Amidst their reformist spirit, Victorians were in many ways romantics. A “language of flowers” developed whereby the type and color of a bloom, and even the way it was presented, could communicate a message. Roses symbolized love, with white roses to indicate an innocent romance and burgundy to hint at insatiable lust. Gay men of the era wore green carnations or pansies in their lapels, and the slur of “pansy” for a gay man comes from this.
While we really don’t know much about how 18th century queer men talked about their relationships, or if they would have identified as gay, we do know there was an emergence of queer language under Queen Victoria. Lesbianism and sapphism came to define women who loved women, and homosexual became a term for a man who loved men.
Because queer women are women, and because sapphism was not a crime and therefore yielded no court records, we know very little about the lives and practices of queer women in England prior to the Victorian era, and even then information is spotty and limited. The failure of past scholars to prioritize the stories of women as much as men is one of the greatest tragedies in the study of history.
One of the few Victorian era women we have ample diaries and records for was Mary Benson. Engaged at twelve and married at eighteen to her much older cousin, Mary was a devout Christian and people pleaser. She was well read with a sharp mind, and all four of her six children who survived to adulthood became published authors. Her husband’s ministerial career was successful and he became the Archbishop of Canterbury.
During all those long years, Mary carried on a series of unrequited romances, trysts, and relationships with many women. Mary outlived her husband and spent her final years living with her lover of many years Lucy, her daughter Maggie, and Maggie’s own lesbian lover Nettie. In her obituary Lucy was described merely as “a family friend”.