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Archive for September, 2007

When I set out to research queer women’s history in pre-Confederation Canada, I discovered — not surprisingly — that the silence was deafening. Still, one particular pitch of that white noise – the legacy of Sappho – illustrates how complete the denial around lesbianism was.

Before we can talk about that, however, we’re going to have to take a detour, to clear up a few misconceptions about women in 19th-century Canada.

Women and Literature

Nineteenth-century Canada was the scene of one of the most astonishing women’s movements in Western history – a movement now largely forgotten by a country uninterested in its own past.

This movement was interested not only in extending the vote to women, but in getting women into non-traditional professions and into politics, and with winning equal pay for equal work. It began in missionary and temperance groups, and eventually transformed into a potent political force.

Another root of this movement were women’s literary circles and magazines, and the growing number of women who worked in publishing and writing. While the world of literature was still male-dominated, by 1832 the colony had its first woman’s literary magazine, edited by a woman (Henrietta Muir).

The men were busy working on the military, industrial, and economic aspects of the colony, and lower-class women servants took some of the burden of childrearing and housework off the middle class and upper class, so upper-class women felt that it fell to them to reconstruct British civilization in the wilderness. For this, they needed a literary culture.

This is probably why many of Canada’s “firsts” in the history of the novel belong to women: the first novel set in Canada (Frances Brooke), first Canadian-born novelist (Marie Morin), the first novel set in Canada by a Canadian-born novelist (Julia Beckwith Hart), and the first “psychological” novel (Angéline de Montbrun).

Nineteenth-century feminism was deeply religious and imperialist – in other words, profoundly conservative. Rather than try to break the systems outright that kept women from participating in society, they looked around through history for examples they could imitate. They wanted a historical precedent that could justify their right to step out of the home and into the larger world.

For a woman writer, there were few examples to draw on from British history. Bisexual Aphra Behn still had a dangerous reputation – Conservative MP Thomas Flood Davin called her “much maligned” in 1895, probably for her bisexuality.

Thus, women looking for a literary hero had to reach farther back. As Canadian literary circles were often obsessed with Greece and Rome, many women writers turned to Sappho as their great ancestor.

The Place of Sappho in Early Canada

In 19th-century Canada, it was still possible to invoke Sappho’s name without suggesting homosexuality. Sappho’s poetry was read in translation and sometimes in the original by heterosexual men and women, and she enjoyed a solid reputation as the great poet of the Island of Lesbos. “Lesbian” had been used to mean “queer woman” since 1666, but it was not the most common term – “tribade” was still more popular, the rare times that the subject was discussed at all.

In fact, Sappho (again, usually in censored translation) became required reading for the literate elites of Canada. In an anonymous 1888 satirical play entitled Culture!, a woman named Bella – who is desperately trying to prove herself to the cultural elite – proudly announces that she has read Sappho “in the original French.”

It’s not too surprising then that in the 1850s, there was a government ship called the HMBrig Sappho patrolling the waters off Canada’s east coast to protect the cod fishery from American and French trawlers. In a Canadian historical novel about the Acadians by a woman known simply as Mrs. Williams, a small (male) dog is known as Sappho.

The homosexuality expressed in Sappho’s poetry had been partly obscured by a series of stories invented more than a century after her death, including one very popular tale that claimed that she had committed suicide due to the unrequited love she felt for a boatman named Phaon. This suicide is recounted in a long poem by Canadian poet Charles G.D. Roberts which is simply entitled “Sappho.” There is no hint of homosexuality in Roberts’ poem.

Safely heterosexualized, Sappho’s name appeared everywhere in early Canadian literature, history, and political writings.

In a book of essays on women and society that was sympathetic to feminism, the Reverend Benjamin Austin comments on the lack of women artists in Western history, saying, “…we find from the early days of Sappho to the present, that in every land woman’s voice has been raised in song, and her hands have swept the lyre of poesy,” adding that “we who believe in women’s superior moral and religious endowment may well rejoice that to women as well as to men, the divine afflatus is given.” Austin also mentions that Sappho’s image was once stamped on coins. As well, the great surgeon Sir William Osler recommended work to unmarried women using a verse of Sappho’s in his Nurse and Patient.

Some of the Sappho references that appear in women’s writings:

  • In a memorial to the great poet Isabella Valencey Crawford, Susie Frances Harrison says that Crawford “now sleeps where Sappho guards and guides.” (1891)
  • The great Susanna Moodie, talking about the limits of even great art, said that not even “Sappho’s lyre …/Can twine the olive round the bleeding heart.”
  • Emily Augusta McLennan used Sappho as an epigraph for one of the chapters of her novel Love’s Divine Alchemy
  • One of Margaret Blennerhassett’s poems is a soliloquy recited by Sappho just before her supposed suicide.

Sappho and Homosexuality

The focus on Sappho’s supposed suicide for the love of man in many of the works about her almost seems to betray a kind of anxiety. Her poetry has nothing to say about this man “Phaon,” for whom she supposedly died.

One of the few times I’ve seen Sappho criticized in early Canadian works is a novel named The Canadian Girl by Mary Bennett. Here a young woman named Jane refuses the example of Sappho:

You have recited a great many passages from Dido, some poems of Sappho, and some of Juliet’s speeches, all containing fine beauties, I dare say, but surely dangerous when held up to young women as examples. Excuse my presumption ; I give my opinion—it may be foolish what I say. We like and dislike from impulse, and often not know why.”

The context and the presence of two other women who died for love of a man – Juliet and Dido – suggests that the “dangerous” example here is suicide. Yet no trace of that suicide would not have been found in Sappho’s poetry, which Bennett as the bad example.

It is possible that the educated elites of early Canada only knew Sappho through reputation, and hadn’t bothered to read the poetry itself. It’s also possible that they knew her, as Bella in Culture! says, only “in the original French.”

Yet, once in awhile, there’s a hint that Canadian society was not quite so naïve. In Thomas Webster’s passionate defence of feminism, Woman man’s equal (1873), he felt the need to defend Sappho against unnamed charges against her moral character:

Who has not read or heard of Sappho, the Greek poetess, concerning whose life and moral character there has been so much controversy—one class of writers condemning in unstinted measure, as all and utterly vile ; the other class applauding her as being possessed of every virtue.”

Webster then goes on to praise Sappho for her “virgin purity” and “feminine softness,” and her “delicacy,” which seems like he’s defending her against charges of being excessively masculine. This suggests that Webster was well aware of the other side of Sappho’s reputation.

Sappho remained a figure of poetry for some time – right into the 20th century in fact. The automatic association in the public mind of the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” with love between women really didn’t happen until the second half of the 20th century.

In fact, the first use of the word “Lesbian” I’ve found so far in any Canadian source to refer to female homosexuality is in the private journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1930 — more on this in a later instalment.

Female homosexuality, like male homosexuality, was rarely spoken about in the early 19th century. Yet while traces of male homosexuality are visible in court records and scandals among the elite, female homosexuality was completely invisible – so invisible that Sappho herself could be safely claimed as an archetype of the woman writer, a justification for women’s equality, and a Juliet-like figure in the annals of heterosexual love.

Before we turn to the early Dominion of Canada, we’re going to take one last look at the country in its pre-Confederation days, as we turn to the story of Dr. James Miranda Barry.


Sources: Details on women’s writings in early Canada come mostly from History of the Book in Canada, volumes 1 and 2. The ship HMBrig Sappho is mentioned repeatedly in the Journals of the House of Assembly of Nova Scotia, among other places. The Aphra Behn comment comes from Debates of the House of Commons for 1895. Charles G.D. Roberts’ poem “Sappho” is in Orion and Other Poems. The memorial to Crawford is in Pine, Rose, and Fleur de Lys by Susie Frances Harrison. The anonymous play Culture! takes place in, and was printed in, Halifax. Susanna Moodie’s mention of Sappho is in Enthusiasm and Other Poems. Blennerhassett’s “Soliloquy of Sappho” is in The Widow of the Rock. Osler’s comments on women and work appear in Nurse and Patient — and he seems rather desperate to squeeze the Sappho quote in there, where it fits very poorly. Love’s Divine Alchemy is by Emily Augusta McLennan. There are many, many other Sappho references through the period – this is just a small selection.

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Looking over the political debates of the 19th century, it’s hard not to conclude that Canada’s laws specifying the death penalty for homosexuality died with a whimper instead of a bang.

As I mentioned in a previous article, no one has ever found a case in Canada that ended in execution for a consensual homosexual act. Thus, when the legal reforms came in, they were doing away with a law that was already rarely – if ever – enforced.

These reforms came as part of a package — they represented one small section of a much larger overhaul of the legal system.

The Enlightenment had changed people’s opinions on how laws should work. This plus the success of reforms to the prison system in the last few decades meant that Canadians began to seriously question whether it was necessary to have 200 crimes on the books punishable by death.

For these reasons, the number of crimes punishable by death was whittled down to the smallest handful – murder, treason, and rape – while all other crimes were assigned simple prison sentences.

