"The journey would have been pleasant in most circumstances ... but because you were there, it was wholly delightful."
— Winifred Holtby, in a letter to best friend and companion Vera Brittain
In Anne of Green Gables, passionately impulsive Anne Shirley throws herself into a friendship with her easygoing neighbor Diana. In a life characterized by a search for what she earnestly calls "bosom friends," Diana is the crown jewel of the collection: A source of unconditional fondness, with a mixture of credulity and skepticism that meant their friendship was familiar and surprising by turns. As a girl, I was both fascinated and comforted by the weight this relationship received: Best-friendship sounded like unknown territory, but also like an important journey for women to take together.
That hasn't always been the case. In The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, Marilyn Yalom — with Theresa Donovan Brown — offers a brief but fascinating overview of women's friendships in a public historical context, from the ancient Greeks (whose philosophers confined women's virtues to the home and discounted them from friendship almost entirely) to The Golden Girls (the height of televised female friendship and tasteful draped tunics — you heard me, ancient Greece). It's been something of an uphill battle: Yalom and Brown point out in the introduction, "Indeed, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, the British Saturday Review posed the question of whether women were even capable of friendships within their own sex."
Naturally, they are — and, as Yalom and Brown point out, always have been, despite a long tradition of diminishing those friendships. The Social Sex reaches as far back as the Bible to stump for Mary and Elizabeth's connection, and dives into missives from medieval convents to reveal the passionate friendships — and sometimes just the passions — of the nuns within.
The convents provide an example of the tricky work the book is doing, attempting to lay out the lines of class and race that define which of its central figures get promoted to posterity. Only nuns with hefty dowries bought the leisure to read and write, convents were often segregated, creating a hierarchy of literacy – and the male clergy seemed preoccupied with the idea that particular friendships could lead to carnal sins. These contextual sketches neatly set the scene; the forceful passion of Hildegard of Bingen in letters to fellow nuns gains new texture when you know they were likely to be read out loud as an example of friends united in the passion of Christ.
The Social Sex also tries to trace the changing public perception of feminine friendship — which, to no one's surprise, became devalued when it was no longer an exclusive benefit of the masculine sphere — though sometimes the authors' suggestions beg for details. (They note the word "gossip" as originally meaning a close friend, but don't examine when, and how, it became a negative.)
This issue of perception becomes a tall order in the Victorian era, where the correspondence of several "romantic friendships" offers all the passion and heartbreak we associate today with sexual romance. Yalom and Brown make no bones about documented lesbian relationships, but are careful to separate devoted bosom friends from queer theory: Without evidence of sex, they suggest, the level of romance that entered the friendship is nobody's business — and not the point. Their emphasis is squarely on on the emotional, social, and political support friendship offers, an approach that eventually characterizes it as its own geography which people inhabit together.
While the narrative tries to be as informative as it is accessible, the closer we get to the present the more brisk the journey becomes. The Social Sex practically sprints through its chapters on the twenty-first century, as if overwhelmed by recent pop culture and social media's effects on the public perception and logistics of friendship. (Who can blame them? That's a book all its own.) But for the minutiae it uncovers, the figures whose correspondence sparks biographical curiosity, and — not least — its insistence on the world-shifting power of female friendship, The Social Sex is a paean to companionship. Share it with a bosom friend.