Women in Love

Published in: July-August 2012 issue.


WHENEVER I teach The British Recluse  and The City Jilt, two novels by Eliza Haywood that were published in England in the 1720’s, a handful of my college students, both female and male, inevitably ask me variations of the same question: “Are the women characters supposed to be lesbians?” The question arises because both novels depict an ardent, emotionally charged relationship between the heroine and her female friend. In each novel a woman is deceived, seduced, and abandoned by a man, whereupon she turns to a female confidante for support—and a new life of enriched same-sex possibilities. My students’ perceptions are indeed insightful. They intuitively realize that sexual desire between women is both hidden and not so hidden in these novels, and that the author is suggesting something about lesbian desire that could not be stated directly in popular 18th-century novels that are supposed to be about conventional heterosexual romance.

Scholars are divided over whether it’s appropriate to use the term “lesbian” to refer to 18th-century relationships between two women, since the word was not used at the time. But despite the absence of the word, people were aware that such relationships and such women existed. In Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), Emma Donohue discusses the terms that were commonly used to describe lesbianism in 18th-century England. “Tribade” was a common word for what we would call a lesbian, referring to the practice of “tribadism” in which a woman rubs her clitoris against another woman’s genitals to achieve sexual stimulation. Stories of tribades can be found in both the medical and the travel literature of this time period. Tribades were represented as having extended clitorises that looked like penises. The tribade was considered a freakish and exotic figure that was seen regularly in Africa and India, but only occasionally in Europe. The distinction between the tribade and the hermaphrodite was unclear. “Hermaphrodite” could be used to describe people of indeterminate gender, tribades, or women who had sex with other women and who were perceived as masculine. Lesbianism as a phenomenon was variously described as “unnatural,” “irregular,” “uncommon,” and “unaccountable.”

How, then, could an 18th-century woman writer represent love and sexual desire between women in positive terms? Hiding same-sex desire within friendship was one way to pull it off. In fact, intimate friendship between women was a fashionable motif in poetry and novels, as well as in private letters between women, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For example, the late-17th century poet Katherine Philips wrote romantic, rapturous, and impassioned poems to her closest friends, Anne Lewis Owen and Mary Aubrey. In one poem to Aubrey, she writes: “And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent,/ United thus.” Jane Barker, author of the 1723 novel A Patch-work Screen for the Ladies, tells the story of a woman who chooses to leave her husband in order to live with her faithful female servant and loving friend. Even Mary Stuart, heir to the English throne in the 1670’s, had a correspondence with her friend Frances Apsley. The two women often refer to each other as “husband” and “wife.” Writing about idealized and romantic friendship while avoiding explicit references to sexual contact allowed women to express love for another woman in passionate language that both evoked and disguised lesbian erotic desire.

Eliza Haywood’s descriptions of female intimacy in The British Recluse (1722) and The City Jilt (1726) should thus be read in light of the cultural and literary context in which they were written. Haywood had a thriving career as a novelist at a time when the novel was a developing literary form. Scholars recognize that Haywood, along with Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, contributed to the rise of the novel that occurred in the 18th century, and that Haywood influenced Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). New advances in print technology in 18th-century England and a growth in literacy, especially among female readers, led to better distribution and increased sales of books. The bestseller was born in this era. Haywood’s book sales rivaled those of other best-selling novels, such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Haywood’s readers must have enjoyed her titillating and passionate stories of heterosexual seduction and betrayal. Literary critics now freely acknowledge the existence of another side to Haywood’s fiction. Critic Catherine Ingrassia, for instance, in Lewd and Notorious: Female Transgression in the Eighteenth Century (2003), observes drily that Haywood understood that “passion could also be between women.” It can also be argued that lesbian relationships provide Haywood’s heroines with a refuge from heterosexual relationships.

For example, in The City Jilt Haywood describes a lesbian relationship encoded as a friendship between heroine Glicera and her friend Laphelia. The relationship begins when Glicera turns to a woman for support and solidarity after having been seduced by her lover, who refuses to marry her because she lacks a dowry. Haywood introduces the relationship between Glicera and Laphelia by saying that “Glicera let into the Secret of her Thoughts a young Woman with whom she was exceeding intimate, called Laphelia. This Confidante … had a ready Wit.”

This striking description raises two questions. First, what does the author mean by “exceeding intimate”? Does she mean that the women’s intimacy exceeds and therefore transgresses the proprieties of conventional female intimacy and friendship? Second, what does Laphelia’s “ready Wit” refer to? It attracts Glicera and suggests the importance of female ingenuity. Laphelia’s “ready Wit” combined with her passion for Glicera is a fertile recipe for the women’s creative brainstorming and effective problem-solving. Thus do Glicera and Laphelia plot retribution against Glicera’s former (male) lover. When the two women learn that his estate has been mortgaged to an immensely wealthy married man, the two women use that man’s desire for Glicera to trick him into giving her the property. Glicera never doubts the righteousness of manipulating a man who is a manipulator. Laphelia initially has some doubts, yet her love for and desire to please Glicera win out. Laphelia assures Glicera, “leave it to my Management.” Laphelia’s passion for Glicera motivates her to take up her friend’s cause as her own.

Here a same-sex female relationship leads to a fruitful and empowering collaboration. Unlike Glicera’s male lover, who had sought a partner only to satisfy acquisitive desires, Glicera’s female companion does not ask for any compensation from Glicera, although the latter generously provides her with presents. Laphelia’s motive for helping Glicera is to express her selfless love for another woman who returns that love.

