(Originally aired 2018/07/14 - listen here)
In this episode we talk about
One of the serendipitiously enjoyable things about deep dives into history is discovering personal connections between unexpected people. When I did my podcast on actress Charlotte Cushman, I was stunned by how she fit into an enormous network of literary, political, and artistic women of the mid 19th century, operating across Europe and America. My imagined "girl gang" here is purely one of the imagination. Fanny Hill was a fictional character--the protagonist of John Cleland's novel about a "woman of pleasure" (i.e., prostitute) whose sexual initiation by another woman brings her under the scope of this project. Catherine Vizzani was a real person--a cross-dressing woman-loving adventuress--immortalized after death in a biographical and medical treatise by the Italian anatomist her performed her autopsy. Cleland produced a heavily abridged translation of that treatise for an English audience. Lady Mary Whortley Montagu was a traveller, a writer on Ottoman Turkey, a feminist, and a proponant of women's rights and freedoms, including sexual freedom (as practiced in her own life). Donato's article explores the intersection of those figures and puts forth a theory that one purpose of Cleland's translation of Vizzani's story was as a thinly disguised satire on Montagu. But I'm imagining a different intersection, somewhere in the historico-literary afterlife, where the three women get together to dish, compare stories, and laugh at the men who tried so hard to thwart them.
Donato, Clorinda. 2006. “Public and Private Negotiations of Gender in Eighteenth-Century England and Italy: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Case of Catterina Vizzani” in British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29. pp.169-189
Two figures provide a lens for the complexity of British systems of gender and sexuality in the mid 18th century: John Cleland (most famous for his novel Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and Mary Wortley Montagu (poet and correspondent, most commonly mentioned in the LHMP for her descriptions of life in Ottoman Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador there). The intersection of these two illustrates a dynamic whereby prominent literary women were attacked via an archetype that merged sexual looseness and literary productivity--an archetype that held up the classical poet Sappho as its core model.
Montagu’s reputation as an independent traveler, a writer on “questionable” subjects, and a person of suspect sexuality drew the abuse of male writers such as Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, and Horace Mann and made her a subject of gossip among the British community in Italy where she lived for some time. Montagu, in turn, responded assertively to these attacks and continued to champion the sexual rights of women, especially single and widowed women, against the hypocrisy of both social and legal strictures.
John Cleland was another of the figures who made Montagu a target of satire and bile, using her as part of a general strategy of profiting from the public fascination with female desire and agency. His attacks generally were camouflaged via anonymity, innuendo, or by indirect representation as in the subject of this article.
The story of Catterina Vizzani was written up by the Italian anatomist Giovanni Bianchi, recounting the story of a woman who lived for a number of years as a man, engaging in romantic and sexual relationships with women, and was revealed to be a woman in the context of her violent death. [Note: there seems sufficient evidence from her request to be buried in female clothing to identify her as a cross-dressing woman rather than a trans man, but both framings should be kept in mind.]
Cleland translated (and heavily edited) the Italian text for an English audience, adding his own commentary and spin to pique ribald interest, as when he expanded on Bianchi’s descriptive title “Brief History of the life of Catterina Vizzani, Roman, who for eight years wore the clothing of a male servant and who, after many vicissitudes, was killed and discovered to be a maiden during the autopsy performed on her cadaver” to add the details “was killed for an amour with a young lady”, that she “narrowly escaped being treated as a saint by the populace”, and appending “with some curious and anatomical remarks on the nature and existence of the hymen.” He also adds editorial remarks to emphasize the exploration of Vizzani’s anatomy, lifestyle, and sexual practices so that his readership would know what they were getting. It is via this emphasis on transgressive sexuality, the Italian context, and the parallels of Vizzani’s and Montagu’s movements driven by discovery and critique of her sexuality that Cleland’s apparently straightforward translation can be viewed as a personal and political attack on Montagu.
[Note: At this point in reading the article, I was a bit skeptical about the connection, but let’s follow the logic as it is laid out.]
To understand Cleland’s “spin” of the Vizzani text, we must first examine Bianchi’s text and his purposes. Bianchi’s text was first published in 1744 and was intended to secure his reputation as an author of solidly objective scientific and social analysis. Bianchi had performed the autopsy on Vizzani and had taken pains to research her history and correspond with people she had interacted with who had direct information about her. To some extent, Bianchi made the narrative as much an autobiographical study of his own career as a study of Vizzani’s life. His research included correspondence with fellow anatomist Antonio Leprotti who tracked down information about Vizzani’s family and travels.
Leprotti’s correspondence also makes reference to two key points: Bianchi’s motivations in documenting and presenting Vizzani’s case history, and mentions of Horace Walpole as a friend and patron who was interested in the case. Walpole had a personal animosity against Montagu for her friendship with his father’s mistress and second wife, and his probable role in the transmission of Bianchi’s text to England makes this relevant.
Bianchi’s own motivations for writing the treatise had a large element of self-promotion. He was engaged in a struggle with colleagues to move the study of anatomy from a paper exercise to a direct experimental study and was losing that struggle, in part due to personality issues. Vizzani’s case presented the opportunity to show the importance and relevance of the direct study of anatomy and how it could be used to explore both social and medical questions. In particular, Bianchi was interested in debunking the belief that associated women with sexual interest in other women with deviant anatomy. [Note: see the topic tags “enlarged clitoris” and “hermaphroditism”.] He also presented arguments for tolerance with regard to sexual preference and argued for a theory of gender identity that was divorced from physiology.
Both of these angles were lost on Cleland, and his work, rather than following Bianchi’s enlightened position, remained entrenched in a focus on prurient interest in women who loved women, and an expected association with “monstrous” anatomy. And he turned Vizzani’s story into a roman-à-clef intended to be recognizable as a satire on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. At least, this is what Donato argues, saying that contemporary readers were expected to easily see a connection between the two figures due to the intersection of the Italian location, traveling, and gender transgression.
Cleland had already made a name for himself with the erotic novel Fanny Hill and was looking for opportunities to exploit that reputation while maintaining the superficial appearance of moralizing. Translation of existing texts was an efficient means to that end, and Vizzani’s story was only one of a number of texts that allowed him to editorialize on “gender, failed masculinity, and deformed female sexual taste and practice.” Where Bianchi’s text had argued for acceptance and open-mindedness, Cleland framed his translation as condemnation of lesbian or transgender figures such as Vizzani. [Note: Donato specifically includes the potential transgender framing here.]
Bianchi used his discussion of the treatment Vizzani received for her ultimately fatal gunshot wound as an indictment of the two distinct groups who interacted with her. The nuns at the hospital to which she was brought, on discovering her anatomical sex, celebrated her attributed “virginity” even in the face of her possession of an artificial phallus and awareness of her sexual adventures with women. The medical faculty of the University of Siena who were called in also focused on the sensational aspects of Vizzani’s case, and in particular their fascination with her anatomical “virginity” (i.e., intact hymen) that they failed to provide any useful medical treatment for her injuries, thus helping to precipitate her possibly needless death. Bianchi portrays them as lascivious thrill-seekers, only belatedly concerned with medical matters after the patient was dead. His call for physicians to treat patients without regard to the patient’s identity and behavior aligned with his other attempts to reform the profession, including his support of fellow anatomist Laura Bassi, the first woman to graduate from the University of Bologna.
Although Bianchi’s text includes references to Vizzani’s sexual activities (including her sexual aid and her positive reputation among her female partners), his focus is not on titillating descriptions but on showing her attempt to develop a role in society that would enable her to live her desired life and experience a stable and happy romantic relationship. These attempts included a surprising level of support from her family, friends, and employers, although that support was confined to helping her express her desires within a heteronormative framework. Bianchi’s discussion of anatomy in this context is to debunk the notion that abnormal female desire was associated with abnormal bodies and genitalia.
