I'm starting a series of four articles from a collection entitled Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. After this first article, the others group nicely to cover shifts in cultural understandings of gender and sexuality categories in western Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. If it weren't for the blog's structure of covering the contents of a collection in series, I'd pair this current article with another one I have coming up on the sexual context of cross-dressing in the medieval Middle East. So you'll have to "hold that thought" for another month until I get to it.
I've just spent the weekend in New York City at a conference on dress and fashion in medieval history (which my girlfriend was one of the organizers for) and had the fun of meeting a scholar whose work has appeared in this blog: Francesca Canadé Sautman, one of the editors of the collection Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. Though, in the way of academia, her paper this weekend had nothing to do with sexuality, but was on 15th century Burgundian women's head coverings.
During the end-of-conference discussion session I was tossed the assignment to answer an audience member's question about medieval cross-dressing and gender identity. I'm not sure that my answer was any more coherent than "it's complicated, talk to me during the lunch break." But it was fun to participate to that extent. (And I've been once again inspired to start working on a paper on the topic of medieval cross-dressing for the Kalamazoo medieval congress at some point in the future.)
Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The categorization of gender and sexual irregularity in medieval Arabic vice lists” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Rowson, Everett K. "The Categorization of Gender and Sexual Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists "
Western interpretations of variant sexuality in Middle Eastern societies have often been filtered through stereotypes and Orientalism. There can be a fixation on certain key gender-related social differences, such as the harem and the veil. From an early date, Western commentaries have attributed to Islamic societies the acceptance or promotion of self-indulgence, licentiousness, and sexual deviance--views that often say more about Western attitudes than Islamic ones. This article examines certain aspects of the underlying historic reality of the cultural differences that gave rise to those stereotypes, especially as expressed in “lists of vices” in medieval Islamic literature.
Although legal and medical literature in Arabic also touches on sexual variance, these lists and discussions come from a more literary genre, which gives us better insight into everyday attitudes, at least of their literate, urban, elite, male audiences. The texts are generally encyclopedic works that include stories, proverbs, discussions of literary tropes, and other genres. Not all such works cover sexuality, but in those that do, the structure and organization of the text sheds much light on how their societies viewed gender and sexuality, especially when they strayed into irregular behavior.
The content of the volumes cannot always be assumed to reflect precisely contemporary attitudes, as material that entered the genre, for example, in the 9th century, remained in use unchanged in subsequent collections for the next millennium. New material is added over time, which can provide clues to changes in attitude, but the continuity of material is itself illuminating.
The material covered in this article falls generally under the topic of “profligacy”, that is, behavior that was considered outside societal norms. The literary texts imply a fairly indulgent attitude toward such transgressions, but this cannot be taken literally as indicating indulgence in everyday life. Furthermore, although the author of one of these works may tell stories of profligacy on himself, it can’t be assumed automatically to reflect his actual behavior. But the genre certainly gives evidence for attitudes, especially the humorous material which relies of certain social assumptions and attitudes for its “punchline”.
The humorous anecdotes give evidence for the relative importance of sexual behavior, choice of sexual object, and gender stereotyping. As humor, it pokes fun at those who deviate from approved modes, but without necessarily applying moral judgment. Inappropriate sex was funny but not necessarily immoral. As a literary genre (as opposed to a factual account), the humor could be mitigated by a contrast of desire and action. One might admit personally to inappropriate desires but retain one’s dignity by not admitting to indulging in them. When the humor was directed externally rather than internally, it was more likely to reflect an underlying hostility to the behavior.
As an illustrative example, the author reviews the contents of the 11th century work by al-Jurjānī The Book of Metonymic Expressions of the Litterateurs and Allusive Phrases of the Eloquent, an instruction manual for speaking of indecent or ill-omened topics obliquely. Nine chapters cover sexual matters, in a hierarchical fashion going from the least negative topics to the most negative. The ways that the topics are grouped within these chapters, as well as the hierarchy, give insight into underlying cultural assumptions--in particular, they point up the contrast in Western sexual assumptions with the structures implicit in this text.
The primary focus is on identifying sexually illicit topics, while there is also a cultural assumption that the book’s audience (and therefore the book’s viewpoint) is an adult male whose sexual identity is as someone who takes the active part in penetrative sex. [Note: Although only a small part of the text is relevant to the topic of women having sex with women, it’s useful to have a brief tour of the larger structure.]
The first chapter concerns fornication--that is, a man having penetrative sex with a woman he does not have legal access to. This is followed by three chapters covering other deviations from “normative” sex: failure of the sex act due to male impotence, sex with a virgin, and anal sex with a woman. The next chapter completes the possibilities for illicit penetrative sex: sex with a boy. The book then moves on to non-penetrative sexual activities with a set of topics that might otherwise seem a random collection: inter-crural sex, male masturbation, and sex between women. The common factor, however, is the absence of a penetrative sex act. (Penetration was not considered a typical part of sexual activity between women.) Moving on to less acceptable sexual modes, there is a chapter on an adult man who is the passive recipient of penetrative sex. The last two chapters cover the social context of sex: the question of sexual jealousy (and lack thereof), and the act of pandering (procuring a sex partner for a third party).
For the rest of the article, I’m only going to summarize the section of the one chapter that includes sex between women.
The usual term for sex between women was saḥq literally “rubbing, pounding.” But the metaphoric euphemisms in al-Jurjānī’s work are all male-centered and disapproving (being intended for the use of male poets): “a war in which there is no spear-thrusting”, “a shield with a shield”, “a seashell whose edges close over another seashell”. But at the same time, anecdotes are given that indicate the existence of such relationships. And other euphemisms are given that appear more neutral, such as saying that someone “eats figs” to imply sex between women. [Note: I'm going to guess that this is a image metaphor of a ripe fig that has split open, to display the pink flesh inside, and is specifically a reference to oral sex.]
Another author, al-Rāghib (The Colloquies of the Litterateurs, also 11th century?) has a few more details on the possibilities of sex between women, including the use of dildoes (though this specific element is placed in the chapter on penetrative sex, again showint the hierarchy of concerns--the point isn't the type of partner, but the act of penetration). Al-Rāghib includes an anecdote in which a woman expresses a preference for saḥq over heterosexual sex, but outweighs it with several in which sex between women is presented as a dispreferred option. There is also a general failure to distinguish between female masturbation and sex between women. In general, saḥq is framed as a rejection of men (and typically of penetration in general) and he cites a legendary origin of the practice in pre-Islamic times in a love affair between an Arab noblewoman and the wife of a Christian Arab.
Although sex between men in Arabic sources sometimes involves feminization of the passive partner, there is no indication that sex between women was associated with women taking on masculine traits or dress. Nor is there any reference to an active-passive distinction between women (where such a distinction is critical to the acceptability of male-male relations). There are literary references to women adopting masculine behaviors: wearing male clothing, carrying swords, riding horseback, etc. (more in the 7-8th centuries when the practice of seclusion was less rigorous) but this was not associated in the popular mind with sexual irregularity. One class of ritualized female cross-dressing was the ghulāmīyāt--slave entertainers who dressed like pubescent boys or young men (complete with painted mustaches in some cases)--which were popular in 9th century Baghdad. However this form of cross-dressing was associated with providing pleasure to men who enjoyed sex with boys, not to an adoption of a male role in reference to a female sexual partner. [Note: I have another article coming up in the queue that goes into this topic in more detail.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20c - Book Appreciation with Elizabeth Bear
(Originally aired 2018/03/17 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or other guests) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Elizabeth Bear recommends a favorite queer historical novels:
· Everfair by Nisi Shawl https://www.amazon.com/Everfair-Novel-Nisi-Shawl/dp/0765338068/?tag=skpl...
· Everfair is a alternate steampunk history of colonial Congo, with a lovely wealth of queer characters rooted in the historic understandings of sexuality of the times.
For further information on Elizabeth Bear see her Patreon or the show notes for the previous episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast when she was interviewed.
No transcript is available for this episode.
Any time I'm obsessed with a particular text, I'm likely to spend a fair amount of effort to hunt down as much of the scholarly literature on it as I can. (I don't think I can ever exhaust my interest in commentary on Yde and Olive!) For one thing, lesbian historical studies have something of a history of jumping to lesbian-friendly interpretations of texts or persons, and it can be essential to examine contrary opinions. Clearly I need to track down Susan Lamb's analysis to see what I think of her arguments on Mademoiselle de Richelieu. (It will, of course, have no effect on my irrational fondness for this highly peculiar text.) Every time I read another study of this work, I get excited about the fiction project that it inspired in my imagination. Not the straightforward novelization that I first conceived, but something of a time-slip story, overlaying the original fiction with a pair of modern characters that include a woman studying the text. So many writing projects, so little time!
Gonda, Caroline. 2006. “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu” in British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 29, no. 2: 191-200.
Gonda examines the rather peculiar mid-18th century text The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu within the context of cross-dressing narratives and as a lesbian-like narrative (she doesn’t use that specific term), as well as comparing it with its highly abridged knock-off The Entertaining Travels and Surprizing Advenrures of Mademoiselle de Leurich.
Mlle. de Richelieu is an eclectic and peculiar text, including numerous digressions on hereditary monarchy, religion, philosophy, various types of literature, and travel narratives, as well as the core picaresque adventure retained in Mlle. de Leurich that Gonda concisely sums up thus: “The narrator/heroine Alithea de Richelieu dresses as a man, calls herself the Chevalier de Radpont, and goes around Europe flirting with women, mostly avoiding duels with men, hearing love-stories and scandals from the people she meets. ... [N]o one sees through her disguise, but she reveals her true sex to the charming widow Arabella, who is delighted by the revelation and becomes her inseparable companion: Alithea and Arabella, both dressed as men (and accompanied by their maids, Lucy and Diana, cross-dressed as their valets de chambre), wreak havoc in women’s hearts in Italy, Spain, and Portugal before returning to France (by way of England and the Low Countries), resuming their female dress and identities and settling down together, six months a year in Paris and six months in the country.”
Gonda summarizes some of the past literature on this text. Carolyn Woodward concludes that the heterogenous text is what allows and conceals the transgressive nature of the content. Susan Lamb views it as an anti-feminist satire, especially with its repeated emphasis on how two women cannot consummate their relationship, and suggests that it may instead be a gender-flipped account of a male homoerotic couple. Susan Lanser identifies it as “sapphic picaresque” and considers the homoerotic content bound up in the adventure setting.
The anonymous authorship contributes to the ability to postulate such different readings. The text presents itself as a translation (which might hypothetically explain some of the internal dissonances) but there is no corroborating evidence that it actually was originally in French as claimed. Lanser views the incongruities as part and parcel of the inherent queerness of the text.
Within the general context of “transvestite narratives” Mlle de Richelieu breaks convention. Joseph Harris’s study of 17th c French cross-dressing stories notes that they only temporarily challenge gender roles, returning to the status quo at the end, often by means of marriage. The conclusion of such narratives typically coincides with the revelation of the cross-dresser’s “true sex”. In contrast, it is Alithea’s revelation of her true sex to Arabella that initiates their travels together.
Another contrast with the texts that Harris studied is Alithea and Arabella’s continual flirtation with homoerotic desire, in contrast to the more usual situation where homoeroticism (though expected in the text) arises from an unwitting female admirer agressively pursuing the more restrained and avoidant cross-dresser. (The exception being texts where the cross-dresser is using her disguise to distract a female rival through feigned seduction.)
Alithea and Arabella, in contrast, regularly seek out women to court and flirt with, though they always draw back at the end. Gonda notes that the use of “whim” or “whimsical” in this context can be seen as an 18th century code word for lesbian desire. As when Arabella says of Alithea, “that unaccountable Whim of yours, of dabbling in Amours and Gallantry” as well as many other similar references in the text. “Unaccountable” is another keyword in contexts of female homoeroticism.
Arabella and Alithea also break the pattern of the “female husband” narrative, which is based on a sort of butch-femme model. Rather than embodying a gender contrast, they are both simultaneously butch (when traveling together in male disguise) or simultaneously femme (when they eventually settle down to live together as women).
It is not Alithea’s masculinity that secures Arabella’s desire, but her revelation of her female identity, uncovering her breasts, at which Arabella embraces her “with transports rather of a lover than of a friend.” Their erotic response to each other is intensified by the contrast between their public (male) appearance and their knowledge of their private (female) identity. Alithea, having initiated the cross-dressing adventure and encouraged Arabella in the game of flirtation with women, becomes obsessed and jealous of Arabella’s success at the game and women’s resposne to her.
Although one might see (as Susan Lamb suggests) a shadow of a male homosocial bond--two men as comrades using their flirtations with women as a way of intensifying their friendship--the text itself addresses this, showing male comradeship as false and dangerous.
The two women joke regularly about their attractiveness to women and egg each other on, ghost-writing letters for each other to the women they toy with and describing the imagined desire those women have for their comrade. When speaking directly of each other’s charms, it is typically in a projected male voice, imagining how a man would react (or how each of them would react as a man). They do not reject the possibility of desire for a woman, but rather make it possible to experss their desire for each other by voicing it as an imagined man.
The language in which they imagine the desire of men for women (it makes the men happy) stands in contrast to how they imagine women’s desire for men (it is a threat, a curse, foolish). Thus, they conclude that the idea of love is for a woman to be in love with a cross-dressed woman for she can enjoy the joys of love without being betrayed and disappointed by the “dull brutal conclusion” of heterosexual sex.
This theme is elaborated in one of the many digressions, this one involving yet another cross-dressing woman that Alithea is attracted to, not knowing the woman’s true sex, but only appreciating her “effeminate delicacy.” This woman, Miss Courbon, is in disguise to escape a forced marriage. She and Alithea encounter each other, each beliving the other a man, resulting in an unsettled reaction in Alithea who considers it out of character for her to be attracted to a man. It isn’t until Alithea is made aware of Miss Courbon’s true sex that Alithea enters enthusiastically into a flirtation. (Susan Lamb notes that the location in Paris where the two first encounter each other was a notorious cruising ground for male homosexuals, which contributes to her theory about authorship. The nature of the location is not touched on the text itself.) This episode occurs early in the text (pre-Arabella) and is the first of Alithea’s flirtations to be described, establishing the pattern that her affairs with women occur in the context of dual cross-dressing.
Thoughout the text, women who allow themselves to be seduced by men habitually suffer as a result. Miss Courbon eventually is one such, with the negative consequences described in more detail than others. Miss Courbon follows a more typical cross-dressing narrative: disguise for the purpose of avoiding forced marriage, inadvertent attraction between women, shift attraction to a man and resume a female presentation, get married. In the conventional cross-dressing narrative, this is the desired conclusion. Here, the rejection of that narrative is seen as making her fate tragic.
While Mlle. de Richelieu breaks with the French transvestite-story conventions, it also fails to follow British conventions for this genre. The pattern in 18th century British fiction is for the cross-dressing woman either to be re-confined in heterosexual domesticity, or punished harshly for her transgression of gender norms.
In the conclusion, Mlle. de Richelieu creates a “double vision” where Alithea and Arabella can be seen either as a “happily ever after” lesbian romantic conclusion, or as a displacement and denial of lesbian desire, always projecting it onto other women.
I know I've mentioned it before, but I do love having a local book-centered convention that is literally a ten minute drive away. Bonus points for the Walnut Creek Marriott having a lobby-cum-bar that is absolutely ideal for socializing in. Except for one brief, minor bout of social anxiety when I didn't have a dinner group lined up for Saturday evening. ot was all good. (Note: I will leave some meals deliberately not pre-arranged to give myself the opportunity to meet up with people spontaneously who I might not feel comfortable approaching for specific arrangements. And that's exactly what happened in this case, once I'd determined to bluff it out and settled myself into an empty table in the lobby traffic zone.)
Great high-energy presentations from Honored Guests Andrea Hairston and Ada Palmer. This year I got to the late night comedy "liars' panel" (improv tall tales in response to moderator questions) which was a hoot.
I was on three program items. The early Saturday morning panel on Faust and his literary offspring had great attendance (given the time) and (if I may say so) great synergy among the panelists. We talked about the various versions of the Faust story itself, its uses in other works, what the parameters of a "Faust-type story" might be, and what the various versions of the story say about attitudes towards knowledge and/or pleasure. Was Faust the hero of his own story? And in the end was he damned or redeemed?
My first panel, on Friday afternoon, was on meta-fiction: the use of narrative within the narrative, or of cross-boundary interactions between audience, author, and content. Lots of examples of different types of meta-fictions (including a discussion of whether 1st and 2nd person narrativion is itself inherently a meta-narrative). I got to talk a little bit about meta-narrative in Mother of Souls and how the creation of the Tanfrit opera enabled the characters to critique and analyze their attitudes towards their own invisible character arcs.
My third panel was a fairly open-ended discussion on the romance genre as an antidote to the despair of living in a dystopic society. (It was one of two romance panels, the other being the somewhat misleadingly named "Bonkers Romance" talking about plots and tropes that would be hard to get away with anywhere other than that genre. I was in the audience for that one and got to hear my own books being recommended--in all sincerity since the recommender hadn't connected them with me!) I did feel a bit out of place on occasion in the "Romance for the End of the World" panel because the discussion routinely slipped into the assumption that every romance plot has a man in it somewhere (either as m/f or m/m), as well as a regular conflation of romance with erotica. Still a fun discussion, just occasionally a bit alienating.
