SUSAN S. LANSER, professor emerita of English, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University, is a specialist in 18th-century European literature, with a focus on women writers and issues related to gender and sexuality.
Her 2014 book The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830 (Chicago), argues that the Enlightenment in Europe was a period of intensified interest in “sapphic” connections among women, which showed up in travelogues, court records, poetry, plays, and the novel. Lanser’s book was reviewed in these pages (July–August 2015) by Jean Roberta, who stated that “the author attempts to storm the male-dominated bastion of social theory-making” by showing that a “woman + woman” motif cropped up persistently in these many contexts, sometimes as a warning about negative social change, but also in utopian settings as an idealized relationship. The book won the Joan Kelly Prize for women’s history and feminist theory from the American Historical Association and received honorable mention for the Louis D. Gottschalk Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
This interview was conducted by the editor via e-mail relay in April and May.
The Gay & Lesbian Review: Let me start with a framing question about your work on sexuality in the early modern period (1565-1830) and especially the Enlightenment era. You argue that “sapphism,” or some sort of “female same-sex affiliation,” is a persistent theme in the literature and popular culture throughout this period, and indeed that it played a pivotal role (though a variable one) in the shaping of modernity. Can you elaborate a bit on this general theme?
Susan S. Lanser: The sapphic is far from the site of silence that historians have sometimes presumed. Print representations of female same-sex desires—and desirers—are explicit and plentiful across the early modern period, though quite differently in terms of specific time and place. Thanks to the archival work achieved during the past three decades, we know that sexual content was not simply hidden from history, as earlier scholars sometimes presumed. In publications ranging from scientific treatises to travelogues to poetry and plays, the sapphic sits on history’s surfaces. We are now in a position to ask deeper and larger questions about what those representations might reveal about the past, and even to ask how they might have shaped the past. Why did so many writers—indeed so many male writers—preoccupy themselves with (or address) intimate relationships between women? What patterns do we see across different writings that might help us understand the cultural, social, or political work in which sapphic subjects might have been engaged? Why do certain countries show intense interest in female same-sex affiliations at particular moments, and how might addressing that question help us to see how attention to intimacies between women are about far more than sexuality itself?
I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “pivotal” when I ask these questions about the uses to which the sapphic has been put. And it’s always hard to measure the influence of any piece of writing on historical events or even historical attitudes. But I do believe that the quantity and quality of attention that early modern thinkers gave to relations between women, or to what I call the (il)logic of woman + woman that confounds a patriarchal order, has a profound story to tell. I have tried to tell a piece of that story, but there is much more work to be accomplished especially as new materials are uncovered and new ways of seeing them emerge.
G&LR: Your book is titled The Sexuality of History, a reversal of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Your argument is that sexual narratives and practices influence history even as sexuality is reconfigured by historical change. (“Just as the historical constructs the sexual, so too does the sexual construct the historical.”) Can you offer some examples of how this dynamic operates in this period of European history?
SSL: In reversing “the history of sexuality” to “the sexuality of history,” I argue that preoccupations with intimacies between women are about far more than sex, and that they provide a lens on history writ large. When I analyze the dynamics in the texts I study, I see reflected in the sapphic the period’s concerns about power relations in states as well as in families, about emergent investments in the individual, about conflicts between duty and desire, about political phenomena from colonialism to social mobility to revolution. Perhaps above all, the preoccupation with the sapphic reveals anxieties about the critical place of gender in anchoring the social order.
These larger concerns explain the otherwise unaccountable appearance of female same-sex relations in so many early modern texts. For example, in French and Spanish plays of the 1630s (Isaac de Benserade’s Iphis et Iante and Cubillo de Aragon’s Añasco el de Talavera), female characters resist paternal power by insisting on their right to a same-sex marriage in ways that challenge the workings not only of the family but of the state. Similarly, the sapphic surfaces during struggles over succession to the English throne and especially during the Jacobite risings of the early 18th century. The French Revolution uses female intimacies to render aristocracy as a threat to the nation-state, while early women poets use female eroticism to forge a feminist politics. And in the pervasive presence of female intimacies in the 18th-century novel we can read the new genre’s struggles to consolidate heteronormativity as the anchor both for the novel itself and for the societies in which the novel comes to thrive. In all of these ways, we can read the emergence of modernity not as the instantiation of heterosexual difference, as scholars of sexuality have tended to do, but equally as the instantiation of the sapphic within a logic of possibility.
G&LR: In your first response, you threw out a number of questions that emerged from your research. They seem like key questions for our understanding of the role of sapphic relations in the Enlightenment, so let me toss at least the first one back at you: Why did so many writers (notably male writers) preoccupy themselves with intimate relationships between women in this period?
SSL: My biochemist friend Ellen Henderson taught me long ago that why is not a scientific question; that the science lies in learning how. I can thus only speculate about the reasons for the cultural investment in sapphic subjects. In the representations I’ve studied, writers persistently identify the sapphic as modern, indeed as a hallmark of modernity. This emphasis on female intimacies as new, even unprecedented, suggests the threat such relations pose to longstanding social hierarchies, which rely on the subordinate attachment of women to men. At the same time, the very novelty of the sapphic makes it pliable for modeling the dangers and the powers of leveling. All the more because primary alliances between women were not a serious social threat, the sapphic offered an imaginative space at the edge of social probability.
