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