Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present
by Lillian Faderman
Morrow, 496 pp., $10.95 (paper)
From the alliance of feminists, male homosexuals, and lesbians, and the inevitable tensions and antagonisms among them, a new sense of the world has been taking shape that is now more widely accepted than many of those who promoted it ever dared to hope. However splendid this accomplishment has been, it would be less than honest to view it without a degree of sadness, for in a sense it has been a Pyrrhic victory. Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, which traces romantic friendships between women from the Renaissance to the present, is a comprehensive and illuminating study of women’s struggles to live and love as they please, but it unwittingly reveals some of the uneasiness that accompanies their current success.
Her book, she says, emerged from a realization that the grand passion of Emily Dickinson’s life was not for one of the various men with whom her male biographers have linked her, but for Sue Gilbert, who married the poet’s brother. Following this insight, Ms. Faderman realized as she read the correspondence of numerous women through the centuries that all (sic) of them revealed a passionate commitment to another woman on at least one occasion in their lives. As she continued her research, she became conscious of how male attitudes had conditioned not only the views of society but women’s views of their own friendships.
In the sixteenth century, Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies set a tone of titillation that was to be followed by countless other books on the subject. The contemplation of women in amorous play served as an aphrodisiac, a prelude to the real business of sex between men and women. One great lady, after witnessing women fondling each other, “maddened as it were at the madness of love,” pleaded with her lover to take her to bed immediately, “for that no more can I hold in the ardour that is in me. Needs must away and quench it: too sore do I burn.” Casanova delighted in watching two women disport themselves, but reminded his lady that their intoxication was a pale shadow of heterosexual passion: “Your mutual love is nothing but trifling nonsense—a mere illusion of the senses.”
John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1749) viewed amorous dalliance between women with much the same amused condescension as Brantôme and Casanova. For all his sensual wisdom, he seems to have been unaware of the importance of the clitoris, and thought his prostitutes satisfied themselves simply by imitating the “missionary position” in what was known as “tribadism,” or genital rubbing against each other. Brantôme, incidentally, shared the general abhorrence of dildos as coming a little too close to male provenance. I have always been puzzled why dildos and not fingers were used unless women were conditioned to believe that satisfactory orgasm could be achieved only by male penetration. This is not to suggest that I share the view of the vulgar Dr. David Reuben, who described alternative sex …