Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present
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 as “the curse of the homosexual, male or female. No matter how ingenious they are, their sexual practices must always be some sort of imitation of heterosexual practices.”
Supercilious male amusement was not always the tone adopted toward female amorous behavior. Ironically, in The Nun, Diderot, in some respects the most emancipated figure of the Enlightenment, not only excoriated—predictably—the Catholic Church, but revealed an unpleasant streak of antifeminism. His outraged description of lesbianism is simply a hyperbole for his attitude toward women whom, as Ms. Faderman points out, he considers “vain, hysterical, designing, helpless, and generally stupid.” But puritanism in some form or another is generally an accompaniment of revolutions, and Lillian Faderman’s book itself conveys a certain thin-lipped prudishness, although she would probably be astonished to hear it. Her book is, in some respects, overtly antisexual. Even though she repeatedly insists that sexual roles are very much conditioned by current fashion, she has difficulty acknowledging the varieties of sexual pleasure that may have resulted.
Still, her investigations into both literary and social history suggest the often surprising variations in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior. She cites the historian Iwan Bloch’s contention that a sudden fascination with pederasty emerged during the Restoration and that the eighteenth century witnessed a defloration mania. Similarly, romantic friendships between women—until the advent of the sexologists in the late nineteenth century—were not only tolerated but often served as examples of superior devotion. Rousseau reinforced the cult of sentimentality by his tender view of the attachment of Julie to Claire, which in turn stimulated and heightened the heterosexual relationship between Julie and St. Preux. Subsequent romantic literature nurtured the idea of female friendships as capable of more sustained mutual support than women ever received from men. Richardson’s heroines are in a state of perpetual wariness against men who stalk them with the sole aim of robbing them of their most precious possession.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, life imitated art in the project of the Ladies of Llangollen—Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler—whose romantic elopement to a rural paradise which they established in the heart of Wales inspired Wordsworth, after a visit to them in 1824, to write:
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cam- brian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d where faithful to a low roof’d Cot
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long,
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb
Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time.
The reputations of such women were safe not only because of their social position but because it was assumed that they were sexually passive. When scandal threatened to erupt, as in the Woods-Pirie libel case in 1811, when two school mistresses were accused by a student of indulging in sexual activities together, the judge supported the outraged rhetorical question of the defense lawyers, “Is it no violent improbability that no less than two such persons should at last have been guilty of a crime so utterly abandoned, that it is totally unknown, and even doubtful if it can exist?” A woman was viewed as so different from a man that it was inconceivable that she could harbor any erotic feelings. As the Angels in the House, they were pure, asexual, uncontaminated; at the same time men tended to regard them in the same light as the narrator in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”: “Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower brain./Woman is the lesser man….”
Of course there is much evidence, some of it in Faderman’s book, that women did not regard themselves as shallow, silly, brainless, or lacking in erotic feeling toward members of their own sex. One has only to think of the feelings of Geraldine Jewsbury for Jane Carlyle, Edith Simcox for George Eliot, and of George Sand’s various lovers to realize the superhuman efforts women had to make to surmount the stereotyped roles imposed upon them. The vision of the emerging New Woman is expressed in a letter of 1849 from Geraldine Jewsbury to Jane Carlyle:
I believe we are touching on better days, when women will have a genuine, normal life of their own to lead. There, perhaps, will not be so many marriages, and women will be taught not to feel their destiny manqué if they remain single. They will be able to be friends and companions in a way they cannot be now…. I do not feel that either you or I are to be called failures. We are indications of a development of womanhood which as yet is not recognized. It has, so far, no ready made channels to run in, but still we have looked, and tried, and found that the present rules for women will not hold us—that something better and stronger is needed…. There are women to come after us, who will approach nearer the fulness of the measure of the stature of a woman’s nature. I regard myself as a mere faint indication, a rudiment of the idea, of certain higher qualities and possibilities that lie in women, and all the eccentricities and mistakes and desires and absurdities I have made are only the consequence of an imperfect formation, an immature growth…. I can see there is a precious mine of a species of womanhood yet undreamed of by the professors and essayists on female education, and I believe also that we belong to it.
