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LHMP #137f Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men I.B.2 The “Fashion” of Romantic Friendship in the Eighteenth Century

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.B.2 The “Fashion” of Romantic Friendship in the Eighteenth Century

My commentary on this chapter is so hopelessly intertwined with the summary that I’ve given up trying to separate the two.

* * *

As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.

In the 17-19th centuries, fashion recognized women’s close emotional and romantic bonds as “normal” in this sense, and further, that fashion condoned them as desirable. Public “romantic friendships” such as the celebrated one between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) were not considered improper, as such a friendship would be between unmarried opposite-sex persons.

Opinions varied whether such romantic friendships should be viewed only as practice for the devotion a woman would be expected to give a husband, or whether they were a “natural” outgrowth of feminine nature, to which was attributed sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion. As a gross oversimplification, male writers tended toward the first opinion, while women’s accounts of their own romantic friendships tended toward the second. There is also a suggestion, in the representation of romantic friendships in literature, that they allowed a useful emotional escape valve for women trapped in dysfunctional marriages, in an era where marriage was an expected life path but divorce was next to impossible.

This benevolent view was not entirely universal. The polemic Satan’s Harvest Home deplores “two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it.” And though the text asserts certainty that Englishwomen were not capable of being “criminally amorous” with each other (as the publication describes that foreign women might be), to raise the possibility is to acknowledge it. Male authors, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) often portrayed close female friendships as inherently ephemeral, but other works (even by male authors) depicted such friendships as enduring and even triumphing over heterosexual bonds.

Although the above examples are primarily English, French writers of the 18th century reflected a similar recognition of intense female friendships that used the language of passion and often reflected lifelong bonds that eclipsed those of family. Such a friendship was the subject of Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle Héloise, but the real-life equivalent was seen in women who carried each other’s portraits, attended salons together, and refused social invitations unless both were invited. Although Faderman asserts that open kisses and caresses between such friends were not considered to be sexual (except, perhaps, as stimulation for a male observer), this is the historic context in which such intense friendships among Queen Marie Antoinette’s circles were fodder for accusations of lesbian activity. And the text quotes descriptions by these women of their relationships that clearly equates what they feel for each other with heterosexual desire.

But after noting that the language used is identical to that used between heterosexual lovers, Faderman returns to her thesis: “It is probable that many romantic friends, while totally open in expressing and demonstrating emotional and spiritual love, repressed any sexual inclinations, and even any recognition of those inclinations, that they might have felt for each other, since during most eras of modern history women were well taught from childhood that only men or bad women were sexually aggressive.” What does this “many” mean? The book seems continually to return to the position that if “many” romantic friends did not see any erotic aspect to their relationship, then eroticism was by definition absent from the concept of romantic friendship. As opposed, for example, to seeing the phenomenon as a continuum where public acceptance of certain aspects could allow for a more erotic relationship that was less public. And yet, “less public” how, when women in romantic friendships spoke of “wearing the chains of Eros” and of longing to be able to marry each other? Faderman states that the “sophisticated” modern scholar would see in these effusions only a sentimental literary style and discount that it came from genuine emotion, and argue as evidence that signs of heterosexuality (such as marriage and children) automatically contradicted the possibility of homosexual desire. [This entire book seems to ignore the possibility of bisexuality.]

Writers of the 18th century themselves commented on the distinction between expressions of sentimentality that were purely for the sake of fashion and those that came from genuine emotion. And these were often contrasted in literature in a way that valorized the genuine emotion.

The chapter concludes with Faderman’s conclusion that, despite the language of passion and devotion, despite behaviors such as kissing and embracing in bed together, “unless they were transvestites or considered ‘unwomanly’ in some male’s conception, there was little chance that their relationship would be considered lesbian.” And here we come back to a contradiction in the book’s argumentation. Are we considering only whether larger society would accuse them of being lesbians? Or are we to conclude that there was nothing of lesbian sexuality present in the relationship itself? Faderman herself seems to waver between the two. Just above, she has defined “lesbian” as meaning “sexual proclivity” as if lesbian identity means solely, obligatorily, and exclusively physical erotic desire. But elsewhere the argument seems to be that women in romantic friendships didn’t allow themselves to feel any erotic desire at all because “good girls don’t”.

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