Donato moves on to the parallels in Vizzani’s story that could be correlated with Montagu’s life. 1) Vizzani dressed and lived as a man, while Montagu had picked up the habit of wearing Turkish trousers for their comfort (and possibly to provoke reactions). 2) English literature of the time was fond of using the “medical case history” genre as a cover for the publication of erotic texts that otherwise would be taboo. 3) As early as the Renaissance, English people had developed and embellished a stereotype of Italians involving sexual license in general and homosexuality in particular. 4) Further, Venice was in many ways the western portal to the Orient and picked up some of the fascination with orientalist sexual fantasies. (Remember that Montagu had a strong connection with Ottoman Turkey.) Italy became a “sexually suspect space” where gender was reconstructed and which was a dangerous source of potential contamination of “foreign” sexual mores--an image that was both threatening and arousing.
Montagu’s personal life was certainly rich in events that created an air of gender and sexual transgression. Her “Turkish letters” included frank observations on Ottoman women’s lives that had not been accessible to male writers and visitors. Her entrance into Italian society was via a relationship with the bisexual Venetian philosopher Franceso Algarotti, for whom she left her estranged husband. But of more concern to her contemporaries was her independent travel and vociferous support for women’s independence and freedom. Her smallpox scars were converted by rumor into the symptoms of syphilis, implying punishment for these adventures. (As a side-note, she helped introduce an early version of smallpox inoculation that she encountered in Turkey into English practice.)
Donato provides a detailed chronology of how Bianchi’s text could have come to the attention of Cleland and issues around censorship and suppression of sexually explicit texts both in Italy and England.
If Vizzani’s story is a commentary by Cleland on Montagu, it is not the only one. Somewhat more transparently, the figure of “Lady Bell Travers” in his Memoirs of a Coxcomb is intended to represent her, with a strongly parallel backstory.
Cleland’s editorializing on Bianchi’s text shows a bewilderment with Bianchi’s neutral attitude toward Vizzani’s life and actions. He wonders about Bianchi that “it does not appear that he has assigned any cause whatever, or so much as advanced any probable conjecture on this extravagant turn of her lewdness” and then adds his own speculations on the “cause” of Vizzani’s sexual orientation: that she “had her imagination corrupted early in her youth, either by obscene tales...or by privately listening to the discourses of the women who are too generally corrupt in that country”. Also perhaps “she received an incitement from her constitution...to those vile practices which, being begun in folly, were continued through wickedness.” And finally that “nor is it unreasonable to believe that by degrees this might occasion a preternatural change in the animal spirits and a kind of venereal fury, very remote, and even repugnant to that of her sex.” Cleland could not abide Bianchi’s open acceptance that some women enjoyed sex with women and ran through the entire litany of popular explanations: corruption through exposure, an unnatural constitution, sin, madness. (The one popular explanation that he was unable to claim was abnormal anatomy, since Bianchi made a significant point of refuting this.)
Cleland’s additions also betray anxiety about the possibility that Vizzani’s example could lead other women to consider men unnecessary and superfluous, either by imitating men themselves or by satisfying themselves with female lovers who did so. He appends another anecdote about a “female husband,” framed as being motivated by deception and greed, and adds a reference to a similar case involving “a very vicious woman, in a country that it is not necessary to name” which Donato takes as referring directly to Montagu.
[Note: while I am not entirely convinced by the strong version of Donato’s theory that Cleland’s work was understood at the time as a direct reference to Montagu, this discussion of the deeper background of Bianchi’s work and intentions, as well as the analysis of Cleland’s motivations and his distortions of the text, are a valuable addition to the understanding of Vizzani’s story. I am now desperately interested in whether a more scholarly and literal translation of the original has ever been done. I did a podcast on Vizzani that includes extensive excerpts from Cleland’s edition.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 24a - On the Shelf for July 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/07/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2018.
I’d like to give a shout-out to all the listeners currently at the Golden Crown Literary Society conference, even though I doubt any of them will be listening to this podcast until later. It’s a pretty jam-packed event.
July is actually a quiet month for me this summer, after the scramble that was May and then catching up from that scramble in June. And then August gets busy again, with the World Science Fiction Convention, although at least this time it’s in driving distance for me rather than involving international travel. I hope to pick up some author interviews at Worldcon, though I haven’t sorted through the details yet.
And speaking of author interviews, this month’s guest will be Justine Saracen, who is a prolific writer of historical and historically inspired fiction. These days she’s best known for her World War II novels, but we also talk about some of her other books that explore earlier eras and the connections they make in history across time.
Publications on the Blog
During June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog presented some primary source material about lesbians and love between women, with a few other topics brought along for the ride. I started out with excerpts from the 16th century German Zimmern chronicle, which includes an account of a peasant girl who was known for courting other girls. Her life presented a puzzle for the chronicler, but she doesn’t seem to have been condemned or subject to legal prosecution. The chronicle also includes an account of a trans woman serving as a cook which is equally fascinating in the apparent lack of significant consequences.
This article was followed by extensive excerpts from Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies. Brantôme was a bit more interested in titillating gossip and sensation than in sober sociological observations, but he provides what is likely to be reasonably reliable information about how lesbian activity among the 16th century French aristocracy was viewed, and even more interestingly, what sort of vocabulary was used to talk about sexual activity. Sorting through the various translations of his work also gives a useful picture of how historical material about women’s same-sex relationships has been quietly suppressed and erased from the historic record.
I took a break from the series of primary texts to celebrate entry number 200 with an article on queer material in Welsh literature over the centuries, and then continued with two excerpts from a sourcebook on 17th century English women’s lives that illustrate same-sex experiences and gender transgression.
July’s accidental theme will be a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, and in many cases an examination of how same-sex sexuality was used as a social and political tool for managing women’s public lives.
Emma Donoghue looks at how 17th and 18th century texts re-envisioned of lesbians as hermaphrodites and how the association of same-sex activity with physiological otherness was used to manage public understanding.
Clorinda Donato looks at how John Cleland’s translation and revision of the account of Italian lesbian and passing woman Catherine Vizzani can be seen as a veiled attack on his contemporary, celebrity traveler and writer Mary Wortley Montagu.
The next article, by Jacqueline Holler, connects with the previous in terms of how society pathologizes women whose actions they want to condemn for unrelated reasons. It looks at the trial and confessions of a 16th century holy woman, heretic, and sexual outlaw being investigated by the Inquisition in Mexico, and examines the ways that sexual transgression has been linked to heresy and witchcraft across the ages in order to increase the condemnation of each of them.
Susan Lanser’s work has focused on the early modern period, and in the article I cover here she looks at the political implications and uses of women’s same-sex relationships--both platonic and sexual--in 17th century England. How women used networks of same-sex friendships to build political agency and how those networks could also be a context for expressing and normalizing, or concealing, sexual relationships.
Tim Hitchcock’s study of sexualities in 18th century England includes the chapter I cover on the development of homosexual subcultures, with an examination of how men’s and women’s experiences differed during this era.
I’m almost at an end of the collection of short articles that I scheduled for this summer so I’m starting to look ahead to tackling some longer books in preparation for the fall.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of books, what do we have coming out this month in the way of new historical fiction?
J B Marsden tackles the fuzzy and difficult intersection of passing women and trans men in the American West in The Travels of Charlie from Sapphire Books. I describe it that way because the blurb identifies the character as becoming “the man she always thought she should have been” and then shifts to masculine pronouns. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t provide a personal evaluation of how this is handled, but if you’re looking for a historical novel that acknowledges the gender issues as well as the sexuality issues, you might want to check this one out. Here’s the blurb: “In 1884, Charlene Dieter needs a new life, away from unwanted male suitors and from Jo, her best friend who has rebuffed her romantic overtures. Charlene finds her new self in “Charlie,” the man she always thought she should have been. Charlie decides to start a new life in Illinois, motivated by letters from a cousin of Charlie’s deceased dad. Kitty McIntire, a young woman managing her prairie farm after her father’s death, also fends off a suitor, John Cameron. John, however, presses on, despite a rival for Kitty’s attentions in cousin Charlie, newly arrived in their small town. Charlie does his best to be a farmer, but sustains injuries that lay him up. Kitty attends him while he recuperates, and they begin to fall in love, when circumstances force Charlie to let Kitty in on his secret. Charlie and Kitty together face the escalating verbal and physical attacks from John, as he tries to get Kitty and her farm for his own purposes. Will John come between the love that Charlie has found with Kitty? How can they, two women in a time that men rule, bring John to justice?”
