In 1852, Elizabeth Barrett Browning met the expatriate American actress Charlotte Cushman (famous for her trouser roles) and her companion Matilda Hays, a writer and feminist. They had ‘made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other – they live together, dress alike,’ Barrett Browning wrote to her sister. ‘It is a female marriage.’ She added that she had remarked, after the meeting, to a female acquaintance, ‘Well, I never heard of such a thing before,’ and received the reply: ‘Haven’t you? Oh, it is by no means uncommon.’ Barrett Browning noted, also, that ‘Miss Cushman has an unimpeachable character.’ Cushman not only had a public partnership with Hays and, after her, with the sculptor Emma Stebbins, but a long secret affair with a young woman who married her adopted son, thus becoming her daughter-in-law. This ‘matrilineal, incestuous, adulterous, polygamous, homosexual household’, as Sharon Marcus describes it in Between Women, was not, however, ‘branded as deviant’. Cushman was indeed ‘unimpeachable’. Female marriages like hers, in which couples called each other ‘sposa’, ‘wedded wife’ and ‘hubbie’, and whose members might also be, or have been, married to men, were seen as socially acceptable ‘variations on legal marriage’ long before ‘the sexological idea of inversion’ was formulated at the end of the century. This – the 1830s to the 1890s – was an era ‘when lesbianism was neither avowed as a sexual identity nor stigmatised as a deviant sexuality’.
Cushman, like some of the other women in female partnerships cited by Marcus, such as the cross-dressing American artist Harriet Hosmer, was, like the Brownings, part of an expatriate, tolerant, liberated, often feminist group of artists and intellectuals. Barrett Browning herself, as made clear by her adventurous escape to Italy with Browning, her admiration for George Sand and her close friendship with the outspoken Anna Jameson, was an exceptionally broad-minded observer. In her eagerness to show the respectability of female marriages, Marcus perhaps doesn’t make enough of the tone of that liberal milieu, in which the unshockable ‘Oh, it is by no means uncommon’ would have been the norm. Henry James’s biography (briefly mentioned here) of the sculptor William Wetmore Story recalls with wonderful wry nostalgia those expatriate Italian circles of the 1850s, ‘that strange sisterhood’ of American ‘lady sculptors’ and ‘the queer little kingdom’ of Cushman’s theatrical world. Marcus notes that James may have drawn on Cushman’s menage, in heterosexual guise, for Charlotte Stant’s quasi-incestuous marriage to the father of her lover’s wife in The Golden Bowl. But she doesn’t mention James’s savage satire on female marriage in The Bostonians, or his troubled feelings about his sister’s ‘Boston marriage’ to Katharine Loring (brilliantly analysed by Jean Strouse in her book about Alice James). His darkly sardonic attitudes to female partnerships might have clouded the generally positive, fresh, pioneering spirit of Marcus’s book.
But even if the acceptance of female marriage in the 19th century was not quite as general as Marcus would have us believe, Barrett Browning’s meeting with Cushman is one of many vivid examples which suggest how wrong we have been about Victorian women’s relationships. In thinking about the long 20th-century struggle to legitimise and establish equality for same-sex unions, civil partnerships for gays and lesbians, gay marriages and adoption, we may tend to locate the origins of prejudice and sexual censoriousness in the Victorian era. After all, we know about its ‘double standards’ and ‘separate spheres’, about Victorian women’s lack of social and legal rights and their confinement within prescribed roles as daughters, wives, mothers and widows, or, conversely, as governesses, spinsters, old maids, dependent relatives or socially unacceptable rebels. We think we know about the Victorian denial or negation of lesbianism, summed up by the apocryphal story (too dubious for Marcus to cite) that Queen Victoria rejected a clause in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (criminalising homosexuality, raising the age of consent and legislating against procurement and brothels) that would have criminalised lesbian acts, on the grounds that she didn’t believe women did such things.
Marcus, to her credit writing boldly against the feminist critics and queer theorists – such as Judith Butler, Martha Vicinus, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg – through whom she has evidently formulated her thinking, proposes a new account of women’s lives in the mid to late 19th century. The advantage of her method is that it complicates our historical view, doesn’t over-schematise the past and doesn’t apply anachronistic ideology to another era. Instead of focusing on Victorian women as ‘relative creatures, defined by their difference from and subordination to men’, instead of thinking of their relationships with each other ‘only as reactions against, retreats from, or appropriations of masculinity’, and instead of seeing family, marriage and heterosexual relations as being always in opposition to friendships between women, Marcus argues that the categories of heterosexual and homosexual, through which Victorian culture has often been read, are not flexible enough. In a lucid, well-researched and vigorous study, she suggests a much more plastic, mutable, overlapping model. The large point she is making is simple, even obvious: that there were many different kinds of relationship between women in the period – but her examples are interestingly complicated. Victorian marriage was a changing, elastic institution, she argues, not a monolithic one, and could accommodate ‘variations such as divorce and same-sex unions’. (She even argues, with a little more polemical partisanship than elsewhere, that female marriages showed the way to the modernisation of heterosexual marriage because they tended to be more equal and free.) Relationships between women, whether lesbian love affairs, same-sex marriages, friendships, mother-daughter relationships or companionships, were not always sequestered, rebellious, or in opposition to dominant heterosexual relationships. They interconnected and engaged with marriages. Female marriages were often seen, not as unconventional or threatening, but as ‘a variation on the married couple’, publicly accepted and ‘by no means uncommon’.
