29 October 2009

Notes: Between Women

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007.

I’ve just finished reading Sharon Marcus’s book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.  It’s a fascinating analysis of the relationships between women in Victorian England.  Marcus begins by examining female friendships in their various forms, whether simple friendship, religious friendship, or unrequited love.  She argues that these friendships, rather than being opposed to heterosexual relationships, facilitate relationships between men and women (at least according to the Victorians) by training women to love sympathetically and compassionately.  She also points out that women were expected to demonstrate a certain capacity for passionate feeling (at least in novels) and friendship gave them a proper outlet for such feeling that did not threaten their standing as women.  According to Marcus, friendships between women allowed for gender play in that women could, in the realm of female friendship, act with the openness and aggressiveness usually reserved for men when it came to expressing affection.  She argues that Victorian gender constructs were elastic (not plastic; plastic implies a permanency to the changes worked in a system, whereas elasticity implies the potential for play and shifting without that play permanently altering the structure of the system).  Essentially, Marcus asserts that female friendship is part of normative femininity, contributing to women’s roles as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters.  Friendship further demonstrated a woman’s class status by illustrating that she had the leisure time to maintain relationships with people who did not directly affect her material interests.

Marcus moves from discussing female friendship in general to developing her theory of “the plot of female amity.”  In essence she claims that in the Victorian novel female friendships (or at the very least moments of female friendship) facilitate the marriage plot.  While female friendships are not themselves dynamic, according to this theory they generate a great deal of energy which helps propel the courtship plot.  In some instances, the female friend of the heroine actually grants permission for the marriage to occur or gives a suitor to the heroine.  I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this theory as many of the Victorian novels I know well don’t actually focus on female friendships, but Marcus advances interesting readings of several novels in order to support her theory.

After discussing female friendship in depth, Marcus moves on to discuss the homoeroticism of Victorian femininity by discussing fashion, corporal punishment, pornography, and dolls.  According to Marcus, female homoeroticism was neither policed nor discouraged by Victorians because they had no concrete concept of lesbianism.  She asserts that because the Victorians saw lesbian sex nowhere, they allowed homoeroticism, female friendship, and female marriage to flourish.  In fact, Marcus insists that homoeroticism was not condemned as antithetical to normative femininity precisely because it was one of the conventions of normative Victorian femininity.  According to Marcus, pornography is not the “underbelly” of culture; instead culture and pornography “share an erotic repertoire.”  By erotic, Marcus does not mean something explicitly sexual; instead she uses the word to refer to a certain affect or emotional response to a person, thing or text—a response related to domination, submission, humiliation, etc—a response distinct from the typically neutral responses to other people and things.  (In defining the erotic, she references Barthes’ text Sade/Fourier/Loyola in which he associates the erotic with classifying, ritualization, and image-making.  I’m interested in this idea, and should probably track down Barthes’ text and at least check into what he has to say about the relationship between classification and the erotic.)  

Marcus’s discussion of female homoeroticism details the way that fashion, women’s domestic magazines, and dolls parallel pornography in their tactics.  She demonstrates that while women certainly were intended to identify with the images/dolls they encountered (which is how theory has typically explained women viewers of such images), they were also fully intended to desire those images as well.  She calls attention to the distinction between identity and identification, insisting that the simple fact that women identified with the images did not mean that they assumed those images as their identity.  Instead identification requires a distance between the viewer and the desired object.  Ultimately Marcus argues that the Victorians did not see female homoeroticism as opposed to heterosexual norms, but rather as part of typical femininity.  

In her treatment of homoeroticism, Marcus makes an extended reading of several fashion plates.  Her discussion of fashion and fashion images introduces some interesting connections between fashion and community control.  She points to the way fashion was an interface between members of a large community and the fact that it depended on a rapidly transmissible press which could spread a current fashion and announce its demise.  She also argues that fashion was for women an exercise in liberal democracy, since it both required conformity to a set of group established rules and the exercise of individual autonomy within those standards.  All of this seems a potentially fruitful avenue for my research.

Marcus concludes her book with a survey of female marriage.  She demonstrates that female marriage, far from being a subculture that existed apart from mainstream society, was a socially acceptable alternative to heterosexual marriage which was frequently discussed by respectable members of society.  She presents several examples of female marriage and shows that these women were part of widespread networks.  Not only did these women participate openly as couples in these social networks, they helped shape the reform of marriage that occurred throughout the century.  Rather than being an unspoken social taboo, female marriages instead exemplified the kind of marriages that feminists and marriage reformers worked for: dissoluble contracts in which each partner was an equal and retained ownership of their own property.  

The chapter on female marriage introduces several potentially interesting ideas, including the idea that Darwin’s work in The Origin of Species led to a way of thinking about change over time in which “commonality and difference were intertwined” and that our “classifications would become genealogies.”  She also cites Maine and Simcox who posit that the family is an artificial kinship construct, rather than a natural one.  Maine especially insists on this by asserting that adoption is the key civilization—in other words, that civilization cannot exist without some mechanism for incorporating difference into a community.

Questions for further thought:
Marcus's theory of Victorian femininity posits a certain elasticity in Victorian gender norms.  To what extent does that elasticity translate to other kinds of classes (social? economic? national?)?  In other words, does a willingness to allow for play in terms of gender norms also indicate a willingness to allow for play in other social categories?

While Marcus clearly illustrates the ways in which female friendship allow for elasticity of gender norms, ultimately she argues that this elasticity serves heterosexual normativity.  Women express assertive affection in female friendships because they cannot do so in heterosexual relationships.  They experience homoerotic responses to fashion plates because they are expected to present themselves beautifully to men and so they must develop an appreciation for female beauty.  To what extent, then, is the elasticity she alleges a form of subversion and containment?  Or does that not actually matter?  Does the mere existence of such gender play, even if it serves heterosexual normativity, create a space for difference?

perhaps more later.

Victorians of interest in the book:
Frances Power Cobbe
Charlotte Cushman
George Eliot
Sarah Ellis
Mary Lloyd
Henry Maine
John Stuart Mill
Edith Simcox

Novels read in the book:
Aurora Leigh
Can You Forgive Her
David Copperfield
Far from the Madding Crowd
Great Expectations
Mill on the Floss
Vanity Fair
Wuthering Heights

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