Book Review

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Rachel Mann | April 9, 2003

This fascinating book by a self-proclaimed “independent scholar” investigates female intimacy in works by writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Wahl, “wonder[ing] about the possible homoerotic resonances of female intimacy within mainstream literature of the period” (2), focuses mainly on two types of relationships between women: “sexualized” lesbian pairings and “idealized” homosocial friendships, examining how these types overlap and/or shut each other out. The many authors discussed include Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips, Madeleine de Scudery, Catherine Descartes, Delarivier Manley, and John Cleland. Drawing on the works of Foucault, Laqueur, and Terry Castle, Wahl acknowledges the sexual epistemic shift of the eighteenth century while attending to the question of “lesbian invisibility” (4) inherent in the “morbid paranoia” (Castle) regarding lesbians in criticism. Her “critical approach assumes that lesbianism has existed as a specifically sexual practice across boundaries of time, culture, and class, but it also recognizes that sexual practices between women have been culturally and historically inflected, even the the point where it is difficult for the modern scholar to recognize them as such” (5). Wahl attends to Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum” (6), discarding Lillian Faderman’s term “romantic friendship” and conceding the problems inherent in using the (relatively) contemporary term “lesbian”. While avoiding twentieth-century discourses on male homosexuality, Wahl “argue[s] that seventeenth- and eighteenth- century culture encompassed a more fluid, variable, and often contradictory model of sexual behavior and erotic sensibility in which desire and practice might not even necessarily coincide” (7).

Wahl divides her study into three parts. The first, entitled “Sexualized Models of Female Intimacy”, encompasses chapters on “The Tribade, the Hermaphrodite, and Other ‘Lesbian’ Figures in Medical and Legal Discourse” and “Representations of the Tribade in Libertine Literature”. Here, she “delineate[s] this sexualized model of female relations” (10) by looking at the medical/judicial works of Ambroise Pare, Jacques Duval, Michel de Montaigne, and Jane Sharp. Wahl documents the awakening of society to lesbianism, especially noticing the foundations of erotic/paramedical pornographic literature and the emergence of a discourse on female-female desire equivalent to heterosexual desire.

The second part of Wahl’s study, “Idealized Models of Female Intimacy”, includes the chapters “‘L’amour Galant’ and ‘Tendre Amitie’: Love and Friendship Outside the Bonds of Marriage” and “Female Intimacy and the Question of ‘Lesbian’ Identity: Rereading the Female Friendship Poems of Katherine Philips”. In looking at the works of Anne de Rohan, Madeleine de Scudery, Catherine Descartes, and Katherine Philips, this section examines the “culturally sanctioned version of female friendship as a relationship practically devoid of sexual expression […] profoundly affected by the developing ideolog[ies] of domesticity […] and companionship” (11), stemming from the social practice of arranged marriages. This results in Wahl “examin[ing] the inherent conflicts between women writers’ attempts to construct idealized models of female community and the misogynist assumptions underlying a masculine tradition of platonic friendship” (11). She examines the differences between courtly love rhetoric and platonic relations between women. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of her book, Wahl investigates the gap between Philips’ erotic poetry and platonic lifestyle, “examining posthumous editorial efforts to obscure the narrative of female intimacy she constructed in the manuscript versions of her poems as a particularly fascinating case study of an emerging conflict between these two models of female intimacy” (11). Opposing critics such as Faderman and Arlene Stiebel, Wahl maintains that Philips’ poetry contains “an underlying eroticism that she suppressed through the use of a courtly language of conquest, submission, and carnal pleasure” (130) and that “Philips’s vision of spiritual union incorporates the pleasures of sexual intercourse while rejecting its carnality” (145): instead of an outright denial of sexuality, Wahl posits that Philips sublimated her erotic desires into the guise of romantic friendship. Although she does not go as far as other critics, like Elaine Hobby, in insisting on Philips’ eroticism and “lesbianism”, her chapter is insightful and offers an interesting explanation of Philips’ sexuality in life and in writing, a subject which is under continued critical debate.

Wahl’s study concludes with a section on “The Politics of Intimacy”, incorporating “Female Intimacy and the Problem of Female Communities: Salons, Satire, and the Mystery of the ‘Precieuses’” and “Regulating the ‘Real’ in Fictional Terms: The (Auto)biography of the Tribade in Erotic and Documentary Texts”. Wahl “tr[ies] to show how these troubling intimations of female autonomy inevitably provoked increasingly satiric representations of female intimacy as a bond that might claim to be platonic but that concealed some kind of mysterious and disreputable activity” (12), focusing on satire, salons, and the “female cabal” of the precieuses, as well as the politicalization of female intimacy (from homoeroticism to pornography). Finally, she “argue[s] that over the course of the eighteenth century, the increasing materiality and contemporaneity of the tribade and other ‘lesbian’ figures made it difficult to maintain an impermeable boundary between sexualized and idealized representations of female intimacy” (14). Wahl’s book sheds a decided and intriguing new light onto the debate about female intimacy, especially in the chapter on Katherine Philips, that is well worth reading.

Back to Book Reviews