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.