Welcome back to Queer History 101!
We often think of the Victorian era as conservative and uptight, but under its buttoned-up surface, it was sometimes startlingly receptive to queerness. To learn more, I sat down with Professor Sharon Marcus, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Marcus is a wide-ranging, unconventional scholar, with books on such diverse topics as apartment living in 19th-century Paris and London, the history of celebrity–and, of course, queerness, this time about the incredible history of marriages between women in Victorian England!
Marcus’s interest in studying queerness stemmed from her understanding of her own sexuality: she considered herself as a lesbian from a young age. Though her parents weren’t necessarily accepting, they did her “the favor of letting me know from a very young age that there was a name for what I was and what I felt, and it was ‘lesbian.’ And they saw lesbians everywhere.” That experience taught Marcus “how to read for queer subtext.”
She brought that skill to her academic career, majoring in comparative literature with a focus on the 19th century. Marcus became fascinated with how much those novels addressed relationships between women. “The novels I was interested in, by Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, were all marriage-plot novels that basically focused on marrying off a young man or young woman in a straight marriage. But lots of times there was also a key subplot with a same-sex friend.”
This observation made Marcus wonder whether, in reality, some Victorian women skipped marrying men and instead formed lifelong partnerships with other women. After all, her experience with queer subtext taught her that queerness was everywhere, if you only looked under the surface. “I knew I was looking at a period where women couldn't legally marry women and men couldn't legally marry men,” she explained. “I also knew I was looking at a period where there were many women sharing a household, sometimes raising adopted children together, having pets together, writing wills that named the other person sole heir.” All of this evidence pointed to “quasi-marital relationships,” she concluded.
Marcus was intrigued, and she started to dig further: diaries, letters, gossipy comments, even obituaries. “I learned that not only did the women involved think of their relationships with other women as marriages, but their straight friends also recognized their relationships as marital.”
Some of the evidence comes from the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who moved to Rome and landed in a “hotbed of lesbian intrigue,” which involved a group of American and British women artists. When the Brownings wrote about these women, “they would talk about them as couples,” as in the case of actress Charlotte Cushman and writer Matilda Hays. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing about them to a friend, called their relationship “a female marriage.” “So she even had a term for it,” said Marcus. “They didn't have the term ‘same-sex marriage,’ but she called it a marriage, and she understood that it was different from straight marriage, but also similar, and that's why she called it a female marriage.”
Cushman also appears in another incredible piece of evidence for 19th-century female marriages: Cushman and a much younger woman, Emma Crow, exchanged a lot of “very steamy letters, now we'd be calling them sexts.” Marcus explained, “Charlotte Cushman would always say, ‘Please burn these, please burn these.' But Emma didn't, she kept them, and then she donated them to the Library of Congress. And so that's where they sit, and scholars have found them and have written about them.”
Of course, not all relationships between women–even the very close, intimate ones–were marriages, or even sexual and romantic in nature. Those same-sex friendships of the 19th century mattered deeply to Victorian women because “women and men couldn't have that much contact with each other, especially if they were unmarried, same-sex friendships were so important to young people's development,” said Marcus. “Many people kept their friends for life and remained super close to them, even after getting married and forming families and becoming parents.”
Marcus read through diaries to explore these incredibly passionate friendships. “It was men writing about other men, and girls writing about girls and young women writing about young women.” Some of these writings were erotic, especially those by the very religious evangelical Protestants in the 19th century, who were very passionate about everything. “I found diary entries where young women would write about praying with other young women, and it sounded pretty erotically intense.”
But that didn’t mean they were themselves queer, explained Marcus. “Some of them were very into their heterosexuality: they flirted with men, they were sexually invested in their husbands. But they loved their female friends, and their husbands accepted that the female friends were really important.” She added, “It was really interesting to see that the Victorians just had room in their lives for a lot of different kinds of relationships.”
The history of female marriage in Victorian England has a lot to teach us about erased histories of queerness in the Western world: the institution of marriage has been queered for centuries, as have relationships between people of the same gender. With careful digging, we can uncover the diversity of relationships that have existed outside modern perceptions of “normalcy.” And, perhaps, with this queering of the boxed-in definitions of relationships, we can open up new possibilities for relationships in our own lives.
For more, go buy Professor Marcus’s book, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.