Gay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton

Tommies and the Game of Flats

Lesbians in England are fortunate in that they have never been hanged, and very rarely imprisoned, fined or exhibited in the pillory for expressions of their love, but the absence of legislation against them does mean that they have been more effectively hidden from history than have gay men. In the eighteenth century, as today, society's fear and prejudice were directed not against homosexuals in general, but specifically against gay men rather than lesbians. The satirists, and even less moralistic members of society, blinded themselves to the possibility of lesbianism. One reason for this is the essentially antifeminist opinion that allowances must be made for "the weaker sex", and anything that women did amongst themselves was beneath serious notice by men. Thus the author of Satan's Harvest Home (1749) condescendingly admits that "Woman Kissing Woman, is more suitable to their natural Softness" (p.54). The commonly held belief that women, like children, are naturally affectionate toward one another, meant that observation of their intimacies seldom gave rise to darker suspicions. Feminine waywardness was not felt to be a matter for grave concern amongst men, and homosexual acts between women have never been recognised by British law. Thus trial records, an otherwise rich source of material on the gay subculture, yield virtually nothing about lesbians, while diaries and memoirs and letters reveal only romantic friendship between literary ladies of the middle and upper-middle classes. Amongst the lower classes, where girl servants slept together, where women did not feel it so necessary to get married, and where women moved more easily along the rough fringes of the criminal classes, I do not doubt that there were a fair number of lesbians, but their lives have not been recorded.

Unfortunately in most of the sources we consult, the descriptions of lesbians are based almost entirely upon masculine fantasy rather than observed fact. Hundreds of documents can be sieved, to yield the bare minimum of facts, mostly obtained from records in countries where various kinds of lesbian acts were criminal offenses, and most of the cases involved transvestism. Two nuns were burned for such behaviour in sixteenth century Spain, and several women were flogged and sent to the galleys in Granada; in France one woman was burned alive in 1535 and another was hanged in 1580; one woman was executed in mid-sixteenth-century Geneva; in the early seventeenth century Sister Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, was imprisoned for thirty-five years for having a two-year affair with Sister Bartolomia Crivelli; two lesbian transvestites were flogged and banished from seventeenth-century Leiden; in 1721 a lesbian transvestite was executed in Germany. Also in 1721, in Hungary, Catharina Margaretha Lincken performed intercourse with another woman by means of a dildo, or artificial penis, an act adjudged "sodomy", for which she was executed; at about the same time, Countess Sarolta Vay of Hungary dressed as a man and married another woman. There is also a small body of curious medical evidence concerning tribades and fricatrices, viragos with prominent pudenda which they purportedly rubbed together in order to achieve clitoral friction.

The evidence that I shall examine in this essay concerns the two major types of lesbian experience in history, cross-dressing and romantic friendship. Because of the paucity of material in English records, it is with some perverse satisfaction for us to note that the eighteenth century was possessed of at least a few prejudices concerning lesbians. In Satan's Harvest Home lesbianism is described as "the Game of Flatts" (p.61) this is a reference to games with playing cards or counters (like poker chips), called "flats", and an allusion to the rubbing together of two "flat" female pudenda. (By the nineteenth century, "flat-fuck" was a colloquial term for lesbian activity; curiously enough, a more recent term for women, "broads", derives from another term for playing cards.) The author happily devotes the whole of one chapter to a history of lesbianism, beginning, of course, with a commentary upon the honoured poetess of Lesbos (p. 18):

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason, it would be expected she should make some Additions to a Science in which Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own and teaches the Female World a new Sort of Sin, call'd the Flats, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's Time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey, as well as at Twickenham at this Day.

The allusion to Lucian is to that author's Dialogues, several of which are spoken by lesbians, and in defence of lesbianism. The reference to the Latin poet is not as learned as it might appear; his knowledge probably goes no further than A Dialogue Concerning Women published in 1691, which cites the description of Sappho's lesbianism in Lucian's dialogues Cleonarium and Leoena, and in Lilius Giraldus' De Poetis. Such references only serve to underline the fact that the author can deduce few examples from his contemporary experience. His lack of knowledge concerning lesbians in London is further exposed by his quoting a tale from Busbequius' Travels into Turkey about Turkish women bathing together, which leads them to burn with love for one another. This is followed by the more intriguing story about an old woman of Constantinople who falls in love with a girl, disguises herself as a man, successfully charms herself into the graces of the girl's father, marries her, is discovered, judged before the city Governor, and soundly chided for her "bestiality". She retorts: "Away, Sir, says she! You do not know the Force of Love, and God graunt you never may". She is sentenced to be executed, and drowned in the sea.