As well as proposing a more flexible idea of marriage and of relationships between men and women, and women and women, Marcus also feels her way carefully through different kinds of female union. Many friendships between women were ‘ardent bonds’, as she nicely puts it, using a passionate, intense language of love and eroticism, without being sexual. Many lesbians were also married to men. She does not find it helpful to run all these various sorts of relationship together along a ‘lesbian continuum’ (a well-established concept in feminist historical writing, whereby very different kinds and stages of female friendship are all read as subsects of lesbianism). Instead she wants to point to the differences between lesbian couples and female friends. At the same time she is interested in the way that ‘female homoeroticism’ could exist as a component of ‘respectable womanhood’ in mainstream culture, alongside pornography. Erotic language and images of, by and for women were, she finds, surprisingly acceptable, unselfconscious and open. ‘Precisely because Victorians saw lesbian sex almost nowhere, they could embrace erotic desire between women almost everywhere.’
Marcus draws on a wide range of sources, from novels, letters and diaries to fashion plates, stories about dolls, anthropological writings and ambiguous texts on corporal punishment. These don’t all work equally well, or in quite the same ways, and there is a tendency for the book to keep repeating its main points on the back of each group of examples. But the variety of evidence used is ingenious, and makes sense. Cutting her way through a swathe of mainly middle-class life-writing, Marcus looks at a whole repertory of expressions of ‘female amity’, drawing fine distinctions between ardent friendships, spiritual communion, unrequited passions, obsessive infatuations and conjugal relationships. When a woman writes of, or to, her friend, ‘My Katie, you were mine in 1842, and you have been twenty times more mine every year since,’ or praises her ‘darling, clever little hands, lovely arms and wrists’, or relates with pleasure how her friend ‘kissed me tenderly and gave me her photograph’, her passionate language was not necessarily lesbian, and such relationships were not necessarily separate from or alternatives to heterosexuality. The intense emotions of friendship could play into courtship and family life; friends often helped each other marry.
Marcus tracks the links between female friendship and marriage into fiction and poetry, rejecting the kind of ‘symptomatic reading’ instigated by Fredric Jameson, who urges criticism to investigate the ideological unspoken below the surface of texts and in their gaps. Instead of looking for what has been repressed, Marcus rather refreshingly looks for what is apparent – she calls this ‘just reading’ – and finds, everywhere, strong examples of ‘the interdependence of female friendship and the marriage plot’. So her reading of Middlemarch focuses on the painful relationship between Dorothea and Rosamond; Shirley, Caroline and Mrs Pryor create a ‘female marriage plot’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley; Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh transforms rivalry for one man between two women into an altruistic triangle ending in marriage; Agnes’s benign relation to Dora is the crux of David Copperfield; Lucy Snowe in Villette is seen isolating herself through her resistance to desire for or friendship with women; Pip in Great Expectations is the feminised child or doll in the cruel triad of Estella/Pip/Miss Havisham; and Trollope (punitively described as complacent, conservative and antifeminist) is seen to make an exception to his general attitude, under the influence of his feminist friend Kate Field, in Can You Forgive Her?, where an ‘eroticised friendship’ between two women ‘lubricates’ marriage between a woman and a man. Again, James shadows these pages, his tragic plot of false female friendship between Madame Merle and Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady undoing the altruism and hopefulness found by Marcus.
The notion of Pip as an abused doll figure in Great Expectations links with Marcus’s non-literary materials, where she finds surprising crossings-over between mainstream culture and pornography in a number of domestic, middle-class publications. In fashion-plates, for example, the women showing off the latest styles are posed, often by women artists, for the female, not the male, gaze. Marcus argues that their figures, copiously illustrated here, are displayed as erotic objects of desire. I looked obediently at these bland, decorative, commercial images of fashionable women gesturing to one another’s corsages, or holding nosegays, or gazing into the distance, while Marcus pointed out the vulval images, the masturbatory allusions and auto-erotic reveries, or claimed that a teeny-weeny foot peeping out below a long skirt was obviously a ‘displaced clitoris’, and I began to feel a bit like Queen Victoria: I couldn’t quite see it. Still, Samuel Beeton’s enthusiastic publication (after Mrs Beeton’s death) in a supplement to his popular Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, of a long, swishingly detailed correspondence about the merits of corporal punishment for young girls, certainly proves Marcus’s point about ‘the everyday homoeroticism of commodity culture’. So does the sadistic, fetishistic language of nursery tales about dolls and their girl owners, which ‘describe a process that begins with love at first sight, leads to a honeymoon period spent in bed, and culminates with social reintegration through the paying of calls to exhibit the new love object’. Such narratives illustrate her argument that Victorian women and girls were as much ‘enthralled by femininity’ as men and boys were. (It’s a pity she missed the doll in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess: Sara Crewe’s love at first sight for ‘Emily’, when she sees through a shop window the doll who will become the inadequate replacement for her lost father, and her angry rejection of the doll when the illusion ceases to work, would have been a perfect example.)
Marcus ends by quoting from A Room of One’s Own the sentence, ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ which Virginia Woolf gave as an example of the kind of sentence she wanted to see more of in women’s fiction, for so long dominated by women only ‘in their relation to men’. It’s a sentence, Marcus observes, that has been milked for lesbian potential by successive generations of feminist writers and readers. She argues, rightly, that ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ could refer to friendship or unromantic professional companionship just as well as to romantic love. Chloe and Olivia have been ‘overworked’, she concludes. ‘We need more than two proper names and a verb to do justice to the variety and complexity of women’s social alliances.’