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Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England

by Sharon Marcus


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Women in Victorian England wore jewelry made from each other's hair and wrote poems celebrating decades of friendship. They pored over magazines that described the dangerous pleasures of corporal punishment. A few had sexual relationships with each other, exchanged rings and vows, willed each other property, and lived together in long-term partnerships described as marriages. But, as Sharon Marcus shows, these women were not seen as gender outlaws. Their desires were fanned by consumer culture, and their friendships and unions were accepted and even encouraged by family, society, and church. Far from being sexless angels defined only by male desires, Victorian women openly enjoyed looking at and even dominating other women. Their friendships helped realize the ideal of companionate love between men and women celebrated by novels, and their unions influenced politicians and social thinkers to reform marriage law.

Through a close examination of literature, memoirs, letters, domestic magazines, and political debates, Marcus reveals how relationships between women were a crucial component of femininity. Deeply researched, powerfully argued, and filled with original readings of familiar and surprising sources, Between Women overturns everything we thought we knew about Victorian women and the history of marriage and family life. It offers a new paradigm for theorizing gender and sexuality--not just in the Victorian period, but in our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691128351
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/22/2007
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,246,097
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sharon Marcus is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.

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Between Women

Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England
By Sharon Marcus

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.


The Female Relations of Victorian England

In 1844 a ten-year-old girl named Emily Pepys, the daughter of the bishop of Worcester, made the following entry in the journal she had begun to keep that year: "I had the oddest dream last night that I ever dreamt; even the remembrance of it is very extraordinary. There was a very nice pretty young lady, who I (a girl) was going to be married to! (the very idea!) I loved her and even now love her very much. It was quite a settled thing and we were going to be married very soon. All of a sudden I thought of Teddy [a boy she liked] and asked Mama several times if I might be let off and after a little time I woke. I remember it all perfectly. A very foggy morning." Emily Pepys found the mere idea of a girl marrying a lady extraordinary ("the very idea!"). We may find it even more surprising that she had the dream at all, then recorded it in a journal that was not private but meant to be read by family and friends. As we read her entry more closely, it may also seem puzzling that Emily's attitude toward her dream is more bemused than revolted, not least because her prospective bride is "a very nice pretty young lady," and marrying her has the pleasant aura of security suggested by the almost Austenian phrase, "It was quite a settled thing." Even Emily's desire to be "let off"so that she can return to Teddy must be ratified by a woman, "Mama."

A proper Victorian girl dreaming about marrying a pretty lady challenges our vision of the Victorians, but this book argues that Emily's dream was in fact typical of a world that made relationships between women central to femininity, marriage, and family life. We are now all too familiar with the Victorian beliefs that women and men were essentially opposite sexes, and that marriage to a man was the chief end of a woman's existence. But a narrow focus on women's status as relative creatures, defined by their difference from and subordination to men, has limited our understanding of gender, kinship, and sexuality. Those concepts cannot be fully understood if we define them only in terms of two related oppositions: men versus women, and homosexuality versus heterosexuality. Our preconceptions have led us to doubt the importance of relationships such as marriage between women, which was not only a Victorian dream but also a Victorian reality; many adults found the idea of two women marrying far less preposterous than little Emily Pepys did. When activist and author Frances Power Cobbe published a widely read autobiography in 1894, for example, she included a photograph of the house she lived in with sculptor Mary Lloyd. Throughout the book, references to joint finances and travels, to "our friends," "our garden," and "our beautiful and beloved home" treated Cobbe's conjugal arrangement with Lloyd as a neutral public fact, one Cobbe expressed even more clearly in letters to friends in which she called Lloyd both her "husband" and her "wife."

