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"Let's frighten some horses, Tom..."

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July 2006 Email this to a friend
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Tom Foolery
What did Victorian dykes call each other?
By Blanche Poubelle

Tipping the Velvet, a terrific novel by Sarah Waters, draws an intriguing portrait of an underground lesbian community in late Victorian England.

The leading character, Nancy, meets an actress who makes her fortune as a male impersonator on the stage in a provincial town.

Soon Nancy and the actress have moved to London, where they end up sharing the stage (and the bed). Nancy is soon introduced to the society of toms. Toms are women who love other women, or what we would now call lesbians. In Waters's lively imagination, there are hidden tom bars and secret societies of upper-class tom women who keep mistresses and hire women to satisfy their sapphic urges. All in all, an invigorating read. But how close to reality is this vision of 19th-century lesbian England?

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Of course, there were lesbians in England at the time. But the historical evidence of their lives is tenuous, because the social conventions of the time made it nearly impossible for such women to be open about their preferences. What we mostly have are some documentation of women who had devoted relationships with each other, and lived together without men. (The American version was often called a Boston marriage.) Some of these relationships were undoubtedly sexual, but sometimes such arrangements were platonic.

As possible historical evidence, there is also some Victorian pornography that focuses on lesbianism. But like today, most 19th century "lesbian porn" was written by and for men, and reflected male fantasies of sex between women rather than reality.

So Tipping the Velvet is a special kind of fiction-- one that tries to imagine what the largely undocumented lives of lesbians of that era might have been like. Waters not only imagines what the underground lesbian scene might have been like, she even imagines the slang that might have been part of this scene.

"Part of it is making it seem authentic," Sarah Waters comments in an interview at www.moviepie.com. "I researched the slang... but at the same time used words that captured my imagination, and took a few liberties with history. Going back to the 18th century, people did use the word tom, to talk about lesbians, but I don't think as a street-word, and not to quite the extent that I suggested. My purpose was not to be authentic, but to imagine a history that we can't really recover."

Though there is not much evidence that tom was really used for "lesbian," it is the kind of word that might have been. Tom is, of course, a common man's nickname. As a prototypically male name, it has also long been used to talk about male animals. For example, a tom-cat is a male cat, and a tom-turkey is a male turkey.

When tom is combined with boy, we begin to see possible origin of tom for "lesbian." The very first uses of tomboy refer to boisterous or rude boys, as in this 1553 quote "Is all your delite and joy in whiskyng and ramping abroade like a Tom boy?"

However, very early on, it shifted its sense and came to describe girls and women who behaved like this boisterous boys. In a 1579 sermon, one worthy divine wrote, "Sainte Paule meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboyes, to be shorte, they must not bee vnchast." It is interesting that even this early in the 16th century, the idea of tomboy involved both rude, impudent behavior as well as possible sexual irregularity or unchasteness.

So tomboys are girls with characteristics thought to be more appropriate to boys. Even today, many lesbians recall being tomboys as children (just as many gay men were labelled sissies). So it would be entirely possible for tom to have developed into a common slang word for "lesbian." Entirely possible-- but that's probably not what happened, since the historical records don't show it.

Yet historical records are always partial representations of the past. Many things were never written, and so they can't be proved to a scholar's satisfaction. But Waters's creativity allows us to imagine what our hidden linguistic history might have been.

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