Book Review: The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England by Valerie Traub

By Holly Marsden

Valerie Traub’s sentiments towards queer queens in The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England works against scholarship that renders female homoeroticism invisible prior to the Enlightenment, arguing instead that representations of queer femme desire in publications increased in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She refers to this growth as a ‘renaissance,’ intentionally and ironically using the term in opposition to the male-centric, heteronormative ideologies that the Renaissance represents. By ‘queering’ queenship, Traub has opened the possibility that early modern queens acted outside of heterosexual love and desire, a notion addressed in recent popular culture in terms of Queen Anne. Through literary and visual analysis, Traub questions how lesbian-like tropes were made intelligible to contemporary audiences. Her use of lesbian-like, a term coined by Judith M. Bennett, aids Traub’s aim not to situate modern lesbians in the past, but to trace the emergence and influences of this modern identity category. In doing so, Traub also introduces a queer theoretical approach which seeks to overturn the ‘impossible’ nature of early modern queer women which has been sold by heteronormative scholarship.

In her discussion of queenship, Traub situates femme erotic desire and the articulation of this desire as central. She dedicates a chapter to ‘queering’ of Queen Elizabeth I, in which she explores the potential for erotic agency within patriarchal ideology. Her analysis of Elizabeth’s portraits presents a dichotomy of representation: the performance of chastity and feminine modesty as well as an intense eroticism that draws attention to the anatomy of the queen’s gender. This represents the broader virgin/whore dichotomy that was central to early modern ideals of femininity. Traub’s intention was ‘not just to offer an alternative reading of Elizabeth’s “resistance” to marriage, but to analytically divorce chastity from asexuality.’ Although the potentially for asexuality could have been explored further, this is nevertheless important in opening the possibility for future scholars to consider asexuality as not just an intentional choice bound in religious belief but part of individual desire, or lack thereof. Furthermore, after discussing Elizabeth’s anatomy, Traub posits breasts in early modern literature as being objects of femme homoerotic desire. This notion has little been explored in scholarship since, which complements her discussion of the unveiling of queenly bodies as an act of titillation. Ultimately, Traub argues that the fetishistic nature of this bodily play is queer in nature, ‘destabilizing to the putatively straight-line separating chastity from eroticism.’ She moreover emphasizes this point by discussing the ‘transivity’ of Elizabeth’s gender identity, introducing the concept of androgyny within her visual representations.

Unfortunately, Traub’s discussion of other early modern queens is limited. Understandably so for Queen Anne, whose sexuality has been widely explored in the academic and public spheres. Both Anne and the future Queen Mary II are mentioned in Traub’s discussion of Calisto, a homoerotic masque staged at Charles II’s court which they both took part in as children. Mary played the role of Diana, both the object and proponent of lesbian desire. Once again, Traub argues the performance of chastity as central to royal authority, performed at once with homo erotic desire. Differently to her discussion of Elizabeth’s portraits, though, Traub argues that the meanings of desire between women were constantly negotiated in relation to discourses on gender, such as those on chastity, friendship and marriage. Thus, in relation to Charles’ royal court at least, she argues that the femme began to pose a threat in restoration England, doing so because the meaning of heterosexuality itself had begun to change. This is through greater interest in femme erotic desire in texts such as Calisto, which include the ‘perversion’ of this desire in the representation of the abject tribade. In all, Traub’s discussion of Calisto is highly comprehensive, differing to other scholars who have focused more on the performance aspects. However, more could have been explored in terms of other early modern queens and their places in queer histories, for example Mary’s relationship with her maid of honour Lady Frances Apsley as discussed by Molly McLain.

Nevertheless, the scope of identities, practises, desires and representations discussed in The Renaissance of Lesbianism is pivotal research for anyone studying the fields of early modern desire, histories of the body and queer history as a whole. Her ‘lesbian-affirmative analytic,’ which Traub explains is one ‘that begins with the assumption of worth and variety of female emotional and physical ties, and moves from there to explore the ways such ties are portrayed,’ is especially important for scholars of queer history. By valuing women’s desire in the early modern period, Traub disrupts modern scholarly conceptions of women’s lives during this time. This approach is vital to the future of feminist study, whether its aim is to ‘queer’ queenship or not. In all, Traub proves that ‘the phallus isn’t always the right tool for the job.’

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Bennett. Judith M. “”Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, no. 1/2 (2000), 1-24.

McLain, Molly. “Love, Friendship, and Power: Queen Mary II’s Letters to Frances Apsley.” Journal of British Studies 47, no. 3 (2008), 505-527.

Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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