I've kept meaning to volunteer to be more involved in the running of FOGCon, and since they put out a plea for more people to get involved at the closing roundup, I put my metaphorical hand up once more. (I triedt to volunteer a few years ago and nothing came of it, but they may have had plenty of people back then.)
And then here I am back home, with no jet lag and another hour of daylight.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20b - Interview with Elizabeth Bear
(Originally aired 2018/03/10 - listen here)
One of a series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about
· Elizabeth’s upcoming steampunk novel Stone Mad, an independent sequel to Karen Memory. Set in an alternate late 19th century Pacific Northwest, Karen navigates her way past murderers, corrupt politicians, and arcane conspiracies the help of a steam-powered armored sewing machine, the other denizens of the disreputable Hôtel Mon Cherie, and her girlfriend Priya.
· How Karen Memory started out as a YA novel and what happened next
· The importance of voice in how the stories developed
· The roots of the world in Verne, Wells, and actual history
· Future stories involving Karen Memory
· The difference between writing grim versus hopeful worlds, even when bad things happen to your characters
· The social, historical, and political context of thePacific Northwest that made it a perfect story setting
· Basing stories on cultural patterns as opposed to events, and why Elizabeth doesn’t write actual historical fiction
· Elizabeth’s early experiences discovering SFF with queer characters and the importance of representation in fiction
If you have questions or comments about the LHMP or these podcasts, send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
No transcript is available for this episode.
I guess it doesn't help to have an "upcoming events" feature on my website if I don't fill in my schedule until I'm actually at the event! (Only remembered to make my hotel reservation two days ago, for that matter.) Fortunately, when you're dealing with a convention that's literally 10 miles down the road, being a bit discombobulated has fewer consequences.
In any event, here I am at FOGCon. I'll be on several programming items today and tomorrow, talking about things like meta-fiction, the inherent feminist nature of romance novels, and Faustian bargains.
Lately I've been thinking about a topic in the general field of literary gatekeeping. To some extent, these thoughts were inspired by my new venture as a contributing book reviewer at The Lesbian Review. One of the reasons Sheena has been urging me to join the reviewers there is that they didn't have anyone who specialized in historical fiction, so for the most part, historical fiction simply wasn't getting reviewed. And since historicals are a favorite genre of mine...
But when you think about it, that's a big responsibility: to be the primary reviewer for a specific genre at a review venue. Historicals are only one of the genres I read (I'll be reviewing other things for TLR as well--probably mostly mainstream books with lesbian protagonists). And I'm not a prolific reader, not in comparison to most professional reviewers. (Though I have to remember that when the reviewers you hang out with include people like James Nicoll and Liz Bourke, you can get a skewed notion of reviewer reading prowess!) So that means that even with the relatively small size of the lesbian historical fiction output (and it hadn't really hit me how small it is until I started putting together the forthcoming books segement for my podcast), I'm going to be filtering what I read (and therefore what I review) based on my own idiosyncratic tastes.
That means that there are topics and subgenres within lesbian historical fiction that probably won't get reviewed for TLR at all simply because I'm not reviewing them. For example, I'm less interested in reading 20th century historicals, not very interested in the most popular formula for American western/frontier stories, and not really interested in books with significant erotic content. As an individual reader, that's just my taste. But as a reviewer, that filters out some significant market segments. It's neither fair nor right, but it's a thing.
The Lesbian Review isn't the only review site that has this sort of de facto gatekeeping. For example, I love reading the reviews and columns at Smart Bitches Trashy Books (a general romance review site). Although historical romance is a major interest of the site, and although there are occasional reader requests for recommendations for f/f historical romance there, the sole SBTB reviewer who specializes in lesbian romance isn't interested in historicals. So they don't get reviewed. And one of the unintended consequences of that is that the reader threads asking about lesbian historical romance have the mistaken impression that there's essentially none being published. It's not only an inadvertent gatekeeping of publicity, but an inadvertent gatekeeping of knowledge itself. Similarly, review venues that cover the whole LGBTQ spectrum but have a single reviewer to represent the entirety of L fiction are going to reflect that one person's specific reading tastes. (And I can pretty much guarantee you that those tastes will be contemporary romance.)
Any time that access to a field goes through a single person, we can get the illusion of representation without the reality. This is a constant issue in discussions of diversity in the book world, whether it's the one POC agent at a literary agency or the one "diverse book" on a publisher's line-up. By definition, a single access point cannot be "diverse" and a full sense of the field requires triangulation from multiple viewpoints. But the effect can't be laid on the shoulders of that single access point. Each agent, each reviewer, each acquisitions editor (each writer for that matter) can and should reflect the things they absolutely love. What the world needs is more loves--more different loves from different angles.
This isn't a critique of the venues that host those single-point inadvertent gatekeepers. Especially in the field of book reviews, the work is mostly done as a labor of love. It's a field where "shoulds" can kill any interest in continuing at all. Rather, it's a caution to consumers. Never assume that what you see is all there is to get. Never narrow your information sources down to a single venue. Because you're going to miss some great books that way. I know I do.
Other than my fairly rigid schedule of LHMP posts and the Bingo series, my blog spreadsheet tells me I haven't posted much in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes all the overlapping deadlines and commitments conspire to knock out the time I'd normally spend brainstorming blogs. In the present case, it's been a combination of scrambling to get some LHMP material together, all of my investigations at work going from "waiting on someone else to do something" to "you need to get this turned around right now," and spending half of last week serving my jury duty--the first time in my life I've actually been selected for a trial that went to completion. The jury duty was a fascinating experience. I was satisfied with our verdict, though left angry by some of the events we needed to rule on. And I was unprepared for how exhausting it was to alternate between waiting around for things to happen with paying very intense concentration to the testimony. Most exhausting was the hour or so spent in deliberations (especially since I sort of volunteered/was volunteered to be foreman). I've blogged in detail about the experience on my Dreamwidth account, but I'm afraid it's only accessible if we're mutuals there. (I don't lock Dreamwidth posts very often, but I wanted a layer of privacy for some of what I was talking about.)