One of the surprises of my research was to find that sapphic representations arose in countries that shared a recent history of strong women rulers; the visible participation of women in print culture; a coastal geography giving ready access to cosmopolitan trade routes and urban centers; and a heavy investment in colonial conquest. This geography also suggests that the sapphic was a site for working out the possibility, whether dreaded or welcomed, that difference might not be just “out there” but “in here.” In configuring a world without men on top, indeed without men at all, the sapphic represented horizontal thinking at its most radical.
G&LR: You mentioned that some countries showed an especially intense interest in female same-sex relations in certain historical eras. Can you offer some examples of times and places where this interest or obsession was especially pronounced, or where it played a prominent role in the larger cultural system or ideology of a society?
SSL: My research uncovered an unexpectedly tight alliance between the sapphic and the state. Nearly every major political crisis in 17th- and 18th-century France, England, and (for a briefer time) Spain entailed intimations of female erotic affiliations. The different shapes of these intimations in 1740s England and 1780s France provide instructive evidence. In mid-century England, concerns about the sapphic reveal heteronormativity to be an emerging anchor of the British nation-state. The long poem The Sappho-an (1749) [author unknown]links female intimacies to Jacobite “tyranny,” mocking a “Congress” of Amazons as treasonous, insisting that “woman was made for man, so Nature meant,” and enjoining British maidens to choose “Britannia’s swains.” Conversely, the popular 1744 Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu combines a critique of hierarchical governance with a plot in which two women end up together for life. Conversely again, John Cleland’s History and Adventures of Catherine Vizzani (1744) warns English women against cross-dressed continental imposters, and Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) decries the sapphic as a foreign import bringing Turkey to Twickenham.
We see a similarly intense but much more positive engagement with the sapphic in prerevolutionary France. For example, a narrative about a putative secret society of lesbians in Paris (1784) describes the “Anandrine sect” as a kind of sapphic utopia in which young women without means are nurtured, educated, and protected. And the wildly popular novel Paul et Virginie (1788) builds its island utopia upon the intimacy between Paul’s and Virginie’s mothers, who nurture their infants at one another’s breasts. But the French Revolution puts a definitive end to these positive uses of female relations as Marie Antoinette and her intimates are accused of destroying the state through their sapphic alliances. Here again, we see very popular, and thus presumably influential, writings using relations between women for political purposes.
G&LR: The one example that I knew about before learning of your research was the “Ladies of Llangollen”—two Irish women of means in the late 18th century who had a relationship that became the stuff of legend and scandal, immortalized in poems, novels, and letters. What can this fascination tell us about the culture of this era?
SSL: Readers can get a fuller answer to this question by reading Fiona Brideoake’s excellent The Ladies of Llangollen: Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism (Bucknell, 2017), which shows how Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby have been understood and misunderstood from their time to ours. But I’d start by saying that the Ladies were more legend than scandal. For one thing, they made no secret of the fact that they were partners for life, though without the suggestion of sexuality. Their upper-class status and æsthetic self-fashioning mostly protected them from satire and slander. I speculate that their rural retreat provided pastoral foundations for a new kind of family value; it is significant that when William Wordsworth visited and thereafter sent a sonnet, he called them “sisters in love.” Their home with its renowned garden was a site of pilgrimage, but they were very particular about bestowing the privilege of a visit. I have argued that they adopted a compensatory conservatism to shore up their class status and obscure any suggestions of impropriety.
We will surely never know about their physical relationship. They did share a bed, in the room they called their “State Bedchamber,” so physical nearness was clearly important to them. But that is all we know. Anne Lister (1791–1840), the upper-class English diarist whose sexual relationships with other women are documented in a code of her own devising, visited Llangollen in 1822 and said she “[could]not help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt.” Yet even Lister goes on to acknowledge the absence of any evidence beyond her own wishful thinking.
G&LR: Notwithstanding the Ladies, most of your research concerns literary or artistic representations of sapphic women rather than real people. To what extent do these depictions correspond to actual social arrangements or institutions in the real world?
SSL: Many of the representations point to historical figures either explicitly or through pseudonymous reference. Some of those figures probably were lesbians either by action or by desire; others might have been women who disrupted the social order either by cross-dressing or by failing to follow conventions of female submission or decorum, since sapphic labeling was often used against women or behaviors that transgressed the status quo. We do know of female couples who cohabited as women or pretended to be a husband and wife; I would certainly call these sapphic arrangements whatever the sexual behavior of the couples. And certainly we have legal records that implicate some women, most often women who cross-dressed and may have been transgender, in sexual intimacies with other women.
In The Sexuality of History I quip that I am studying women in books, not in bed. At the same time, when actual persons are mentioned, I see an invitation for interested parties to do some searching of their own, especially now that so much archival material is available. Still, there is a great deal that we are likely never to know; that is one of the frustrations of working in the field of sexual history, but it’s also an impetus to continue the search.