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What to Read: Passions Between Women by Emma Donoghue

Tribady, an activity that is rarely discussed, provides a stimulating metaphor for the business of doing history. The researcher is not so much penetrating the past to find what she wants as making contact with it, touching the surface of her present interest to the details of the past; the more she touches, the more she will become sensitised to the nuances she is exploring. This friction between centuries can bring us a sense of intimacy with our foresisters, as well as great pleasure, and laughter when things fail to fit. Passions Between Women is primarily intended to get the stories to the women, so that we can all take part in this never-ending act of tribady that is lesbian history.
—Emma Donoghue in her introduction to Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801

Emma Donoghue is a historian as well as a writer of fiction, and, in Passions Between Women, she turns her attention to lesbian history during the late-17th and 18th centuries. I’ve just started reading it, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Donoghue announces in her introduction that she doesn’t just want this book to be for academics only; she’s writing for “readers-for-pleasure,” too. Thus, she makes her book fun to read. Her language is occasionally playful and blessedly clear—she feels no need to fill up the page with jargon.

Donoghue is herself a crafty, creative reader. Her book isn’t so much a history of facts as it is a history of texts; Donoghue uses documents—poems, novels, pamphlets, medical treatises—to demonstrate the full range of concepts and definitions of lesbian sexuality and identity available to the people who created and consumed them. Not only is she able to find and recognize fruitful source materials, but she’s able to make these disparate texts speak to and illuminate each other. In doing so, she substantially adds to our understanding of how women who loved other women might have perceived themselves and their desires in early-modern Britain. As entertaining as it is edifying, Passions between Women is for anyone who digs a rousing work of cultural history.

Interview, Part One
Interview, Part Two
Archival Interview
Review of Kissing the Witch

September 15, 2004 | Permalink


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