tension between valorizing romantic friendship between women and condemning any hint of sexual desire between them.

Henry Fielding The Female Husband (1746) -- A fictionalized biography of an individual assigned female at birth who lived as a man and married a woman.

John Cleland from Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) (1748-49) -- Excerpts depicting the protagonist’s sexual initiation by another woman in preparation for a career as a prostitute.

Anonymous “The Game of Flatts” from Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) -- A polemic against lesbianism, largely in the form of an Orientalist fantasy of an encounter in a Turkish bath.

Denis Diderot from The Indiscreet Jewels (1748), from The Nun (1760) -- Two rather voyeuristic excerpts from novels, involving lesbian activity.

Contents summary: 

Male and anonymous authors continue to focus on lesbians in male-gaze pornography and crude sexual satire. The female authors in this group are instead writing of their own lives, whether the continuing poems on the theme of intensely romantic friendship, or the somewhat banal diaries of the most famous female romantic couple of the age, or the somewhat more transgressive (and likely sensationalized) memoirs of the cross-dressing/genderqueer Charlotte Charke.

The creation and publication of diaries and memoirs both provides unrivaled glimpses into the lives of marginalized people, and the risk (or opportunity?) of consuming a highly curated, potentially fictionalized version of their lives. Even candid, private diaries may be edited and filtered before being presented for consumption, whether by the original author, by that author's familial or literary heirs, or simply by the interests and preoccupations of an academic gatekeeper who is choosing and processing works for publication. Two such works are included here: the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, which was written specifically to be a professional publication and to manage Charke's public image, and the private journals of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the "Ladies of Llangollen", which were written as a private record of daily life. These present an interesting contrast with external representations of lesbian lives.

Charlotte Charke from A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (1755) -- Excerpts concerning Charke’s enjoyment of wearing male clothing and an erotic encounter with a woman while so dressed.

Anonymous from Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) -- Yet another entry in the genre of “convents are a hot-bed of lesbianism”.

Anonymous from “Dialogue between Sappho and Ninon de l’Enclose, in the Shades” (1773) -- This dialogue appeared in a scandal rag of the day and purports to be an encounter in the afterlife between the poet Sappho and the salonnière Ninon de L’Enclos. (There is no implication that Ninon had homoerotic tastes, but a clear portrayal of Sappho as primarily lesbian.)

Anonymous from The Adulteress (1773) -- A brief satirical poem, noteworthy for the unambiguous inclusion of “Tommy” as slang for a lesbian.

Giacomo Casanova from A History of My Life (1789-98) -- An erotic threesome involving Casanova and two women.

Marquis de Sade from Juliettte (1792) -- It will be utterly unsurprising to note that this excerpt involves sadistic lesbian pornography.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby from the journals of Eleanor Butler (1784-1821) -- Everyday lives of the most famous romantic female couple in England.

Anna Seward “Elegy Written at the Sea-side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” (ca. 1780), from Llangollen Vale, Inscribed to the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler, and Miss Ponsonby (1796) -- Poetry in the tradition of romantic sentimentality between women.


Mary Matilda Betham “In a Letter to A.R.C., On Her Wishing to be Called Anna”, “Invitation--to J.B.C.”, “A Valentine” (1797) -- More poems of romantic love between women.

Contents summary: 

Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.

Maria Edgeworth from Belinda (1801) -- The author satirized independent “mannish” women with her character Harriet Freke, who not only cross-dresses and enjoys swordplay, but shamelessly pursues young women like the eponymous protagonist romantically. The modern reader may find Mrs. Freke more appealing than the somewhat insipid Belinda.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Christabel (1816) -- A long supernatural-themed poem with lesbian elements that were strong enough to get it condemned as obscene. The content falls in the “monstrous seductress” genre.

“S.T. Colebritche, Esq.” from Christabess: A Right Woeful Poem (1816) -- A comedic parody of the preceding item.

Anne Lister from The Diaries of Anne Lister (1824-26) -- Excerpts from the diaries of an unabashed lesbian of the Yorkshire gentry, who was part of a not-always-discreet social circle of women who loved women. Her writings provide a candid and invaluable look at what everyday life was like at that time for women who wanted to establish relationships with other women.

William Wordsworth “To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P., Composed in the Grounds of Plas Newydd, Near Llangollen, 1824” (1824) -- Yet another poet writes odes in honor of the famous Ladies of Llangollen, praising their romantic love without any implication of sexual desire.

Théophile Gautier from Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) -- (Translated) A sensational novel about the bisexual Madeleine de Maupin, who is traveling in male disguise as Theodore de Serannes. (Aspects of the story indicate it was inspired by the 17th century life of Julie d’Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin, however very little of the historic figure other than the names, her cross-dressing, and her bisexuality are retained.)

Honoré de Balzac from The Girl With the Golden Eyes (1835) -- (Translated) Another entry in the “sensational lesbian decadence told from a male gaze” genre.

Eliza Mary Hamilton “A Young Girl Seen in Church” (1838) -- A vaguely erotic poem of admiration between women.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning “To George Sand: A Desire” (1844) -- A short poem evoking romantic and erotic imagery, addressed to a woman famous for her cross-dressing and masculine pseudonym.