(These three things would remain punishable by death well into the 20th century — rape until 1954, murder until 1976, and treason until 1988.)

“Sodomy” was just one on a list of dozens crimes that ceased to be punishable by death. Interestingly, since “sodomy” covered same-sex rape as well as consensual acts, the maximum punishment for opposite-sex rape (death) was actually greater than for same-sex rape (prison).

Nova Scotia was the first future Canadian province to put an end to its death penalty for homosexuality, perhaps because it was the first to achieve democracy (it had reached this point two years before, in 1848). This meant that Nova Scotia actually abolished capital punishment for “sodomy” before Great Britain. Sadly, Nova Scotia had to briefly bring back the death penalty when it joined Canada, which still had the death penalty on the books.

Canada’s capital penalty for “sodomy” lingered on another two years after Confederation, when – like Nova Scotia – it went over all its laws and rolled back the death sentence for dozens of crimes. In 1869, the Dominion of Canada finally put an end to capital punishment for “sodomy” – six years after Great Britain, and decades after most parts of the United States.

The “worst of crimes”?

What’s astonishing to a modern reader is how the decision to end the death penalty for homosexuality in 1869 provoked nearly no debate whatsoever in the Canadian parliament.

The reform bill lightening the penalty for a large number of crimes came up for debate seven times – five in the House of Commons, and twice in the Senate. While other aspects of the bill were quite controversial, not one Member of Parliament or Senator ever spoke a word against ending the death sentence for “sodomy.” Far more important for them were provisions to allow whipping as a punishment, and whether or not rape should also be on the list of crimes with reduced penalties.

While “sodomy” was never mentioned, the things MPs and Senators said about the bill do shed some light on why the death penalty was abolished. Here are some of the reasons political leaders gave for wanting to reduce the number of crimes that merited the death penalty or whipping:

  • Prime Minister John A. MacDonald said that the purpose of the bill was to make the laws of Canada more like those of Great Britain — and Britain had ended the death penalty for dozens of crimes.
  • A member for New Brunswick said the bill was to make Canadian law more fair, because the new country had been using Ontario’s and Quebec’s criminal laws. He argued that the new country’s laws should reflect the former criminal law of all the provinces.
  • One MP said that if the laws were too strict – so strict that the public would be outraged by the sentence and judges would be unwilling to find people guilty. Thus, the death penalty’s “efficiency in preventing crime would be entirely neutralized.”
  • A senator named Sanborn toyed with the idea of the complete abolition of the death penalty, , and suggested that society was partially to blame for the actions of criminals.
  • A senator named Tessier said that violent punishments were out of step with the modern world.
  • Another mentioned a case in which a man executed for rape was later found innocent, and said that getting rid of the death penalty would help prevent miscarriages of justice.

Again, none of these arguments were made specifically about “sodomy.” But they may be the key that helps us understand the attitudes of judges and lawmakers at the time. The evidence suggests that the authorities believed – and thought the public believed – that homosexuality was immoral and deserved reform, but that it did not deserve death.

Capital punishment had passed out of fashion. It had come to be considered archaic, barbaric, and ineffectual, and was reserved for the most evil of acts. Given that homosexuality was only assigned a minimum sentence of two years, it’s clear that – whatever official rhetoric – no one actually considered homosexuality “the worst of crimes.”

The Aftermath

The bill was passed on May 21, 1869 by the House of Commons, and got its final rubber stamp on June 22 of that same year.

The end to the death penalty for homosexual acts had a rather unpleasant side effect, however. The theory that judges may have been unwilling to convict if it meant executing a criminal for simple immorality seems to have been true – or at least the conviction rate steadily increases after 1869, and exponentially after 1890.

What’s more, the persecution began to take on a nastier hue. Police raids of bars and safe-houses began by the end of the 19th century, and the government gave itself broad powers to prosecute not only anal sex (the only kind of sex covered by “sodomy” laws) but other kinds of sex between men, or even simple acts of affection between men.

This is a story for another day, though. Before we turn toward this post-Confederation Canada, we’re going to take a look at the silence around female homosexuality, and the strange place of Sappho in early Canada.


Sources: The primary for this piece sources were the legislative Journals of the House of Commons (1869), the Debates of the House of Commons (1869), the Debates of the Senate (1869), Statutes of Canada (1869), and the Journals of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly (1850). General information on laws and attitudes of the time comes from sources already cited in previous articles. I added details about the abolition of the penalty on rape, murder, and so on because people keep finding my site looking for this information. The information comes from an Amnesty International site here.

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