BOOK REVIEW / The benefits of womankind: 'Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801' - Emma Donoghue: Scarlet Press, 12.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
EMMA DONOGHUE is a precocious 24-year-old who has already written a novel, Stir Fry, a play, I Know My Own Heart, and contributed to the Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories. It is no surprise that this book, based on her PhD, comes out before she has completed her studies at Cambridge.

The good news is that Donoghue can write more elegantly than most academics; the bad is that she hasn't yet reached the theme, the overview, the Big Idea. What remains is a practical crit of lesbian representation in novels, poems, letters, newspaper reports, erotica, pamphlets and other 18th-century 'texts', arranged in categories - hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, romantic friendships, and so on. But apart from a few asides about 'phallocentrism', 'heterosexism', 'pornotopia' and lesbian history, Donoghue's organising principle is simply a polemical desire to prove that lesbianism was flourishing in the 18th century.

'I have been surprised by the variety of representations,' she writes, 'the unsettling power some of these writers ascribe to same-sex desire and actions. Nor does erotica portray only one lesbian social type, the aristocratic libertine; society hostesses and singers are mixed in with soldiers' wives and milliners.' Jolly good and all that, but with no theoretical framework, the book ends up as no more than an impressively researched list.

Without a wider meaning, the reader is drawn to the most melodramatic texts, such as The Memoirs of Sophia Baddeley (1787), an account by one Mrs Elizabeth Hughes Steele of her life with the actress Sophia Snow Baddeley, whom she met as a schoolgirl in London. Sophia has a passion for bounders, men who exploit her, beat her and leave her overdosed on laudanum. The more respectable Elizabeth loves Sophia so dearly that she abandons her family and attempts to rescue her friend by any means: financial support, emotional blackmail and even physical intervention. The reconciliations and betrayals end when Sophia dies of consumption, aged 37. Elizabeth, hiding from a capital charge of forgery, quickly follows, dying alone and 'in the most extreme agonies and distress', according to Gentleman's Magazine.

Naturally, many of the most lurid stories are to be found in the chapter on erotica. Denis Diderot's novel La Religieuse, translated in 1797 as The Nun (18th century slang for prostitute, incidentally), is an account of a lesbian Mother Superior's attempts to lure a novice into the convent's Sapphic network. After lots of urgent pressing of bosoms against the harpsichord, the girl escapes with a priest, is raped by him and left destitute. Also memorable is a poem about the adventures of a French dildo in London.

Occasionally, Donoghue makes comparisons with the present. A whole chapter is devoted to the subject of 'female husbands' or women who passed as men - 'quite a common social phenomenon' in the 18th century. How times have changed: headlines were made in the 1980s when jazz musician Billie Tipton, twice-married and an adoptive father, died and was found to be a woman. More recently, one Jennifer Saunders was jailed for having consensual sex with two women who afterwards claimed they had thought she was a man. You see - context is so easy. Let's hope Emma Donoghue puts some into her PhD.

(Photograph omitted)