The two World Wars are always a popular setting for lesbian fiction due to the social disruption and opportunities that wartime afforded. Kelly Wacker’s Holding Their Place from Bold Strokes Books takes advantage of that setting. The blurb says, “It’s 1916 and the end of World War I seems nowhere in sight. Dr. Helen Connery, a reserved British doctor at a field hospital in northern France, knows that a woman surgeon is as good as any man. Working tirelessly to save the lives and limbs of soldiers brought to her from brutal battlefields, she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to a vivacious and enigmatic volunteer ambulance driver. Julia March awakens feelings Helen thought she’d buried long ago. When they are offered a four-day stay by the ocean, a private reprieve from the war provides an opportunity for sexual awakening. Together Helen and Julia discover that goodness, love, and passion can be found in the most unlikely and even dangerous places.”
When dealing with fantasy novels that have a setting inspired by history, but are clearly not set in our own world, I always have the question of where I should draw the line of whether to include them. The next two books fall within that questionable zone and, as usual, I’ve leaned in the inclusive direction for the selfish reason of having more content for this episode.
The third installment of Rebecca Harwell’s “Storm’s Quarry” series, Shadow of the Phoenix from Bold Strokes Books, looks like it falls solidly on the fantasy side, though using imagery inspired by the middle ages. Here’s the blurb: “Nadya and Shay have built a quiet life together away from the island city-state of Storm’s Quarry and their outlaw vigilante identities, the Iron Phoenix and the Shadow Dragon. When that idyllic life is shattered by the arrival of desperate news from home, Nadya and Shay make the difficult choice to return to Storm’s Quarry. They find Storm’s Quarry razed, the blood of the Duke drenching its stone, and the fragile peace with the powerful Kingdom of Wintercress destroyed. With their home in need of its masked protectors once more, Nadya and Shay join the resistance, infiltrate enemy lines, and seek the aid of an old foe in a mad plan to save the city that endangers both their lives and their future together. But in the final battle for the fate of Storm’s Quarry, even their powers may not be enough.”
Natalie Debrabandere’s self-published Thyra's Promise is also a fantasy, but one claiming a specific time and place for the setting, as noted in the blurb. “897 A.D - in the Highlands of Scotland. Thyra of Asger, wild, tough, and beautiful, has just turned twenty-one. Raised like one of the boys by her older brother Bjarke, she has become a strong and proud Viking warrior. Now, all she wants to do is live a life of adventure and travel. When the moody and violent Bjarke fails to take her seriously, Thyra finds someone else who does. Kari Sturlusson, of the Volsung clan, is older, wiser, and commander-in-chief of her people. Over the course of a magical summer, she becomes Thyra’s mentor, her teacher, and her lover. But the Asger and the Volsung share a bitter and cruel history. Winter will bring with it blood, destruction, and devastating heartache. The end of a cycle, and the beginning of a journey; transformation, and a startling choice to make. In the end, will Thyra’s promise hold true?”
And I’m going to claim podcaster’s privilege to mention a book that is not at all historic, being a dystopian near-future thriller. But the author is a good friend of mine whose work I’ve loved in the past, and because it’s coming out from a mainstream press, readers who only follow lesbian publishers may not be aware of it. The book is A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell, coming out from Harper Collins. The basic premise is a gender-bent Sherlock Holmes re-visioning, with both Holmes and Watson being queer black women. Here’s the blurb: “Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay. Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.”
Back in May, my sister podcast Les Talk About It had an episode about drag kings, that prompted a historic question about whether there were earlier examples of anything similar to drag king performances before the 20th century, or at least before the burlesque and music hall era that featured cross-gender performers of all types. So this month’s Ask Sappho question is credited to Sheena, our fearless leader here at the Lesbian Talk Show.
Any time you ask the question, “Did X exist in history?” it’s essential to start out by defining, “What do you mean by X?” If the question here is, “Did performers using the term ‘drag king’ exist before the 20th century, the obvious answer is no. The term “drag” to refer to male actors wearing female clothing hasn’t been dated earlier than 1870. The named occupation of drag queen came later, and the use of the parallel term drag king even later than that. So we can set aside the question of terminology and come up with a functional definition.
Here’s the definition that it seems most useful to use in searching for earlier examples: a type of performer who identifies as female and has a physiologically female body who creates an explicit performance portraying a male character, usually in a theatrical context, where the audience is aware of the performer’s gender and where part of the attraction of the performance is the contrast between performer and role.
There are some other aspects to the current drag king phenomenon that are better treated as optional if we’re looking for historic roots. Currently, the target audience for drag kings is typically assumed to be female, but we’re going to exclude a lot of interesting historic examples if require that. Another aspect is the question of whether one purpose of the performance is erotic attraction. I think we can make this optional, because it would be hard to argue that erotic attraction has been an essential historic aspect of drag queen performances. So it seems unfair to require it of the female equivalent. But it does seem to be the case that drag king-like performers in past ages inevitably bring an aspect of erotic attraction, due to gendered differences in how cross-gender play is interpreted.
Given these parameters, we can exclude examples where a physiologically female person moves through the world in a male role, either for reasons of gender identity or to enable economic or romantic goals, where the people they’re interacting with are not meant to be aware of the performance. Another category that we may want to examine more closely would be women playing male theatrical roles in an all-female context, such as schools or convents, where it is less of a specific professional choice to play a cross-gender role. But that line gets tricky to draw.
This survey isn’t going to be exhaustive by any means. It’s just a set of examples I can call up easily from my existing research.
One of the recent articles I covered in the blog looks at a social role that developed in the Caliphal court of Baghdad beginning in the 9th century. The story goes that the Caliph had such a definite sexual preference for young men and eunuchs that the hereditary succession was in danger. So his mother took action and had some of his concubines dress up in male clothing to see if they could better entice him. The word ghulāmīyāt means “boy-like” but the aesthetic that developed for the ghulāmīyāt aimed for the transition from boyhood to adulthood, including painting on false moustaches among other cosmetic idiosyncrasies like writing poetic verses on their cheeks. In general, these institutionalized cross-gender roles--both the ghulāmīyāt and a parallel role of men performing female roles--did not aim for “passing” as such, but for a blending of gender signifiers. For a ghulāmīyā, this included license to behave in masculine-coded ways, in addition to the visual presentation, as indicated in praise poetry addressed to them which mentions intellectual, musical, and sporting pursuits more usually associated with men.
Ghulāmīyāt were almost always slaves attached to the court or to the aristocracy, though there are rare mentions of free ghulāmīyāt. This means that the role was normally an imposed one, rather than a personal gender expression, and it was separate from accounts of “masculine” free women who adopted male attire and pursued martial exploits (a category not associated with same-sex interests), or with accounts of female same-sex behavior which are most typically mentioned in connection with enslaved women. There are no references to the ghulāmīyāt being associated with lesbian behavior.
So with the exception that the target audience of the ghulāmīyāt being men and not women, I think we can count them as playing a similar role to drag kings.
A recent article I covered discussed gender play in the context of medieval tournaments, and how men would perform cross-gender roles as part of pageantry along with roles that crossed the class boundary and the secular-religious boundary. Examples of women participating in gender play at tournaments are rarer, but here are two that fit our guidelines of an overt cross-gender performance.
The first is literary rather than historical, being part of a 13th century German chivalric romance. In this story, the men of a town are away negotiating a peace treaty and the women decide to hold a tournament in their absence, each taking on the name and appearance of a male relative and participating in the tournament as a man. I’m not so certain that I’d count this as a proto drag king performance because the intent doesn’t seem to have been to perform as a man, so much as to perform as a knight. And to be a knight, at least in the usual sense, one needed first to be a man. But it does fit the requirement that the performance was overt rather than for the purpose of disguise, and that they women involved were deliberately playing a role rather than expressing an identity.
