Passions Between Women by Emma Donoghue, book review: Dangerous liaisons in a time before ‘the closet’

 

In her introduction to Passions Between Women Donoghue asks a tantalising question that underscores the book’s rationale.

What do the two uses of the word “passion” in the letters that Queen Anne sent to Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough – “one describing a respectable friendship and the other a sexual perversion” – tell us about the nature of their ardent written exchanges? Do they, as some historians have assumed, demonstrate that lesbian sex and love have been omitted from written history through self-censorship and ignorance, or could women such as Anne and Sarah be considered as lesbian even before the term came into popular British usage in 1870?

Donoghue thinks the answer to this question may lie in considering how women’s history is recorded and suggests that the written works by women and male writers such as Pope, Defoe and Swift published in the period between the Restoration and the 19th century “can be illuminated by a specifically lesbian reading”. In doing so, “romantic friendships” are transformed from a singularly hetero-patriarchal framing of identities into a more conscious celebration of the history of “tribadry”.

The book was first published in 1993 (this revised version is available as a Modern Classic through Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint Bello) and Donoghue’s subject is not new: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Lillian Faderman have also examined lesbian history. Where Donoghue excels is her extensive and fascinating research of hidden lesbian and bisexual narratives between 1668 and 1801 and the lusty re-sexing of many female relationships hitherto considered “innocent”. Indeed, prior to the “legal silence” on sex between women under Queen Victoria – which Donoghue says suggests that law-makers preferred to keep it unthinkable while charging women “transvestites” or those found seeking intimate same-sex company with fraud or lewdness – those in same sex relationships have been characterised by historians as lesbian ingénues.

In the 21 years since Donoghue’s book was first published, much has changed for lesbians. Today’s debates on lesbian identity seem focused on either the essentialist belief in the so-called gay gene or the constructivist notion of the broken woman who can be saved by religion. But, whether we are butch, femme or androgynous, Donoghue demonstrates through her manifold and ribald extracts that there are many ways of being lesbian. Those who enact same-sex desire in our diverse communities of bisexuals, lesbians or “respectable closet-cases” can find our historical roots in the often sophisticated and worldly women of this period.

But what of Anne and the Duchess Sarah? Their passionate friendship of many years, the subject of great interest to gossips of the time, fell foul after Anne was crowned queen in 1702 and those in her circle pressured Tory Anne to turn against Sarah the Whig. There’s a danger in looking at the past with a 21st-century perspective that may not have currency there. For Anne and Sarah, it was a combination of politics, prejudice and the particular expression of their love that eventually tore them apart.

Passions Between Women By Emma Donoghue. Bello £8.99

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas