From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Lesbian literature includes works by lesbian authors, as well as lesbian-themed works by heterosexual authors. Even works by lesbian writers that do not deal with lesbian themes are still often considered lesbian literature. Works by heterosexual writers which treat lesbian themes only in passing, on the other hand, are not often regarded as lesbian literature.
In addition to Sappho's accomplishments and ancient mythological tradition as examples of lesbianism in classical literature, Greek stories of the heavens often included a female figure whose virtue and virginity were unspoiled, who pursued more masculine interests, and who was followed by a dedicated group of maidens. Foster cites Camilla and Diana, Artemis and Callisto, and Iphis and Ianthe as examples of female mythological figures who showed remarkable devotion to each other, or defied gender expectations. The Greeks are also given credit with spreading the story of a mythological race of women warriors named Amazons. En-hedu-ana, a priestess in Ancient Iraq who dedicated herself to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, has the distinction of signing the first poetry in history. She characterized herself as Inanna's spouse.
In addition, the memorable phrase "hic, ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium" ("that where no man is, yet is adultery done") by Martial and Juvenal's "frictum Grissantis adorat" point to lesbian sexual practices in antiquity.
For ten centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, lesbianism disappeared from literature. Foster points to the particularly strict view that Eve—representative of all women—caused the downfall of mankind; original sin among women was a particular concern, especially because women were perceived as creating life. During this time, women were largely illiterate and not encouraged to engage in intellectual pursuit, so men were responsible for shaping ideas about sexuality.
In 16th-century French and English depictions of relationships between women -- such as Lives of Gallant Ladies (donna con donna) by Brantôme in 1665, John Cleland's 1749 erotic classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (episode with Phoebe Ayres) and Apologie de la secte Anandryne by various authors in 1778 -- writers' attitudes spanned from amused tolerance to arousal, whereupon a male character would participate to complete the act. Physical relationships between women were often encouraged; men felt no threat as they viewed sexual acts between women to be accepted when men were not available, and not comparable to fulfillment that could be achieved by sexual acts between men and women. At worst, if a woman became enamored of another woman, she became a tragic figure. Physical and therefore emotional satisfaction was considered impossible without a natural phallus. Male intervention into relationships between women was necessary only when women acted as men and demanded the same social privileges.
Lesbianism became almost exclusive to French literature in the 19th century, based on male fantasy and the desire to shock bourgeois moral values. In 1833, the anonymous publication Gamiani would feature two lesbian (tribale) as its protagonists. Above the counter, Honoré de Balzac, in The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), employed lesbianism in his story about three people living amongst the moral degeneration of Paris, and again in Cousin Bette and Séraphîta. His work influenced novelist Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, which provided the first description of a physical type that became associated with lesbians: tall, wide-shouldered, slim-hipped, and athletically inclined. Charles Baudelaire repeatedly used lesbianism as a theme in his poems "Lesbos", "Femmes damnées 1" and "Femmes damnées 2" ("Damned Women"). Reflecting French society, as well as employing stock character associations, many of the lesbian characters in 19th-century French literature were prostitutes or courtesans: personifications of vice who died early, violent deaths in moral endings. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1816 poem "Christabel" and the novella Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu both present a female vampire, lesbianism associated with vampirism. Portrayals of female homosexuality not only formed European consciousness about lesbianism, but Krafft-Ebing in Psychopathia Sexualis cited the characters in Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo (1862) and Ernest Feydeau's La comtesse de Châlis (1867) as examples of lesbians because both novels feature female protagonists who do not adhere to social norms and express "contrary sexual feeling", although neither participated in same-sex desire or sexual behavior. Havelock Ellis used literary examples from Balzac and several French poets and writers to develop his framework to identify sexual inversion in women.
Gradually, women began to author their own thoughts and literary works about lesbian relationships. Until the publication of The Well of Loneliness, most major works involving lesbianism were penned by men. Foster suggests that women would have encountered suspicion about their own lives had they used same-sex love as a topic, and that some writers including Louise Labé, Charlotte Charke, and Margaret Fuller either changed the pronouns in their literary works to male, or made them ambiguous. Author George Sand was portrayed as a character in several works in the 19th century; writer Mario Praz credited the popularity of lesbianism as a theme to Sand's appearance in Paris society in the 1830s. (The cross-dressing Sand was also the subject of a few of Elizabeth Barret Browning's sonnets.) Charlotte Brontë's Villette in 1853 initiated a genre of boarding school stories with homoerotic themes.
As mentioned by Krafft-Ebing
- "That inversion of the sexual instinct is not infrequent is proved, among other things, by the circumstance that it is frequently a subject in novels. Chevalier (op. cit.) points out in French literature, besides the novels of Balzac, like "La Passion au Desert " (treating of bestiality) and " Sarrazine " (treating of the love of a woman for a eunuch), Diderot's " La Religieuse " (a story of one given to amor lesbicus) ; Balzac's " La Fille aux Yeux d'Or " (amor lesbicus) ; Th. Gautier's " Mademoiselle de Maupin " ; Feydeau's " La Comtesse de Chalis " ; Flaubert's "Salammbo," etc. Belot's " Mademoiselle Giraud, ma Femme " may also be mentioned (now translated into English). It is interesting that the heroines of these (Lesbian) novels appear in the character and rdlc of the husband of a lover of the same sex, and that their love is extremely passionate. Moreover, the neuropathic foundation of this sexual perversion does not escape the writers. This theme is treated in German literature in " Fridolin's heimliche Ehe," by Wilbrand ; in "Brick and Brack oder Licbt im Schatten," by Emerich Graf Stadion ; also by Balduin Groller, " Prinz Klotz ". The oldest urning romance is probably that published by Petronius at Rome, under the Empire, under the title " Satyricon ". "
- "It is a remarkable fact that in fiction, lesbic love is frequently used as the leading theme, viz., Diderot, " La Religieuse " ; Balzac, " La fille aux yeux d'or " ; Th. Gautier, " Mademoiselle de Maupin " ; Feydeau, "La Comtesse de Chalis"; Flaubert, "Salammbo"; Belot, "Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme"; Rachilde, "Monsieur Venus." The heroines of these (lesbic) novelles appear to the beloved persons of the same sex in the character and the rdle of a man; their love is most intense. "
As mentioned by Havelock Ellis
- "Ariosto, it has been pointed out, has described the homosexual attractions of women. Diderot's famous novel, La Religieuse, which, when first published, was thought to have been actually written by a nun, deals with the torture to which a nun was put by the perverse lubricity of her abbess, for whom, it is said, Diderot found a model in the Abbess of Chelles, a daughter of the Regent and thus a member of a family which for several generations showed a marked tendency to inversion. Diderot's narrative has been described as a faithful description of the homosexual phenomena liable to occur in convents. Feminine homosexuality, especially in convents, was often touched on less seriously in the eighteenth century. Thus we find a homosexual scene in Les Plaisirs du Cloître, a play written in 1773 (Le Théâtre d'Amour an XVIIIe Siècle, 1910.) Balzac, who treated so many psychological aspects of love in a more or less veiled manner, has touched on this in La Fille aux Yeux d'Or, in a vague and extravagantly romantic fashion. Gautier made the adventures of a woman who was predisposed to homosexuality, and slowly realizes the fact, the central motive of his wonderful romance, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). He approached the subject purely as an artist and poet, but his handling of it shows remarkable insight. Gautier based his romance to some extent on the life of Madame Maupin or, as she preferred to call herself, Mademoiselle Maupin, who was born in 1673 (her father's name being d'Aubigny), dressed as a man, and became famous as a teacher of fencing, afterward as an opera singer. She was apparently of bisexual temperament, and her devotion to women led her into various adventures. She ultimately entered a convent, and died, at the age of 34, with a reputation for sanctity. (E. C. Clayton, Queens of Song, vol. i, pp, 52-61; F. Karsch, "Mademoiselle Maupin," Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, vol. v, 1903, pp. 694-706.) A still greater writer, Flaubert, in Salammbô (1862) made his heroine homosexual. Zola has described sexual inversion in Nona and elsewhere. Some thirty years ago a popular novelist, A. Belot, published a novel called Mademoiselle Giraud, ma Femme, which was much read; the novelist took the attitude of a moralist who is bound to treat frankly, but with all decorous propriety, a subject of increasing social gravity. The story is that of a man whose bride will not allow his approach on account of her own liaison with a female friend continued after marriage. This book appears to have given origin to a large number of novels, some of which touched the question with considerable less affectation of propriety. Among other novelists who have dealt with the matter may be mentioned Guy de Maupassant (La Femme de Paul), Bourget (Crime d'Amour), Catulle Mendès (Méphistophéla), and Willy in the Claudine series.
- Among poets who have used the motive of homosexuality in women with more or less boldness may be found Lamartine (Regina), Swinburne (first series of Poems and Ballads), Verlaine (Parallèlement), and Pierre Louys (Chansons de Bilitis). The last-named book, a collection of homosexual prose-poems, attracted considerable attention on publication, as it was an attempt at mystification, being put forward as a translation of the poems of a newly discovered Oriental Greek poetess; Bilitis (more usually Beltis) is the Syrian name for Aphrodite. Les Chansons de Bilitis are not without charm, but have been severely dealt with by Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Sappho und Simonides, 1913, p. 63 et seq.) as "a travesty of Hellenism," betraying inadequate knowledge of Greek antiquity."
When Radclyffe Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness in 1928, a British court found the book obscene because it defended "unnatural practices between women". In the United States the book survived legal challenges in New York and the Customs Court.
Katherine Mansfield, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, and Gale Wilhelm wrote popular works that had same-sex relationships or gender transformations as themes. Some women, such as Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault wrote or translated works of fiction that focused on homosexual men, like some of the writings of Carson McCullers. All three were involved in same-sex relationships, but their primary friendships were with gay men.
Lesbian fiction saw a huge explosion in interest with the advent of the dime-store or pulp fiction novel. Lesbian pulp fiction became its own category of fiction, although a significant number of authors of lesbian pulp novels were men either using a male name or a female pen name. The feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a more accepted entry of lesbian-themed literature.
As the paperback book came into fashion, lesbian themes were relegated to pulp fiction. Many of the pulp novels typically presented very unhappy women, or relationships that ended tragically. Marijane Meaker later wrote that she was told to make the relationship end badly in Spring Fire because the publishers were concerned about the books being confiscated by the U.S. Postal Service.
Following the Stonewall riots, lesbian themes in literature became much more diverse and complex, and shifted the focus of lesbianism from erotica for heterosexual men to works written by and for lesbians. Feminist magazines such as The Furies, and Sinister Wisdom replaced The Ladder. Serious writers who used lesbian characters and plots included Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), which presents a feminist heroine who chooses to be a lesbian. Poet Audre Lorde confronts homophobia and racism in her works, and Cherríe Moraga is credited with being primarily responsible for bringing Latina perspectives to lesbian literature. Further changing values are evident in the writings of Dorothy Allison, who focuses on child sexual abuse and deliberately provocative lesbian sadomasochism themes.
Contemporary lesbian literature is centered around several small, exclusively lesbian presses, as well as online fandoms. Certain works have established historical or artistic importance. Works of lesbian literature are sometimes difficult to identify if they are not published by small lesbian presses due to a general lack of promotion of lesbian themes by mainstream publishers. An exhaustive list of works cannot be provided here, but key works in different genres are listed.