They're just good friends

Between Women
February 16, 2007

Female intimacy was common in Victorian society, Lesley Hall discovers

In Between Women , Sharon Marcus draws attention to something that has been too often overlooked in accounts of women and their relationships with their own sex in Victorian Britain, both in life and literature, yet hidden in plain sight like Poe's famous "Purloined Letter".

She adduces a variety of evidence to make a compelling case that such relationships were omnipresent and, far from being framed in terms of envy and rivalry between women, or as dangerously and transgressively competing with women's relationships with men, they were conceived of as benign and desirable and contributing helpfully to the network of connections supporting heterosexual unions.

Marcus makes a powerful argument that thinking in binaries has ignored a range of intricate interconnections between women and between the worlds of hetero and homo-sociability, which were not necessarily in opposition. Friendship between women, Marcus argues, on the basis of opinions expressed in popular works of advice literature as well as the evidence found in diaries, letters and memoirs, was seen as complementary to family life rather than as an arena of competition.

The "ardent" language of friendship is contrasted with the cooler terms of amicability used by long-term female couples.

Marcus points out the number of accepted and acknowledged "female marriages" of the period, with devoted women friends forming a couple-unit of mutual support involving the pooling of resources and a life together, which was given a similar value to marriage not only by the women involved but also by their social circles. Whether such unions involved sexual activity is something that, given the canons of discretion in life-writing and biography of the period, we shall probably never know but, as Marcus points out, sexual intercourse in most heterosexual unions of the period has to be assumed rather than considered absolutely proven when there were no offspring. "If first-hand testimony about sex is the standard for defining a relationship as sexual, then most Victorians never had sex."

Both the reticence, and the expressions of mutual affection, esteem and respect can be paralleled in more conventional marriages. Marcus makes an intriguing argument that the existence of these relationships, formed on the basis of a mutually understood contract between equals, had a significant influence on Victorian debates about changes in marriage as a legal institution.

Several of the women involved in such unions were social reformers critiquing the injustices of a marriage system that assumed husband and wife were one person, and that person, through the doctrine of coverture, the husband. They also, in their own lives, provided a model for a new kind of relationship that had an impact on theoretical analyses of the history, current status and possible future directions of marriage and also on literary works deploying the plots of courtship and marriage.

One may wonder whether sexual activity within female marriages was generally assumed, or whether the very possibility was invisible, given pervasive assumptions that sex could not take place without a penis, or at least an artificial substitute or the pathologically hypertrophied clitorises found in pornography and the writings of sexologists. Some of the feelings against egalitarian marriage may have been because such relationships were perceived as desexualised.

Marcus claims that it is not necessary to undertake "symptomatic readings"

uncovering the "marginal and the invisible" within literary texts when paying attention to what, on the surface, reveals a plethora of same-sex bonds.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the relative invisibility and neglect of these female friendships, either in literature or in life is, as Marcus insightfully remarks, that: "The bond between female friends is either established before the novel begins or coalesces almost instantaneously, intensifies almost effortlessly, and can be expressed clearly and openly."

Thus, this bond manifests a "narrative weakness" in that it is lacking in dramatic events. It is "seldom subject to courtship's vagaries, conflicts, obstructions and resolutions", even if, as Marcus also contends, its very stability within the plot means that it "makes things happen". But female friendship was not a plot in itself, although, as Marcus describes, real-life diaries and letters of individual women suggest that the making and development of female amity was not quite so smooth and unproblematic as this literary trope would suggest.

There were infatuations, flirtations and rivalry as well as life-time devotion and mutual support. It is possible that her representation of friendship as resting calmly in a realm of "pure sentiment" elides the extent to which friendships, even among middle-class women, might also have had those material and instrumental aspects that Marcus discerns in the upper classes and among working-class women.

There were significant limitations on the circles within which a friend might be found, and it would be interesting to map the extent to which friendships were in fact constructed within networks of kinship by blood or marriage ties. The friend who becomes literally a part of the family by marrying into it and friendships established via the remaking of a family through a second marriage are not uncommon features of Victorian novels.

It would be interesting to analyse whether women of the period used terms of kinship to refer to friends - "sister" or "cousin", a practice that Shakespearean authority indicates happened at an earlier period.

Marcus makes some provocative arguments about the pleasures of femininity for the female spectator in an analysis of the iconography of fashion plates, which show women as appreciative observers of one another's modish modernity rather than as objects of male gaze. Her evocative suggestions about the correspondence in The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine about the corporal disciplining of girls need to be read with a little caution perhaps: who was writing and who reading these letters, and what were the reactions of the ordinary reader in search of domestic tips to accounts that gained a new circulation as pornography?

Marcus makes a few problematic assumptions about female sexual desire and sexual knowledge, although her arguments for the prevalence of more diffuse forms of eroticism not necessarily perceived as specifically sexual, such as those embodied through the pleasure of looking at fashion plates, are appealing.

It seems highly implausible that "women paid medical practitioners to provide them with vulval massages that were considered a treatment for hysteria and other nervous diseases" as a kind of equivalent to their husbands visiting prostitutes. It is exceedingly dubious that this expedient was as widespread or as accepted as has been sometimes claimed; and even if such remedy was available, how many (married) women would have been in a position to purchase such services from their medical practitioners themselves? Can we really assume that women would "easily find any sexually explicit books that male family members brought home"?

But these are minor cavils: this is an outstanding study of a neglected phenomenon.

Lesley Hall is senior archivist, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London.

Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England

Author - Sharon Marcus
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 368
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 0 691 12835 9

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