Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England, compiled by Rictor Norton

Romantic Friendships among Women

During the last third of the eighteenth century we can find numerous accounts of passionate female friendship, part of the Age of Sentiment and the growing Romantic movement in life as well as literature. The vade mecum of romantic female friends was the novel A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), based fairly closely upon the life of its author Sarah Scott. She married in 1751, but left her husband after a year, and went to Bath to live with Barbara Montague, sister of Lord Halifax. They had been inseparable friends since 1748, and Lady "Bab" had even accompanied Sarah on her honeymoon. In 1754 they took a house together at Bath Easton, where they lived and worked together on a charity project for poor girls until Lady Bab's death. Scott's novel tells the story of a pair of romantic friends who live and travel together, and who are eventually joined by three more women, a pair of whom are also romantic friends, and this "establishment becomes a model of happy, generous living" without men.

The love of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, the "Ladies of Llangollen", is more famous, and does not need retelling here. Disguised as men, they eloped together in 1778 and shared their lives in Plas Newydd for 53 years. They were visited by all the notable people in society, the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth, Wedgwood, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Sir Walter Scott, Lady Caroline Lamb, and they became a byword for pure romantic friendship. But as far as we can tell, they shared everything except sex: they were conservative, and easily shocked by immodesty and immorality (they dismissed their servant for being pregnant without being married). George Elers in his Memoirs records falling in love with a girl who was quite unresponsive to him. "After I went abroad she formed a most romantic attachment to a young lady by the name of Arabella Ross. At that time Lady E. Butler and the Hon. Miss Ponsonby lived in Wales together. Their affection, I presume was founded on similar principles . . . poor Sophie . . . died . . . at the early age of twenty five, leaving the whole of her fortune to her friend Miss Ross, for life".

Early death or eventual marriage usually resolved the dilemmas raised by love between women in the middle classes. Respectable women were pretty well trapped either into marriage or into caring for their aged parents and living at home if they remained unmarried. Many women formed romantic friendships with other women, engaged in flirtation and courting, and even dreamed of living together without men. In America, according to the observations of Saint Méry during his journeys of 1793–1798, there were many romantic women friends, and "they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex", but there is no evidence of this willingness in the more formal ambience of English society.

On the opposite side of the coin, our insight into the lives of eighteen-century lesbians is helped no more by diatribes and gossip sheets than by the numerous poems, plays and pornography which mention lesbianism. These of course are not to be trusted at all – though they certainly indicate the attitudes of the public towards lesbianism. In Sylvain Marechal's Almanach des sonnettes femmes de la Societe Joyeuse we learn that March is the month for fellatrices, November for tribades, and December for voyeuses – a seasonal survey which is pleasant enough entertainment, but little else. Diderot's major novel La Religieuse (The Nun), begun in 1760, contains numerous love scenes between a nun and a mother superior, and is supposedly based upon a real cause célèbre, but its sensational admixture of sex, sadism, and anti-Catholicism is obviously devised for a certain readership. Casanova asserted that lesbianism was so common among nuns (and the women of Provence were especially inclined to it) that many confessors did not even bother to impose penalties. But the frequent theme of lesbian nuns merely emphasises that for most writers and historians the lesbian exists only between the pages of a novel catering to masculine lust and anticlerical prejudice.

The term "lesbian pornography" is a misnomer, for it so patently exploits lesbians for the titillation of heterosexual men, that I cannot imagine it would give great pleasure to a lesbian readership. It reveals little about any genuine lesbian experience or subculture, but much about the popular stereotypes concerning lesbians. A typical example is an account of "The Loves of Sappho" which was serialised in the weekly magazine The Equisite, around 1842, beginning with a history of Sappho, who is supposed to have turned to women after being rejected by Phaon. The author acknowledges that Sapphic love exists in all countries including England, France, Italy, Turkey and the oriental climates, and to demonstrate this he presents an interminable and tedious tale of "exquisite" soft porn which runs through many issues. In such works as this, lesbians are acknowledged solely as sexual creatures, whose homosexual tastes are merely experiments on the path to full heterosexual pleasure. While male sex is portrayed in a fairly healthy manner, as rough and ready and ordinary, lesbian sex is portrayed as being exquisite, not part of everday life, but reserved for sumptuous and expensive brothels or strange and exotic secret societies and nunneries. Lesbian interludes are de rigueur in otherwise heterosexual pornography such as Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure; or, The Amours, Intrigues, and Adventures of Sir Charles Manly (1827), but the deeply prejudiced nature of such novels is revealed when the lesbian sex is described as causing great distress to the male baby in the heroine's womb! The more realistic flavour of eighteenth century French semi-pornography would not be matched by the English until the later nineteenth century, but that is a subject that goes well beyond the limits of the present study.