From Constantinople he turns his attention to the Continent, where he is shocked to discover that in France "the Ladies (in the Nunneries) are criminally amorous of each other, in a Method too gross for Expression". In his excess of phobia against foreigners he seems to forget that he has hinted at some scandals at Twickenham; all he will say about his homeland is that although English ladies also kiss one another in public, he seriously doubts that they are lesbians (p.51). His information about gay men, quoted in earlier chapters, is not very trustworthy; his information about lesbians is worthless, except as evidence of prejudice.

During the Restoration there were female rakes as well as the more common male libertine, and the freethinking dramatist Aphra Behn and her husband were an archetypal gay couple. But despite the new freedom of expression and action taken by women in the court or on its fringes, factual details about lesbians is difficult to locate. The Memoirs of the Chevalier de Gramont is our primary source concerning Miss Hobart, Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York. Apparently she made advances to most of the young ladies in the household, but was repeatedly rebuffed. Her first signs of success were with Anne Temple, another Maid of Honour, who was also the beloved of the bisexual rake the Earl of Rochester. Miss Hobart and Rochester intrigued against one another for the favours of Anne, but Rochester eventually won the day and broke up the relationship by publicly accusing Miss Hobart of being a notorious lesbian and a dreadful creature. In the lampoons that circulated at court, Miss Hobart was satirised as a hermaphrodite.

During the eighteenth century, an object of occasional satire was Mrs Anne Seymour Damer, the cultivated sculptor who inherited Horace Walpole's fortune. She was widowed at the age of twenty-seven (her husband got into vast debt and blew out his brains); she never remarried, but developed a close friendship with Miss Mary Berry, who became Walpole's literary executor. After Walpole's death they travelled together on the Continent and in England, and Miss Berry performed in the amateur theatricals that Mrs Damer organised at Strawberry Hill when it became her property. The lesbian nature of her passion is said to be revealed in her manuscript journals in the W. S. Lewis collection.

"Mrs D***r" was the object of A Sapphick Epistle (c. 1778) by the pseudonymous "Jack Cavendish", in which she is encouraged to grant his suit for her hand, although she has a horror of men and marriage. He begins with some back-handed praise of Sappho: "Miss Sappho, who was the first young classic maid that bestowed her affections on her own sex ... when an old maid, and unfit for man's love, she pursued the young girls of Mytelene, and seduced many. She was the first Tommy the world has upon record; but to do her justice, though there hath been many Tommies since, yet we never had but one Sappho". Fair enough.

By Penny-post she sent her odes,
To matrons, widows, whores and bawds,
          And won them to her will:
                          . . .
Thus happy Sappho past her time,
In making love, and making rhime,
          To all the Lesbian maids:
Who were more constant and more kind,
More pure in soul, more firm of mind,
          Than all the Lesbian blades.
                          . . .
Strawberry-hill at once doth prove,
Taste, elegance, and Sapphic love,
          In gentle Kitty *****.

This line is meant to rhyme with "thrive", and obviously refers to Kitty Clive the actress, a frequent visitor to Walpole and a friend of Mrs Damer and Miss Berry. In 1788 Mrs Damer read the epilogue to a play in which appeared another actress friend, Miss Elizabeth Farren, who was victim of another satire prior to her marriage to Lord Derby: "superior to the influence of MEN, she is supposed to feel more exquisite delight from the touch of the cheek of Mrs D––r than the fancy of any novelties which the wedding night can promise with such a partner as his lordship". Mrs Damer was sometimes seen wearing a man's hat, jacket and shoes, and her attachments to other women were no great secret, but they were whispered about rather than fully documented. The author of the satire may have chosen the name "Jack Cavendish" in order to point a finger to Mrs Elizabeth Cavendish, another lesbian member of the Twickenham set, to judge from an obscene pun in Walpole's correspondence: "Lady Dysart is dead too, and Mrs Cavendish in-cun-sole-able".

(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This article may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Tommies and the Game of Flats", Lesbian History, 18 August 2009 <>

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