So since I don't have new and interesting thoughts to post here today, I figured I'd cheerlead about some recent and upcoming stuff, just as a reminder:
This biography falls outside the Project’s pre-20th century scope, but I already owned the book and since I featured an interview about a show based on Carstairs’ life on the podcast, it felt like a good excuse to cover it in the blog. The shifting experiences and receptions of Carstairs’s same-sex relationships over her lifetime provide something of a tour through 20th century lesbian history, though of course Carstairs herself was insulated to an astounding degree by her wealth and connections. Carstairs was definintely gender non-conforming and adopted a number of masculine-coded attributes, including a preference for the name Joe. However there seems sufficient evidence in her own writings to conclude that she did not consider herself transgender, and so I have followed the book's lead in using female pronouns.
And not to put too fine a point on it, Carstairs was not exactly a socially and politically progressive icon. While many aspects of her transgressive life appear glamorous, and while she did embrace some improvements with regard to social and economic conditions for “her people” in the Bahamas, she was solidly imperialist, colonialist, racist, and classist and when she was able to, she ordered the lives of those around her in a manner that was autocratic and sometimes cruel. But she is a part of lesbian history as much as more palatable icons are.
Summerscale, Kate. 1997. The Queen of Whale Cay. Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-88018-3
Marion “Joe” Carstairs was born in 1900, heir to a fortune, courtesy of her grandfather’s involvement in Standard Oil, and became famous in the 1920s as a motorboat racer and celebrity. She dropped out of general notice in 1934 when she bought an island in the Bahamas and moved there to found something of a private kingdom where she entertained her fellow celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as a long string of female lovers such as Marlene Dietrich. She was know for eccentricities such as favoring masculine clothing and for her mascot, a doll named “Lord Todd Wadley” that she treated as something of an alter ego.
[Note: Like many eccentrics of her class and era, she was conservative in politics and unrepentantly imperialist, as well as embodying the racist and colonialist attitudes of white British culture of the time. While the author of this book tends to report these attitudes without comment, I have omitted some of the more offensive elements in my summary and so feel the need to point it out more explicitly.]
[Second note: I feel the need to embrace the possibility that, if born in a later age, Carstairs might have had a trans identity. Certainly she falls on the trans-masculine spectrum. But the information in the biography seems to me to fall solidly on the female and lesbian side, so I have followed the author in doing so.]
By the time of Carstairs’ death at age 93, she was essentially forgotten, both in her exploits and her scandals. The author of this biography was assigned to write her obituary for The Daily Telegraph and uncovered a story that she thought warranted more research and a full history. That story came from old newspaper clippings, friends and lovers still around to be interviewed, and a series of tape recordings that Carstairs made in the 1970s for an abortive project of having her autobiography ghost-written. The tapes are especially revealing, showing a woman who did very little self-reflection or analysis of her own life and motivations. She was; she did; but the whys and wherefores she dismissed as unimportant.
Although her inherited wealth made Carstairs’ transgressive life possible, she worked hard to dissociate herself from her parents, choosing her own gender-neutral nickname at an early age (before eventually choosing “Joe”), and later claiming she didn’t even know her father’s given name--though he left the marriage shortly after Carstairs’ birth, so this might be forgiven. That father was British and was the connection that brought her from the company of American oil barons to London society. Her mother remarried a series of Englishmen, but Carstairs had little affection for her half-siblings. She describes her youth: “I was never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer,” and told stories of a rough and tumble adventurousness. Her mother in turn seems to have had little interest in her, except for a possessive jealousy that led to interfering with any emotional attachments Carstairs tried to make with other adults in her childhood.
Carstairs developed an early fascination with boats. Even by her own account she was a violent and unmanageable child, leading to her being put into an American boarding school in order to separate her from her half-siblings at age 11. It was during this period that she gravitated toward masculine clothing and the company of other girls who did so. She had crushes on her school-fellows, though she claimed they never progressed to sexual encounters at the time.
During World War I, she developed an ambition to become a doctor and her grandmother arranged--over her mother’s objections--for Carstairs to go to France as an ambulance driver. During this period in Paris she discovered the joys of sex with a fellow ambulance driver, among other women. Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde, was one of her lovers and part of Natalie Barney’s circle in Paris, but Carstairs was only on the periphery of that glittering crowd. It was Dolly who taught Carstairs how to invent her own public persona.
In 1918, Carstairs had a break with her mother over her lesbianism, and though Carstairs tells it that she told her mother what do do with her threats of disinheritance, shortly afterward she married a childhood friend Count Jacques de Pret, most likely to avoid losing her inheritance. The two parted immediately after the marriage and both took pains to note that it was never consummated.
After WWI, Carstairs took her love of motor vehicles to supporting the British anti-Republican activities in Ireland, where she again fell in love with a number of like-minded unconventional women. Then in 1919 it was back to France to help with post-war cleanup. All this was hard physical work with a certain amount of danger. The nature of the work required maasculine-style dress and it often attracted women who transgressed traditional gender roles. (This chapter of the book includes extensive repetition of a slur used for the Chinese laborers they were working beside, as well as quoting some very racist commentary. I note this for the sake of full representation but decline to repeat any of it.)
Shortly after being demobilized in 1920, Carstairs’ grandmother--and champion--died in New York. Carstairs played at being poor while waiting several years for the will to be settled, though in fact trust funds gave her an extremely comfortable income. She and her army friends set up an all-female chauffeur business in London, perhaps to prolong the sense of transgressive freedom they had during the war. Their clientele was extremely varied and included tours and international travel as well as local service. [Reading the details, I kept imaging a tv historical sit-com revolving around the company and its activities!] Despite devoting herself to the driving service as a business, Carstairs had an estate in Hampshire. And in 1924 when both her mother’s and grandmother’s wills were finally settled, Carstairs became extremely wealthy. She commissioned “the best motorboat money could buy” and set out on the next stage of her life.
The state of the art in motorboats at the time were hydroplanes--very fast, but unstable and fragile. Boats were as likely to be destroyed in the race as to win. Carstairs took on a full time boat mechanic named Joe (they had fun with the name coincidence) who would be one of the many associates she “looked after” financially life-long. Then she began winning races, not consistently, but regularly, expressing an addiction to the thrill and hazard of the speed.
Carstairs attracted a regular flock of girlfriends, from high society women to showgirls. This was typical of the racing celebrities, though Carstairs’ relationships were less openly discussed by the press than her male compatriots’ were. In 1925, while on holiday with her “secretary” Ruth Baldwin (who seems from the evidence to have been the deepest love of her life), Carstairs received from her as a present the doll that would become her mascot and icon. She had an aversion to the idea of children in her life, but the doll, “Lord Todd Wadley” becomes something of a child substitute.
The 1920s (sometimes called “the lost generation” in Britain) was an era of theatricality and abandon. The fashion for androgyny that also produced the “flapper” style, manifested in Carstairs and others in gender-bending and cross-gender clothing styles. The war had produced a gender imbalance due to massive male casualties which lessened the pressure on women to stick to a traditionally feminine role in society. Carstairs acknowledged that she “looked like a boy” during that era, but disclaimed a butch or transgender identity, saying, “I was not a stomper.” Carstairs had many friends and lovers among the theatrical set, including Gwen Farrar for whom her first racing boat was named. Among the well-known actresses within her circle was Tallulah Bankhead.
Having taken all the major speedboat competitions in the light 1.5L engine class, Carstairs turned her sights on the unlimited-power Harmsworth trophy, a competition where the wealth to build large fast boats was key. After several failed boats and spectacular mid-race catastrophies, she eventually gave up on that ambition, saying that the sport was just too expensive.
By then--the late 1920s--public attitudes toward lesbians had turned from amused tolerance to condemnation. Lesbianism was attributed to athleticism (as opposed to the reverse!) among other causes, leading to disapproval of women in active pursuits like racing. The press coverage of Carstairs’ life and exploits became more biting, and in 1931 she set off on a round-the-world voyage to escape the gossip and would thereafter spend only visits in Britain. Initially bouncing between London and New York, her relationship with Ruth--always quite open in terms of fidelity--soured and they parted ways. Carstairs built and lived on a sequence of luxury yachts and then, in 1934, bought Whale Cay, a small island in the Bahamas, where she would reign like a queen.
The population of the Bahamas in 1930 was over 80% black, with most of the white population concentrated in the capital of Nassau. Carstairs’ Whale Cay was inhabited when she bought it by a black couple who tended the lighthouse--and that was all. Several previous owners had tried business ventures there that failed. Carstairs set to work building roads and a home. She complained that the local population (“the natives,” she wrote) didn’t like work and had to be taught the construction and road building skills she needed. But her building project attracted local labor and also brought in a company store where they could spend their wages. Carstairs’ Spanish style mansion was complete in 1936. In addition to the mansion and store, Carstairs rebuilt the lighthouse and built a power plant, radio staion, schoolhouse, and museum, as well as supporting agriculture on the island and experiments with a fish cannery. She bought several more small islands nearby for more agriculture, and dredged out a harbor on Whale Cay.
On Whale Cay she had the power and control over her life and socializing that had become difficult in England. She could entertain guests or eject the unwanted. She dispensed an idiosyncratic form of local justice to her employees and their families and was fond of crude and sometimes terrifying practical jokes inflicted on her guests or chance visitors.
In 1934, Carstairs’ longtime partner Ruth Baldwin died of a drug overdose in England. Carstairs built a church in her memory on Whale Cay, with memorial services held for her annually. A startling number of Carstairs’ close friends from the ‘20s and ‘30s died relatively young in the years around 1940, with drugs and alcohol playing a significant part.
The descriptions of Carstairs’ dictatorial rule over “her people”are a bit stomach-turning. She wanted to help the local people “better themselves” but her rhetoric was steeped in racism and paternalistic colonialism. Except for the rather circular cash economy of the island, she might as well have owned the inhabitants outright. Conversely, her racism toward Bahamians didn’t preclude having the occasional black girlfriend among her theatrical friends, including Blanche Dunne and Mabel Mercer. And in some of her Bahamian political activism as well as visits to the American South, she could take overtly anti-racist stands. A complex woman. Her combative and dictatorial approach undermined her own efforts for local social reform and by 1941 when World War II caused large shifts in the Bahamian economy, she had both made enemies of the white elite and lost the momentum, of her social improvement projects among the black population. Although Carstairs tried to support the war effort, both personally and by the offer of some of her ships, no good fit for her efforts could be found.
The author of the biography goes off on two chapters of extended metaphor, viewing Carstairs as a Peter Pan figure, and then as being in the tradion of Carribbean pirates.
Carstairs had a rather tempestuous affair with Marlene Dietrich in the late 1930s. After it broke up, Carstairs began emerging more into society again. She did some sea rescue work and brought her ships into use for local commercial transport in place of vessels that had been conscripted for the war. In the mid 1940s, Carstairs decided to take up flying and proposed building a small-plane airport near Miami that was never approved. [Note: In her wealth, eccentricities, and love for fast vehicles, Carstairs keeps reminding me a bit of Howard Hughes, although unlike Hughes the wealth was entirely inherited rather than a product of eccentric genius.]
Through the 1950s she had a series of long-term girlfriends, but in the late 1950s, age began catching up with her, with arthritis in her legs and other ailments. By the 1960s, her rule on Whale Cay was being challenged by the black residents who were increasingly disinclined to behave like subjects. When she sold Whale Cay in 1975, she claimed it was due to increased drug trafficking, but it seems likely that the way of life she as accustomed to had become untenable.