There is no indication that homosexual women in England ever gathered together in a real subculture until quite modern times. In 1792 there is supposed to have existed in London, "a female whipping club", which met every Thursday evening at its premises in Jermyn Street. Though its members "are mainly married women", only women were admitted, and they enjoyed chastising one another at their meetings: "the whipping starts on the calves and goes up to the posteriors". But this sounds suspiciously like titillating fiction rather than fact.

It is however possible that lesbian clubs existed in the late eighteenth century, at least upon the Continent, in sophisticated capitals such as Paris and Vienna. According to Baron K. von Reizenstein in his Trip to Vienna (1795), the most fashionable women "are no longer so stupid as to seek the company of the other sex; they organise general gatherings in secluded places to which they would rather admit the Devil than a man. Various cabals and intrigues are set afoot to get novices. Young and charming girls are not safe, neither by day or night, from the ceaseless pursuit of the priestesses who officiate in this unclean temple". The absence of specific details in Reizenstein's account suggests that it is composed of a high degree of fantasy. The existence of erotic secret societies in Vienna is somewhat more definitely established for the mid-nineteenth century. Joseph Hormayr in his Kaiser Franz und Metternich (1848) claims that one lesbian club was comprised of the ladies Thun, Ruspolo, Lichnowsky, Khevenhüller and Thürheim, and the notorious Queen Caroline of Naples. Hormayr, however, was quite malicious, and we must be careful not to accept his evidence wholeheartedly.

However, there are so many accounts of a distinguished lesbian club which flourished in Paris in the 1780s that it seems genuine despite the colourful and elaborate descriptions of it. This was The Anandrynes, founded by Mme Furiel whose house was the meeting place. The president was the notorious actress Mlle Raucourt. Procuresses such as La Gourdan assisted in recruiting new candidates or "Desirantes", who would be bathed, perfumed, and garbed in a "chemise à la tribade" with an open, slit front (from the girdle down) and decorated with ribbons, and then led to Madame Furiel, a brunette of about thirty with a manly appearance, who as the "affectionate Mama" showed the candidate the club's symbol of two billing and cooing turtle-doves, gave her a kiss "a la Florentine", and inspected her bosom to determine "whether it possessed the firmness of marble". Then followed two hours of instruction in lesbian love by another woman. On the second day of the initiation the candidate was led to the centre of the "Temple of Venus", a circular room illuminated from above and from the sides, with a statue of Vesta hovering over a globe. The walls were decorated with representations of the female private parts. On two altars were statues of Sappho and a bust by Houdon of Mademoiselle/Chevalier D'Eon the male transvestite, strangely described as the "most famous modern Tribade". An elaborate ceremony concluded in a banquet and an orgy. Candidates who wished to ascend in the hierarchy, were locked into a room filled with a statue of Priapus, phallic objects, figurines of men and women in coitus, and a host of heterosexual stimulants, and required to tend the fire of Vesta, which, if it went out, was proof of their lack of lesbian determination.

Members of the Orders of Anandrynes supposedly included even married women such as the Marquise Terracenes, the wife of the Attorney General; likewise it appealed to actresses such as Mlle Arnould. The sources — which include Hic et Haec ou l'Eleve des RR.PP. Jesuites etc (Berlin, 1798), La Cauchoise, etc (London, 1788), Le Petit-Fils d'Hercule (1788), L'histoire de la secte anandryne, and Mairobet's L'apologie de la Secte Anandryne and his more notorious L'espion Anglais (1779) – are overwhelmingly literary and imaginative and salacious, and quite difficult to integrate into a study of the gay subculture in England. The descriptions sound like pure fantasy, but we must remember that this was Paris, which was far in advance of London in the liberty it allowed its citizens.

(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This article may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Romantic Friendships among Women", Lesbian History, 23 August 2009 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/romantic.htm>

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