Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England revises almost all of the ideas we have about women’s relationships in the Victorian period. It asks us to rethink the histories of sexuality and of friendship; it re-reads lifewriting and literature in stunning and provocative ways. It also records a tragedy that we did not know we were experiencing: the loss of the wide range of extremely various, intense, cooperative, flirtatious, erotic, loyal, spousal, sisterly, and familial relations among Victorian women. Our choices and categories are poor by comparison. We have projected them backward with predictable results; Between Women strips the sorry present away from the Victorian past and tries to “just read”—read what the Victorian text tells us rather than what we have read between what we have misunderstood as its prudish lines.
Friendship is removed from its longstanding place on a continuum with sexual relationships: it is a distinct genre of relationship, Marcus argues, and one which helped women to find the feelings and filiations that would move them on toward marriage with men. Erotic contact between women who were just friends was acceptable: in fact, women who kissed each other in public were understood as “just friends.” Lesbians or other women engaged in sexual relationships had to observe the same decorous behaviors as heterosexual couples were required to observe in public. This erotic contact has long been misunderstood as a symptom of homosexuality, but that assumption is a case of reading the past according to the norms of the present. After reading a profoundly neglected archive of “lifewriting” by Victorian women, Marcus contends that women’s friendship was not a resistance to the smooth operations of Victorian heterosexuality, but its necessary adjunct: “[f]riendship allowed women to compete for and charm each other, to develop their intellectual and aesthetic tastes, to augment their worldly ties, and to deepen their spiritual ones” (72). More directly, more literally, women seemed to have talked each other into the “delights” of marriage: Anna Forbes Laurie, for example, helped her friend Ann Taylor Gilbert to accept a proposal after which Gilbert writes to Laurie, “’I am learning with tolerable facility to believe what you told me when you said ‘oh, this delightful, mutual love’’” (72).
Moving from lifewriting to the novel, Marcus theorizes what she calls “the plot of female amity”: a narrative in which a friendship between women results in marriage between a woman and a man. In Middlemarch, Far From the Madding Crowd, David Copperfield, Aurora Leigh, and Shirley female friendship is the condition that allows a heroine to struggle toward and finally accomplish a “companionate marriage.” Charlotte Brontë rejects the “self-sustaining economy” of female amity in Villette, making the novel peculiarly—and disturbingly--modern. Villette “left its Victorian audience nonplussed” Marcus writes, because the novel’s relations among women were so strangely rivalrous and bitter. Victorian women’s friendship seems based on a solidarity and loyalty that we think of as having gotten stronger in the twentieth century, but which has perhaps actually vitiated over time—as has friendship itself, as Between Women implicitly suggests.
Part Two, “Mobile Objects: Female Desire” takes us into largely uncharted erotic territory: bondage and flogging fantasies as elaborated in the fashion magazine, and sadomasochism in relationships among dolls and their owners. In her readings of these object relations, Marcus credits women with all the aggression and hatred that has been withheld in kinder and gentler histories of friendship and love among us. In children’s tales narrated by dolls, Marcus reads the possibility of both inflicting violence and performing “magical reparations.” Fashion plates enact, almost literally in Marcus’s reading of hands in laps, masturbation, and, more shockingly, women flagellating other women. Marcus allows women a full measure of humanity in her unflinching readings of these little-read texts, and finds another site where relations between women might provide the (very literal) stimulus for similar relations, with different objects, later in life.
Marcus historicizes same-sex marriage, taking some of the steam out of recent arguments for and against gay and lesbian marriage: it is certainly not a new issue born of radical social change, as both sides are given to claiming. Female marriage was brought up as a specimen of marriage as contract during debates about divorce law in the mid-nineteenth century. And it was accepted, at least among the literate middle-class writers Marcus reads, so long as it was “respectable,” that is, so long as women who were lovers conducted themselves with the same modesty that heterosexual couples were expected to observe, their relationships were not objectionable. Indeed, among Marcus’s most controversial claims is that “[s]exual relationships of all stripes were most acceptable when their sexual nature was least visible as such but was instead manifested in terms of marital acts such as cohabitation, fidelity, financial solidarity, and adherence to middle-class norms of respectability” (49).
