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LHMP #385 Moore 1997 Dangerous Intimacies

Full citation: 

Moore, Lisa. 1997. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Duke University Press, Durham, 1997. ISBN 0-8223-2049-5

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In the later 18th century, there is a conflict in the English imagination between the foreign, dangerous, “female friends,” personified by the image of sapphic Marie-Antoinette, and the positive image of such celebrated English female couples such as Ponsonby and Butler, Seward and Sneyd. Hester Thrale personified this conflict, expressing deeply negative views of sexualized female relationships, but praising and even engaging in intimate (but not overtly sexual) relationships between women, such as Frances Barney.

This book examines the role that the novel, as a genre, played in negotiating that English post-Enlightenment view of sexual identity. The novel took on the task of distinguishing “good” and “bad” intimate female friendships. It was a tool for producing identity and for imposing a set of sanctioned identities such that they became viewed as “natural.” In particular, it defined the concepts of domestic space and female virtue that dominated the 19th century.

This study uses four novels to examine how female homosocial spaces were used to define English moral purity. The sexuality of the bourgeois English woman became the linchpin of this concept and process. Moore both references and critiques Foucault’s work here, and more generally notes the tendency for historic studies to avoid addressing female homosexuality in this era, either dismissing it is “uninteresting because not illegal” or erasing it as merely a type of masturbation.

Moore notes recent work in the field by Trumbach, Vicinus, Castle, and Woodward and points out that one can’t speak of a single “lesbian history” in this era but of many. Moore disagrees with Faderman, seeing romantic friendship as having a complex and contradictory reception. She also disagrees with Smith-Rosenberg, seeing more wariness and anxiety around “accepted” female friendships. Moore feels this erasure has contributed to a campaign against making genealogical connections between historic female homoeroticism and the modern lesbian. The core tension sets up sapphism and romantic friendship as inherently contrasting concepts—an idea that Moore challenges.

The program of the 18th century novel was to use the dangerous, sapphic female friend as a means for the heroine to engage with, then refuse, sexual immorality. It gave the bourgeoisie the means to define themselves as more virtuous than the aristocracy or peasantry. And it cemented moral hierarchies of race and nation to assign virtue to imperialism and colonialism. The female “other “of these texts – the sapphic friend – is linked to attributes drawn from naturalist/colonialist discourse: French and Italian decadence, barbaric Turks, savage Africans, sexually divergent Others. These are the characters who must be rejected by the heroine and banished or killed by the narrative. The ultimate victory is the heterosexual marriage plot. The four novels used for this analysis are: Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Jane Austen’s Emma. [Note: Although Moore doesn’t lay it out at this point in the book, the four works represent four tropes: the pious, sexless epitome of female charity, the tribade who is indiscriminately sexually wanton, the “mannish” figure, and the romantic friend.]

Chapter 1 - Resisting Reform: Millenium Hall

Millenium Hall is a solid depiction of the (de-sexualized) ideals of romantic friendship. It depicts a community of women who reject marriage for an all-female community. The work escapes the patriarchal narrative but is not radical in terms of sexuality. The novel’s popularity argues against the idea that the book was seen as subversive or threatening. Millenium Hall defines a very narrow, specific form of female power: bourgeois and domestic, rooted in a conservative morality that aligns with class and gender hierarchies rather than subverting them. The women of Millenium Hall represent the power of “domestic surveillance.” They organize and control other women’s lives “for their own good” and because they, by their class and situation, know best. The virtuous domestic woman. They do not have power outside the domestic sphere but work to build and justify their power within that sphere. They create the concept of “institutional culture” and establish it as a feminine space. The “institution” becomes a substitute “home sphere” for those who do not marry.

But this power is gate-kept by patriarchal society. Moore argues against taking the premises of the book too much at face value as presented by the novel. The promise of female power within the domestic space, she argues, is not description but seduction – the bait set out to lure women into accepting the limitations embedded in it.

Moore points out the irony of Millenium Hall’s use of a metaphor of “slavery” to describe the lives of married women, while failing to engage with the realities of chattel slavery at the time. The abolition movement fed into the feminist movement but often as a rhetorical motif, with white bourgeois women co-opting the language of slavery for their experience while failing to engage meaningfully with the reality of enslaved people.

And the “women of Millenium Hall” are only a subset of its inhabitants. Their leisure and ability to live their lives and perform their charities come from invisible resources (in this era, often dependent on colonial exploitation and enslaved labor). The day-to-day operations of the hall are enabled by the labor of poor working class women who not only serve the ladies by performing chores, but also serve as the subjects of their moral improvement projects.