The second tournament example comes from real life (at least as presented), and was discussed recently on the blog where I included the original primary source. In the mid 14th century, in Britain, a group of women showed up at a tournament “as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety.” If we take the account at face value, this was not a serious attempt to be taken for men, but rather to be clearly women dressed as men--just as the male cross-dressing at tournaments was never meant to be taken literally. And here we seem to have the element of erotic attraction as part of the performance. Or at least the chronicler felt this was a consequence, for he notes they “wantonly and disgracefully displayed their bodies.” We should keep in mind the stark differences in male and female fashion in this era, with women’s dresses being long and loose, concealing the legs entirely, while men’s clothing had recently become short and very revealing of the legs, which were encased in skin-tight hose. So a female body in male clothing was far more revealed in shape than expected.
In pre-modern times, it was unusual for a woman to openly wear male garments in her everyday life. At least, unusual for her to do so with no consequence. But sartorial gender transgression might mean adopting specific garments that were coded as male. There is a long history of women adopting male upper garments while continuing to wear skirts and this was often treated as if it were as daring as wearing an entire male outfit. In late 16th and 17th century England, there was something of a “gender panic” around people of both genders wearing specific styles and garments that were considered to belong to the other.
Few went as far in this regard as Mary Frith, more commonly known as Moll Cutpurse. Given how she was portrayed on stage in her own lifetime, this does seem to have gone as far as wearing trousers rather than skirts. But if we’re considering Moll Cutpurse as a proto drag king, I think we have to question whether this counts as a theatrical performance, as opposed to being a full-time expression of personal identity. On the other hand, she often treated her life as a theatrical performance, so perhaps we should credit her after all.
In my initial definition, I’ve more or less excluded women who passed as men in the context of military service, since by definition it was not an overt performance but a covert one. But there’s one context where I think such women might be considered to cross over into proto drag king territory. Reactions to such women, if they were discovered, where mixed. Sometimes being strongly negative, but sometimes viewing their actions as praiseworthy and patriotic, although still unacceptable. Some women, such as Hannah Snell, who served in the British military in the mid 18th century, turned her forced retirement into a theatrical profession. She appeared on stage in her male uniform, performing military drills and singing songs. She also sold her story to a publisher and found other ways to parlay her history into something of a living. So although she may have entered military service for economic reasons--and there are no clear indications that there was a question of gender identity--I think we can consider that her conversion of that notoriety into theatrical celebrity puts her squarely into the drag king camp.
When people think of cross-gender performance in the context of medieval and Renaissance theater, they most often think of the prohibition on women on stage in 16th century England that laid the groundwork for some of the convoluted gender play in Shakespeare’s works. But it didn’t take long after women entered the profession for them to turn the tables and begin playing male roles on stage. Beginning at least in the 18th century, actresses began claiming male parts openly. In many cases one of their goals was to use the erotic attraction of the ability to display the shape of their bodies more fully in order to advance their careers. But there are also notable examples where the female audience were eager consumers of that display.
18th century English performer Charlotte Charke was famous for playing male roles on stage. And if she doesn’t perfectly fit the guidelines set out for our proto drag kings, it’s only in that masculine performance shaded over into her everyday life as well. In fact, there are valid arguments to consider whether she may be reasonably classified as trans-masculine rather than viewing her masculinity purely as theatrical performance. She spent several periods living as a man full time in various non-theatrical professions, and at other times went about in male clothing semi-openly, or at least with the awareness of the women she associated with. She definitely used her masculine presentation to flirt with women, even apart from as possible long-term romantic relationship. I think she’s in a gray zone for several reasons, but somewhere in the drag king ancestry.
I did a previous podcast about 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, who was also celebrated for her male roles on stage. I think she fits the guidelines much more clearly, as there is little question that she identified as a woman, and her sartorial gender play off-stage tended to be limited to accessories rather than full outfits. Her male roles, and especially her Romeo, can definitely be viewed as drag king-like performances. A great deal of the appeal--especially for her female fans--was the dual knowledge that she was a woman performing a male role.
For a more direct precursor to the drag king profession, Clare Sears, in her study of cross-dressing in 19th century San Francisco, looks at the whole range of professional cross-gender performance, from tourist-oriented burlesque and “freak” shows that focused on shock and titillation, to “gender illusionists” who held a tenuous position as respected artists. This included performers such as male impersonator Ella Wesner appearing in 1871--about whom the newspapers lamented that perhaps it was better that she was performing in male-only venues or all the women would certainly fall in love with her.
I hope this gives a few snapshots of theatrical gender impersonation across the centuries that gives a rich and deep background to the profession of drag king.
* * *
Ask Sappho Source Material
This article, written in 1993 (which I will remind readers is 25 years ago) feels rather outdated with regard to both the language and views of the topic. This article was published two years before Donoghue’s masterwork Passions Between Women and no doubt represents some of the contributory research and thought that appears there. But given that the topic would be best considered through multiple lenses--not only a lesbian lens, but a transgender one and and intersex one--it should be considered an introduction to a topic that deserves deeper interrogation. That said, some of the primary sources that create the early modern image of the tribadic hermaphrodite are worth a closer look for those interested in portraying not only views of women who loved women in that era, but the context of ordinary interactions that they were considered to deviate from.
Donoghue, Emma. 1993. “Imagined More than Women: Lesbians as Hermaphrodites” in Women’s History Review 2:2 199-216.
A survey of the intersecting concepts of the hermaphrodite and the tribade in 17-18th century British writing.
The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.
In early modern Britain “romantic friendships” between women were tolerated and even encouraged as long as they were considered non-sexual, and prosecutions for lesbianism, per se, were practically unknown. But a variety of other means were available for persecuting women who had sex with women, especially social satire. Women who passed as men, including those who married women--of which there are a surprisingly large number, when you dig though the evidence--were obvious targets for overtly transgressing the rigid gender boundaries. But lesbian activity was a motivation for accusations of gender abnormality even when cross-dressing wasn’t involved.
The idea of the hermaphrodite as a person with intermediate or indeterminate physiological sex had a long tradition with many changes over the centuries in how hermaphrodites were understood, defined, and regarded. Homophobia was a regular factor in attitudes toward hermaphrodites due to the problem of defining what constituted “natural” sexual activity for a hermaphrodite.
[Note: The historic concept of the hermaphrodite sometimes focused on physiology and thus corresponds to intersex conditions, but sometimes it focused on gender performance that transgressed heteronormative norms, and thus encompassed homosexual behavior. Because of these shifting definitions, it’s more useful to use the outmoded--and admittedly potentially offensive--term “hermaphrodite” as used in the historic texts under consideration, than to try to substitute a less offensive modern term that would fail to reflect the necessary ambiguity.]
In the early modern period, where “sodomy” had shifted to being used almost exclusively for men, the sexual implications of hermaphroditism had become attached almost exclusively to women, and specifically to the image of the tribade. That attachment went both ways: persons identified as hermaphrodites were assumed to be involved in tribadism, and women who engaged in sex with women were assumed to have hermaphroditic anatomy. Within this conflation, contradictory positions were asserted that female homosexual activity caused hermaphroditic anatomy, but also that hermaphroditic anatomy drove one to desiring homosexual relationships. By this means, women who had sex with women could be classified out of the category of “normal women” thus isolating them as freaks of nature and protecting the category “woman” as being inherently heterosexual.
But there is no clear progression of theory. Both contradictory positions regularly show up in the same texts. At the same time, many of the authors express doubts over whether “hermaphrodite” as a physiological category actually existed at all. (There are regular cases of women who had sex with women being examined to determine if they were hermaphrodites with a negative result, but the lack of the expected physiology never seemed to undermine the theory.) Medical manuals sometimes tried to develop specific metrics for how the “normal” clitoris should appear.
The primary category of texts discussing hermphroditism are medical manuals (or sometimes pseudo-medical literature that was intended more to titillate). Although these can be a useful source of information about lesbian activity in history, the works themselves are generally hostile in tone. Classical sources such as Lucian and Martial contributed to the position that if a woman made love to a woman she was, by definition, imitating a man. These texts also laid the groundwork for the confused causality. (Is a woman called a hermaphrodite because she has sex with women or does she have sex with women because she’s already a hermaphrodite?)