Carstairs lived in Florida until 1990, with summers in the northeast, always near the sea. She still maintained many personal connections, though often through the medium of financial support of people who had once been close to her or helpful to her. She had a distrust of people she couldn’t bind with money. In 1978, saying she “had it with these fucking women” she invited a man she’d met on Long Island to move in as her hired companion and friend, and he stayed with her until her death.
The emotional center of Carstairs’ life had increasingly become her mascot Todd Wadley and other dolls. Like many eccentric rich people, she made a habit of regularly changing her will toward the end of life, shifting her bequests according to her shifting relationships with friends and relatives. After a long decline, Carstairs fell into a coma in December 1993, a few weeks short of her 94th birthday, and died later that same night. The doll, Todd Wadley, was cremated with her and their ashes, combined with those of Ruth Baldwin, were entombed over the sea on Long Island.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20a - On the Shelf for March 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2018.
It’s been a busy month here at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and I’m really excited about the things we have coming up to share with you, not just this month but in the year to come.
The Fiction Project
If you’ve been following along on the blog, you’ll already know the lineup for the podcast fiction project. When I finished the first read-though of submissions, I knew immediately that I had a problem: there were just too many good stories that I wanted to buy. Fortunately, I could solve this with an executive decision. Rather than buying two stories for a half-year trial run of the fiction project, I just went ahead and bought four to cover all the "fifth Saturday" episodes for the entire year. That will also give me more data to see whether and how I want to extend the fiction project in the future.
I haven't decided on the order of appearance for the whole season yet, but here are the selections in chronological order of setting:
I'm especially happy that after I'd identified the best stories I'd received, I found I also had a broad variety of time-periods, cultures, and types of story. We have young love and love returned to late in life. We have adventure and quiet friendship. We have women who transgress gender norms and those who find love within conventional structures. We have happy endings, bittersweet ones, and stories where the eventual end is yet unknown. I'm so excited to be able to bring these stories to my podcast listeners!
At the time I’m recording this, I’m still sorting out which story will debut the series at the end of the month. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy all of them, no matter which one comes first.
Publications on the Blog
I have a number of different approaches to choosing which publications to cover in the blog. Sometimes I try to pick ones that relate to the theme of that month’s podcast, like when I did my month-long special on Sappho and her poetry last year. I’ve done a little of that this past month with two biographies of actress Charlotte Cushman. One by Lisa Merrill, published in 2000, looks very specifically at how Cushman felt about her relationships with women and how she carefully managed the way they affected her public reputation. The second biography, by Joseph Leach and published in 1970, makes a strong contrast as well as an interesting case study in how historians and biographers have actively worked to erase queerness from the subjects of their study. When I chose these books to blog, it wasn’t so much to have a coordinated theme this time, but because I needed to read them to put the podcast together. I’m starting the March blogs off with another coordinated publication: a biography of speedboat racer and lesbian celebrity “Joe” Carstairs, which ties in with the interview at the end of this show.
Sometimes I’ll choose publications for the blog simply because something came to my attention and I wanted to read the material anyway. That was the case with the three linguistics-related articles that started off last month’s blogs. I was a little disappointed by the one by Mary-Jo Bonnet on the chronology of words for lesbians in French because gaps in her data undermine some of her key conclusions. The other vocabulary-related article by Randy P. Connor was interesting in part for having an extensive vocabulary list of terms used for both male and female homosexuals in pre-modern France. And I was really delighted with Diane Watt’s close examination of the phrase “clipping and kissing” as used in 16th century English, and how it was used in an English translation of the story of Yde and Olive to indiacate sexual activity between the two women. I’m going to digress for a moment of academic fangirl squee, because a couple weeks ago Professor Watt tweeted a link to my blog in connection with a different publication of hers that I’d included. And--oh man!--nothing quite like the panic of realizing that someone’s actually paying attention to what you’re saying about their work.
Getting back to how I choose articles. Sometimes I’ll line up a small group of publications from my to-do list that have a related theme, like when I had a group of three books on sexuality in the middle ages that I covered last fall. Sometimes I’ll just wander into the library in my house and grab something at random that I haven’t covered yet. But sometimes timing and logistics pushes me in a particular direction. Covering a substantial book in a single blog, like I did for the Cushman biographies, takes up a big chunk of time. So for the next couple months I’m going to focus on journal articles instead, and try to line up a few months’ worth to give me a bit of a breathing space.
So just to let you in on a bit of my process in how I do this: I spent Last Saturday in the Cal Berkeley library with a spreadsheet of call numbers and a cell phone app that turns photos directly to pdfs. I started out with a list of 70 articles to try to track down and made my way through about 50 of them before I ran out of time. From those 50, I ended up with 28 photocopied articles, plus 8 books that I identified as being useful enough that I went online and bought them. (Although I really wish there was a non-Amazon site that aggregated second-hand book listings conveniently.) The rest of the items that I worked through on my list either weren’t on the shelf or were available only in electronic form.
Such a variety of options gives me the chance to pick a few to start with that coordinate with this month’s essay, which is an adaptation of a blog I wrote on the theme of falling in love with cross-dressing women in historic literature. So I’ll fill out the rest of the March blog spots with Caroline Gonda’s “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu”, Kristina Straub’s “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”, and Ad Putter’s “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History” which is particularly intersting as it discusses positive portrayals of men cross-dressing as women in medieval literature.
As I mentioned, this month’s essay will be an adaptation of a blog I wrote a couple years ago on the use of gender disguise in historic literature as a way of creating a context for same-sex attraction and how various different texts handled the consequences of that attraction. I’ll be adding some further analysis of how the gender disguise trope in historic literature creates a site of intersection for both lesbian motifs and transgender motifs and how it can point out some of the inherent problems with modern identity groups trying to lay exclusive claim to people or works in the past that existed within an entirely different set of models for gender and sexuality.
