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Susan Lanser finds the Sapphic in history

New book will lez up your notions of history and literature

Susan Lanser will likely become a game-changer in the fields of literary history and queer studies. Credit: Brandeis University

When was the last time an academic book made you tremble with excitement? Made you talk to it out loud and interrupted your reading because you had to run and tweet about it feverishly? You can’t recall? Then pick up Susan S Lanser’s The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 as soon as you can.

The 2014 book by the Brandeis University professor will likely become a game-changer in the fields of literary history and queer studies. The research focuses on the huge increase in textual representation of female same-sex relations — be that in fiction, proto-anthropology, poetry, drama, travelogues, political theory, court trial records or medical treatises — and the fuss that some of the most developed Atlantic economies were beginning to kick up about the girl-on-girl and girl-with-girl from about 1600s and onward. Lanser argues that modernity itself spoke through the phenomenon of the Sapphic — that the female homosociality and homosexuality and their cultural representations were crucial for the emergence of human rights, equality before law, social experimentation and even the novel as an art form.

There is a whole lot of good news and bold erudite hypothesizing in this book. We caught up with Lanser by Skype to ask her more about her groundbreaking work.

Daily Xtra: There is this great term that you use in your historical research: the Sapphic. It’s sort of a continuum of relations that may or may not be sexual.

Susan S Lanser: Sapphic is a wide umbrella for female intimacies, as I use the word. I also agree with Martha Vicinus and other theorists who argue that same-sex relations should not be held to a higher evidentiary standard — proof that someone engaged in certain practices or even acknowledged certain forms of desire — than that to which we hold heterosexual relationships. And we have to put historical pressure — and cross-cultural pressure — on words such as “chaste” and “innocent.”

You also show how the Sapphic worked in conjunction with modernity. ‘Woman plus woman’ was a “prospect of political levelling” much more radical than man and man.

Yes, engaging the Sapphic was a way in which the culture grappled with some of the most radical challenges of modernity-in-the-making. When I say that the prospect of levelling embodied in the Sapphic is more radical than “man and man,” I do not mean to suggest some kind of sanction for male-male relations; men were far more likely than women to be prosecuted for sodomy — but that the idea of relations between women radically challenged a set of assumptions about the hierarchical social order on which traditional societies were built. In a sense, the Sapphic exposes the centrality of women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems. And any kind of primary relationship between women stood as an implicit claim that a woman did not need to be under the legal and social rule of a man, whether husband, father, or brother.

Some of those early narratives that you analyze involve bonding across class too — there are maids and noblewomen pairings.

Cross-class relations are threatening, of course, whether they involve men, women or male-female couples. But it’s significant that the Sapphic becomes a site where the dangers (and sometimes the benefits) of relations across class are so frequently explored. Scholars have sometimes argued that gender and class can function interchangeably in the early modern imagination. I also think that the loosening of hierarchy implied by female-female relationships raises the spectre that relations between women will undo all social hierarchies. One the other hand, there is certainly elitism in many of the representations I study.

And sometimes the Sapphic is indeed sexual; female intimacy in which the ruler and the ruled change roles freely — where each lover is both the top and the bottom, to use contemporary language — as a vision of a non-hierarchical society.

You’re right about that one. Each one is “fierce Youth and yielding Maid,” and since both are women, we’re definitely in a gender-queer space. And without suggesting that early modernity is some kind of golden age for queerness — we know better — [Nicholas] Rowe’s “Song” is by far not the only text that plays with gender in this way.

Then there’s the Sapphic apostrophe. Those poems are incredibly hot. But you remind us that chastity was always presumed in liaisons between women of high social standing.

As you see from that chapter (though this idea may get me intro trouble), I don’t think the intensity of poems is entirely due to personal desire: I think there’s a feminist project here in which same-sex desire is helping to produce female subjectivity. As for hot: that chastity is presumed doesn’t mean it existed, and in any case what do we mean by chastity? There is erotic intensity in these poems whatever the acts or even desires of their authors. (And we should not forget poems by men — for example, John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis,” which you might also consider “hot.” Do you?).

Oh my god, yes. But where was I? By the end of the 18th century, you write, the “explicitly sexual representation are more or less foreclosed from polite discourse.” Was the 19th century more puritan, private, gender-ossified and nuclear family-centered than the two centuries preceding?

If we follow an argument like that of Tom Laqueur’s Making Sex, there emerges by the end of the 18th century a biological legitimation for sexual difference that does ossify gender roles as a way of preserving them. What I mean (and he means) is that the old hierarchies of male-over-female are re-imagined as putatively equal-but-different — and, of course, we know that equal but different is never equal. So instead of arguments that women aren’t, say, intelligent enough to vote, we get the argument that the corrupt world of politics will taint women and make them unfit for motherhood. Or the theory that nourishment drawn to the brain by intense study will deprive the uterus of necessary nourishment for a fetus. But I think there is something of a split in culture in the 19th century — we see it in the Romantic period and later in the avant-garde movements of the fin-de-siècle — in which the rigidified gender roles of the bourgeois social imaginary find their antithesis in radical challenges including challenges to the status-quo of both gender and sexuality.