Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801~Emma Donoghue

I really didn't think it was possible to increase my admiration for Emma Donoghue, but I was wrong. I love her even more now that I've read her scholarly work. I was delighted to find her a sharp, frank historian as well as a fine novelist; her research is as rich and vivid as her fiction, her prose is just as passionate as the women she describes, full of wit and humor too.
Passions is a scholarly, meticulously researched book, but it's emminently readable and brings the 18th century to life in all its debauched glory (and trust me, I had Queer Theory this semester, it is possible for a discussion of lesbianism to be dry and boring).The frontispiece is a reproduction on an illustration of Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, "Phoebe initiating Fanny in the brothel." Fanny holds up her skirt and looks on curiously as Phoebe quite explicitly puts her hand between Fanny's legs, a coy, knowing smile on her face. You can tell right away that this is going to be a fun and frank discussion of what lesbians did in the 18th century, refreshingly devoid of academicese (thank you jesus!). Evidence of real, lived lesbian culture at this period is fairly sparse--how do you prove two women had sex 300 years ago, when even the word "homosexual" wasn't coined until the 1890s?--so Donoghue deals with texts: newspapers, pornography, poetry, gothic novels, letters, plays, court documents, diaries. How did people talk about "women like that"? How did those women talk and think about themselves and their relationships? Was it all restricted the ostensibly asexual romantic friendships of upper-class women? Donoghue reveals a colorful and complex picture of how the 18th century viewed (or tried not to view) lesbians, bisexuals, spinsters, cross-dressers, butches, and bluestockings. This book is filled with such stories--women who passed successfully as men and married other women, queer pirates like Anne Bonney and Mary Reed, lascivious nuns, and tons of gossip and rumors about aristocratic Sapphic societies. Even Queen Anne makes an appearance; she seems to have had something hot 'n' heavy going with the Duchess of Marlborough. Personally, it's a much-needed antidote to the overwhelming, relentless pressure of the heteronormative culture I've been taught. All the Great Literature I read and study and love is structured on some variation of boy-meets-girl, the promised bliss of heterosexual domesticity that women are supposed to be genetically programmed for; where any intimacy between women is trivial, just a dry-run for the real relationship with a man. Donoghue's work gives me a sense of location in history and society; see, I can say, I'm not just an aberration, there were other women like me, though they lived their lives differently and thought differently than I do.
I said Passions was refreshingly devoid of academicese, which is true, but academics can never seem to resist inventing elaborate metaphors, and Donoghue ends her introduction with a pretty funny, somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy for her work.
Tribady, an activity that is rarely discussed, provides a stimulating metaphor for the business of doing history. The researcher is not so much penetrating the past to find what she wants as making contact with it, touching the surface of her present interests to the details of the past; the more she touches, the more she will become sensitised to the nuances she is exploring. This friction between centuries can bring us a sense of intimacy with our foresisters, as well as great pleasure, and laughter when things fail to fit. Passions Between Women is primarily intended to get the stories to the women, so that we can all take part in this never-ending act of tribady that is lesbian history. (24)

Historical research as a form of lesbian sex. I love it.

(P.S. Dear Santa: All I want for Christmas is the complete works of Emma Donoghue. Thanks).


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