oursin: Photograph of James Miranda Barry, c. 1850 (James Miranda Barry)
[personal profile] oursin posting in [community profile] queering_holmes

(Forgot to mention, this is in response to suggestions on the Discussion Prompt Thread.)

What did it mean for a woman or women to be 'queer' in late C19th Britain? Given that it was seen as natural and normal and even admirable for women in a largely homosocial world to have deep and romantically expressed devotions to other women and an appreciation of feminine charms?

The 'New Woman' - moving out of that world (sometimes on a bicycle, sometimes not). Seeking new transformed relationships with men. E.g. Olive Schreiner, the South African novelist, walking the streets of London at night having passionate arguments about philosophy and politics with her male friends, and nearly getting arrested as a prostitute on at least one occasion. Edith Lanchester, who did a science degree at University College London, was a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (and at one point worked as Eleanor Marx's secretary), and decided to live in free union with a male comrade. Her middle class professional family, possibly as much appalled by the fact that he was a railway clerk as by the living in sin aspect, promptly had her certified as insane and taken to The Priory (whence, happy ending, she was soon released through prompt and effective action by her comrades). The vociferous campaigners against the double standard of sexual morality ('these women are worse than prostitutes'). The women who thought that they should be informed about the existence of and the dangers posed by sexually transmitted diseases. Women who were birth control advocates (hai, Annie Besant!) Etc etc. In context, in Dracula, Mina is perhaps queerer for being a self-supporting career woman with workplace skills than for having a devoted female friendship with Lucy.

However, there were women who had emotions towards other women and were involved in relationships that would, I think, be on the lesbian rather than the devoted friendship end of the spectrum. Specific individuals: Mary Benson (wife of Edward Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury); Amy Levy, poet and novelist; Vernon Lee, pseudonym of Violet Paget, writer on aesthetics and art history; 'Michael Field' (Katherine Harris Bradley) and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper), collaborative poet; the novelists Somerville and Ross, Edith Lees Ellis, novelist, writer and lecturer on social questions, wife of Havelock Ellis, friend of Edward Carpenter.

These were all fairly privileged women (except Edith Lees Ellis), and we have much less sense of non-middle class women and their relationships. However, Alison Oram's book Her Husband Was A Woman, although it is about cross-dressing women in the C20th, does include material that sheds light on the C19th, including some discussion of the very popular male impersonators of the music halls.

NB it wasn't illegal to be a lesbian in the UK (the first time sexual activity between women was featured in legislation was 1956), and it was not a matrimonial offence for the purposes of divorce. And there was absolutely no reason why anyone would have thought of including it in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, so it really wasn't omitted by Royal decree. Srsly. But this is one reason why it's so much less visible and studied than male homosexuality at the period - no legal records and no aghast newspaper reports. Which also relates to the fact that if it was happening, it was happening in private spaces rather than in public spaces where it was potentially visible to other people, or at least to the police.

Suggestions for reading:
Lilian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) remains a classic, even if subsequent scholars have nuanced her arguments.
Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500 (2007). This is very much a work of synthesis, and I found it a bit superficial, but it is actually a useful guide to the territory and the literature.
Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1 928 (2004) deals largely with women who enjoyed privilege and resources (e.g. were able to live in the supportive community of women artists and writers in Rome!) but has some very interesting analysis of the ways in which these women conceptualised their relationships, drawing on letters, diaries, etc.
Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007). I found some of the chapters a bit problematic, but there is some remarkably acute and provocative stuff in this book, including the observation that Victorian novels, not to mention letters, diaries and memoirs, have women being romantically devoted right up front and without delving into the subtext.

I've already mention Oram's book on cross-dressers. There are also biographies of several of the women I've mentioned. Not yet seen, but sounds interesting: Jill R. Ehnenn, Women's Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture (2009) (wicked expensive)

Useful on New Women more generally: Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women (1985), 1850-1920 Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (1992), and Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: English feminism and sexual morality, 1880-1914 (1995). Unfortunately a lot of New Woman scholarship is heavily based on literary texts.

On new definitions of 'the lesbian' or 'female invert', the classic sexological texts are Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, numerous and ever expanding editions from 1886, Havelock Ellis, Sexual Inversion (1897) and Edward Carpenter, Love's Coming of Age (1897) and The Intermediate Sex (1909). But all contain far more about male homosexuality. And because of the theory of 'inversion' with which they were working, can just about get their heads around butch-presenting lesbians (or at least those who demonstrate various markers associated with masculinity), but couldn't quite see, or analytically account for, more femme versions.

Date: 2010-05-11 08:17 am (UTC)
sibyllevance: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sibyllevance
That's a brilliant post, thank you! I'm bookmarking it to look up the books later. I wonder how it was in the US? I came across the concept of a Boston Marriage fairly recently and I've been wondering what happened in the US exactly.

