Woodward, Carolyn. 1993. “’My Heart So Wrapt’: Lesbian Disruptions in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 18:838-865.
"I expressed my satisfaction in terms more proper for a Lover than a Friend …. I found my Heart so wrapt up in this lovely Woman." Thus does the male-disguised and adventuring Alithea, the protagonist of the mid-18th century novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, express her reaction when the chance-encountered Arabella agrees to join her in her travels, also in disguise. After which they romp together across Europe, loving each other, flirting together with the ladies they encounter along the way, and working through crises of jealousy that ensue. When, at last they decide to return to women's dress and settle down, rather than be parted, they decide to alternate living at each other's homes for half a year at a time. And at the conclusion they pledge to continue "till Death parts us" noting "the longer we are together, the more we love one another, and are happier in our Friendship and Freedom, than we could possibly propose to be in any other Condition of Life." This is exactly the sort of gem that turns up on occasion in my literature reviews. Carolyn Woodward has written several studies of this text and how it fits in the context of 18th century British fiction. I was delighted to learn that my local university has access to an electronic copy of the text and I intend to use my alumna borrowing privileges to try to lay hands on it.
* * *
This article looks at the 1744 novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, concerning a cross-dressing lesbian heroine who goes about Europe having adventures. Woodward examines this text in the context at other 18th c novels with similar themes that veer off from the lesbian resolution. She also considers the problem of the work’s authorship. It purports to be a translation into English by a man of a French original, written by a woman, but there are reasons to doubt several aspects of that framing.
For those wanting to look further into this intriguing work, see the WorldCat listing for further information.
Included in the article is an extensive plot summary with quotations from the work, particularly covering the lesbian encounters. The narrator cross-dresses in order to travel and have adventures, and the text is primarily descriptions of the places she visits and people she meets. Intertwined in this travelogue is what is unmistakably a lesbian love story, which Woodward describes as “sweet, playful, and celebratory”. The protagonist meets and courts another woman who joins her in her travels (also in male dress). There is a substantial amount of overt erotic and romantic interaction between them. While there is some dancing around the concept of a woman desiring another woman as a woman, it is significant that neither of the primary characters ever show desire toward a man, and while their expressions of desire are filtered through the cross-dressing, there is a constant thread of the female body being present and central to the experience. At the novel’s conclusion -- resisting the standard literary resolution into heterosexuality -- both women return to female dress but take up cohabitation, alternately at each other’s homes, planning to continue their love “till Death parts us.”
This presentation of what is clearly a “happily ever after” conclusion to an equally clearly erotic partnership between women departs from the canon of better-known literature of the time including works that come closest to portraying lesbian-like relationships, such as the following:
Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747-48) and Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752) both portray women's desire for each other but resolve it with heterosexual marriage or death.
Sarah Scott's Millennium Hall (1762) portrays a utopian female community but elides sexuality altogether, as does Sarah Fielding's The Adventures of David Simple (1744).
Sarah Fielding and Jane Collier's The Cry (1754) explores women’s voices and relationships but ends with a heterosexual resolution.
Gaps in the narrative that focus on female desire without contradicting heterosexual resolutions also include Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791) where the single protagonist focuses on intellectual pursuits and “a red-hot affair at the heart” with a woman who serves as her muse, but without the presence of a physical relationship, and Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s Lettres de Milady Juliette Catesby a Milady Henriette Campley, son amie (1759) which skips over the protagonist’s marriage to a man to conclude the novel in a focus on her desire for a beloved female friend.
Woodward provides a brief review of contemporary attitudes towards lesbianism, specifically that it became problematic primarily when challenging the male domain by including passing as male, especially in order to marry a woman, or when the use of sexual aids were considered to usurp the penis. These novels occur in a period when a tentative 17th century concept of a “third sex”, including both homosexuals and intersex individuals, was being replaced by an image of lesbians as sexually corrupt monsters. Another context that is considered is the interpretation of “romantic friendship”. Woodward challenges Faderman’s problematic interpretation of romantic friendships as inherently non-sexual, considering it to marginalize the clearly sexual components of transgressive lower-class lesbians, as well as erasing the erotic nature of the literature of romantic friendship. As evidence she notes relationships such as the “ladies of Llangollen” and Charlotte Clarke’s female living and traveling companion who presented themselves as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown”. These examples clearly provide a bridge between the postulated sexless “romantic friendships” and what should unarguably be considered lesbian relationships. Another topic covered for context is the various purposes for which women used cross-dressing, including disguise for safety while traveling, the ability to have romantic interactions with women (whether consummated or not), and for theatrical play. Woodword concludes by suggesting that the absence of this book from awareness and studies of 18th century literature can be attributed to its strong departure from the accepted narrative structures of the time, in particularly in the way it diverges from acceptable narrative resolutions.