Love and Marriage
Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England
By Sharon Marcus
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007, 356 pp., $19.95, paperback
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
I’m a blurb skeptic. Fully aware of the back-slapping, reciprocity-demanding networks of literature and academia, I cringe at names and quotations on the backs of books, whether Mary Higgins Clark is waxing rhapsodic over a new thriller, or Gayatri Spivak is praising the latest in postcolonial gender studies.
The blurbs for Sharon Marcus’s Between Women seemed typically inflated. According to such relevant luminaries as Judith Butler, Judith Walkowitz, and Diana Fuss, the book is “groundbreaking,” “magnificent and impressive,” “the most original work on gender and sexuality to appear in years,” and “intellectually thrilling.” Hmm, I thought, as I turned to the first page, I doubt it.
Well, my inner skeptic has been silenced. Between Women is one of those books that instantly, radically, and convincingly alters your understanding of terrain you thought you couldn’t know any better. I’ve studied and taught gender studies and Victorian literature and culture for almost two decades. I can dissect marriage plots and marriage reform with the best of them. But time and again, while reading Marcus’s truly “groundbreaking,” “original,” and “thrilling” book, I found the familiar turf rearranged, for the better and for good.
To give just one example: we feminist Victorianists tend to trot out a few stock passages to let our students discover the possibilities of lesbian desire amidst the Victorians: the embrace between Jane Eyre and Helen Burns on Helen’s deathbed; the mutual devotion of half-sisters Laura and Marian (who happens to have a moustache) in The Woman in White; the scene in Goblin Market where Lizzie invites Laura to “Eat me, drink me, love me.” But Marcus points out that, in each of these texts, intense connections between women ultimately work to make heterosexual romance possible. That is—and this is the heart of Between Women’s argument—in Victorian England, multiple forms of emotionally rich female relationships coexisted, easily, with heterosexual marriage.
In making this argument, Marcus takes issue with several decades of feminist analysis in which, she suggests, female friendship and lesbian love, the two relationships between women that have received the most attention, are conflated as essentially feminist alliances that helped women to subvert gender norms and rebel against the strictures marriage placed on women, or that flourished only because they were sequestered within what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg called ‘the female world of love and ritual.”
In place of this oppositional framework, within which women’s relationships could only be erased by or subversive of marriage, Marcus posits a complex matrix of sisters, mothers, governesses, friends, dolls, and even lovers and spouses, whose bonds were fully accepted by Victorian society—including by Victorian husbands.
Between Women explores this matrix in three sections that address, as its subtitle promises, the nature of friendship, desire, and marriage in Victorian England. The structure of each section follows standard lit-crit practice, as established by New Historicism: a chapter on culture followed by a chapter on fiction. But Marcus’s methodology is something new, or at least a new twist on old ways.
Though she introduces “just reading” as her technique for reading novels, the label also applies to discussions of material as diverse as diaries, fashion illustrations, doll stories, and anthropological treatises. Under the influence of deconstruction, queer theory, and Frederic Jameson, much recent literary criticism has focused on absences: what texts repress, omit, or try (and generally, as such readings go, fail) to hide. In contrast, Marcus tries “to account more fully for what texts present on their surface but critics have failed to notice”: in other words, what texts actually say. Coupling meticulous historical research with close reading, she “just” reads and, in so doing, attempts to do justice to her reading matter.
In part one, “Elastic Ideals: Female Friendship,” Marcus provides a taxonomy of the varieties of friendship found in Victorian women’s life writing. In their diaries, letters, memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies, women wrote copiously to and about their friends. While some critics have worked hard to find lesbian implications in all such writing, Marcus carefully distinguishes between “friendship, erotic obsession, and sexual partnership.” She finds evidence for both sexual and domestic relationships between women, but she also charts the passionate nature of friendship itself. Women who ultimately (and happily) married men adored their friends: they flirted with them, caressed them, delighted in their beauty, and prized their spiritual communion—before and after marriage. Indeed, while friendship offered freedom from the constraints of marriage, it also served as a powerful model for marriage.
