Between Women

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England

Sharon Marcus
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Between Women
    Book Description:

    Women in Victorian England wore jewelry made from each other's hair and wrote poems celebrating decades of friendship. They pored over magazines that described the dangerous pleasures of corporal punishment. A few had sexual relationships with each other, exchanged rings and vows, willed each other property, and lived together in long-term partnerships described as marriages. But, as Sharon Marcus shows, these women were not seen as gender outlaws. Their desires were fanned by consumer culture, and their friendships and unions were accepted and even encouraged by family, society, and church. Far from being sexless angels defined only by male desires, Victorian women openly enjoyed looking at and even dominating other women. Their friendships helped realize the ideal of companionate love between men and women celebrated by novels, and their unions influenced politicians and social thinkers to reform marriage law.

    Through a close examination of literature, memoirs, letters, domestic magazines, and political debates, Marcus reveals how relationships between women were a crucial component of femininity. Deeply researched, powerfully argued, and filled with original readings of familiar and surprising sources,Between Womenoverturns everything we thought we knew about Victorian women and the history of marriage and family life. It offers a new paradigm for theorizing gender and sexuality--not just in the Victorian period, but in our own.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3085-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Female Relations of Victorian England
    (pp. 1-22)

    In 1844 a ten-year-old girl named Emily Pepys, the daughter of the bishop of Worcester, made the following entry in the journal she had begun to keep that year: “I had the oddest dream last night that I ever dreamt; even the remembrance of it is very extraordinary. There was a very nice pretty young lady, who I (a girl) was goingto be married to!(the very idea!) I loved her and even now love her very much. It was quite a settled thing and we were going to be married very soon. All of a sudden I thought...

  6. Part One Elastic Ideals:: Female Friendship
    • CHAPTER 1 Friendship and the Play of the System
      (pp. 25-72)

      In the most influential conduct book of the nineteenth century, Sarah Stickney Ellis identifiedThe Women of England(1839) as daughters, wives, and mothers ensconced in a familial, domestic sphere. She also assigned women another obligatory role we may now be surprised to find so prominent in a guide to correct feminine behavior: friend.¹ Ellis returned to friendship between women inThe Daughters of England(1842), where a chapter on “Friendship and Flirtation” affirmed the importance of a woman’s “circle of . . . private friends” as the site where “she learns what constitutes the happiness and the misery of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Just Reading: Female Friendship and the Marriage Plot
      (pp. 73-108)

      Toward the end of George Eliot’sMiddlemarch(1871–1872), a scene takes place that exemplifies the power of Victorian novels to fuse marriage and romance. As Will turns to bid Dorothea farewell, she erupts into speech, expressing the vehement feelings her first marriage had smothered: “‘Oh, I cannot bear it—my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent. . . . In an instant Will was close to her and had his arms round her, but she drew her head back and...

  7. Part Two Mobile Objects:: Female Desire
    • CHAPTER THREE Dressing Up and Dressing Down The Feminine Plaything
      (pp. 111-166)

      These passages were not written by pornographers, prurient men about town, or denizens of a secret sexual underworld. The first is an 1874 diary entry by Mary Collier (later Lady Monkswell), a married twenty-five-year old woman whose son edited and published her journals in the 1940s. The second is taken from a children’s book by Julia Pardoe entitledLady Arabella; or the Adventures of a Doll(1856), in which the eponymous doll, who narrates her own tale, bemoans the ill treatment she receives from her “mistress,” a girl named Jane. The third excerpts an 1870 letter from “A Rejoicer in...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Female Accessory in Great Expectations
      (pp. 167-190)

      Great Expectations(1860–61) has always been read as a tale of guilt, shame, and obsessive, thwarted desire.¹ The concept that dominates the criticism is repression: of time, growth, experience, empire, and origins.² Interpreters have attributed almost every imaginable form of desire to the male protagonist—Oedipal, masochistic, sadistic, autoerotic, and male homoerotic—in order to argue that the novel’s cyclical plot corresponds to a narrative of arrested male development.³ Yet the form of desire that most distinguishes the novel and that impresses itself most strongly on Pip—desire between women—is oddly absent from critical readings, perhaps because its...

  8. Part Three Plastic Institutions:: Female Marriage
    • CHAPTER 5 The Genealogy of Marriage
      (pp. 193-226)

      Does marriage have a history? And if so, is it only the history of alliances between men and women? Social historians have answered the first question with a resounding yes, and in the past several decades have traced marriage’s evolving relationship to the state, civil society, and private life, to friends and kin, to consent, contract, and pleasure. But most have also taken for granted that until very recently, marriage has been defined as the union of male and female.¹ In 2004, when legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts sparked awareness that many same-sex couples were eager to wed, those...

    • CHAPTER 6 Contracting Female Marriage in Can You Forgive Her?
      (pp. 227-256)

      As one of Victorian literature’s most assiduous and complacent manufacturers of marriage plots, Anthony Trollope may seem a startling focus for a chapter about female marriage and the Victorian novel. A self-proclaimed conservative who voiced antifeminist views and sought to please his middle-class readers, Trollope produced the literary equivalent of the status quo. His position in the mainstream of Victorian literature and society makes him an excellent example for testing the previous chapter’s argument—that Victorian debates about divorce and marriage indicate a general awareness of the plasticity of marriage. From the 1850s through the 1870s, as legislators, activists, and...

  9. CONCLUSION Woolf, Wilde, and Girl Dates
    (pp. 257-262)

    In mapping the female world of Victorian England, I have argued that areas that have been conceptualized as utterly distinct, even enemy territories, were in fact intersecting, overlapping, and allied. Conversely, I have shown that regions once thought to constitute a single unit were in fact not one and the same. The female friend turns out to have been the matrix of marriage; the woman’s world of fashion and dolls shared with pornography a fascination with looking and display, punishment and humiliation, dominance and submission; and women in female marriages contributed to the legal reform of civil unions between men...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 263-316)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 317-346)
  12. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 347-348)
  13. Index
    (pp. 349-356)