Female marriage, however, is not the sole subject of this book, which also examines friendship, mother- daughter dynamics, and women's investment in images of femininity, in order to make a fundamental but curiously overlooked point: even within a single class or generation, there were many different kinds of relationships between women. Often when I would tell people I was writing a book about relationships between women, they would assume that was a timid way of saying I was writing about lesbians. There are lesbians in this book, if by that we mean women who had sexual relationships with other women, but this book is not only about lesbians; nor is it about the lesbian potential of all relationships between women. Indeed, if we take "lesbian" to connote deviance, gender inversion, a refusal to objectify women, or a rejection of marriage as an institution, then none of the relationships discussed here was lesbian. Women like Frances Power Cobbe embraced marriage as a model for their sexual partnerships with women even as they sought to reform marriage as a legal institution. Female friendships peaceably coexisted with heterosexual marriages and moreover, helped to promote them. The hyper-feminine activities of looking at fashion plates and playing with dolls encouraged women to desire feminine objects, and mother-daughter relationships were rife with the same eroticized power struggles as those between male and female kin.


The first section of this book is about friendship. Chapter 1 uses lifewriting (memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and diaries) to show the importance of female friendship in middle-class women's lives. Friendship between women reinforced femininity, but at the same time it licensed forms of agency women were discouraged from exercising with men. As friends, women could compete for one another, enjoy multiple attachments, and share religious fervor. This chapter also distinguishes female friendship from female marriage, as well as from unrequited love and infatuation between women. Chapter 2 surveys the Victorian novel and shows the paradigmatic importance of female friendship in courtship narratives, including David Copperfield, Aurora Leigh, and Shirley. It concludes with a reading of Charlotte Brontë's Villette as an exception that proves the rule, since its heroine rejects female friendship but also never marries. In these readings, I depart from theories of the novel that emphasize how homosexuality and female friendship have been repressed by heterosexual plots and can be retrieved only through symptomatic reading, which seeks to reconstruct what a text excludes. Rather than focus on what texts do not or cannot say, I use a method I call "just reading," which attends to what texts make manifest on their surface, in this case the crucial role female friendship plays in courtship narratives. Female friendship functions as a narrative matrix that generates closure without being shattered by the storms and stresses of plot. A series of detailed analyses shows that female friendship was neither a static auxiliary to the marriage plot nor a symptomatic exclusion from it, but instead a transmission mechanism that kept narrative energies on track.

The second section focuses on femininity as an object of desire for women. In chapter 3, I show that hyperfeminine discourses about fashion and dolls shared with pornography a preoccupation with voyeurism, exhibitionism, punishment, humiliation, domination, and submission. The connections could be astonishingly literal, as when pornographic literature reprinted fashion-magazine correspondence debating the propriety of adult women birching adolescent girls. Fashion imagery and doll tales depicted women and girls in erotic dynamics with feminine objects; both represented those impulses as especially strong between mothers and daughters. The chapter makes a theoretical distinction between the sexual and the erotic in order to show that mainstream femininity was not secretly lesbian, but openly homoerotic. Within the realm of domestic consumer culture, Victorian women were as licensed to objectify women as were Victorian men. Chapter 4 is a close reading of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations in light of the argument in chapter 3. For Victorians, femininity depended as much on homoerotic as on heteroerotic desire, and Dickens explores what that might mean for men who desired women. His novel presents an older woman's obsessive, objectifying desire for her adopted daughter as a primal scene for the hero, who learns to equate social status and erotic desire with being a woman's pampered, fashionable doll. The female dyad's overt contempt for him as a working-class boy leads him to reject his male body by using fashion to become feminine-that is, to become a woman's object of desire.

The third and final section addresses marriage. Chapter 5 focuses on debates about marriage that followed the legalization of civil divorce in 1857. I show that many involved in those discussions were either women in female marriages or knew women in female marriages. Familiarity with those conjugal partnerships shaped feminist reformers' vision of marriage as a plastic institution that could be reformed into a dissoluble contract based on equality, rather than an irrevocable vow that created a hierarchy. The notion of marriage as contract made it possible for some social thinkers to define marriage in nonheterosexual terms and to posit increasing equality and similarity between spouses as progress towards modernity. I turn to early anthropologists such as Henry Maine, Johann Bachofen, and Friedrich Engels to show how their histories of the family accommodated forms of kinship that depended neither on sexual difference nor on biological reproduction. Chapter 6 is a close reading of Anthony Trollope's novel Can You Forgive Her? The chapter opens by establishing that Trollope knew women in female marriages, then shows how he gave that knowledge narrative form. Like the anthropologists, Trollope associated female marriage with egalitarian contracts between husbands and wives, but unlike most of them, he branded both contract and female marriage as primitive. Even so, he remained eminently Victorian in the value he accorded intimacy between women, for female amity remains the basis of all the successful marriages in his novel.

