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VINE VOICEon 7 December 2012
Martha Vicinus's 'Intimate Friends' proves history is what historians write about, not what actually happened. Where the historian has an axe to grind, the relationship between interpretation and fact is not just strained but fictitious as is the case with 'Intimate Friends'. Vicinus sets out to find evidence to support her version of the emergence of a lesbian identity. Denying Lillian Faderman's contention that nineteenth century relationships between females did not necessarily include a sexual element, Vicinus looks for non-existent sex as eagerly as a pornographer pretends to present real life. Where there was no sex, erotic or otherwise, Vicinus creates it. In the case of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie, who spent eight years pursuing a libel action against Dame Helen Cumming Gordon, who had accused them of 'indecent and criminal practices', Vicinus states 'In spite of the detailed testimony, we can never know the true nature of their friendship' then adds, 'but what richer image do we need than an invitation to join a beloved friend in bed on a cold night?' Vicinus ignores the pair's protestations of innocence and creates an imaginary relationship. Her error lies in presenting the past from the present, utilising material for unfounded speculation in pursuit of a self-fulfilling theme.

Vicinus covers the period between 1778 and 1928, starting with the Ladies of Llangollen, whose cohabitation appears to have been motivated by fear of heterosexuality rather lesbian love, and ending with the publication of Radclyffe Hall's uninspiring 'The Well of Loneliness'. The claim that the Ladies (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) had a lesbian relationship has never been proved. They could just as easily been having a sexual relationship with their housekeeper Mary Carryll who would fit into the category of a 'bit of rough'. Vicinus suggests the late eighteenth portrayal of women's intimate friendships was divided into two types, 'sensual romantic friendship and sexual Sapphism'. She claims eighteenth century pornography confirms men's voyeuristic fascination with romantic friendship between women accusing men of making a 'vigorous effort to marginalise women's sexual love, even as they relished a hidden underground knowledge of alternative sexual behaviours'.

To depict eighteenth century knowledge of female sexual activity as 'hidden underground' is a nonsense. While the popularity of Rochester's poems declined after 1750, in 1787 King George 111 issued "A Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality', including the suppression of all 'loose and licentious Prints, Books, and Publications, dispersing Poison to the minds of the Young and Unwary and to Punish the Publishers and Vendors thereof". If it was hidden it did not require such public opposition. Eighteenth century publications about female sexual activity included 'Venus in the Cloister' (1728) and John Cleland's 'Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' (1748). The latter provided several instances of explicit female-female sexual experience. John Wilkes's 'Essay On Woman' caused a major scandal while Marie Antoinette was accused of tribadism by her enemies. Not all Robert Burns's poems were as romantic as 'My love is like a red, red rose'. Women's sexuality was not suppressed it was ignored as part of the double standard.

Vicinus writes that by the early twentieth century 'sexuality replaced natural feeling as the core of a person's identity'. However, this applies to a limited bohemian sub-culture of which Radclyffe Hall was part. Hall's identity problem was not lesbian love but disappointment at not being born a man, unlike Anne Lister who dressed as a man but was only interested in lesbian sex. Vicinus's purpose is to restore the sexual and erotic components of romantic friendships. Where silence prevails she assumes the components are present. Vicinus accepts that females have crushes on other females (not uncommon amongst teenagers and their teachers) but seems incapable of distinguishing between love and psychological disturbance. Edith Simcox was an example of the latter whose 'unrequited passion' led her to imagine George Elliot was of similar mind. Vicinus suggests Simcox, 'placed herself at the moral centre of her own tale, turning her hopeless desire into a memorial to same-sex love' whereas 'emotional immaturity' is a more accurate description. The idea that 'the true lesbian was a neurotic, lonely femme damnee' carried an element of truth.

Some women employed 'masculine intellect and feminine sympathy' as a way of dominating other women, feeding the butch/femme characterisation of early twentieth century lesbian relationships. A lack of physical attractiveness made the adoption of 'mannishness' by some women unremarkable. So too did the nature of progressive circles for whom Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provided apparent justification to disregard traditional moral values explicit in heterosexual marriage. Sexology appeared to place sex in all its forms as the essential purpose of life. Vicinus argues 'the lesbian was an integral part of society: even if she was not always recognised, she was an essential presence. She might be an unacknowledged minority, to be condemned or ignored, but she could not be eradicated.' There is no evidence society wanted to eradicate lesbians. The cordoning off 'the nontraditional woman' proposed by Vicinus is traceable to her own self-fulfilling myth making.

Vicinus argues lesbian relationships were rejected as representing a threat to patriarchal authority, heterosexual power relations and a fear of feminine sexual independence. Presumably she's not looked at pornography on the Internet recently. It was females with economic independence who were able to rebel against what they considered to be heterosexual orthodoxy in exchange for what they regarded as a libertine existence. The number of women taking this route was very small and the importance attached to them is disproportionate. The book will be an object of devotion amongst the backwaters of gender and women's studies but adds little to knowledge of Victorian England available elsewhere. The past is not as sexually orientated as Vicinus imagines and her discovery of sex where it does not exist is detrimental to objective scholarship. At a push four stars.
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