A Usable Past

 

Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes

by Lisa L. Moore

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 244 pp., $29.95, paperback

 

Reviewed by Martha Vicinus

 

This book is a fascinating study of four lesbian-like women writing, creating art, and sustaining long-term friendships during the eighteenth century.  Moore uses a subtle combination of primary sources and biographical information to argue for the queer friendships of the artist Mary Delany (1700 - 1788); the collector Mary Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715 - 1785); the poet Anna Seward (1747 - 1809); and the educator and writer, Sarah Pierce (1767 - 1852). It is an outstanding example of what specialists in LGBT/queer studies have called “the archival turn”: the use of primary sources and historical context to recover a distant past that often lacks clear identifying features of same-sex erotics.  Moore unabashedly uses the word “lesbian” to describe her four women, arguing at the same time that she is most interested in what these women made, not whom they had sex with or whether their self-fashioning might be familiar to readers today.  She suggests that the recovery of the lesbian past must include offhand remarks, fragmentary observations, and gossip:

Listening to gossip means believing what you hear, see, touch, and feel; being unapologetic about what you love; and paying attention to what you’re scared of.  It means trusting hunches, intuitions, gaydar.  It means using the discipline, rigor, and patience of a dedicated scholar, a besotted fan, and an obsessed lover.  It means believing in the importance of the act and process of telling a story as much as in the literal and historical facts the story contains….Of course our archival “recovery” projects are not meant to serve the long-dead objects or our research.  What we are recovering is a usable past for ourselves, based on rumors, fragments, secrets, and secretions.  These are the stories I want to listen to as well as tell.

This rousing beginning leads directly into Moore’s analysis of three themes: the tradition of friendship, landscape design, and the sister arts, which she defines as all the arts practiced by women, rather than as the inter-relationship between poetry and painting—the term’s more common definition.

Moore makes a valuable contribution to the current debate about the place of friendship in same-sex relations.  She advocates a both/and approach, insisting both that women had a separate culture and that they engaged directly with the dominant male culture.  Some scholars of the eighteenth century have suggested that friendship was an elite, male option, best understood as a refuge from marriage and its tangled familial obligations.  Moore, however, notes that elite women, like their male contemporaries, found friendship to be superior to marriage because it was disinterested and freely chosen; it inculcated a social, as opposed to private, virtue, leading to greater sympathy for those beyond the ties of kinship.  Both sexes sought to justify alternative emotional bonds outside the family by drawing upon classical models, but subtly altering them to fit their own priorities.

Yet Moore does not rest content with showing her readers how and when women participated in ongoing discourses dominated by men.  She goes on to insist upon the erotic content of women’s friendships.  She is especially adept at showing how the poets Seward and Pierce used imagery drawn from nature to describe female anatomy and female passion.  I am mostly convinced, although at times it feels that Moore is stretching to keep her lesbian perspective at the fore. Similarly, when Lord North praised Bulstrode, the Bentincks’ country house as “your Paradise Bulstrode,” I am not sure that he saw the garden “as a work of art that was not just a place of almost divine beauty and happiness but a location of desire, a female community, and a contribution to garden history.” As Moore herself acknowledges, the Bulstrode garden followed fashionable eighteenth-century trends, with its Chinese House, open prospects, and extensive green lawns.

Moore is on more solid ground in discussing the eighteenth-century fad for grottos.  The “ribald garden” was popular among some wealthy men: earth was moved about to mimic female anatomy, with a stone grotto surrounded by bushes as the vagina to which all (male) eyes would be drawn.  Mary Delany herself created what she called a beggar’s hut at Delville, her Irish husband’s home, which Moore claims to be “distinctly unladylike” for its close resemblance to the so-called Venus Temple.  Delany went on to design a grotto for her dear friend Margaret Bentinck; together they worked on decorating its surface with seashells.  The shells they chose for decoration were both fashionable and personal to the couple. As Moore argues, shell work connoted both decorous female accomplishment and bawdy anatomical objects: “The exotic frisson of the shell-lined grotto had much to do with the specifically feminine sexual connotations of lining a womb-shaped underground space with salty, fishy, cup-shaped seashells.”

