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Intimate Friends

Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928

Intimate Friends offers a fascinating look at the erotic friendships of educated English and American women over a 150-year period, culminating in the 1928 publication of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s scandalous novel of lesbian love. Martha Vicinus explores all-female communities, husband-wife couples, liaisons between younger and older women, female rakes, and mother-daughter affection. Women, she reveals, drew upon a rich religious vocabulary to describe elusive and complex erotic feelings.

Vicinus also considers the nineteenth-century roots of such contemporary issues as homosexual self-hatred, female masculinity, and sadomasochistic desire. Drawing upon diaries, letters, and other archival sources, she brings to life a variety of well known and historically less recognized women, ranging from the predatory Ann Lister, who documented her sexual activities in code; to Mary Benson, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury; to the coterie of wealthy Anglo-American lesbians living in Paris.

In vivid and colorful prose, Intimate Friends offers a remarkable picture of women navigating the uncharted territory of same-sex desire.


"Vicinus synthesizes her lifetime of research in women’s literature and lesbian history in an original and nuanced account of varieties of upper- and middle-class women’s passionate and erotic friendships. . . . The cumulative effect of the analysis is poerful, freeing the imagination from the strictures of scientific discourses about so-called healthy and normal relationships."

Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy | Journal of American History

"[Vicinus produces] an authoritative synthesis that brings these lives, well-known to scholars, to the attention of a wider audience. More inviting than the usual scholarly monograph, the book includes twenty-four fascinating illustrations and an appendix giving a brief summary of the lives and loves Vicinus discusses. And the stories are jewels of eccentric lesbian lore."

Lisa L. Moore | Lambda Book Review

“Refusing a progress narrative, [Vicinus] nevertheless chronicles how intimate friendship moved from being socially sanctioned (but unexamined) to being scrutinized and mischaracterized by the medical profession in the early 1900s.”

Library Journal

"This book will clearly be essential reading for all those seeking to engage with the tantalizing obliquities and uncertainties that characterize same-sex female relationships in the long nineteenth century."

Caroline Gonda | Tulsa Studies inWomen's Literature

"This book is the culmination of over a decade’s work. It is breathtakingi n its detail. . . . It is deeply engaged, Vicinus’s own intimacy with her subjects shining from every sentence to create a moving evocation of love between women. . . . This is one of those (all-too-rare) works that forces historians to interrogate their discipline and their own historical practice. At once profoundly intimate yet ambitiously panoramic, Vicinus’s book is a genuinely challenging piece of historical scholarship."

Matt Houlbrook | American Historical Review

"The book is a great read, full of intrigue and outrage, sexual liaisons and anguished but chaste involvements, and, above all, drama. . . . It provides readers with a rich and detailed account of a specific set of erotic communities."

Judith Halberstam | Victorian Studies

"Intimate Friends examines the lives of some women with whom we are already familiar, as well as a couple of new and intiguing lives, to tell the rich and complex stories of women who loved women before the dawn of the modern era. Even this very small glimpse into the lives of women . . . demonstrates that same-sex relationships influenced public culture long before there was a public language for doing so."

Linda Heidenreich | Journal of Homosexuality

"Intimate Friends is that very rare thing: an academic book you almost delay finishing because to do so is to end a journey, leave worlds of unique fascination behind, and cease hearing a storytelling voice of terrific clarity, grace, and sophistication. . . . Intimate Friends weaves and celebrates a web of alliances, humilities, and humiliations. It does this with compassion, toughness, scepticism, and with an acute sense of the granuolar and elusive texture of the real."

Denis Flannery | MLR

"This volume provides both a valuable synthesis and a wide-ranging discussion of women’s erotic friendships from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. . . . An excellent and inviting introduction to the subject, suitable for undrgraduate research and general reading."

Susan Mumm | Archaeology of Sexual Behavior

"A substantial, rigorous, and fascinating engagement with the complex detours taken by same-sex love between women in the formative years of the modern West. . . . The overall argument of the work is compelling and provides a taut, smoothly articulated theory of same-sex female history, developed with a wealth of thought-provoking and illuminating analysis of discrete incidents and situations. This makes for an almost suspenseful reading of a work couched in elegant, limpid prose, wholly accessible to a wide reading public. . . . If readers turn a close attention to these pages, the debates, and the conversations, around the construction of the lesbian self will have to be durably altered."

F. S. Sautman | Journal of the History of Sexuality

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
One "A Scheme of Romantic Friendship":
Love and Same-Sex Marriage
Two "Emancipated Females": The Rome Community
Three "They Venture to Share the Same Bed": Possible Impossibilities
Four "The Gift of Love": Religion and Lesbian Love
Five "A Strenuous Pleasure": Daughter-Mother Love
Six "Passion...Immense and Unrestrained": Destructive Desires
Seven "Familiar Misquotation": Sapphic Cross-Dressing
Eight "A Love of Domination": THe Mannish Invert and Sexual Danger
Conclusion: Beyond the Family Metaphor
Appendix: The Principal Intimate Friends
Selected Bibliography

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