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Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Romantic Friendship: Female  
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The Emergence of Lesbianism as a Sexual Pathology

Nineteenth-century British writer George Eliot apparently patterned many of the close female friendships in her early novels on her Romantic Friendship with Sara Sophia Hennell, but later became concerned about the lesbian implications of her writing. Fluent in German and traveling in international intellectual circles, Eliot was undoubtedly aware of the growing interest among German scientists in sexual pathology, something that may have contributed to her abandoning lesbian themes.

Faderman suggests that literature specifically linking lesbian love with evil and pathology was well-developed in France and Germany several years before it became the paradigmatic form of representation in the United States and Great Britain. She cites many examples of lesbian evil and exoticism in the work of French writers Gautier, Balzac, Zola, and Baudelaire.

Nineteenth-century American literature is not without its own share of pathological lesbian representation, however. Margaret J. M. Sweat's Ethel's Love-Life: A Novel presents Leonora as an "organism" whose peculiar pathology is related to her love for other women.

Louisa May Alcott, best known for her contributions to children's literature, wrote two novels that, though typical of the Romantic Friendship model in some ways, also hint at something less "innocent." In Work: A Story of Experience, Christie and Rachel's romantic friendship is destroyed by Rachel's attraction for a vaguely described sin. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Rebecca and Lizzie, though idealized as feminist artists, are also expected to be "mannish and rough" by the conventional Fanny, who ultimately describes them as a "different race of creatures."

Transitional Figures

Henry James and Mary Wilkins Freeman have come to be read as transitional figures whose writing represents a shift from the social acceptance of Romantic Friendship in nineteenth-century American culture to the redefinition of same-sex intimacies as pathological or perverse in the twentieth century.

In The Bostonians James depicts the "Boston marriage" between Olive and Verena as a wholly conventional aspect of New England life. But he also represents Olive's role in the relationship as manipulative and vampiric.

Mary Wilkins Freeman's short piece of detective fiction, "The Long Arm," represents the culture's growing distrust of relations between women but also gives voice to those who feel their Romantic Friendships are under siege from a culture that does not understand a broader definition of family and home.

The writing of Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather, a generation apart, indicates the swiftness of this transition from social acceptability to outcast identity. Jewett, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, is able to depict Romantic Friendships between women rather openly, as in "Martha's Lady."

But, as Sharon O'Brien has demonstrated, Cather employs a more encoded language. Critics have interpreted Cather's use of male narrators as a rhetorical strategy that enabled her to articulate a lesbian sensibility without appearing lesbian to a culture increasingly uncomfortable with same-sex intimacy.

Jewett, Cather's mentor in many ways, objected to Cather's literary cross-dressing, seeing it as a disingenuous "masquerade" for her true feelings. But Jewett did not understand the new sexual culture in which Cather was writing. Jewett probably would have been surprised to find that her own posthumously published letters were censored, four-fifths of them being omitted altogether.

The Importance of the Romantic Friendship Hypothesis

The Romantic Friendship hypothesis provided a nonthreatening context for discovering and writing about literary foremothers, an important project in lesbian literary studies in the 1970s. For a culture whose existence had been made invisible and whose history had been erased, finding historical role models, literary foremothers to whom we could look for validation and representation, was empowering.

In this respect, the idea of Romantic Friendship has provided both a history and an education about historical accuracy. We now have a sense of the variety of forms that homosocial arrangements have taken in Anglo-European cultures over the last 400 years. We also have learned that what looks familiar to a contemporary gay or lesbian reader may have meant something entirely different to the author of an earlier text, an idea that was theorized more completely by Michel Foucault.

This idea of homosexuality as a recently socially constructed domain of identity has encouraged long overdue reconsiderations of what constitutes "lesbian literature": Is it writing by self-identified lesbians, writing about lesbians, or writing with which the contemporary lesbian reader identifies? Or, is lesbian a metaphor for resistance? Is lesbian literature writing that disobeys more generally the male and heterosexual conventions of language and narrative?

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