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18th c

LHMP entry

In this article, Binhammer compares the social meanings of three parallel forms of “sexual excess” in late 18th century British literature, and how the three are linked structurally in the popular imagination. Specifically: sex between women, sexualized whipping, and the emotional experience of extreme “sensibility”.

Using the springboard of theoretical discourse around feminism and sexuality around the 1980s, Binhammer uses proto-feminist literature of the later 18th century as a lens for how theories of feminism and theories of sexuality intersect and come into conflict. The focus of 1980s feminist rhetoric narrowly on (heterosexual) sexual dynamics as a source of oppression, contributed to the rise of queer theory as the more dynamic field for examining theories of sexuality.

The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

Right at the turn of the 18th century (ca 1700), a Parisian police official collected a series of reports on the scandalous behavior of Henriette de Castelnau, countess de Murat. The official noted that it was particularly shameful for a noblewoman to have engaged in such actions. While a number of offences were detailed, the core accusation was her sexual relations with other women.

Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling

The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.

This book addresses the question of why, given the attention paid (if patchily) by historians to women’s friendships, the subject of erotic F/F friendship is strikingly absent from study. This erasure makes it possible to argue for the absence of lesbians in the past, but the erasure goes beyond the erotic.

Burford’s book is a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally.

This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.

This chapter, though just as packed with the confusion of life details as the previous ones, provides a much clearer picture of a particular configuration of companionship. The two women in the relationship were both from the comfortable middle class, but each with disadvantages to be overcome, and each had a certain amount of good fortune--or at least a good outcome that left them quite happy and comfortable. I’m going to take each of their stories separately at first and then blend them together.

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