When Marcus turns to women’s friendships in fiction, she discovers a “plot of female amity” that accompanies the marriage plot traditionally associated with Victorian fiction. She argues that, rather than disappearing as marital resolution emerges, stable relationships between women characters in fact facilitate and accompany marriage, providing what she terms “a ‘narrative matrix’…that generates plot but is not its primary agent, subject, or object.” Marshalling wide swaths of evidence, including novels in which marriage founders in the absence of female friendship (especially Villette), as well as books that scrupulously follow the model (such as David Copperfield), this chapter effectively transforms the conventional wisdom on the Victorian novel.
For anyone obsessed with Victorian stuff, part two, “Mobile Objects: Female Desire,” is perhaps the most exciting section of Between Women. Marcus looks at fashion plates, doll stories, and pornography to uncover Victorian women’s desire—for each other. This desire, she insists, is not necessarily lesbian or sexual. Rather, it is erotic: intense and sensual, but for the most part unconnected to sexual acts. Here too, Marcus powerfully revises more than a century’s worth of theory, arguing persuasively that women are capable of objectifying women, that women possess the gaze, as well as the capacity for domination, and that women’s homoerotic desire was fully compatible with heterosexuality and femininity. Like her subjects, she also revels in her material, lavishly illustrating her analysis and dissecting a truly bizarre (to modern eyes) collection of letters about corporal punishment for girls that appeared in the popular Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in the 1860s.
I found the book’s final section on Victorian marriage less interesting. This is partly because its subject matter becomes less tangible and less grounded in historical texts and material objects, but also because Marcus has already referred frequently to the section’s main point: that female marriage was a visible and viable phenomenon in the Victorian era, associated not with sexual deviants (the category of lesbian only came into play at the end of the nineteenth century), but with the stable domestic partnerships of heterosexual couples. The stories she tells of women who shared their lives with women, including Rosa Bonheur, Charlotte Cushman, and Kate Field, are fascinating, but Marcus embeds those stories in a discussion of the well-studied topic of Victorian debates about marriage, which seems less original and somewhat overstated. Women who lived with women did indeed play a significant role in advocating for marriage reform, and their own relationships may very well have been models for that reform, but those women and relationships were hardly the only, or even the dominant, force in the matter.
Between Women has other flaws. Marcus’s previous book, Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (1999), was, as its title suggests, comparative. In Between Women she explicitly claims to be making an argument about England, but examples from France (fashion illustrations) and America (where Cushman and Field were born and spent good portions of their lives) slip in, troubling the geographical purity of her discussion. Given her claim that relationships between women were more explicitly sexualized in nineteenth-century France, her sexual readings of fashion plates created by French women don’t necessarily offer insight into Englishwomen, even if they were reprinted in English magazines. But these are quibbles about a book that, overall, lives up to the promise of its superlative blurbs (and I haven’t even mentioned Marcus’s superb reading of one of my favorite Victorian novels, Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?).
Any Victorianist, literary critic, feminist, or queer theorist worth her salt will recognize Between Women’s titular allusion to Between Men (1985), Eve Sedgwick’s groundbreaking study of homosocial desire in British fiction. It is safe to say that Between Men was an—if not the—originary text of queer theory, and it is not going too far to say that the book played a small but vital role in the radical gay rights movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the heyday of such groups as ACT UP and Queer Nation.
It is too soon to say whether Between Women will become a classic like its namesake. But in this moment of activism for and antagonism to gay marriage, when The L Word is one of the most popular shows on cable television and Miss Nevada is stripped of her title for kissing other women, Between Women has important things to say, not just to Victorianists, literary critics, feminists, and queer theorists, but to all of us.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and education consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts. Once a Victorianist, she continues to be obsessed with Victorian stuff.