Mar 272008

Marcus, Sharon Between Women: Friendship, Desire, And Marriage In Victorian England Princeton University Press, 2007 Google Books Amazon

If “the homosexual”, as a legal and psychological identity, was invented in the late Victorian period via events like the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis and the trial of Oscar Wilde, there may have been forms of sexual identity that were un-invented at the same time. Marcus’ book suggests that, instead of looking at Virgina Woolf’s phrase “Chloe liked Olivia” and immediately assuming that the women in question were lesbians, or should have been lesbians if only their society allowed for it, “liked” may have referred to an emotionally passionate yet physically chaste form of female friendship. Far from being in opposition to heterosexuality, female homosociality was a complimentary adjunct to heterosexuality. Female friends were a standard feature of romantic novels; it was the unmarriageable types like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp who didn’t like other women.

Marcus develops this theme over the first third of her book, based on diaries, letters and other forms of period “lifewriting”, texts that aspire to be uneventful and conventional, yet still contain passionate declarations of love between women. It’s a plausible argument, but I wanted to know more about the borders between the realms. What happens when the husband has to move his family to where his wife can’t be with her romantic friend? And where does romantic friendship end and lesbianism begin? Was there some explicit or implicit rule?

The middle section of the book focuses on female-female eroticism through the media of fashion magazine plates, fetishistic correspondence in magazines like the Engliswoman’s Domestic Monthly, and the Victorian cult of dolls. Marcus includes excerpts from a children’s book about a little girl who goes to Doll Land in search of her doll, who ran away because her “mistress” mistreated her. Doll Land is inhabited by dolls and walking, talking bundles of birch rods, all of whom are eager to flog the little girl in retaliation for how she treated her doll. (Sometimes I’m reminded that the Victorians weren’t just us without electricity and penicillin; they were different.)

Marcus discusses the corporal punishment and fetishist correspondence published in EDM and other magazines. Regardless of whoever wrote those letters or whether any of them were true, the readership of those fashionable middle class magazines was predominantly female, who apparently had an appetite, erotic if not actually sexual, for accounts of young women being corporally punished. Bear in mind that a few decades later, Freud would explore how the fantasizer can take multiple and shifting roles within fantasy. If we accept that, then it isn’t a huge leap to assume there were women writing these letters, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously. Marcus says that pornography and fashion magazines drew from a common stock of images and situations, particularly detailed emphasis on female clothing and bodies.

Decades of feminist scholarship has defined pornography as something produced by and for men, but that definition was never entirely accurate and is becoming less so. Any theory of pornography needs to include gay porn and dyke porn, trans porn, the spicier end of the Harlequin romance novel spectrum, Cosmo cover girls, letters like the ones in EDM, slash fanfiction and a lot of other phenomena. You need to account for what you might call “folk porn”, sexually explicit texts and images that are produced and distributed outside of the usual channels, and which slip under the radar of regulatory agencies.

So, does Chloe still “like” Olivia in the same way in 2008? Are they ladies who lunch and show off their wedding rings every Sunday afternoon? Or are they cheerfully fisting each other to delirious orgasms at girl bath-houses every Saturday night? Or both? Movies and TV shows like Kissing Jessica Stein and Sex and the City privilege chaste female friendships over sexual relationships, hetero or homo. I’m certainly no expert on female friendships.

Marcus’ work has complicated my research by rupturing the boundary that defines “sex.” If Chloe and Olivia may or may not have been lesbians as we would define them today, and therefore perhaps not relevant to the history of lesbianism, Munby and Cullwick may or may not have been kinky people as we would define them today. That undermines the whole idea of a history of sadomasochism, or at least one that’s more than 120 years old or so.

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