A Lesbian History of Britain

March 27, 2008

Rebecca Jennings's book is a neat overview of published material on lesbian history of the past 30 years.

It is not a lone historical study that unearths much original material, being more of a survey of secondary sources. But for the reader wishing to explore some of the lush concoction of types of lesbian sexualities that have proliferated over the past 500 years, it is successful and readable, particularly for non-specialist readers wanting a coherent, well-written introduction to the field.

In such a short account much is inevitably omitted: the book relies too heavily in places on established literary histories that have appeared in some cases decades ago (and in some cases have been heavily debated). There is little sense that there continue to be multiple intellectual positions, at times fiercely disputed.

In this area, some protagonists would object strongly to any unified concept of one cultural history. The book's title and purpose are most probably a confection of publishers and marketing, born of a need to provide a "textbook" for those requiring entry to the notoriously slippery area of same-sex intimacy. But an organisation of sexual knowledge is necessary for sales, distribution, categorisation and display, as any good Foucauldian would acknowledge, and so in this task this tome satisfies well enough.

Jennings starts with some interesting characters from the early modern period, drawing largely on the work of Valerie Traub. Her description of the 1600-1800s is indebted to Irish writer Emma Donoghue, and readers wishing to explore further the queer exuberance of modern tribades, tommies, cross-dressers and female husbands would do well to seek out these authors. Jennings's work on romantic friendship, new women and sexology has been well trodden, including the 20th-century appearance of The Lesbian herself. Nevertheless, the book presents this material clearly.

I particularly liked her organisation of time periods with types, her creation of a tradition and her argument of emergence. The last chapter, on "The politics of lesbianism 1970-2000", provides an original analysis of recent history, but I would have liked to have seen a stronger statement on the present, on possibilities for the future in post-civil partnership Britain, a nod to the political, religious and economic parameters that will shape lesbians' wider experience of being European, perhaps, and a future less allied to an American identity politics model.

Recently, an old friend of mine (a closeted vicar in the Church of England) rather stroppily pronounced that "there was no such thing as lesbian culture". A bit of a silly remark, but it was said with complete honesty and conviction. It is for this reason that Jennings's book is important - despite three decades of lesbian studies, we are still in the tedious position of having to prove first principles of existence and provide continued intellectual justification for exploring the living histories of millions of women.

A Lesbian History of Britain would be of vital interest to students and could stimulate them to seek out more specialist scholarship. For that reason, and for the more depressing reason exemplified by the views of my friend, I would highly recommend it, particularly for university and local libraries. I would encourage the publisher to produce a paperback; this is a good crossover book for a general audience. I think I'll send it to the vicar.

A Lesbian History of Britain

By Rebecca Jennings
Greenwood World Publishing
ISBN 9781846450075
Published 22 November 2007

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