Homoerotic Female Friendships in 18th Century British Fiction

For my topic, I’m interested in looking at some of the really intense female friendships that we’ve come across in texts (most notably in Clarissa, but also potentially in Maria as well) and examining how they might be read as romantic and/or subtextually homoerotic, and perhaps even suggest that the truest relationships available to women in the 18th century were those with other women.

Foundational Text:

Todd, Janet. Women’s Friendship in Literature. Columbia Univ. Pr., 1980.

In this book (which unfortunately I wasn’t able to look at directly, though the UH library does have a copy of it, so I can get it through them the next time I’m on campus. In lieu of actually looking at the text, I read a number of reviews to get an idea of what was argued) Todd is essentially arguing against Virginia’s Woolf’s assertion that there are no female friendships exist in literature. Todd tracks female relationships in 18th century texts which are not defined by men. She sorts these friendships in five categories including ones like “sentimental friendship” and “erotic friendship.” She discusses Clarissa and Anna Howe’s relationship at length, casting their friendship in the first category. Much of her analysis deals with the ways in which the patriarchy is operating on these female characters and essentially undercutting their relationship. 

Secondary Texts:

Donoghue, Emma. Passions Between Women. Bello, 2014.

Emma Donoghue’s book will be an excellent help in this topic. She covers a lot of ground throughout the book, notably the ways in which the intense female friendships found in British literature of the 18th century can be read as homoerotic. She cites a lot of other critics in her work and part of her analysis seems wrapped up in the ways in which critics have historically side-stepped the issue of Lesbianism/Sapphism in these historical texts as an attempt to shield the authors, and indeed the characters, from criticism. She refers to Clarissa specifically in the chapter “A Sincere and Tender Passion,” taking issue with previous critical interpretations (from Jean Hagstrum in particular) which argue that while Anna Howe and Clarissa’s friendship could be seen as homoerotic it has noting to do with “consummated lesbianism” (217.) Of this Donoghue writes: “such godlike insight into hypothetical sexual practices of fictional female characters is not rare among critics who hate lesbians” (217). 

Woodward, Carolyn. “‘My Heart so Wrapt’: Lesbian Disruptions in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 18, no. 4, 1993, pp. 838–865., https://doi.org/10.1086/494845.

Woodward spends a lot of time tracking what she terms “lesbian disruptions” in 18th century fiction—this is a fairly ambiguous term, but one that she defines as “gaps in narrative, genre mixing, and avoidance of closure” which are utilized by 18th century authors of fiction (intentionally or unintentionally) as a means to discuss (or not discuss as the case may be) female desire and especially same-sex female desire (842). She talks about the ways in which Clarissa and Anna Howe’s relationship is the most sustained and unproblematic depiction of love in Clarissa and how the novel reestablishes patriarchal expectations/standards by killing off/neutralizing the “lesbian subject” (858). 

Kittredge, Katharine. “Men-Women and Womanish Men: Androgyny in Richardson’s ‘Clarissa.’” Modern Language Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 1994, p. 20., https://doi.org/10.2307/3195142.

In this essay Kitteredge tracks different forms of androgyny found throughout Clarissa. I’m particularly interested in her read of Anna Howe as “a kind of proto-male woman” (22). Although Kittredge never explicitly mentions lesbianism or the potential homoerotic readings of the the friendship between Anna and Clarissa, this read of Anna as inherently androgynous, or in some way denying her own role of woman seems incredibly relevant to other sources I’ve encountered like Randolph Trumbach, whose historical tracking of lesbianism in 18th century England goes hand-in-hand with the creation of what he terms a fourth gender (the third being the homosexual male). It seems like many discussions of 18th century lesbianism are bound up in these ideas of non-gender conforming women which I’ve seen referred to in many different ways throughout my research.

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