Delany’s great achievement, begun when she was over seventy, was her nearly 1,000 collages, or what she called “paper mosaics,” of individual plants, created at the request of the botanizing Margaret Bentinck.  It was also the culminating act of friendship between the two women.  Delany took actual specimens from the Bulstrode gardens and traced the various parts of the plants onto colored paper; these were cut out with extraordinary care and then glued to black paper.  They are of striking delicacy and vivid coloring—and so valuable that they have survived largely intact, unlike Delany’s grottos.  Each is carefully labeled following Linnaeus’s taxonomic system; botanical accuracy and artistic mastery come together to create, in Moore’s words, “a vividness and frank sensual appeal that is unprecedented in eighteenth-century visual culture.” The color plates she has chosen to reproduce here confirm her high estimation of Delany’s achievement. They made me long to see the originals of these deeply erotic botanical images exhibited once more.

While the friendship between Delany and the aristocratic Bentinck is at the center of this book, Moore addresses her subjects’ relationships with men as well.  Bentinck and Pierce seem to have benefited from close association with men, while Delany and Seward had complicated and often negative relations with them.  William Bentinck, Duke of Portland, was a family man, with little interest in that expensive aristocratic hobby, parliamentary politics.  He was strikingly indulgent of his wife’s passion for collecting everything from art objects to rare plants, and she became a major funder of male scientists who brought her samples from afar.  The American Sarah Pierce is best known as the founder, in 1792, of the Litchfield Female Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut, one of the first schools committed to teaching girls at an advanced level.  Her poem, “Verses to Abigail Smith” survives because Abigail’s brother, Elihu Hubbard Smith, thought highly enough of it to copy it into his diary. In it, Pierce uses familiar pastoral conventions, suggesting that she and Smith escape marriage by retiring to the countryside to live in idyllic harmony.  Elihu Smith, in his diary, prefaces his transcription with a description of the close, egalitarian friendship of his sister and Pierce.  He clearly respected and admired female friendship; like Pierce, he never married.

In contrast, the young Mary Delany married the 57-year-old Alexander Pendarvus in order to repair her family’s fortune.  Fortunately, he died seven years later; unfortunately he left the bulk of his fortune to his nephew.  Eighteen years later, she chose to marry Patrick Delany; their shared interest in gardening and landscape design insured the relationship’s success.

Anna Seward had numerous close male friends, which caused Litchfield residents to gossip about her lack of propriety.  But her true love was for Honora Sneyd, who married Richard Edgeworth and died of tuberculosis seven years later.  Sorrow—and anger at husbands—fed Seward’s poetry; some of her best poems commemorate Sneyd and female friendship.

Moore concludes her book with a survey of lesbian images drawn largely from twentieth-century artists.  She sees numerous continuities between the art of her eighteenth-century women and of twentieth-century lesbians.  Her survey is a good reminder that art remains deeply gendered, whether it is a shell-encrusted grotto or a gaudy photograph.  Along the way, Moore has numerous brief insights into the paradoxes involved in creating, collecting, and disseminating works of art.  Margaret Bentinck, the best documented of her women, had direct access to Britain’s growing empire in order to add to her collection, including shells or other exotica. The middle-class Pierce and Seward used the familiar trope of the natural world to represent their amatory friendships.

At the beginning of this witty and original book, Moore promises to use an “interdisciplinary, eclectic, mixed, and queer” method to trace the “ripples” of artistic exchange and erotic feeling among women friends; she does so with great verve and accomplishment.  This book opens new worlds to the general reader and new avenues of research for the specialist.

 

 

Martha Vicinus recently retired from the University of Michigan. Although she left her own garden, she still admires them, past and present.

 

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