This essay traces a lesbian literary history from the works of Charles Dickens and Algernon Charles Swinburne through the 1950s and 1960s. In discussing the former’s Bleak House (1853) and the latter’s 1866 volume Poems and Ballads, the essay demonstrates the emergence of a structure of lesbian literary and erotic practices that is useful for thinking about lesbian literary history as well as its future. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on reparative reading and the school of queer optimism exemplified by José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia undergird the approach to Victorian literature that allows for its reclamation for lesbian use. Furthermore, the essay demands a return to the terminology associated with lesbianism, rather than queerness, because of the woman-centeredness of the texts at hand, structural elements drawn from lesbian sexual and relational practices, and the insufficiency of the term queer in attending to the relationship between these texts and normativity. I suggest that the lesbian reparative ethical, aesthetic, and erotic character of these texts can be seen in their focus on intersubjectivity and radical empathy that blurs the boundaries between self and other. The essay focuses on three primary structures—death and disease (“lesbian bed death”), “the urge to merge,” and “possession”—in authors ranging from Dickens and Swinburne to Patricia Highsmith and Elizabeth Bishop to articulate the ethics of the lesbian merge as well as its potential dangers and, moreover, to argue that the risk of subsuming oneself in another is at the heart of reparative reading.

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