Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000
Elizabeth Susan Wahl’s book appears to be the feminist counter-point to Men in Love. In order to open the conceptual space for her study of what she calls “female intimacy”, Elizabeth Wahl follows a very similar conceptual trajectory as George Haggerty does. Like Haggerty, Wahl is suspicious of the ease with which intense expressions of female intimacy have been dismissed as nothing more than friendships, expressed in the vernacular of another day; and like him, Wahl also feels that exclusive focus upon the precise nature of the sexual bonds between women turns into a tendentious, and ultimately fruitless, form of voyeurism. So Wahl sets out to narrate and interpret female intimacy which our own blind-spots and resistances have rendered “invisible.” In a long, ambitious, and scrupulously researched book, Wahl looks at a wide range of instances of female intimacy in Britain and France from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century. A project in social history more than literary studies, Wahl’s book explores the nuances of a wide band of writing by both men and women to discern how changes in discourse and changes in practices cleared the space for the imagination of different species of female intimacy. She divides her study into three broad sections, each approaching the issue of female intimacy in a different way: “sexual models,” “idealized models” and “the politics of intimacy.” Part I, especially indebted to Foucault, demonstrates how openly sexist condemnations of female intimacy – in medical and legal texts that develop the figure of the “tribade”, the “hermaphrodite,” and the myth of the African female with the “monstrous clitoris” (34) – could nonetheless contribute to the emergence of the cultural idea of the lesbian. At the same time, libertine representations of female-female desire, by John Donne and Aphra Behn, could blend sympathetic tolerance and a repressive “heterosexual conversion”(63). In her account of more idealized forms of female intimacy, Wahl is particularly good at describing the factors that make this intimacy so attractive: arranged marriages, the capacious early modern category of “friends,” the French suspicion of marriage, and the dangers of childbirth. At the same time Wahl describes the way the slow and uneven movement toward the “companionate marriage,” described long ago by Lawrence Stone, helps to consolidate a general suspicion of female intimacy, as man-hating, unnatural, and a betrayal of women’s responsibility to bear children. This book is noteworthy when compared with many in eighteenth-century studies: by comparing French and English texts and history, Wahl allows us to be alert to the arbitrary turns in cultural history. Thus, women’s role in the French salon has no equivalent in English culture. This is a rich, balanced and thoughtful book. It may become a model for the new cultural history being developed within gay and lesbian studies.