|Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment
Book by Elizabeth Susan Wahl; Stanford University Press, 1999
The term "female intimacy" suggests an ambiguous, even dichotomous, set of meanings because it automatically raises questions about the nature of the relations it describes. Intimacy evokes closeness, familiarity, and kinship, but the kinds of associations it encompasses can range from the familial or confidential to the erotic or sexually illicit. Intimacy reveals what is most cherished and essential to one's identity as an individual, but it is usually marked by a sense of privacy, even secrecy, that transforms the language of intimacy into a kind of code not easily penetrable or comprehensible to those outside its boundaries. 1 Historically, intimacy has always conveyed these paradoxical qualities of openness and concealment, of innocence and improbity. The Oxford English Dictionary attests to this dichotomy through its conflicting definitions--"any other noble, and lawfull familiarities of intimacie, and deerenesse" for the word's primary meaning of "friendship" or "familiar intercourse," followed by "She stayed the night with Wood at his father's house. . . . Intimacy took place on that occasion" for its secondary usage as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
I first began to examine the connotations and contradictions of female intimacy in the cultural discourses of late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France in an effort to understand the correspondence between Denis Diderot and Sophie Volland, a woman whose intimacy and friendship with other women Diderot found troubling, and who aroused his jealousy on several occasions. In one letter Diderot wrote: "Your mother says that your sister likes pretty women and it is certain that she is very affectionate towards you; then think of that nun she was so fond of, and the voluptuous and loving way she sometimes has of leaning over you, and her fingers so curiously intertwined with yours!" 2 In his letters to Sophie Volland, and also in his novella La Religieuse, written during the same period, Diderot struggled with the problem of how to understand and, by implication, how to regulate and control female intimacy. In the novella, Diderot assumes the voice of a young woman, Suzanne Simonin, who is forced to take orders against her will and details her brutal treatment in a series of letters. One of these experiences relates her encounter with a lesbian mother superior who tries to seduce her but is eventually driven mad by her "unnatural" desires. Although Diderot never directly accused Sophie of harboring such desires, the fact that he composed this gothic tale during a period when he was experiencing increasing jealousy of her intimacy with other women encouraged me to read La Religieuse as a cautionary tale about the dangers of female intimacy, particularly within a same-sex institution such as the convent. 3
This conjunction of circumstances also made me wonder about the possible homoerotic resonances of female intimacy within mainstream literature of the period. To what degree were friendships between respectable, middleclass women like Sophie Volland seen as suspect, and under what circumstances? Were other same-sex or even feminocentric institutions such as the school or the salon subject to the same kind of critique that Diderot directs against the convent? While women were usually perceived to be incapable of pure friendships, particularly with the opposite sex, how did they themselves view their relations with other women? Did they seek to form intimate bonds with one another in order to circumvent the obstacles they faced in seeking personal or intellectual autonomy or simply to find a kind of companionship they could not enjoy with men? And to what extent did these friendships, which were so often couched in the amorous language of love poetry, conceal a substrate of homoerotic or even lesbian attraction?
In order to encompass the full range of these questions, I chose not to focus on representations of the "lesbian" per se, with all of the evidentiary and anachronistic problems that the term implies, 4 but rather to reframe these issues in broader terms that would not exclude questions of female homosexuality but would try to recast those questions as much as possible in terms of the models of sexuality and gender that predominated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this respect I have followed the groundbreaking work of Michel Foucault, who first argued that the eighteenth century marked the beginning of an epistenmic shift when "sex was driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence," 5 although I have tried to avoid duplicating Foucault's tendency to efface the figure of the lesbian by privileging discourses on male homosexuality. In the wake of Foucault's study of the history of sexuality, critical debate over the cultural politics of the body has un-covered a number of contradictions and instabilities inherent in attempts to produce and maintain a binary division between the categories of male and female in the face of changing perceptions of anatomical and evidentiary categories. Thomas Laqueur has even gone so far as to argue that "in or about the late eighteenth [century] human sexual nature changed." He sets the eighteenth century apart as a pivotal historical "moment" in which an older phallocentric, one-sex model, that "[arrayed] men and women according to their degree of metaphysical perfection . . . along an axis whose telos was male, gave way . . . to a new [two-sex] model of radical dimorphism, or biological divergence." 6 Laqueur contends that not only gender but even something as apparently material as sex could be culturally produced to represent a legitimate social order, countering the prevailing tendency to perceive sex as purely anatomical and thus biologically constrained...