This month’s author guest will be fantasy and science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear, in celebration of the release of her second Karen Memory book, an alternate history steam-punk adventure featuring lesbian protagonists. Elizabeth is a wonderfully entertaining guest and you should go out and read Karen Memory now so that you’ll be ready for Stone Mad when it comes out later in the month. More details on that are coming up in the next segment where I talk about forthcoming books.
I’d also like to congratulate last month’s guest, Ellen Klages. The novella we talked about, “Passing Strange” has been nominated as a finalist for the Nebula award. The Nebulas are a set of awards voted on by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America organization. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the members of that organization find it the most brilliant novella of the year, like I did. (I know that as a SFWA member, I’ll certainly be voting for it.)
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Let’s talk about some new historical and historically-inspired books coming out this month. Because there are so few lesbian historical books overall, I cast a fairly wide net in this ongoing segment and indicate whether a book is purely historical, is set in real-world history with fantastical elements, or is historically inspired but set in an alternate history or alternate world.
Of course, the first book to mention is the one our featured author will be talking about, the steampunk alt-historical Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear, coming out from Tor.com. Here’s the blurb:
“Readers met the irrepressible Karen Memory in Elizabeth Bear’s 2015 novel Karen Memory, and fell in love with her steampunk Victorian Pacific Northwest city, and her down-to-earth story-telling voice. Now Karen is back with Stone Mad, a new story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker―a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City. Karen and Priya are out for a night on the town, celebrating the purchase of their own little ranch and Karen’s retirement from the Hotel Ma Cherie, when they meet the Arcadia Sisters, spiritualists who unexpectedly stir up the tommy-knocker in the basement. The ensuing show could bring down the house, if Karen didn’t rush in to rescue everyone she can.”
In the purely historical category we have The Northwoods by Jane Hoppen coming out from Bold Strokes Books. It’s a historical romance with the fairly popular setting of the American frontier in the mid 19th century, involving a cross-dressing woman passing as a man. The blurb says:
“In 1853 Wisconsin, Evelyn Bauer’s husband dies and, to support her children and their farm, she must disguise herself as him and work the logging camp for the winter. Sarah Bell has lost her partner Abigail to pneumonia. When she’s offered a job as a cook's helper at the logging camp, she has little choice but to go. The two women secretly forge a friendship as they struggle to survive the harsh environment. As Evelyn’s and Sarah’s feelings grow, tension silently builds and their unspoken passion will either force them apart or bind them together forever.”
A book that looks like it may stray over the line a teensy bit from history into alternate history is Free to Love by Ali Spooner and Annette Mori from Affinity Rainbow Publications. This is a pair of intertwined stories set in the Carribbean. The date isn’t clear from the blurb, but it looks like either the later 18th century or early 19th century
Ali Spooner’s contribution is The Chandler’s Daughter. “Captain Hillary Blythe loves sailing the Atlantic Coast on her journeys to deliver goods. Appalled by the growth of slave trade, vowing to find a way to help her thoughts turn to piracy frequently. Will helping those enslaved jeopardize her life, and the life she hopes to have with the Chandler’s Daughter?”
The other story by Annette Mori is Forbidden Love. “When Captain Blythe brings a small group of rescued slaves to a mission on Antigua, life for Elizabeth Allen changes forever. Elizabeth feels an instant connection to Kia, one of the young women. A devout Christian, Elizabeth struggles to align her feeling for Kia and her devotion to the church. Will Elizabeth allow the forbidden love she feels for Kia, or will faith over-rule her heart?”
The fourth book I found this month is more of a fictionalized biography: Undiscovered Country: A Novel Inspired by the Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It’s written by Kelly O’Connor McNees and published by Pegasus Books. Here’s the blurb: “In 1932, New York City, top reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok starts each day with a front page byline―and finishes it swigging bourbon and planning her next big scoop. But an assignment to cover FDR’s campaign—and write a feature on his wife, Eleanor—turns Hick’s hard-won independent life on its ear. Soon her work, and the secret entanglement with the new first lady, will take her from New York and Washington to Scotts Run, West Virginia, where impoverished coal miners’ families wait in fear that the New Deal’s promised hope will pass them by. Together, Eleanor and Hick imagine how the new town of Arthurdale could change the fate of hundreds of lives. But doing what is right does not come cheap, and Hick will pay in ways she never could have imagined. Undiscovered Country artfully mixes fact and fiction to portray the intense relationship between this unlikely pair. Inspired by the historical record, including the more than three thousand letters Hick and Eleanor exchanged over a span of thirty years, McNees tells this story through Hick’s tough, tender, and unforgettable voice. A remarkable portrait of Depression-era America, this novel tells the poignant story of how a love that was forced to remain hidden nevertheless changed history.”
Remember that I can only include forthcoming books in this regular segment if I know they exist. So if you have or know of an upcoming book that might fall in the category of lesbian historical fiction, let me know so I can check it out.
Instead of the usual Ask Sappho segment in this podcast, I have a short interview with composer and artist Phoebe Legere about her off-Broadway musical about the life of Marion “Joe” Carstairs, an heiress, celebrity, and speedboat racer, whose life spans most of the 20th century and traces the changing experience of lesbian identity throughout that period. Phoebe Legere seems quite a colorful character herself and is very excited about the topic of her one-woman show. At the end of the interview there will be information about when and where the show will be performed and a special deal for our listeners.
Interview with Phoebe Legere
[Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find time to transcribe the interview before posting this. If I’m able to do so in the future, I’ll add it to this transcript.]
* * *
And that wraps up this month’s look at what’s on the shelf. I hope you’re looking forward to this month’s podcast features as much as I am!
Notes and Links
Publications on the Blog
New and Forthcoming Books
Musical about Marion “Joe” Carstairs