Lesbians have all too often been written out of history, even represented as "normal" heterosexual women. Only since the 1970s have strenuous efforts have been made, especially by lesbian-feminist historians, to recover the hidden lesbian past, especially in the US. This critical anthology, which brings together a wide range of extracts from British primary sources, is a landmark for lesbian history in this country.
In their informative introduction, Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull explore the problematic question of "who is the lesbian?" Is it the feminist woman-identified woman, the woman who cross-dresses, or the woman who loves and/or has sex with other women?
As they point out, these are not easy questions to answer since "lesbian identity" is a late 20th-century concept and the historical past was a very different sexual landscape. Further, dominant male definitions of what is "sexual" complicate attempts to classify sexual acts between women. The editors' working definition of what constitutes lesbianism centres on three aspects of women's behaviour: sexual practices, deviance from gender role norms of femininity, and women's consciousness of their feelings.
The book is divided into three sections, focusing on the themes of cross-dressing women and romantic friendships; public discourses on sex between women; and the making of lesbianism in culture.
The most interesting extracts are the personal testimonies written by women, such as Vera Brittain's account in Testament of Friendship of how her friend Winifred Holtby felt when Vera married and moved out of the flat they shared together.
Suddenly conscious of the ticking clocks in the now-quiet home, Winifred penned a poem. "Oh, foolish clocks, who had not wit for hoarding/The precious moments when my love was here,/Be silent now, and cease this vain recording/Of worthless hours, since she is not near."
How one "reads" this poem is somewhat problematic since Brittain vehemently condemned the "scandalmongers who invented for her a lurid series of homosexual relationships, usually associated with Lady Rhondda or myself". The extract - like many others - raises important questions about how we interpret evidence of lesbianism in the rich complexity of women's relationships with other women.
June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.
The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780-1970. First edition
Editor - Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull
ISBN - 0 415 11484 5 and 11485 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 292