Between Women: friendship, desire and marriage in Victorian England – Sharon Marcus, Princeton University Press 2007.
Someone recommended this to me a couple of months back, before I made my excellent if rather sudden decision to apply for an MDST masters next year. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a masters in Aus. lit – an idea which I might have been able to follow up without moving towns again. The author I was (still am) interested in was writing in early 20th century Australia, and besides which, I’ve got a bit of a running interest in late 19th and early 20th century women’s literature at the moment.
So I picked up Sharon Marcus’ book, and as it happens, I think I can use some of her methodology in this thesis I’m proposing (it’s on female homosociality in Chrétien de Troyes’ romances). Between Women is an interesting – and in my opinion, very solid – book in that it is both a historical and a literary study. Marcus has divided her text into three types of relationships or portrayals of relationships: the homosocial, the homoerotic and the homosexual (the distinction between the last two is interesting, and I don’t think I fully understand it after reading the intro – hopefully the respective parts of the book will enlighten me). For each, she has two chapters: one looking at historical sources and reconstructing something of actual women’s experience and practice; and the other looking at Victorian novels and the narrative functions of women’s homosocial, homoerotic and homosexual relationships respectively.
This makes sense: although you can use literature as a historical source, and you can certainly do a literary analysis of a historical work like an autobiography, here, the division is one of fundamental purpose. The historical chapter attempts to reconstruct what women did, thought, experienced; and the literary looks at one or several author’s expression of an ideal – what women should do, think, experience.
In the literary chapter “Just Reading: Female Friendship and the Marriage Plot”, Marcus looks at female friendship as a “narrative engine” which complements, supports, drives and enforces the heteroromantic plot and its conclusion. She takes issue with feminist readings which see all female homosociality as a rebellion against patriarchal forces (I cannot speak for whether or not this is an accurate assessment of feminist studies of Victorian literature), and emphasises instead the way that female friendships provide space for character development in the early stages of the novel, and are used to reconcile the heteroromantic plot in the later stages.
It strikes me that this is exactly how Lunette and Laudine’s friendship functions (assuming you accept Cheyette and Chickering’s approach to “love” as a social contract within the poem; if you prefer to read Laudine as powerless, Lunette becomes an abusive friend): in the early stages of the poem, their debate over love and marriage provides us with an opportunity to assess each woman’s character and to understand, through their argument, the reasoning which eventually leads to Laudine’s marriage; and in the later stages, Lunette’s intervention serves to reconcile Yvain and Laudine and bring about a stable resolution to the romantic plot. Interestingly, unlike the Victorian era examples Marcus gives, Lunette and Laudine’s relationship is not without its own strife – which Yvain (in disguise) has to step in to resolve.
I’m not yet entirely sure how far I can go with applying Marcus’ methodology – or where I’m going to end up with it – but the take-home message (or the put-in-my-proposal message) so far is: to really understand the value that an author and/or their society place on female homosociality, it is important to look at women’s same-sex friendships as integrated with their heterosocial relationships. Only by considering their weight in the plot as a whole can we get an idea of what weight the author ascribes to them.
And just in case you’re enthused by this, Between women is largely available on googlebooks.