"I've all the world in thee": Lesbian Poetics and Discourses of Sexuality in the Long Eighteenth Century
Posthumously appointed the “English Sappho” by her contemporaries after her tragically early death, Katherine Philips was only the first in a line of several women poets (including Anne Killigrew, Anne Finch, and Elizabeth Singer Rowe) living in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries who wrote passionate verses describing other women—what, today, we might identify as lesbian poetry. Decades later, Charlotte Charke penned an autobiography detailing her life, including a time during which she assumed the name “Charles Brown” and lived with a woman she called “Mrs. Brown.” At the same time, public discourse was constructing a sort of spectre of the “tribade,” as lesbians were termed at the time. As outlined in both pseudo-medical pamphlets speculating on lesbian bodies and short stories detailing lesbians who wore men’s clothing in order to marry women, this dangerous and lascivious tribade would teach other woman how to pleasure themselves and that sex could be pleasure-driven, thereby upsetting heteropatriarchy and solidifying women’s sexual autonomy. How did lesbian writers articulate their feelings against a wider perception of them as monstrous and predatory? How did they code these feelings into their writings in order to avoid public shame, while at the same time, reaching women who were like them? In my project, I draw patterns from the evident discourses in order to answer these questions. Using both poetry and prose works by lesbians as well as fiction and anatomical texts written by outsiders, I work to understand how lesbians were responding in writing to an exaggerated social caricature.