SURPASSING THE LOVE OF MEN: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman

SURPASSING THE LOVE OF MEN: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present

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KIRKUS REVIEW

. . . Your friendship is the only happiness of my life; and whenever I lose it, I have nothing to do but to take one of my garters and search for a convenient beam."" So wrote Mary Pierrepont to Anne Wortley in 1709. Historians have come to recognize the strength of such sororal ties, and studies of specific romantic friendships have recently appeared. Faderman's study, too, began as an examination of Emily Dickinson's love poems to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert, but broadened into a survey of romantic friendships from the 16th century to the present. It is marred, however, by two major flaws: too much mixing of developments in literature and the social world, so that changes are not convincingly explained in either area; a tendency to view all such friendships similarly and out of historical time (i.e., ""had the romantic friends of other eras lived today, many of them would have been lesbian-feminists""). Interest inheres, nonetheless, in the various ways society viewed these friendships and the variety of sentiments expressed. Thus, while 16th-century French libertines saw in female sexual play a titillating prelude to heterosexual activity, by the 17th century, thanks to the spread of the Renaissance ideal of same-sex friendships, romantic friendships among society women were quite acceptable, even laudable. Rousseau was simply adopting a popular theme in La Nouvelle Heloise when he had Claire tell her friend Julie, ""From the very beginning my heart has been absorbed in yours. . . and I have lived only to be your friend."" By the 18th century, romantic friendships were an even more popular theme; but the sexual character of many actual friendships was either overlooked or disbelieved. When two Scottish schoolmistresses sued the grandmother of a pupil for alleging that their relationship was homosexual, they won their case because the judges could not believe in the possibility of the crime. As feminist women moved into higher education and new careers in the later 1800s, such friendships became even more important as emotional sustenance. In one ""Boston marriage,"" novelist Sarah Orne Jewett maintained a relationship for nearly three decades with her friend Annie Fields, the two women spending part of the year separated to concentrate on work, the other part traveling, entertaining, and sharing interests in people and books. Faderman correctly, if somewhat inadequately, sees these relationships as threatening to men--who could now turn to sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebbing for support. Soon, women who earlier would have freely expressed their sentiments--Willa Cather, say, or Gertrude Stein--increasingly denied or disguised them. Only with the rise of lesbian-feminism in the 1970s could the right to free expression be reclaimed, and then with certain differences: whereas earlier romantic friends could not hope to spend their lives together and lacked fully-articulated doctrines, they ""seldom had reason to believe that society saw them as outlaws."" Much here to consider, but all deserving of a finer and more controlling hand.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1981
Publisher: Morrow