Friendships, Lesbianism and Identity in Victorian Britain

At first glance of the identities and sexuality of women in Victorian Britain, one assumes that the Victorians ‘denied, controlled, or muted public expression of active female sexuality’, however in the Victorian era it is clear that women were able to express a certain amount of sexuality through passionate friendships with other women. Friendships that women had with other women had an impact on society’s views of female sexuality and identity. There is a wealth of writing to support this idea; however, some of this writing also supports the idea of a lesbian identity that merges both female and male identities to create an identity, which can be seen by looking at Anne Lister, a lesbian, landowning woman in the 1800s. This separate identity was often viewed by the outside world to be very similar to that of a normal passionate friendship. Therefore, many people accepted this as a suitable identity for women to adopt. Moreover, it was not only the influence of friends and female partners that could affect a woman’s sexuality and identity in this era, as family clearly had a huge impact on the way a young woman created her own identity; most specifically the mother-daughter relationship had an important influence on this. The societal class that a woman identified with in this era almost certainly affected the way that men interacted with women, and this in turn effected the way that both men and women viewed their own identity.

Romanticised female friendships?

In Victorian Britain, female friendships were often romanticised, allowing women more freedom to express feelings for each other. However, not all of these relationships went on to develop into homosexual relationships; these romantic ideas, seen in female friendship, contributed to ideas of feminine weakness, as it suggested that women were more susceptible to their emotions than men. Amanda Herbert suggests that women themselves challenged the boundaries of acceptability by calling each other ‘husband’ and ‘sweet wife’, even if the relationship did not include physical intimacy or living together. This idea of female friendship being domesticated, in a way, heightened the idea of women being domestic creatures. Therefore, the relationships between women had an impact on the way society viewed them. Furthermore, women were encouraged to talk about sewing, children and other distinctly feminine activities, and this affected the way that they developed their identity. Ellis suggests that female friendship ‘trained women to be good wives by teaching them particularly feminine ways of loving’. These relationships, she suggests, intensified the idea of the sexes being opposites, whilst also providing a similar relationship as to that which would come through marriage. For many women, friendship with other women allowed them to express their feelings in a socially acceptable environment, and thus women used language as a key part of the development in a relationship. ‘Love’, for example, was used by many women to develop a close bond with other women, whilst only being used as a term of friendship and not attraction.


Therefore, lesbian relationships were often left undiscovered, or overlooked, as the boundaries of friendships between women blurred into more passion19849149_1562469187107564_793571093_nate forms of friendship. Anna Clarke tells us that women ‘kissed, embraced, and exchanged intensely romantic letters… society regarded such friendships as perfectly acceptable, even touching’; thus, lesbian relationships could be easily masked. Clarke, amongst other historians, believes that the identities of women were shaped by their interactions with others and not their own desires; this idea is known as the social constructionist paradigm (shared assumptions of reality help to form our understanding of the world). So, the women of early modern Britain were taught to follow a model of ‘passionate friendship’. There is much evidence to suggest women did follow such a model which, in a few cases, lead to sexual relationships. For example, Anne Lister’s friendships with Anne Walker and Marianna Lawton (née Belcombe) both developed into intense relationships that dominated the majority of Lister’s life. Anne often preferred to take a dominant role in these relationships and she reflected this through her masculine appearance. Lister assumed this behaviour was ‘innate and instinctual’ despite the fact that, as Vicinus points out, she had ‘and self-consciously adopted more masculine accoutrements’. Anne’s sexual identity was dominated by her need to play the role of a male in the relationship, as was the case for many other lesbians at the time. Rosa Bonheur spent much of her adult life dressing in male clothing and living with another woman; her male attire allowed her to take on a masculine identity, and thus justify her relationship as following a normal pattern, where there is a dominant masculine character and a submissive feminine one. This is reflected in Lister’s relationships, as she was able to take a dominant role in all of her relationships; she described herself as ‘not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like.’ Thus, although Anne Lister’s dominating and masculine personality traits would suggest that she had a significantly male-influenced identity, Lister still identified with the female sex. Her sexuality would appear to follow that of a male’s, however the idea of passionate friendship allowed her to remain a prominent member of the female community. Her behaviour went unnoticed because heterosexual women could publicly treat their friends in a similar way.