Although Haywood doesn’t directly describe the relationship as sexual, the evidence is highly suggestive. The two women live together and share a physical and sensual connection. Laphelia describes Glicera as “the loveliest Woman in the World,” while Laphelia is “dearly beloved” by Glicera. Before Glicera obtains the mortgage that gives her financial independence, she arranges for her wealthy married suitor to take her and Laphelia to plays, operas, and masquerades. The man is a convenient financial resource for providing the two women with opportunities to spend time together. At the end of each evening, the two women return home after having sent the man away. All the while, neither Glicera nor Laphelia engage in sexual relations with any man.

After Glicera becomes financially independent, she dismisses the male suitors that she previously encouraged out of economic necessity and strengthens her bond with Laphelia, living with her in a “fine House” that had previously belonged to Glicera’s seducer. Thus female intimacy, domesticity, and love have temporarily replaced heterosexual marriage on the estate from which the man has been excluded. However, this arrangement is not destined to last, because Laphelia eventually marries “a young Gentleman to whom she had been a long time contracted.” Laphelia opts for the socially sanctioned, safe destiny of marriage. Nevertheless, Haywood tells us that the marriage is only to fulfill a social obligation.

Ultimately Haywood upholds the status quo by disrupting the lesbian relationship. Yet she reminds us that Laphelia will be “exchanging the Pleasures of a single Life, for the more careful ones of a married State.” The word “Pleasures” should leave no doubt in the reader’s mind as to the physical nature of Laphelia’s relationship with Glicera. Haywood’s use of the word “careful” to describe Laphelia’s nuptials indicates that she’s aware of sacrificing the socially subversive joys of her relationship with Glicera for the more cautious path of marriage.

Unlike Laphelia, however, Glicera refuses to succumb to the social expectations of her day that deemed heterosexual union as compulsory. Haywood ends the novel by explaining Glicera’s choice: “[H]aving now a sufficient Competency to maintain her for her Life, [Glicera] gave over all Designs on the Men, publickly avowing her Aversion to that Sex; and admitting no Visits from any of them, but such as she was very certain had no Inclinations to make an amorous Declaration to her, either on honourable or dishonourable Terms.” In the early 18th century, it would have taken considerable courage to make this decision. Through Glicera, The City Jilt offers a powerful and positive message that the woman who opts out of heterosexuality can remain successfully true to herself.

In The British Recluse, published four years before The City Jilt, Haywood also pursues lesbian themes. Here the author is more optimistic about women’s ability to maintain a permanent same-sex relationship and living arrangements than in the later work. In The British Recluse, the author tells the story of two women, Cleomira, the “recluse” of the novel’s title, and Belinda. The two women meet in a boarding house and exchange their stories of seduction and disappointment in love. In the following passage from the 1722 edition, Secret Histories, Novels and Poems, Volume 2, Haywood describes the two women’s initial reaction to each other in terms that evoke an intense sexual attraction:

The Meeting of these two Ladies was something particular for Persons of the same Sex; each found, at first Sight, so much to admire in the other, that it kept both from speaking for some Moments. The Recluse consider’d Belinda … one of the most lovely Persons on Earth; and Belinda found the Recluse … so sweet and attractive in her Air,—such a Mixture of the most forceful Fire, and most enchanting Softness in her Eyes, that she became wholly lost in speechless Wonder.

The women’s connection to each other is strengthened when they realize that they’ve both been seduced by the same man. Consequently, the heterosexual seduction and betrayal plot becomes the impetus for same-sex desire: “There grew so entire a Friendship between these Ladies, that they were scarce a Moment asunder: Belinda quitted her Chamber, being desir’d by the Recluse to take Part of her Bed. Their common Misfortunes were a Theme not to be exhausted, and they still found something for which to condole each other.” The women “condole” and comfort each other through increased physical intimacy.

Eventually, the women’s love for each other surpasses any desire they ever felt for their common seducer, and this enables them to choose female intimacy and domesticity as a valid life. The novel ends with the women resolving to abandon the world for a “solitary life.” They share a house “about seventy Miles distant from London, where they still live in a perfect Tranquility, happy in the real Friendship of each other.” By living a “solitary life” of “real Friendship” far from London, the two women are able to enjoy an intimacy away from the prying eyes of others and to fulfill an alternative and publicly forbidden desire. Same-sex desire and domestic intimacy are legitimized in The British Recluse.

As a teacher faced with answering students’ questions about 18th-century women’s literature, I am left to ponder a lingering question. What type of relationships with women did Haywood have? Unfortunately, there is not enough information about Haywood’s life to indicate whether she had any lesbian relationships. Some scholars believe she might have been a widow. There is evidence to suggest that she lived with the bookseller William Hatchett with whom she might have had an illegitimate child. While the scant information available suggests an openly heterosexual lifestyle, these facts do not necessarily negate the possibility that Haywood might have had less open relationships with women. Given the social stigma attached to lesbian desire at this time, it is quite unlikely that Haywood would have spoken directly about her own lesbian nature. What is evident is that Haywood was an innovator, envisioning new possibilities for lesbian desire in novels that were ostensibly devoted to heterosexual seduction and betrayal.


Donoghue, Emma. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. HarperCollins, 1995.
Gowing, Laura. “Lesbians and Their Like in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800.” Gay Life and Culture: A World History. Ed. Robert Aldrich. Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Ingrassia, Catherine. “Eliza Haywood, Sapphic Desire, and the Practice of Reading.” Lewd and Notorious: Female Transgression in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Katharine Kittredge. University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Jan M. Stahl is an assistant professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College/City University of New York.


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