Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland)
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.
How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal.
Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”
Turning from how Phillips was sanitized of any suggestion of sexual impropriety Wahl now turns to how women-centered institutions, whether salons, schools, theaters, and on to less voluntary spaces like convents and brothels, became sexualized in the libertine imagination.
A comparison of the popular reactions in 18th century English literature to “sapphists” as contrasted with male homosexual institutions like molly houses gives the appearance of unconcern about women’s relationships, as does the absence of English laws against sex between women. When women in same-sex relationships ran afoul of the law, they were typically charged with fraud. Nor were women who cross-dressed as men treated with the same public scorn as effeminate men.
The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.
Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there).
The book opens with an examination of female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman).
There is less segregation of content by the gender of the author in this group. Men continue to translate or emulate the poetry of Sappho, often downplaying but never entirely erasing the homoeroticism. There’s also an example of satirizing a historic individual with crude stereotypes of the predatory “butch” lesbian. While the women continue to write poems of romantic friendship, we also have a social satire envisioning an all-female society, complete with romantic and sexual relationships between women.
The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.