Even as Millenium Hall depicts the “power of domestic virtue” it reveals how thoroughly coerced women are into that limited sphere. Many of the women who come there are victims of male sexual power and arrive, not by choice, but as a last resort. Female friendship is defined in opposition to the violence of male sexuality, as a refuge from it. This acts to exclude sexuality from the female sphere, as the author did in escaping her marriage to live with an intimate female friend. Moore reviews a few of the stories of individual characters in Millenium Hall to illustrate this general pattern.

The women of Millenium Hall have power, but only within a constrained scope separated from “the world” and only by removing themselves from the category of “ordinary women” – marked physically or emotionally by their past history, their lives given meaning only by the control they exert over other women, cut off from pleasure by assigning it to the realm of the male society they have escaped. It is a homosocial world but not a homoerotic one where women are able to have agency or personal desires. They are not separate from ordinary patriarchal society, but instead are a filtered reflection of it, with only the presence of men removed.

Chapter 2 - Domesticating Homosexuality: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

This chapter considers how Cleland shifts the view of homosexuality as essentially “foreign” as depicted in, e.g., the pamphlet Satan’s Harvest Home, to one in which it is part of a complex picture of distinctively English sexuality. Cleland blends “foreign” female homosexuality with English domestic settings and the language of romantic friendship (as well as similarly complicating the view of male homosexuality). He “domesticated” homosexuality, framing female homosexuality as harmless play and male homosexuality as vice.

Moore begins by considering the content and context of Satan’s Harvest Home, which locates homosexuality as foreign and a recent “invader” on British shores. In contrast Cleland depicts both female and male homosexuality as “native” in England. Moore considers the problems of interpretation in a novel in which neither women’s voices nor women’s experiences are directly represented.

Memoirs is, at heart, a domestic novel with a marriage plot resolution regardless of the protagonist’s early experiences as a sex worker. The community of sex workers into which Fanny is initiated has superficial similarities to other female communities. The women enjoy intimate bonds – both specific and general – and use language parallel to that of romantic friendship. But Memoirs is steeped in active sexuality of all types, just as Millenium Hall is drained of it. Fanny is explicit in her desire for sex and orientation towards men, even while sharing community with women whose “arbitrary taste” is for their own sex. And much of the admiration of other women’s beauty is moderated through Fanny’s narrative point of view, just as – in the same breath – Fanny admires men’s beauty in similar language. [Note: Moore spends an extensive passage examining the descriptions of male and female bodies within the novel.]

Chapter 3 – Colonizing Virtue: Belinda

Belinda represents the sexualization of female friendship and the contrast between deviant and virtuous friendships, but also makes connections with colonialism and slavery to connect sapphic sexuality within social and colonial hierarchies. Moore, in this chapter, connects the images of female friendship and of national, class, and racial hierarchy as manifested in Belinda, the Pirie-Woods trial, and Anne Lister’s diaries. The character of the enslaved Juba in Belinda and the mixed-race school girl Jane Cumming in the Pirie-Woods trial both serve as outsider voices that critique and make visible sapphic erotics, thus participating in the enforcement of white bourgeois “virtue.” Lister serves as a somewhat more self-aware but still unreliable window on the varieties of female sexual agency that are the social context for Belinda.

In Belinda, the character of Lady Delacour serves simultaneously as a symbol of the hazards of female friendship (in contrast with the ultimately successful marriage plot) but also as a lesson in wise choices via the contrast with Delacour’s friendship with Harriot Freke, the mannish cross-dressing gender outlaw. Delacour’s choice of Belinda over Harriot as a friend is used as a positive lesson.

The Pirie-Woods case provides a real life examination of the blurry line between virtuous and inappropriate friendships. The Pirie-Woods defense relied on invoking the need for female friendships to be considered above reproach, even in the face of affectionate behavior, lest all women be suspect. In order to maintain this illusion, even the idea of the possibility of erotic relations between women must be displaced onto a colonial Other – the sordid imagination of the half-Indian student who reported the teachers. Anne Lister’s existence was a powerful rejection of the assertion that lesbian relations were inherently un-English. While using her class privilege to provide her with the scope for acting on her desires, Lister exposes the contradictory images of romantic friendship when embedded within class hierarchies. These contradictions are even better displayed in the conflicting views recorded by contemporaries regarding the nature of the romantic friendship between Ponsonby and Butler. They were, at the same time, regarded as the epitome of the non-sexual romantic friendship, and as sexually suspect and shoehorned into stereotypes of the mannish sapphist, or at least the erotically-aware one.

Lister and Belinda illustrate another connection in attitudes – the effects of reading, especially of the classics, as a threat to women’s innocence and virtue. Both texts are feeling their way to a concept of female-female desire that relies on contrasting gender roles: the mannish (at least psychologically) one who pursues women, and the femme, who is not distinguished from heterosexual women, but is receptive to being courted by a woman. Lister also illustrates a self-awareness of the need to perform within the boundaries of acceptable female friendship, at least to the world at large.