The legal implications of these theories, as well as the law’s role in enforcing gender performance, can be seen in an anecdote reported in the Supplement to the Onania about a person living in Toulouse who was initially described as having a prolapsed vagina that “some pretended...she had abused it that way.” That is, that she had used it to perform penetrative sex. Examining physicians gave their opinion that the organ was actually a true penis and that therefore the person was male, at which the magistrates ordered the person to “go in man’s habit.” Evidently the visual evidence was questionable enough that the subject of this pronouncement began making a living by exhibiting themself as a freak, whereupon contradictory medical opinions asserted that they were a woman after all and the prolapse could be cured. This cure was apparently effective, but “she [was] forced to resume her female dress, to her great regret.”
This anecdote demonstrates many of the confusions and contradictions around the topic. [Unremarked in the commentary is the role of personal gender identity suggested by the phrase “to her great regret”. But transgender readings were not as much a part of the awareness in sexuality research of the ‘90s.] The focus of the anecdote is on the question of correct diagnosis, based not only on anatomy but on desires and behavior. The subject must either be fit into the box of “male” and their behavior presentation required to match their apparent anatomy and desire for women, or they must be fit into the box of “female” and the anatomy treated to conform to expectations (and presumably the sexual desire be suppressed).
A similar case of shifting requirements and definitions imposed on an ambiguous person by the medical, legal, and religious authorities is that of Anne Grandjean in 18th century Grenoble. The teenaged Anne told her confessor that she experienced sexual desire for girls, whereupon her confessor told her that if she desired women she must actually be a man and should dress as one. (This approach follows a metric for hermaphrodites that dates back to Aristotle, where he directed that a hermaphrodite’s gender should be defined based on how they could best be fit into a heteronormative paradigm.) [Note: Anne Grandjean’s example is a good place to consider the difficulties of distinguishing transgender identity from an imposed transgender performance, whether it was imposed by external authorities as in this case, or by the paradigms available in the society for expressing same-sex desire.]
Stories like these are found in English literature in increasing numbers in the late 17th century. The 1678 publication Wonders of the Little World had a chapter entitled “Such Persons as have changed their Sex” detailing 24 cases from classical to contemporary sources. All but one of the 24 cases involved a change from female to male--a direction that was framed as the more logical as it was consider a change from the “less perfect (woman)” to the “more perfect (man)”. Donoghue notes that focusing on female-to-male stories also avoided the anxiety-provoking image of the loss of a penis. [Note: As is often the case, this observation is not discussed in the context of several hormonally-based intersex conditions which can, in fact, result in an assigned-female body developing a penis in adolescence.]
Medical theories on women with a hermaphroditical “penis-analogue” organ shifted from considering the organ to be a prolapsed vagina in the 16-17th centuries, to considering it to be an enlarged clitoris in the 17-18th centuries. Several stories in Wonders of the Little World involved the prolapsing of the vagina during sex and especially in connection with the breaking of the hymen (with both heterosexual and homosexual activity being possible of causing this). But this motif disappears from the literature after the early 18th century.
The clitoral theory appears in parallel earlier, but becomes the predominant model beginning in the late 17th century in texts such as Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671). This theory focused on the understanding of the clitoris as a source of sexual pleasure and assigned it the ability to become enlarged and erect due to stimulation, moving into hermaphrodite territory if it became large enough to be capable of penetration.
Authors, such as Sinibaldus in his Rare Verities (1687), did not necessarily assert this as a change of sex, even when it offered the possibility of enacting what was considered a man’s role in sex. He notes, “Wherefore heretofore there hath been laws enacted against feminine congression, because it is a thing that happens too common and frequent.” Despite the presence of a penis-analogue, but act is still considered “feminine congression”. But Sinibaldus, like Sharp, considered that lesbian desire was caused by deviant anatomy.
The opposite position--that deviant anatomy was caused by lesbian activity--was a concern of moralists such as the Italian monk Sinistrari, who discussed the definition of female sodomy, concluding that sodomy could only occur between women if there were a clitoris large enough to accomplish penetration. This became a significant preoccupation of the “enlarged clitoris” school of thought. The Onania has several stories (purportedly reported by the women involved) of how excessively engaging in trabadism resulted in permanent enlargement of the clitoris.
[Note: Donoghue mentions that the idea of clitoral penetration lingered “well into the nineteenth century” but the motif showed up being treated as a serious medical observation even as late as the 1960s in David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Doing a fact-check on that item has reminded me of just how awful that book was, and now I need to go bleach my brain.]
Racism was another aspect of “othering” lesbian activity in the early modern period. British writers who wanted to mock lesbianism as decadent would assign it to the Italian or French aristocracy. When they mocked it as a product of gender segregation, they would locate their stories in Turkish baths, Persian harems, or French convents. The normalization of women driven by enlarged clitorises was transposed to India or Africa. (Stories of female genital mutilation were used as “proof” that the women in question must have enlarged genitalia that required removal. But note that one of the stories in the Onania about a woman with an enlarged clitoris in England ended with a claim that she had needed to have it surgically removed. And this is not the only example of female genital mutilation performed as "medical necessity" in early modern Europe.) By this means, the examples of lesbian activity in Britain could be dismissed as isolated eccentricities, not part of a normal range of variation.
With the rise of the enlarged clitoris theory of lesbianism, the term “tribade” became equated with clitoral penetration (in contrast to its earlier implication of simply rubbing the genitals together). But the question of causation was still unresolved. Donoghue quotes a number of different sources that alternate (often within the same text) between considering that lesbian activity resulted in enlargement of the clitoris, or that an enlarged clitoris--stimulated by regular casual rubbing by clothing--resulted in excessive desire (which evidently could only be satisfied by women?). In addition to a number of stories from The Supplement to the Onania, anecdotes are offered from Giles Jacob’s A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718). The latter in particular includes a number of detailed near-pornographic stories that suggest the normality of women engaging in sexual relations together with only penetration becoming problematic, although the anecdotes can’t be considered positive in any way.
The “lesbian as hermaphrodite” also appears in literature of the 18th century, as in Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count Grammont with its predatory, mannish Mistress Hobart. Mistress Hobart’s desires are treated as fairly harmless by the other court ladies until rumors circulate implying that Hobart was a hermaphrodite with an organ that might be capable not only of penetration but of causing pregnancy.
Hermaphrodite imagery also features in William King’s vicious satire The Toast in which “Myra” (a transparent stand-in for his target, the Duchess of Newburgh) is mocked as a bisexually promiscuous hermaphrodite, surrounded by a train of “tribades and lesbians,” and described in terms of physical monstrosity. Toward the end of the poem, Myra is granted an actual penis by the goddess Venus, to better suit her desires.
Donoghue concludes with one more positive literary take on hermaphroditic imagery in connection with same-sex desire: the poem by Aphra Behn that is the source of the article’s title. Behn praises her subject as being desirable both as woman and as a youth, framing this as a way to excuse desire by a woman for another woman. This turns the hermaphrodite argument around, as gender ambiguity becomes the basis for being desired by both genders, rather than desiring both.
Still catching up on my review backlog.
Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole (self published?, 2014)
When I was reading Bernadette Andrea’s The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture, I spotted a reference to Elen More, a black woman in the early 16th century Scottish court, and instantly realized, OMG, that’s the inspiration for that story I saw among Alyssa Cole’s publications! And then the chance of spotting the ebook on sale led me to pick it up, because I loved Cole’s story in the collection Hamilton’s Battalion.