Each of this book's sections provides evidence that relationships between women were a constitutive element of Victorian gender and sexuality,andtheforceofthatargumentderivesfromthevarietyofrelationships addressed. One could say that the first section is about the homosocial, the second about the homoerotic, and the third about the homosexual, but that terminology might falsely imply that the homoerotic and the homosexual lay outside the realm of the social. Instead, I address how each social bond differed from the other by virtue of its content, structure, status, and degree of flexibility.

The first section establishes that as an ideal, friendship was defined by altruism, generosity, mutual indebtedness, and a perfect balance of power. In a capitalist society deeply ambivalent about competition, female friendship offered a vision of perfect reciprocity for those who could afford not to worry about daily survival. In a liberal society that idealized self-development and sifting opinion through argument, female friendship epitomized John Stuart Mill's dream of subjectivity as dialogue. The object that epitomized friendship was the gift, which could represent the giver's body (a lock of hair), merge with the recipient's body (a ring), or be a body (a man bestowed by one friend on another). Novelists and deeply religious women articulated that reciprocal ideal most forcefully, while worldly women highlighted the ways that friendship introduced an element of play into the gender system, licensing women to be more assertive and spontaneous with their female peers than they were with men. Friendship thus had an elastic relationship to the Victorian gender system: it could temporarily confer a new shape on femininity without altering its basic structure.

The second section of the book focuses on desire-not as an antisocial force but as a deeply regulated and regulating hierarchical structure of longing. The female worlds of the fashion magazine and the doll tale revolved around differences in rank and power between image and viewer, woman and girl, punisher and punished, fashionable and lowly, mistress and doll. At stake in this section are erotic bonds between women and objects: images, toys, girls, and femininity itself. Where the ideal of friendship equated femininity with an ethic of spiritual coalescence and balance, fashion magazines and doll tales depicted femininity as a set of violent fantasies about the female body: its containment, explosion, display, or magical transformation. Female objectification was invested in binary divisions, but ironically, it was also the most mobile type of bond between women. The definition of fixed poles-object and owner, viewer and viewed, arrogant and abject-promoted the desire to shuttle back and forth between them. Dolls come to life, women become captives, and girls and boys change into ladies. Gayle Rubin famously identified men's traffic in female objects as the central dynamic of patriarchal culture; this chapter identifies an equally strong current in Victorian consumer culture, a female traffic in feminine objects displayed and sold for women's enjoyment and exploitation.

The third and final section focuses on marriage as an institution that was mutating in the Victorian present, inspiring competing visions of what it had been in the past and might be in the future. Reform exposed the contradictions within the norm of happy hierarchical marriages, and divorce trials revealed the differences between the ideals embedded in the law and the complex reality of marriage as a lived institution. Those familiar with female marriages and their contractual principles of formation and dissolution had an extra-legal vantage point from which to reform marriage law. As social thinkers registered that marriage could accommodate variations such as divorce and same-sex unions, they became aware of the institution's plasticity, its ability to change without undergoing the kind of radical ruptures that yield completely new forms.

