Women Loving Women, A Sapphic Reading of Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips, By Shelby Talbot
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Women Loving Women, A Sapphic Reading of Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips, By Shelby Talbot

Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips were women poets in a patriarchal culture who wrote about sapphic relationships in a heteronormative one. Examining Philips’ “Friendship” and Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman” reveals the two women’s ability to push the bounds of what was contemporarily viewed as sexually acceptable within the Restoration period through their poetry. “Friendship” and “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman” leverage the concept of women’s honour to negotiate female same-sex eroticism; specifically, both works veil their projected images of sapphic relationships behind ambiguity to suggest they are compatible with contemporary values of sexual morality. 

Philips’ “Friendship” explicitly discusses the love in a platonic relationship; implicitly, however, a Queer reading of the work is imbued with female eroticism. Although “Friendship” does not gender the relationship, many of Philips’ works on the same topic are aimed at a female addressee (Fanning). In the poem’s final lines, the speaker attempts eight similes to describe the virtue of friendship, ultimately concluding the work with an admission of the failings of her language to capture this phenomenon: true friends are “kind, / As but their selves I can no likeness find” (Philips, lines 55-56). Paula Loscocco argues this is an allusion to John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis,” an elegy which is preoccupied with sameness as the basis for ideal passion (Loscocco 19). “Sappho to Philaenis” discusses similar limits of discourse, as Sappho cannot find an adequate simile to describe her female lover: 

Thou art not soft, and cleare, and strait, and faire,

As Down, as Stars, Cedars, and Lilies are,

But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only

Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye. (Donne, lines 21-24, qtd. Loscocco 19)

It is entirely possible this parallel between Donne’s sapphic, homoerotic work and Philips’ “Friendship” is deliberate, especially when considering the precedent of Philips’ metaphysical and Donnean style of poetry. This reading injects a sexual undertone into the poem (Loscocco 19), transforming its subject matter from strictly platonic female unions to an allegory encompassing erotic sapphic relationships disguised as platonic love. Through this allusion, “Friendship” not only becomes a smokescreen for a same-sex relationship between two women, but also an argument for their validity.

In this interpretation, “Friendship” idealizes a sapphic friendship charged with sexuality as an honourable and virtuous love superior to the traditional marriage institution, effectively negotiating for female same-sex relationships within sexual morality. The speaker makes a distinction between the love of marriage versus friendship: “Lust, Design, or some unworthy ends / May mingle” in a marriage union, but “are despised by Friends” (Philips, lines 31-32); the incorruptible love of friendship is “Love’s Elixir, that pure fire / Which burns the clearer” than the love of a marriage “’cause it burns the higher” (37-38). Marriage, in the patriarchal culture within which the poem is contextualized, occurs between a man and a woman. Friendship, however, is a relationship that can exist between two women, something that is frequently the subject of Philips’ poetry. In a Queer reading of “Friendship,” the love between two women is asserted to be purer and more honourable than a traditional marriage because it does not conform to its “violent extremes” (33) and patriarchal values. Since the institution of marriage was contemporarily viewed as the ideal of sexual morality, suggesting that a relationship between two women is a superior form of love is a testament to its virtue. Subtly extending that virtue to romantic, sapphic relationships argues they, too, should be viewed as honourable.

Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman” is more overtly sapphic than “Friendship,” but still fosters some uncertainty regarding the nature of the relationship between the speaker and Clarinda. The title of the work asserts two foundational truths: Clarinda is a woman, and the female speaker’s relationship with her is romantic. To imagine Clarinda as “More Than Woman” implies she is a woman to begin with. The narrator is or has been in a non-platonic relationship with Clarinda, as Clarinda “Made Love to” her, a phrase which contemporarily described amorous attention and wooing (“love, n.1.”). Despite establishing the expectation of Clarinda as a woman, the speaker uses inconsistently gendered descriptions when referring to Clarinda. The narrator fluctuates between a male-female dichotomy: in one moment, Clarinda is a “Fair lovely Maid” (1), and in another, a masculine “Charming Youth” (4). Jennifer Frangos argues in her article “Aphra Behn’s Cunning Stunts: ‘To the Fair Clarinda’” that the effect of Clarinda’s ambiguity establishes the trope of “hermaphroditism” (Frangos 1). However, despite invoking the mythology of the first hermaphrodite from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the poem’s conclusion (Fanning), most of the ambiguity does not center around Clarinda’s physical sex, but on her gender expression: Clarinda is specifically “Imagined” as more than a woman. The speaker suggests “[a] snake lies hid beneath [Clarinda’s] fragrant leaves” (Behn, line 17), a symbol which alludes to both Clarinda as a deceptive temptress, like the biblical serpent of Eden in Genesis, and phallic male genitalia hidden beneath a feminine exterior. However, Clarinda’s “[m]anly part” (20) is implied to be more relevant to her gender expression than potential intersex physicality: the poem repeatedly returns its focus to Clarinda’s “Form” and how it both prevents sexual penetration and “excuses” the perceived immorality of same-sex eroticism (15). Thus, this ambiguity cultivated by the speaker manifests as gender androgyny, suggesting Clarinda possesses both masculine and feminine qualities rather than male and female genitalia. 

Behn’s speaker uses Clarinda’s androgyny to negotiate same-sex desire between two women. “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman” makes the case that in a culture with a heterosexual, penetration-centered view of sex, it is impossible for the speaker and Clarinda to violate contemporary sexual morals and compromise their virtue because neither has exclusively male genitals: the two women “might Love, and yet be Innocent” (Behn, line 13). The speaker contends that even if their same-sex intercourse was considered a crime, Clarinda’s androgyny “excuses it” (15), because their sex would not be viewed as being between a man and a woman in the eyes of contemporary society. In a violently heteronormative culture, Behn’s speaker utilizes Clarinda’s suggested masculinity as a sort of stepping-stone between heterosexual and lesbian intercourse. The speaker selectively prioritizes the legal and moral definitions of sex that justify a sapphic relationship as honourable, while promoting enough ambiguity surrounding Clarinda’s gender identity to shelter their relationship from the harshest of homophobic criticisms. Behn’s speaker promotes the apparent superior morality of a same-sex relationship between two women while intentionally using androgyny to mask her relationship with Clarinda as an intermediary between homo- and heterosexuality.

Ultimately, both Philips’ “Friendship” and Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman” present ambiguous representations of same-sex relationships between women and leverage this ambiguity to advocate for their honour and sexual morality. These poems make a case for the sexual morality of homosexuality without overtly depicting an erotic relationship between women as honourable: “Friendship” is a subtle allegory for a sapphic relationship concealed beneath a platonic one, whereas Behn’s speaker cultivates androgyny in Clarinda’s gender expression to mask the homosexual nature of their relationship. Neither of these poems are as offensive to traditional, heteronormative perceptions of sexuality as they could be, while simultaneously suggesting the relationships they depict are superiorly honourable for women. The necessity of this careful nuance speaks to a larger cultural intolerance for sexuality that extends beyond rigid definitions of heterosexuality, pointing to a heteronormative standard for relationships that persists today. 

Works Cited

Philips, Katherine. “Friendship.” British Literature 1640-1789: An Anthology, edited by Robert
Demaria Jr., 4th ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp. 237-238.

Fanning, Christopher. 2020. “Female Friendships and Pastoral Fantasies: Aphra Behn and
Katherine Philips.” ENGL330, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON. Accessed 5 Nov.


Frangos, Jennifer. “Aphra Behn’s Cunning Stunts: ‘To the Fair Clarinda.’” The Eighteenth
Century, vol. 45, no. 1, 2004, pp. 21–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41467933.
Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

Loscocco, Paula. “Inventing the English Sappho: Katherine Philips’s Donnean Poetry.” The
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 102, no. 1, 2003, pp. 59–87. JSTOR,
www.jstor.org/stable/27712301. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

“love, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/110566. Accessed 18 November 2020.

Behn, Aphra. “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than
Woman.” British Literature 1640-1789: An Anthology, edited by Robert Demaria Jr., 4th
ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp. 270.