Mothers and Daughters

Motherhood was a key part of female identity in early modern Britain. Considering most women did not have jobs, motherhood was often the central part of many of their lives. For many, the inability to have children would lead to a loss in status and respect. Thus, a huge part of the female identity in Victorian Britain was centred on motherhood. Mothers and their intimate friends typically took a more important role than fathers in the upbringing of their children, often taking them out; Lady Shelbourne would take her children, Anne and Henry, to visit ‘the Wells’. As, for the most part, women had few job prospects, domesticity was one of the things they could devote their life to. It shaped female identity in this era. However, a few women rejected the idea of domesticity and motherhood, and Anne Lister is a prime example of this. From the beginning, Jill Liddington suggests that Anne Lister ‘distanced herself from her own immediate family’ and only ‘remained fond of her two surviving brothers’. This meant that from a young age, the influence of Anne’s mother had been diminished, and this was further weakened when she was sent to boarding school. Thus, Anne was not given guidance on her role as a female to the same extent as other young girls; her close relationship to her brothers and Uncle, whose estate she wished to inherit, emphasises her lack of feminine guidance. On top of this, Anne ‘enjoyed an unusually academic education’ which allowed her to develop a ‘considerable aptitude and enthusiasm for the practical business’ of running Shibden Hall, and also allowing her a certain amount of economic independence; something that few women of the era had. An intellectual education in the classics and other such subjects was considered to be something only relevant to a man’s education and women were not expected to enjoy this sort of education. Here it can be seen that Anne’s identity developed in a different way to that of many of the other girls she was surrounded with, and was predominantly influenced by male members of her family, which, in part, accounts for her sexuality and identity being largely masculine.

Money and Men

Class and the influence of men can also be seen as fundamental in developing different ideas of sexuality and identity amongst women. For many upper and middle class women, it is through their writing that we can see the elements t19723990_1562469190440897_1974375192_ohat contributed to their identity. Romantic friendship was often consolidated through the exchange of gifts and letters, and thus, the concept of romantic friendships was far more prominent in these classes than the working class. Sharon Marcus suggests that this was especially true for the middling classes, where Victorian life-writing emerges as a ‘fundamental component of middle class femininity’. The ability of these women to exchange romantically styled letters contributed to society’s ideas of female sexuality in Victorian Britain. Women were expected to possess traits of ‘selflessness and empathy’ which directly contrasted to the expectation of masculine traits of “’competitiveness and self-determination’. Sarah Ellis (author of “The Women of England” and “The Daughters of England”) believed that this reinforced sexual differences between men and women and allowed women to create a virtuous persona for themselves. Furthermore, she believed that this taught them particularly ‘feminine ways of loving’ which further identified women’s sexuality and identity as being entirely separate and different to that of men. For the working classes, women were often required to work alongside their male counterparts in order to earn enough money to support a family. Many women can, therefore, be seen as having a more equal footing with men However, Gleadle suggests that in the country, rather than industrial cities, it was the working class who ‘harboured the most oppressive attitudes’ towards female sexuality. Sexual violence was more common in the poorer communities, and thus it can be assumed that women were expected to take on a more submissive role in the household. These women’s identities were less affected by their female friends, and more affected by male expectations and influences.


Therefore it can be seen that, although female friendships had a lasting influence on the views of female identity through its encouragement of passionate friendships, it was not the only influence. Certainly, if we look at the case of Anne Lister, it was her early relationships with her family, alongside her letter-writing, which had a lasting influence on her sexuality and identity. Furthermore, for many ordinary, lower class women, they did not have the time to form strong passionate friendships with other women, as they were often required to work. Thus, for every woman it was different; romantic friendships were, certainly in the case of the upper and middle class, very influential on their sexuality and self-identity. However, in the lower classes the necessity for them to work had a large influence. For all women, it is true to suggest that they were directly influenced by male attitudes and expectations, as well as the upbringing that they had. Therefore, it can be assumed that these were the foundations that supported the initial stages of women finding their identity and sexuality, and that other influences built upon these ones.
Written by Lauren Miller



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Gleadle, Kathryn. British Women in the Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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Liddington, Jill. Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1998.

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Vicinus, Martha. A Widening Sphere: The Changing Roles of Victorian Women. London: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Vicinus, Martha. Suffer and be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973.

Vicinus, Martha. ““They Wonder to which Sex I Belong”: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity.” Feminist Studies 18, no. 3 (1992): 467-497.

Whitbread, Helena. I Know my own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840. New York and London: New York University Press, 1992.