So...this is not at all a criticism of Agnes Moor's Wild Knight itself, but it was a useful calibration of what my tolerance is regarding the ratio of story to sex in historical fiction. This is a relatively short novella. The writing is technically excellent and the history is solidly portrayed. The depiction of the experience of a black woman in 16th century Britain felt solid and nuanced. But structurally, the story felt like it had just barely enough world-building to justify setting up the sex scenes. And since I wasn’t there for the sex scenes, I didn’t get my story fix. It isn’t at all a criticism of the story because clearly there are a lot of readers who are looking for exactly this sort of balance. But it’s not for me and I’ve adjusted my buy-reflexes accordingly.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23e - Inscribed by V. M. Agab - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/06/30 - listen here)
Welcome to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s second original fiction offering! This story comes to you from the Italian Renaissance, set in Venice. The gender politics of 15th century Italy were, in some ways, very rigid and circumscribed, but in the places where those structures fractured, there was space for people to claim a space of their own. Inscribed is a story of just such a space, when two women find that the world doesn’t have a place for the directions their lives have turned, but perhaps--just perhaps--they can create one together.
We are immensely proud that our author, V. M. Agab, is making her professional fiction debut on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. She lives in Brooklyn, with her parents and three wonderfully annoying siblings. When she isn’t babysitting, she writes fanfiction to soothe the soul, and occasionally blogs for Women and Words. She is currently working on a novel of the queer persuasion and is getting ready to start graduate school this fall to pursue writing as a career.
Our narrator for this story is Ann Etter. She is an avid reader who finds that narration is the perfect blend of her love of acting with her love for the printed page and she, too, blogs occasionally for Women and Words. Her day job involves numbers and tax forms. She says, she especially enjoyed this story as it hearkened back to her college days studying medieval history. Ann has three children and two grandchildren and loves home improvement projects. She is a native of New Hampshire and has lived in Minnesota for over 25 years.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
By V.M. Agab
The small room smelled of paper and ink, and salt from the canals and waterways. Every surface sat covered in stacks of documents, precariously leaning against each other and the walls. The early morning sunlight fought a losing battle to get through a particularly large stack resting before the window, only slivers managing to get through, making the papers look orange and glowing where the light touched them.
Luca sat at the table, the only cleared surface in the room, a feather in her grip, the bristles reflecting the light of the small candle that illuminated her work. The knife slid through the tip with a skillful flick of the wrist, and the translucent shavings fell to the floor as she shaped the pen’s nib. She could hear the thick crowds of Venice outside her study, and the creaking of her father’s footsteps echoed from the front of the shop. He was probably sweeping the entrance as he usually did around breakfast time every day, his swollen joints making it painful to hold even the broom. She pictured her father at this very table only a couple years ago, hands already worsening by the time she was old enough to retain memories. She wondered if her own fingers would grow crippled with age, bent and mangled.
She sat back when the feather tip was to her liking and stretched her arms over her head, intertwining her black, ink-stained fingers as she groaned in relief, before leaning in and taking a blank sheet of paper. She took out a near empty jar of powdered lampblack and the mortar, the smooth rock familiar in her palm, and mixed the ink, diluting the black dust and stirring it as skillfully as she wielded her knife and pen. She took comfort in the familiar movements, her eyes scanning the document she was about to copy. The lettering on the paper in front of her was faded and the parchment had seen better days. Wherever the owner of the documents stored them made a mess of them, and Luca had spent the past week working for hours to rewrite the stack of records. She put the mortar on the table and started scribing, mentally noting to stop by the cartolaio and purchase more paper from the merchant.
She wrote until the mixed ink ran out and wiped the tip of the feather on a rag. The carefully laid out sheets dried on the side as she tidied her workstation, rinsing out the mortar and pestle in the small bowl she kept on the floor by one of the table legs. The water swirled with the dredges of dried ink and darkened as it diluted. She looked outside and noticed the sun. Her stomach growled as the aroma of yesterday’s stew drifted through the door. She carefully placed the mortar and the jar of lampblack back in their places, stretched again, and went to join her father for the meal.
He sat in the same chair he had sat in for nearly twenty years, and Luca took her own seat, the two of them glancing at the only other chair in the room, empty for nearly three months now. Luca ignored the grief for her dead mother and set about pouring her father the wine she picked up last week. They ate in silence until her father finished his cup and reached for the wine pitcher, nearly dropping it as his weak grip carried it to him.
“We need help, Luca,” her father said, watching the red liquid swirl in his refilled cup. Luca watched a few bubbles pop and then glanced back at her father.
“You know why we can’t. If anyone finds out I’m not a man, who will the business go to?”
“You can run it as a woman. You can get married. Have children. You can live happily,” he said, his rough voice getting rougher by the moment. “I regret ever making this ridiculous plan. We would have been okay with you as yourself, not as this…this boy.”
“No, we would have been poor and starving, and I would never be as happy as I am now. I don’t want a husband anyway.”
“Then what will we do? You can’t work alone forever. We’re scribes, we will always be busy.”
“Don’t worry about it, papa. I’ll figure it out. We’ll be fine.”
The rest of the meal went by in silence. The empty space that Luca’s mother left felt larger than ever, and the pain of watching her father’s regrets made her stomach ache. She stood up and grabbed her doublet. She checked that the rolled-up fabric in the crotch of her hose didn’t shift, rearranging it slightly, and when she looked sufficiently manly she walked out of the room and through the front door of the house.
“I’m going to the paper merchant,” she yelled to her father, who still sat at the table, his food barely touched.
The streets were crowded, and the smell of the water was strong enough to distract her as she walked down the walkways, and over a bridge. The small store sat nestled between two others, the graceful arches of the buildings looking worse for wear. The windows seemed grimy in places and a door hinge was loose enough for the door to get stuck as Luca walked in. The familiar smells of paper and parchment greeted her, and she heard people move around in the back.
“Signore Rosso,” Luca called out.
Boots resounded on the wooden floor and a portly man, a head shorter than Luca, walked in. His colorful hose left very little to the imagination as they strained against his belly and legs, and his linen shirt was soaked through with sweat. Luca felt hot just looking at the man with his red face and somewhat labored breathing.
“Luca!” Francesco Rosso greeted, “what can I do for you?”
“I need some paper, Signore Francesco,” Luca said, grinning.
“You’re a funny boy, Luca, a funny boy.”
Francesco went into the back room again, bringing out a roll of pristine sheet, rolling it out a bit. “This one is good, holds the ink nicely.”
“Do you have any from my last order left? I need a few more pages of that one.”
“I’ll check, but I’m telling you, this one is better. And I got it for cheap, so I’ll sell it to you for twenty-five soldi,” Francesco said, his voice receding as he shuffled around in the back.
“How about twenty,” Luca asked. She was sure she heard the man mumble ‘funny boy’, but before she could argue farther Francesco’s daughter walked in, carrying a plate with her father’s food. Luca watched her pause a moment as Coletta realized that Luca was by the counter. “Hello, Coletta,” Luca said, voice growing softer as the girl’s brown eyes met her own.
“Good day, Signore Zancani.”
“Just Luca is fine.”
The two looked at each other, Coletta holding the plate, and Luca fiddling with hands, unable to keep them still. Francesco walked back in, holding a few cut pages out for Luca to see. Snapping back to attention, Luca took the papers, hoping Signore Rosso didn’t notice her reddening cheeks, and nodded.
“I’ll take both.” Luca watched from the corner of her eye as Coletta put the plate on the table, and after her father kissed her temple affectionately but in dismissal, briskly left without another glance, her head down.
“Twenty-three soldi,” Francesco said.
“You’re a funny man, Signore Rosso,” Luca said and put the coins on the counter, taking the loose pages and the roll of new paper with her as Francesco laughed.
Once she got back home, her father nowhere to be seen, Luca got back to work. She mixed more ink, using the last of the lampblack, and scribed more pages. When her right hand grew tired, she switched to her left. The comfort of using her dominant hand gave her small boost, and the last pages were done before she even realized it. She reached over to put her pen down, praising herself for a job well done, when her palm grazed against the still wet ink, smudging several lines. She jerked her hand away and hit the inkwell, tipping it over. Black stains spread on the drying pages, puddles growing as the ink seeped through the pages.