And indeed there were times, as Faderman suggests, when social conditions encouraged independent women to have intense relationships. In a society where the male population had been decimated following the Civil War, “Boston marriages,” such as that between Alice James and Katharine Loring, were actually welcomed by their families as a relief from the responsibility of the emotional care of single dependent relatives. Deprived of the supreme goal to which all women should aspire—marriage—spinsters had to find solace in a second-best alternative.
The long quietus of the status quo began to reveal alarming fissures during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the rise of a new middle class whose daughters were no longer willing to be pushed into marriages of convenience or who were forced to make their own way in the world. Gradually they penetrated institutions of higher learning. Oberlin College became coeducational in the 1830s; in 1837 Mt. Holyoke was established as the first women’s college in the United States. In England Girton College was established in 1869 and by 1878 London University was granting degrees to women. A similar pattern followed on the Continent.
An interesting statistic reveals the changing climate of the time. “Of the 977 women appearing in the 1902 edition of Who’s Who,” Faderman tells us, “almost half did not marry, and of women who received Ph.D.’s in American universities from 1877 to 1924, three-fourths did not marry.” It is difficult to find information about their personal arrangements, but undoubtedly a large percentage of them lived with other women. These women were no longer governesses or lady companions but doctors and nurses or teachers, gradually attaining a state of professional equality.
Not that men welcomed this new development. In the early 1900s some doctors warned that women were forcing their brains to use up the blood they needed for menstruation. Satirical cartoons began to proliferate in which both men and women were made to look ridiculous, the harassed husband knitting while his domineering wife snapped instructions from behind her desk. Women were changing from creatures to be adored to objects to be feared and sneered at, particularly when suspicion began to emerge that some of them were able to cope sexually without the indispensable penis.
Ms. Faderman makes the interesting observation that late nineteenth-century sexologists contributed to this male fear, and of their number she points an accusatory finger at Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. She is right in her estimate of the influence they exerted, but her interpretation is a bit muddled.
True enough, Krafft-Ebing was responsible for making people aware of the widespread prevalence of lesbianism, which he compared to male homosexuality as a congenital abnormality. But Ms. Faderman is too judgmental in many of her conclusions, lacking sufficient historical sense of the climate of ideas prevalent at the time. There is, for instance, not a single reference to the turn-of-the-century passion for eugenics, an appalling omission if one is considering the history of sexuality.
Nor does she seem to know anything about the genesis of Sexual Inversion, which was to become the first of Ellis’s seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, and was initially written in collaboration with John Addington Symonds. It was Symonds, an active homosexual, who first proposed to Ellis that they collaborate on a book on “inversion.” (This term was used by Symonds, let it be noted; both writers agreed that they preferred it to “homosexuality,” and they did not invest the word with the pejorative implications that Ms. Faderman attributes to it.)
The collaboration was both fortuitous and contrived. For years Symonds had longed “to speak out,” but he knew that what he had to say would invite obloquy if he ventured to do it on his own. Consequently, he contacted Ellis, a medical man who had written an objective study, Man and Woman (1894, and many subsequent editions) for the Contemporary Science series which he edited. The respectful attention that it had received in medical journals throughout Europe and America encouraged Symonds to believe that collaboration with such a figure would lend substance to his polemic.
In 1892, when Symonds first wrote to Ellis suggesting that they collaborate on a study of homosexuality, Ellis, who had been married less than a year, had recently discovered that his wife, Edith, was a lesbian. He was jealous, dismayed, bewildered. Above all, he wanted to “understand” Edith. After much soul-searching, he agreed to the project, since he had already decided to make his life’s work the study of sexuality. He was an extraordinarily naïve man, and this very naïveté accounts for both the credulity and tolerance that pervades the seven volumes of his magnum opus. Symonds, on the other hand, was obsessional about what he described as The Problem, but was wholly uninterested in lesbianism, and told Ellis that he had never given the matter any thought.