Contents summary: 

In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.

Charlotte Brontë from Villette (1853) -- An excerpt depicting the characters engaged in cross-dressed theatricals that create a homoerotic implication.

Charles Baudelaire “Lesbos”, “Damned Women 1 (Delphine and Hippolyta)”, “Damned Women 2” (1857) -- More poems in the genre of decadent sensationalism with a male gaze.

Christina Rossetti Goblin Market (1862) -- A long poem that is strongly homoerotic, disguised in fantastic imagery.

Algernon Charles Swinburne “Anactoria” (1866), “from Lesbia Brandon (1864-67) -- Yet more decadent sapphic erotic poetry written by a man. The second piece is from a novel in which a cross-dressing man is romanced by a lesbian.

Paul Verlaine Scenes of Sapphic Love (1867) -- (Translation) A set of poems depicting love between women, quite overtly though somewhat voyeuristically.

Emily Dickinson “Her Breast is Fit for Pearls”, “Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night”, “Going--to--Her!”, “Ourselves were wed one summer--dear--“, “Precious to Me--She still shal be--“, “The Stars are old, that stood for me--“, “Frigid and sweet Her parting Face--“, “To see her is a Picture--“ (1851-86) -- A selection of Dickinson’s more strongly homoerotic verses, addressed to an unnamed “she” who is generally taken to be Dickinson’s sister-in-law Sue Gilbert Dickinson. The emotions are expressed in poetic imagery, and open to interpretation.

George Augustus Sala translation of Martial’s Epigram VII.67 “Abhorrent of All Natural Joys” (1868) -- Yet another translation of the rather misogynistic classical Roman poetic satires on lesbian topics.

Thomas Hardy from Desperate Remedies (1871) -- A homoerotic episode from a rather convoluted novel, involving the somewhat predatory relationship of the protagonist and her employer. The lesbian aspect is somewhat diluted by the revelation that the predatory employer was previously in love with the protagonist’s father and has transferred her fixation.


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps “Since I Died” (1873) -- A fantasy in which a recently deceased woman addresses her mourning companion, with the implication that they had been lovers.

Contents summary: 

The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning). The female authors create neutral or positive portrayals of female same-sex desire, but where the desire is usually sublimated or obscured.

Constance Fenimore Woolson “Felipa” (1876) -- A tale of tangled passions, some of them lesbian, involving a painter, the female object of her obsession, that object’s (male) lover, and an exoticized Minorcan girl who loves several of them.

Émile Zola from Nana (1880) -- (Translated?) An episode from the novel involving courtesans and prostitutes at a lesbian bar. The depiction of late 19th century lesbian butch-femme culture is probably fairly accurate.

Guy de Maupassant “Paul’s Mistress” (1881) -- (Translated) Another story in the “decadent lesbians” genre, in which a man is driven mad when his mistress abandons him for another woman.

“Walter” from My Secret Life (1882-1894) -- Erotic scenes involving the male protagonist, his mistress, and another (female) prostitute.

Amy Levy (1861-1889) “Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia)”, “To Lallie”, “Borderland”, “At a Dinner Party” -- A selection of poems expressing desire (in varying degrees of explicitness) by the author for other women.

Catulle Mendès from Lila and Colette (1885) -- (Translated) The author was part of a circle of writers and painters who frequently depicted female homoeroticism. This is a piece in a pseudo-Hellenic style depicting classical Greek lesbianism.

Henry James from The Bostonians (1886) -- A non-pornographic depiction of lesbian desire, but solidly in the “tragic lesbian” genre, depicting the struggle between a man and a woman for the love of the same woman.

“Michael Field” (pen name of co-authors Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper) “Erinna, Thou Art Ever Fair”, “Atthis, My Darling”, Maids, Not to You”, “Power in Silence”, “Daybreak”, “My Lady Has a Lovely Rite” (1889) -- The authors were a romantic couple, living together starting when Cooper (Bradley’s niece) was a child and Bradley came to look after her invalid mother. They co-wrote poetry, plays, and books together under the pen name “Michael Field”. Their work, even apart from their living situation, attests to their romantic (and probably sexual) bond. This is a selection of their poetry, including several works inspired by the poems of Sappho.

Pierre Louÿs from The Songs of Bilitis (1894) -- (Translated) A collection of poems, fictionally purporting to be by a member of Sappho’s community of women, which unambiguously express sexual desire between women.

August Strindberg from A Madman’s Manifesto (1895) -- (Translated) A stridently misogynistic and semi-biographical novel concerning the author’s first wife, whom he accused of being a lesbian.

Marcel Proust “Before Dark” (1896), from Cities of the Plain (1921) -- (Translated) An excerpt from part of Proust’s monumental Remembrance of Things Past concerning the protagonist’s frustrated passion for a lesbian.

Willa Cather “Tommy, the Unsentimental” (1896) -- Cather herself had multiple close emotional relationships with women and is generally understood to have been a lesbian. This story is an affectionate portrait of an androgynous “tomboy” character.

Aleister Crowley “The Lesbian Hell” (1898) -- A poem solidly in the genre of decadent/erotic lesbianism.