As I’ve suggested, Marcus reads a daunting quantity of Victorian lifewriting. Lifewriting from this period is often slighted by academics because the Victorian memoir, journal, and letter, to put it bluntly, bore us; they lack (what we fail to recognize as) the modernist requirement of individuality. Marcus explains and historicizes the conventions of autobiographical writing:
In the 1930s a new form of lifewriting, the modernist memoir, began to emphasize inimitable personal details, subjective internal processes, and self-reflexive accounts of the development of perception and expression. ….the Victorian lifewriter’s inclination to portray individuals as ideal types gave way to deliberately fragmented accounts whose inability to tell a contained, linear story testified to the irreducible singularity of the biographical subject.37-38
We have faulted and ignored the writing of women; we have also, however unwittingly, participated in marginalizing—in part because we have seen them as marginal in their own time, in part because we have seen their kind of writing as marginal in our own. Marcus’s stubborn dedication to this body of work deserves a separate round of applause from the book as a whole: she has performed a wonderful service in reading this material, both in terms of the history of women, gender, and sexuality, and in terms of our thinking about the “marginal” writing of people who perhaps could represent themselves if we read them with adequate patience and thought.
The claim of this book is ultimately a historical one and I’m not sure if everyone will be satisfied with the limitations generated by the kinds of texts that Marcus relies on: lifewriting and literature. Other arguments have been made using legal and medical documents, but as Marcus points out, such sources foreground deviance. They also, however, help us to understand the construction of the normal through the construction of the deviant, but perhaps the best way to view the normal is by viewing the normal: it is certainly a more difficult project in terms of the kind and amount of material one must read. But even if Marcus’s claims do not absolutely hold up across every level of Victorian society in each of its decades—if, for example, female marriage did raise some eyebrows and if erotic contact between women who were “just friends” was not acceptable everywhere--this book takes apart a set of received ideas about Victorian women’s sexuality and friendship and asks us to re-read texts by and about women with new possibilities in mind—possibilities for which there is more than ample evidence in this weighty, extremely well-documented book. The history of the varied and nuanced relations of women takes a new turn with Between Women: its scholarship is an inspiration (if a daunting one) and its ability to see and read in completely fresh ways is exhilarating.
In addition to its obvious contributions to Victorian Studies, women’s history, and feminist and queer theory, this very generous book also offers us a new theory of reading: Marcus calls it “just reading.” “Just reading” is a method that reads that which symptomatic reading has long left for meaningless: the surface of the text, its “givens,” what is there rather than what is absent. Symptomatic reading, Marcus points out, is crucial in a social formation in which repression rules, but since that was not the case for the relationships between women she elaborates, symptomatic reading will search for what is absent and entirely miss what is present when it comes to various kinds of love between women. Just reading allows Marcus to see homoeroticism as the helpmeet of heterosexuality or amorous friendship as a precursor to a sexual relationship with someone else. Just reading does justice to the text; the method is not naïve: it is a reminder, a tonic, a rigorous refusal of the ubiquity of the idea that there has been one mode of ideology—and that it always functions through repression. It also reminds us how much of our own present we continually bring to our work on the past, and how hard it is to “just read” texts that seem familiar and near, but which are in fact strange and distant. When we look for what it is hidden, we risk finding something we already know and missing that which we do not know or cannot yet imagine. We also continue to imagine that we know “more” than both the texts and the inhabitants of the nineteenth century: Between Women suggests that we have much to learn from texts we know very well, but not well enough, and from texts we have not roused ourselves to know at all.
The history of gender and sexuality becomes much more interesting, difficult, and subtle after Between Women. Reading the love and affection of nineteenth-century women now requires a new level of care and historical self-consciousness that may be painful to possess, as it will remind us of our own losses—of the affection, eroticism, attachment, encouragement, and tremendous fun between the ordinary women—real and fictional--Marcus has so valiantly reimagined, recovered and recorded.
Elaine Freedgood is an Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of, most recently, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago 2006). She is now working on animation and dispossession in nineteenth-century culture.