Historical and Disciplinary Borders

Why focus on England from 1830 to 1880? Those decades lie at the core of the Victorian period, which continues to be a touchstone for thinking about gender and sexuality, not least because the Victorian era has the remarkable capacity to seem both starkly different from the present and uncannily similar to it. The general public continues to see Victorians as terribly repressed, while specialists have by and large accepted Foucault's assertion that our own contemporary obsession with sex originates with the Victorians. Having selected Victorian England for its canonical status in the history of sexuality, I stayed within the years from 1830 to 1880 because those years constitute a distinct period, especially with regard to gender, the family, and same-sex bonds between women. During those decades, the belief that men and women were opposite sexes, different in kind rather than degree, took hold in almost every class, and the previous era's concerns about female sexual voracity shifted to a view of women as either inherently domestic, maternal, and self-restrained, or susceptible to training in how to be so. Marriage and family underwent corresponding changes. Historians of kinship argue endlessly about exactly when it first became common to think of marriage as the union of soulmates, but most agree that by 1830 that ideal had become a norm. Before the 1830s, certain classes of people did not valorize companionate marriage: workers often did not legally marry; aristocrats were openly adulterous; and Romantics and revolutionaries challenged the very bases of marriage. By the 1830s, companionate marriage was the standard for measuring alliances in all classes. Finally, the lesbian was not a distinct social type during the years 1830 to 1880, although male sodomy was a public and private obsession. In the eighteenth century, it was possible to name the sapphist or tribade as an explicit object of satire, but by the 1830s new codes of propriety meant that only doctors and pornographers wrote directly about sex between women. The figure of the sapphist came to seem less and less embedded in the social world of domestic conjugality, and therefore less and less related to women who lived in couples and adopted features of legal marriage.

Women, sexuality, and marriage began to change dramatically in the 1880s. Eugenics shifted the meaning of marriage from a spiritual union to a reproductive one that depended on heterosexual fertility and promoted racial purity. New Woman fiction and doctrine criticized men's oppression of women in ways that sexualized marriage, or rather heterosexualized it, by comparing it to prostitution and rape. A new sense of heterosexuality, as a distinct sexual orientation formed in diametrical opposition to homosexuality, made marriage and the family the province of male-female unions. In the 1890s, a discourse of lesbianism began to emerge in Edward Carpenter's homophile writings, Havelock Ellis's sexological studies, and women's responses to them. Awareness of sex between women also increased after two well-publicized trials raised issues of sapphism and female inversion: the Maud Allan trial of 1919 and the Radclyffe Hall trial of 1929. Women in female couples continued to use marriage as a model for their relationships-think of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas-but many female couples began to identify either with an ideal of pure, sexless love, or with a bohemian modernism that rejected marriage and monogamy as patriarchal institutions.


Excerpted from Between Women by Sharon Marcus Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations     vii
Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction: The Female Relations of Victorian England     1
Overview     2
Historical and Disciplinary Borders     5
How This Book Engages Scholarly Debates     9
How I Came to Write This Book     14
Conclusion     21
Elastic Ideals: Female Friendship     23
Friendship and the Play of the System     25
Female Friendship in Feminist Studies     29
Victorian Women's Lifewriting and Relationships between Women     32
Female Friendship as Gender Norm     38
Friends and "Friends"     43
The Repertory of Friendship     54
"Purified and Made One in Jesus"     62
Friendship, Kinship, Marriage     66
Just Reading: Female Friendship and the Marriage Plot     73
The Form of the Plot     82
Female Amity and the Companionate Marriage Plot     85
Female Amity and the Feminist Marriage Plot     91
The Double Marriage Plot: Friendship as Cause and Effect     96
Unamiable Villette: Lucy Snowe's Passion     102
Mobile Objects: Female Desire     109
Dressing Up and Dressing Down the FemininePlaything     111
Fashion and Fantasies of Women     116
Discipline and Punishment in the Fashion Magazine     135
Live Dolls     149
The Female Accessory in Great Expectations     167
The Female Dyad and the Origins of Desire     173
Masculinity as Castoff     177
Pip as Doll and Fashion Plate     180
The Sentimental Education of the Female Dyad     184
Plastic Institutions: Female Marriage     191
The Genealogy of Marriage     193
Female Marriage in the Nineteenth Century     196
Female Marriage and Victorian Marriage Reform     204
The Debate over Contractual Marriage     212
Victorian Anthropology and the History of Marriage     217
Same-Sex Unions and the History of Civilization     222
Contracting Female Marriage in Can You forgive Her?     227
Trollope, Feminism, and Female Marriage     228
Female Marriage and Contractual Marriage in Can You Forgive Her?     232
Marriage as Forgiveness: Primitive Contract and Modern Punishment     239
The Persistence of Female Relations     251
Conclusion: Woolf, Wilde, and Girl Dates     257
Notes     263
Bibliography      317
Illustration Credits     347
Index     349