“Damn, rotten table!” Luca growled as the ink trickled onto her hose, staining the fabric around her thighs. She grabbed the bowl on the floor and swept the ink into it, getting as much of it as possible into the water and away from her work. She patted the ruined pages dry and salvaged what she could.
Hands stained and hose ruined, Luca kicked the chair, its clatter thundering against the floor as it fell. An entire day of work ruined. The sun was nearly set, and Luca was sure that she could get a page or two redone tonight if only she could get some more ink powder. Signore Rosso would be closing soon if he weren’t already. She put the bowl back and hastily rolled down her sleeves before throwing on her doublet on her way out of the house.
The Venetian streets were still crowded, young men coming out in droves to taverns and brothels. Luca walked briskly down the street, steering clear of already inebriated groups littering the walkways, swaying over ledges and under threat to drop into the waterways at any moment. Several gondolas drifted by, and birds flocked over the exposed evening sky visible from between the narrow streets. Luca rushed across a bridge and towards the familiar building, its windows dark and the door closed. She jogged up to it, trying the door, and leaned her forehead against it when it didn’t move, her short hair tickling her jaw and cheeks.
The sounds of distant laughter and faint music in the streets drifted away as the voices from within the house reached her ears. The voice belonged Signore Rosso, she was sure, and he sounded mad. She never heard the portly man raise his tone above the jovial conversational one Luca grew so used to, and it was in her confusion that she didn’t immediately move away and give them the privacy they obviously thought they had.
“What will people say, who will marry you now?” he shouted, “Give me a name, I’ll strangle the bastardo with my own two hands.”
Jealousy punched Luca in the gut, and irrational anger flared. She felt stupid for liking Coletta. She felt stupid for not thinking what liking her meant, and just how broken hearted she would end up. Luca really should have left, she really wanted to.
Francesco kept shouting at his daughter, the sounds of his palm slamming on furniture to punctuate his words interspersed the argument. With each moment his voice got louder and louder.
“You useless, shameful woman. No dowry in the world will fix this. You ruined this family!” The sharp crack of wood replaced his words and then silence. Luca’s heart pounded, and her hand reached for the door knob.
“Go to your room. And I want his name,” he said, voice growing loud again.
Luca heard the fast steps on the stairs, and then the voice of Francesco’s wife.
“Francesco,” Signora Rosso said softly enough that Luca could barely hear it. And then Francesco began to weep.
Luca turned away from the door, the shame of having overheard the private conversation overshadowed by the disgrace of the plan forming in her head. She shook her head, told herself it wasn’t a smart idea, that it would only cause more problems. Then with a deep breath and an exhaled groan she turned back and looked up at the building. The dancing light from a candle illuminated one of the windows and with a glance around the empty street, Luca began to climb, cursing herself with every handhold, and praying that she’d slip and fall, and go home instead.
As her stained hands reached the window, fingers aching and tiny scrapes leaving red and white streaks in the blackened skin of her palm, she pushed on the glass, nearly losing her grip. Her fingers squeaked against the surface and she cursed as she clung on. A face appeared in the window and she nearly screamed, if only she wasn’t breathless and strained. Coletta’s shocked face stayed in place as she opened the window, and Luca pulled herself up, remembering at the last moment to soften her steps.
“Well that was a climb,” she whispered airily, bending over and heaving. She straightened up after a moment and wiped the sweat off her face with her sleeve. The room was miniscule, and there was barely any space for the two of them to stand in a comfortable distance. A bed sat in one corner, and a small stool that doubled as a shelf was next to it. A chest stood at the foot of the bed.
“What are you doing here, Signore Zancani?”
Luca looked up at her, raising a brow.
“Fine, what are you doing here Luca?”
Now that she really was here, and doing this, all sense of panic she’d felt in her climb changed into trepidation. Coletta stood before her, eyes red-rimmed, and cheeks splotchy. She looked smaller than she did this afternoon, scared and helpless. This was a terrible idea. It was beyond terrible, but Luca’s father was tired, Luca was drowning in isolation, and Coletta’s life was about to change no matter what happened.
“I overheard your family,” she said cautiously, “and I want to help you.”
“What?” Coletta’s voice broke, voice growing hoarse with new tears. “Were you eavesdropping? You- you…!” She stared Luca down angrily, an uneasy feat with how much taller Luca was.
“I didn’t mean to, I swear,” Luca said. “But look, I… I think we can try something. Something that might fix all this.”
“What?” Coletta asked, tears rolling down her furious face.
“First, I just want you to know that I am serious about this, and that what I’m about to propose is just as important to me as I feel it will be to you. You might not think so now, but I will have everything riding on this plan if I share it with you, so please, hear me out.”
Coletta turned away and moved to her bed, sitting on its edge. She leaned her head into her arms and rocked once before sitting back up and wiping her tears away. Luca took a moment to herself and leaned against the window frame instead of coming closer to Coletta. She figured Coletta would need as much space as Luca could offer after her plan was revealed.
“My name is Luca, and I am a scribe, but I’m not…a man.”
Luca waited for Coletta’s reaction, watching her closely. The young woman looked back at her, brows furrowed, face confused.
“My father needed an apprentice, and we couldn’t afford one, so he raised me as his son.”
The silence stretched. The shuffling of Coletta’s parents downstairs was muffled by the walls and the gentle sound of rippling water drifted in from the window.
“You see why I can’t get a wife, yes?” Luca asked, palms sweating. Coletta wasn’t saying anything, just boring her gaze into Luca’s. “And now we can, I don’t know, work together maybe?”
Coletta watched Luca, and Luca watched Coletta. Nothing moved. Blood rushed in Luca’s ears as her heart beat fast. She could feel her temples and throat pulse. And then, Coletta looked down to Luca’s hose.
Red seeped into Luca’s cheeks and the tips of her ears were burning. She shifted in her spot, leaning her weight from one foot to another and refrained her hands from covering herself. “It’s, uh, it’s just fabric.”
“What happened to your hose?” Coletta asked, pointing to the dark stains on Luca’s thighs.
“That’s why I came here in the first place, I spilled all my ink.”
Coletta nodded, and then slowly looked down at the floor, thinking.
Luca cleared her throat. “My shop gets good business. The church wants to hire me to scribe an antiphonary, and I have regular contracts with the court and a few important families. I can provide for you, and you can help me keep up appearances. …I can help you raise this child.” Luca realized she said the wrong thing as she was saying it, and the anguish on Coletta’s face as she cradled her waist was enough for Luca to change her mind. She dropped her gaze, unable to look Coletta in the eyes any longer. “Just forget it. I’m sorry for asking, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll leave you alone.” She turned back to the window and just as she was about to climb back over she stopped. “Please,” she whispered into the night, “just keep my secret.”
She swung her leg out, bracing herself for the climb down, when she felt a hand on her arm.
“How will this work?” Coletta asked. It was a plea, and Luca exhaled and got back inside.
“Tell your father it was me.”
“He’ll murder you,” Coletta said urgently.
“Well, how else can we do this?” Luca asked. She felt exasperated and exhausted. She just wanted to buy some ink.
Coletta rubbed her forehead and then her head shot up. “Do you have enough for a dowry?”
“I can scrape together maybe twenty ducats,” Luca said, worry pulling at her. Would it be enough for Signore Rosso?
“Twenty?” Coletta said in a breathy voice.
“I’m sorry, that’s all I have right now.”
“No, that is more than my father ever hoped to get,” she whispered, and Luca shrugged, not knowing what to say. Colette gestured to her stomach, still flat as far as Luca could see. “You have to tell him about this yourself.”
“Me?” she squeaked, “Why me?”
“Because if I tell him, he’ll go to your house with an axe, but if you come here yourself then maybe he’ll be okay with it. You have to pretend that you don’t know he knows, and then ask him for permission to marry me. That way it seems like you’re taking responsibility.”
Luca ran her hand through her hair, the wavy strands falling back around her face. “Okay, tomorrow I’ll come and talk to your father.”
The silence stretched, and with a final nod, Luca climbed out the window, giving Coletta a final smile she didn’t necessarily feel before disappearing into the night.