Thus Belinda explores several relevant topics: the social functions of romantic friendship, the difficulty of distinguishing virtuous and indecent friendships, and the threat to virtue posed by novels and reading in general.

Moore provides a detailed plot and character study, primarily focusing on the character of Harriot Freke. Harriot may be depicted as a joke, but she is seen as a serious threat to Delacour’s and Belinda’s place in society. But if Harriot represents the dangerous version of female intimacy, Belinda + Delacour represent the positive social function of such friendships in giving women an appropriate context for intimate adoration prior to the point in the plot when it is appropriate for Belinda to transfer those feelings to a man.

Harriot is punished for her transgressive existence not only by cross-class mockery (from the enslaved Juba) but by physical disfigurment in the course of one of her transgressive adventures. But while the novel might superficially praise the conforming domestic woman, the narrative focus is on the more suspect characters, undermining that lesson. Harriot, though formally cast out from the characters’ lives in chapter 2, must continually re-enter the story in order to remind the reader of the hazards of female friendship, given that the central story relies on the motif so heavily.

Chapter 4 – Desire and Diminution: Emma

Emma, while offering views of female friendship, is less obviously related to the program of how friendship narratives serve the legitimization of bourgeois power. Of Austen’s novels, only Mansfield Park touches on issues of colonialism overtly. The concerns of the central characters in Emma are local and limited. In this, Austen typifies the “realist” novel, in which character is more central than sensational and wide-ranging plots. But Emma, Moore suggests, “incorporates and subordinates other social differences – here, microscopic increments of class and status – into sexual questions about the heroine’s relations with other women.” But in this it represents the triumph of the rise of bourgeois power, in which external/foreign conflicts have been disappeared in favor of the idealized domestic interior.

At the time Emma was written, romantic friendship had a complex and well-established history, both in life and literature. The action plays out against that array of sapphic possibilities. The multiplicity of models means that any story involving romantic friendship cannot help but invoke multiple possible readings, even if they aren’t explored directly in the text. It is still the “unregulated” female friendship – the one that strays outside its proper place – that poses a danger to the heroine. Emma is in danger because the “power of having rather too much her own way” sets her in opposition to the compliance and alignment with social hierarchies necessary for the proper heroine.

Moore discusses the modern critical reception of Emma, which deals somewhat awkwardly with the undeniable centrality of Emma’s feelings for Harriet, beside which Knightley seems almost an afterthought, included due to the narrative necessity of the marriage plot. For most of the novel, Emma takes a male-coded role, and must be realigned into a “proper” passive feminine role to become a wife.

[Note: I confess this chapter is the least interesting to me as it focuses prominently on the evolution and variety of modern scholarship on the novel rather than its historical context.]

The three crucial female friendships play different roles in Emma’s progress. That with Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston is in initially central even as it is moved out of the danger zone by Mrs. Weston’s marriage. The socially approved friendship with Jane Fairfax – promoted as Emma’s most appropriate companion, emerges only at the end of the novel even as it is made inaccessible by Jane’s own marriage. Thus, the most prominent friendship across the story is the one with Harriet, the most problematic in terms of class and in how it encourages Emma in her dominance and unruliness.

Female friendships are also the context in which women (and especially Emma) can be admired for beauty, and sexualized. The taboo on overt admiration/sexualization of women by male characters concentrates the erotic tension into those interactions between women. Descriptions of female beauty and desirableness come from the mouths of other women: Emma’s admiration of Harriet, and Harriet’s of Emma. One can’t help but view Knightley’s hostility to Emma and Harriet’s friendship as involving jealousy, not simply concern for Emma’s social standing. Emma’s friendship with Harriet “masculinizes” her, keeping her from inhabiting the necessary role of wife. The friendship raises the possibility of options to marriage. Knightley, it is revealed, had similarly disapproved of Miss Taylor as Emma’s governess due to her inability (or unwillingness) to exert authority over Emma, thus enabling Emma’s willfulness and agency. It isn’t until Emma comes to view Knightley as her rival for Harriet’s affection (or Harriet as her rival for Knightley) that she breaks with Harriet and opens herself to an attachment to Knightley.

At the novel’s conclusion, all three of Emma’s female friends have been removed from her life to some degree, and into their own domestic spheres, leaving her no alternative to filling that space in her life with marriage and domesticity.


This section sums up the main themes of the book: the various ways in which representations of intimacy between women were used to develop and support the creation of the ideal of bourgeois domestic virtue, through a diversity of archetypes and contrasts. Rather than sharp displacements of one sapphic image with another, there is a shifting continuum of emphases.


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