As Ms. Faderman tells the story, there were deep differences between the two men regarding the nature of inversion, but the letters exchanged during the collaboration indicate far more accord then she seems to realize. Both were agreed that homosexuality was congenital. As a homosexual himself, naturally Symonds was at pains to disclaim that it was a neurotic manifestation. Edith Ellis was a deeply neurotic woman, and Ellis was undoubtedly drew extreme generalizations from her behavior. But Ms. Faderman completely misreads him when she claims that he linked suicide and madness to lesbianism. When he drew a connection between them, it was only to point out the lengths to which a punitive society drove such unfortunate women. And to say that Ellis convinced Edith that she was an invert is nonsense. He treated her with compassion and understanding, and their marriage, for all its problems, was one of deep tenderness and mutual support.
Ms. Faderman is exaggerating wildly when she says that there were significant differences between Ellis’s Das Konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (1896) and the volume Sexual Inversion, published in England in 1897 after Symonds’s death, with some material contributed by Symonds removed at the insistence of his family. She does not seem at all aware of the Bedborough trial in which an innocent bookseller was tried for obscenity after selling a copy of the book, and that after the trial Ellis transferred the publication of all the subsequent volumes to the United States. Nor does she give any indication of having read the other volumes. If she had, she would have realized that Ellis was a pioneer in championing women’s erotic rights. Still, it’s a change to see Ellis rather than Freud used as a whipping-boy by vociferous feminists.
I think, too, that she is unfair to Radclyffe Hall, whom she castigates as “responsible for bringing the congenitalists’ theories to popular fiction and thereby disseminating them widely years after they were no longer the most accepted theories among medical men.” What medical men? She doesn’t mention any to support her case. The Well of Loneliness (1928) is not a very good novel but was a courageous book for its time and Radclyffe Hall underwent immense emotional and financial stress in her struggle to have it published. As a person she did not appeal to Ellis—he described her to his mistress, Françoise Delisle, as “terribly modern & shingled & monocled & not at all Faun’s style”; yet he was a fair man, and he agreed to write a short endorsement in which he described the novel as the first faithful depiction of lesbianism he had encountered, and that it possessed “a notable psychological and sociological significance.” I wish Ms. Faderman possessed not only more historical perspective but the objectivity not to reject those who weren’t aware of her own theories, which are, after all, of fairly recent origin.
Nevertheless, she is right that there is a sense of unease in Radclyffe Hall’s attitude to her heroine’s identity, and this element is perhaps partly responsible for its early readers view of it as a “shocking” book. Undoubtedly it contributed to the spate of pornographic novels that have flooded the market in subsequent years in which the lesbian has been depicted as vampirish. There has been much tender lesbian love poetry, but has there yet appeared an impressive modern novel with a credible lesbian? Ms. Faderman makes great claims for Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown, whose heroine is “bold, brave, always in the right, an avenger of all the wrongs done to lesbians in twentieth-century life and literature,” but it can hardly be classified as a first-class work of fiction.
I am puzzled by Ms. Faderman’s adamant refusal to draw any distinction between lesbianism and feminism. Lesbianism is a matter of choice, of intellectual and emotional preference, she insists. Surely this is a matter that can never be settled definitively. The concept of penis envy is absurd, and perhaps Adler was closer to the mark in saying that the penis is introjected symbolically for the power it represents. Lesbianism, she assumes throughout her book, is not primarily a matter of sexual behavior, but of a kind of tenderness, support, and companionship that only women can give each other. I do not for a minute doubt that many such relationships exist, but by investing them all with a romantic coloration, she never considers the tensions, irritations, or jealousy engendered by most close relationships. The only reference she makes to children—apart from the misery women through the ages have been forced to endure through childbirth—is that there are far too many people in the world.
Most disturbing to me is the implicit assumption in this book that men are not only the enemy, but that the world would be a far more harmonious place without them. After many acrimonious disputes, lesbian feminists broke away from homosexual male activists, fearing that their cause would be submerged in one which they saw as primarily sexual in orientation. But is it tenable to maintain a permanent adversary position against all men? There may be far too many people in the world, but even lesbians would die out without reproduction between the sexes, and I am highly skeptical of Faderman’s conviction that only a “homosocial” relationship is capable of engendering devotion and enduring love. But, despite my deep unease at some of these implicit assumptions, I think this is an important book; certainly one of the most significant contributions yet made to feminist literature.