The Kissing Girls of Spitalfields: Being a Lesbian in Georgian London
‘That one’s a Man is false, they’ve both been felt,
Tho’ Jolly swears, Bess is, or sh’ has been gelt.
She bullies, whistles, sings, and rants and swears
Beyond the Plyers at St. Katern’s Stairs;
She kisses all, but Jenny is her dear,
She feels her Bubbies, and she bites her ear:
They to the Garret or the Cellar sneak.
Play tricks, and put each other to the Squeak.
What Pity ‘tis, in such a case as this,
One does not pass a Metamorphosis,
Then they’d not stop the flowing Breach of Dagnum
With Digitus vel instrumentum magnum.’
The Kissing Girls of Spitalfields, from the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1728
Lesbian history is a tough subject. No really: the sources are scarce, much of the historiography skewed and there’s little solid fact to go on. To approach 18thC sexuality with modern criteria is to place it into categories that were unlikely to have existed then. Lesbianism, whilst being a recognized part of the sexual spectrum, was not illegal in the same way as male homosexuality (this post doesn’t deal with cross-dressing or transgender individuals - they get their own). Therefore, individual incidences where women were discovered engaging in sexual congress may have lit the gossip-lamps for the neighbourhood but no one was going to prison or pillory, so the equivalent paper evidence from the courts isn’t there (with its engaging love of ‘then he put his privies here, and I-‘). Extant sources rely almost exclusively upon female pair-bonding: women choosing to live openly in a sexual relationship and the results of said. These women were usually living outside the confines of ordinary society, such as Annie Bonny the pirate and so cannot be used to indicate the lot of the ordinary homosexual woman in Georgian London.
The serious study of any minority groups tends towards creating a subculture for them to exist within: I know my how artisans formed groups based on friendship, family, marriage, location, origin and religion. Those studying the history of homosexuality struggle to find a lesbian subculture for the 18thC, simply because women naturally formed closely bonded, small groups with common interests, like mathematics, painting or gardening or literature. The fact that they were sexually attracted to women may, or may not have formed part of those interests. There were sexual fetish clubs that catered solely to women, but they included other interests such as sado-masochism, so aren’t applicable here. My own belief is that homosexuality was just as common in the 18thC as it is now, but people made heterosexual marriages far more often as that was their way to stay within conventional society. That does not mean they did not pursue their sexual interests outside of these marital relationships. The frequency of strong, documented friendships between homosexual men and women of note may mean they simply married their gay male friends to get the job over and done with, as Aphra Behn (pictured) probably did (she was certainly a champion of the sexually emancipated woman, whatever her true orientation).
There are the likely and famous lesbians, such as Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough (they were both probably bisexual though, it wasn’t as if either of them didn’t have relationships with men either) and later on, Anne formed a very close relationship with her maid Abigail Masham, with their long and ‘exclusive’ friendship. Amongst the upper and upper-middle classes, many of the blue-stocking literary salons were lampooned by satirists for being ‘covens’ of Sapphists. Clever, rich, sexually-self-sufficient women - how appalling! The problem with much of the 18thC literature on lesbianism is that it is written by heterosexual men, for the majority of whom the idea of lesbians is jolly marvellous, like twins and harems. The idea, and of course, the reality that these women might not want them (or that they might not be up to the job) causes them to rush for the first sneer. Bless them. Dislike of men was often confused with lesbianism, even by women themselves. Some assumed they enjoyed ‘kissing’ each other because the natural ‘softness’ of women was so much ‘nicer’ than that of men. Many men thought this too, and the few texts on the subject do not feature a distaste for female sexual relationships so much as the dangerous exclusion of men.Lesbianism was assumed by many, like all bad things, to be a foreign import and lots of salacious pamphlets went about regarding what the naughty girls in France/Portugal/Spain and Turkey got up to if left to their own devices, but these are little more than titillation. In the late 1750s, the story of poor Catherine Vizzani, a women who lived in Rome, ‘in the habit of a man’ and was anatomized after her death to see if the cause of her lesbianism could be found. It couldn’t obviously, but the translation sold well in London, translated by John Cleland, of Fanny Hill
fame. This translation also introduced ‘lesbian’ into the English language as the accepted term for a women who preferred to have sex with other women.
So, how did lesbians go about their lives in Georgian London? Those with means did not have to marry, but it was likely they would have done; perhaps they wanted children, or to preserve a veneer of convention. From the few diaries available, it appears homosexual women of the period identified themselves as such with little internal angst, and that like-minded company was available to them, should they choose to seek it out. Horace Walpole, himself probably asexual, assembled a large number of female friends around him at Strawberry Hill who were widely assumed throughout London to be lesbians. To call someone a member of the ‘Twickenham set’ was to call them a lesbian.For women who earned their own living, finding lovers and conducting relationships seems to have been relatively straightforward. There were various taverns and drinking houses throughout the Strand and Soho whose female proprietors, regardless of their orientation, were known to encourage a homosexual clientele (lone, middle-class women wouldn’t have frequented alehouses, but servants would, or may have used them as meeting places from which to go on). Female household servants shared beds if they were unmarried, and if two such women were in a relationship recognised but undiscussed in a household, providing the relationship continued there was probably no need to disturb a very useful status quo
With few extant sources to use, much of our knowledge of 18thC lesbianism must be based on careful speculation, without recourse to modern ‘typing’. An excellent read for anyone wishing to know more is Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1688-1801