Date: 2010-05-11 10:42 am (UTC)
naraht: (art-Tentacles)
From: [personal profile] naraht
Really great primer! One woman I'd add to your list is the composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth. The first two volumes of her memoirs are available on the internet archive and well worth a read.

(At the moment I'm writing fanfic of a sort about Ethel Smyth, or at least about Hilda Tablet, a character who was partially inspired by her. It's not set in the nineteenth century, though...)

Date: 2010-05-11 07:38 pm (UTC)
naraht: (art-Tentacles)
From: [personal profile] naraht
Sad to say I've only read the first volume of her (epic) autobiography. So I think that's the reason that I mentally place her in the Victorian period.

Date: 2010-05-11 04:35 pm (UTC)
damned_colonial: Irene Adler (adler)
From: [personal profile] damned_colonial
Ooh, wonderful, thank you for posting this! I've added a couple of books to my to-read list.

I mentioned the other day that Graham Robb's "Strangers" has some coverage of queer women, albeit a minority, but I thought I'd just mention it again.

For those who are interested in fiction, Sarah Waters has a number of novels about Victorian lesbians -- "Tipping the Velvet" is the first and best known. (I'm probably stating the obvious, but hey, just in case anyone didn't know.)

I'm trying to think if there are any (potentially) lesbian characters in the Holmes canon. Something's itching at the back of my brain and I can't recall what it is... probably a client living in the country, I think. Anyone?
Edited Date: 2010-05-11 04:42 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-05-11 08:16 pm (UTC)
melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
From: [personal profile] melannen
Violet Hunter from Copper Beeches is written as lesbian in the slashfic more often than anyone else, I think (I haven't read her story for a long, long time though, so I can't make any promises about the canon.) I think that there's a bit with Holmes and her that is sometimes read as attraction but could get a queer reading.

I think Violet Smith from Solitary Bicyclist is basically the same character as Violet Hunter, so maybe her too?

Date: 2010-05-11 08:46 pm (UTC)
damned_colonial: Irene Adler (adler)
From: [personal profile] damned_colonial
Here's Violet Hunter:

As he spoke the door opened and a young lady entered the room. She was plainly but neatly dressed, with a bright, quick face, freckled like a plover’s egg, and with the brisk manner of a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.

“You will excuse my troubling you, I am sure,” said she, as my companion rose to greet her, “but I have had a very strange experience, and as I have no parents or relations of any sort from whom I could ask advice, I thought that perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me what I should do.”

“Pray take a seat, Miss Hunter. I shall be happy to do anything that I can to serve you.”

I could see that Holmes was favourably impressed by the manner and speech of his new client. He looked her over in his searching fashion, and then composed himself, with his lids drooping and his finger-tips together, to listen to her story.


Violet Smith is definitely a New Woman, very independent in her ways, but (unlike Violent Hunter) she actually has a fiance and intends to marry. VH is actually unusual, I think, in that she has no romantic/marital attachments in the story... most women who show up in SH stories do, I think.

Date: 2010-05-14 06:56 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
The whole thing about Enormous Clitorises is so bizarre and comes up so often. I guess the theory is that it's not real sex if there isn't something that looks like a penis...

Date: 2010-05-11 04:35 pm (UTC)
jonquil: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jonquil
Oh, thank you.

Date: 2010-05-11 06:51 pm (UTC)
chairman_wow: picture of my faaaace (Girl kissin')
From: [personal profile] chairman_wow
Ooh, great post, thank you! I'm definitely noting down some of those books to read later; my reading in this topic has been severely lacking, I've got to say.

Date: 2010-05-11 07:40 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] valborg
This is excellent. Definitely picking up a few of these titles at some point.

Date: 2010-05-12 12:02 am (UTC)
melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
From: [personal profile] melannen
So I am vaguely aware that there was an active literary/bohemian community of openly lesbian and/or trans women in Paris in the late 19th/early 20th century. And I know some of the women involved in it were English women who went to Paris because of the community. But I don't really know any context for it, besides what I've gotten by looking up the biographies of individual women (such as Colette, perhaps the most well-known of them these days). And it seems from (various dubious web sources anyway), that women in that community didn't really distinguish between trans and lesbian, using (and perhaps inspiring) the sociologists' idea of female "inversion" as necessarily having elements of both.

Does anybody have any more about that Paris circle & its relationships with English literary cirles and English queer communities?

Date: 2010-05-14 07:00 am (UTC)
marshtide: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marshtide
Like [personal profile] oursin said, I think that biographies of Radclyffe Hall might be a good place for that sort of thing. She was definitely friends with Barney, and had a fairly active queer social circle in the UK as far as I can remember. (Of course she doesn't really tie in with people like the Bloomsbury lot because they were more than a bit snobbish about her, in terms of her literary merit particularly.)

Date: 2010-05-12 01:28 am (UTC)
starlady: Irene Adler, winking, partially inked out (irene)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Oo, thanks for this post! My determination to read The Real Charlotte this summer has doubled, not to mention some of these books.

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