The Sexuality of HistoryModernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830

The Sexuality of HistoryModernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830

Susan S. Lanser

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780226187563

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


It has become a scholarly commonplace that history illuminates sexuality; The Sexuality of History argues that sexuality also illuminates history. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as European cultures grappled with the challenges of emergent modernity, ideas about female same-sex relations became a flash-point for contests about authority and liberty, power and difference, desire and duty, mobility and change, order and governance. Exploring a broad array of texts spanning more than two centuries and multiple language cultures, this book argues for the significance of relations between women to the early modern social imaginary. In chapters organized both thematically and chronologically, it explores the preoccupation with sapphic habits, mobility and alteration around 1600, the entanglement of the sapphic with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century affairs of state, and women's use of the homoerotic as a feminist strategy. A key chapter rereads the “rise of the novel” as a sapphic plot, while later chapters take up associations of the sapphic with secrecy and sect in the Age of Revolution and with family formations in the Romantic period. A brief coda revisits the long span of this study to assess the implications of “lesbian” representation for engaging the preoccupations of the times. Through this wide-ranging inquiry, The Sexuality of History shows that just as we can understand sexuality by studying the past, so too can we understand the past by studying sexuality.