What People are Saying About This


Between Women significantly revises conventional wisdom about Victorian female friendships, desire, and marriage. To tell this story, Marcus has studied women's life writings, canonical fiction, fashion magazines, doll stories, and anthropological texts of the period. The result is intellectually stunning and wonderfully entertaining.
Judith R. Walkowitz, Johns Hopkins University

Diana Fuss

Between Women is not only a first-rate Victorianist study, it is also the most original work on gender and sexuality to appear in years—one that promises to shake up feminist theory and queer theory in all the right ways. A densely researched book, as academically sound as it is intellectually thrilling.
Diana Fuss, Princeton University

Didier Eribon

This magnificent and impressive book offers us what Foucault would have called a 'history of the present': not only does it completely transform our perception of the past, but, in so doing, it also newly illuminates the debates and struggles that are ours, today.
Didier Eribon, author of "Michel Foucault" and "Insult and the Making of the Gay Self"


This is a superb work of scholarship, beautifully conceived and written, that will change our views of Victorian women, men, society, and culture. Sharon Marcus's argument that the Victorians viewed intense and passionate female relationships as a vital precursor and stimulus for heterosexual marriage is persuasive. What she has accomplished is the most difficult of intellectual projects: seeing what is in plain sight and yet has not been noticed because of our cultural preconceptions, and then using her findings to recast an entire field.
Bonnie S. Anderson, City University of New York

Judith Butler

Between Women literally shifts our understanding of how the history of sexuality and gender norms ought to be written. Sharon Marcus's groundbreaking text finally offers us a framework for thinking about the social and sexual bonds among women and their centrality to the history of gender, sexuality, marriage, and the family. Working with a wide array of texts, Marcus brilliantly shows how literary studies can enter into both social history and contemporary politics. Her final reflections on gay and lesbian marriage make clear the high stakes and pressing conceptual implications for our time of this kind of critical and capacious work.
Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

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Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
andreablythe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Between Women, Sharon Marcus aims to disprove the misconception that female friendship, desire, and marriage were not contrary to heterosexual relations in Victorian England, as well as to show that "the asexual Victorian woman able only to respond to male advances is a myth -- not a Victorian myth, but our own."She presents three forms of female relationships. The first is female friendship, which was considered to be an important aspect of a woman's education in feminity. It was important in the Victorian era that a woman maintain friendships with other women, friendships that were intimate and passionate (but nonsexual), otherwise she may be deemed unwomanly by her lack of such friendship. In fact, Marcus shows how female friendship was vital to a successful marriage instead of opposed to it, and presents several novel plots in which the happy marriage at the end would not have been possible without female friendship.The second form of relations involves female desire, namely in the eroticised figures of fashion plates and dolls. Marcus presents evidence that rather than being simply an objectification of women for male desires, fashion plates and dolls were meant primarily to represent and avenue for female enjoyment and pleasure. The third relationship form she looks at are female marriages, in which two women merge their housholds, will their property to their partner, and behave in the same way as any married couple. Marcus shows these marriages were not the antithesis of heterosexual marriage, but an acceptable alternative to it. Women in female marriages were not outcastes, but for the most part accepted as couples in certain circles of society. And in fact it was partially the example of female marriage as contractual that aided in the reform of heterosexual marriages. This book was a fascinating reading, opening my mind to new perspectives about Victorian England. Looking back on the past, it is easy to generalize, often to the result that some aspect of history and culture gets ignored in trying to define it. This book is a reminder that one should not assume that everyone bevaed a certain way in the past, and that culture is as infinitly complicated as in our every day lives. I would certainly recomend this book to anyone interested in Victorian history.