The next day came too fast despite the lack of sleep, and Luca put on her best hose and, over the linen shirt, the expensive doublet her mother made her get last year. She walked to her father’s room and knocked. A loud snore penetrated the door. She was going to be in so much trouble for this she thought as she left her father to slumber.
The walk to the paper shop was the longest short walk Luca ever walked. The shop seemed more ominous than it did the day before, and while there were people walking down the streets and traveling by gondolas Luca had never felt so alone or so scared. Maybe she should have left her father a letter in case Signore Rosso really did end up killing her for getting his daughter pregnant. Luca was at the door when she nearly lost her resolve, but then she remembered the argument, and Coletta’s tear-streaked face. With a deep sigh she pushed the door open and walked inside, locking the door after herself.
Signore Rosso sat at his counter, cutting the roll of paper into sheets. His brow was heavy and his demeanor dark. He didn’t look up when Luca approached him. She looked at the knife in his hand as it sliced through the paper smoothly, gulped, and cleared her throat.
“What is it Luca?” Francesco asked, not looking up from his work.
“I wanted to talk with you, Signore Rosso. About something important.”
The man put the knife down and gave Luca all his attention, palms flat on the counter. His eyes looked sad and Luca thought about how she was about to irrevocably shatter his image of her. And then she thought about how, maybe, possibly this would work out.
“I want to marry your daughter,” Luca said and held her breath. She fiddled with her hands and watched him.
She couldn’t tell what the exact emotion that passed his face at that moment was, but the pain in her face from the punch he threw was potent enough that in the moment she didn’t much care about what he felt. She stumbled backwards, knocking over a few rolls of paper, and clutched her cheek as hot pain laced through her skull. Her cheekbone felt like it was on fire, and the entire left side of her face throbbed in tandem with her heartbeat. She groaned and stood back up. Francesco stood with his fist raised, angry and heaving deep breaths, but then he lowered his hand and fixed his ruffled clothes.
“Were you the bastard who defiled my daughter?” The calmness in his voice was chilling.
Luca didn’t know what to say. This was all happening very fast, and her head was stalling. She stuttered, her mouth working but no sounds coming out, and then decided it was better not to say anything on that matter.
“Please, Signore Rosso. I…” Luca said, swallowing her panic and steeling herself for another punch, “I love her.”
When he rounded the counter, brandishing a heavy roll of paper, and thankfully not the knife, Luca was more prepared. She caught the roll as he swung it at her, backing up and trying to keep the man from hitting her again. “Signore! Signore Rosso, please! Let’s just talk about it.”
The clatter and ruckus from their fight got the attention of Signora Rosso and her daughter. The two of them rushed into the room, and Coletta gasped when she saw that it was Luca that her father was wrestling with. The two of them rushed over to Francesco, pulling him away with effort. Coletta’s mother fussed over her husband who was still trying to get to Luca, and corralled him back behind the counter, sitting him down on his chair and soothing him with her words. Luca stood frozen, a roll of wrinkled paper in her arms and her clothes in disarray. Coletta walked over, tilting Luca’s face and touching the reddened skin as Luca tried not to flinch.
She fixed Luca’s doublet, rebuttoning the few buttons that had come undone. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Luca.
“It’s okay, I think I’m wearing him down,” Luca joked. The two of them looked over to Coletta’s parents and turned right back when they saw Francesco’s furious gaze aimed at Luca. “I think I should try talking to him again.”
Coletta stayed where she was, taking the roll of paper, while Luca walked back over to the counter, cautiously moving the knife that still rested on the paper away. She nodded in greeting to Signora Rosso, and then turned her attention back to Francesco. “Signore Rosso, let me fix this. I want to marry her.”
“It was you?” Signora Rosso yelped. “Francesco, he needs to marry her. What else can we do? Where will she go otherwise?” She seemed a little green to Luca, and Luca was worried that she would faint at any moment judging from the paleness of the Signora’s face.
“I can get twenty ducats as a dowry, and I have a good business, she’ll live comfortably,” Luca said, wishing Signora Rosso was here to begin with if this was how the conversation would have gone.
“I want you out of here,” said Signore Rosso, pointing a finger at Luca threateningly, “and you have a week to set the wedding up or I will strangle you myself.”
A week. Luca could do that. She walked to the door, giving Coletta a smile and a nod, and went home.
It wasn’t quite a year, but Luca’s life wasn’t particularly normal and so she figured celebrating the anniversary of their union a little earlier than the actual anniversary wouldn’t hurt. She strolled home, a bundle of fabric she’d seen her wife eye last week in the market under one arm, with a wooden figurine in one hand and a palm sized package wrapped in burlap in the other. The gondolas swam by her and the comforting swell of the water against the rocks followed her through the streets, putting a serene smile on her face as she walked. The rising sun shone against her tan face, broken only by the arches framing the streets she passed by in her happy haste.
Her house came into view, and she rushed inside, running to the second floor two steps at a time. She slowed down and lightened her steps when she saw her wife in their room. Coletta rested in bed, their son leaning against her breast, grunting as he fed, his tiny hand wrapped around the fabric of Coletta’s nightgown. Her eyes were tired, but she looked up at Luca when she walked into their room and smiled. Luca snuck over, settling on her side of the bed, and gave the tiny head a kiss, grinning when Nicolo slipped off the nipple and immediately began to nose for it again, his tiny grunts and exhales familiar and comforting.
Coletta pushed her a little with her shoulder in annoyance and she helped Nicolo latch back on, wincing a little, but Luca could see a dimple forming in her cheek despite Coletta’s effort to keep frowning.
“Good morning my little king,” Luca whispered to her son, letting her finger slip into his fist as he gripped tightly. “You’re getting strong,” she said as she felt his nails cut into her skin, his white fingers contrasting against her blackened ones.
“Yes, he is,” Coletta whispered back, “and I think his teeth are starting to grow in.”
“I got you something,” Luca said, showing the roll of fabric and the small package to Coletta. “And every king needs a steed,” she said as she placed the wooden horse figurine onto the end table next to the bed.
She took Nicolo from Coletta and waited for her wife to pull her nightgown up over her chest and shoulder. Nicolo wiggled fitfully in her hold, tiny legs kicking out. Luca cradled him to herself, cooing at him as he grunted and growled, tongue peeking out and eyes scrunching up. “Don’t cry, baby,” she said at him, smiling down and rubbing his tummy. She kept her hand on his torso rubbing gently and turned her attention to Coletta as she finished tying up her nightgown. “I was thinking we’d go to the tailor today and measure you for a dress,” Luca said, nodding to the fabric roll.
“A dress?” Coletta asked, dimples in full view as she unfurled the material a little, her cheeks showing a dusting of red. She ran her fingers over it reverently. “For what occasion?”
“We will have been married for a year at the end of the month and with your dowry robbing me blind,” Luca said not hiding her teasing grin, “I couldn’t exactly do things properly. Open your gift.”
Luca watched Coletta narrow her eyes at the burlap-wrapped package and after a moment, she slipped the twine holding it together off, and pulled the covering off. A beautifully carved wooden box sat in her palm, varnished edges glistening in the ever-rising sun and highlighting the intricate etchings on its sides.
The weight of her son in her arms, and the smile on her wife’s face when she saw the ring in the box made Luca aware of just how light she felt. The forgotten feeling of isolation hadn’t resurfaced for a long time, her chest felt free, and her life felt full. She took the ring from the box while Coletta took off the simple one Luca had to get for their wedding and put it onto the now vacant finger. The sculpted, intertwined, dark, metal hands clasped each other, contrasting with Coletta’s skin in their luster. The ring looked proper, felt right.
Her wife pulled her in, kissing her as Nicolo wriggled between them, his voice getting louder as he fought against the pressure of his parents on either side of him, and his wails pierced the moment. Luca leaned back, laying him onto her chest, and watching as his eyes searched her face while he cried. “And what about you, my little man? Do you like mama’s ring?” she asked, pecking his nose.
“Alright, stop making him cry,” Coletta laughed, taking her son back, as Luca stood back up. “Go finish up work and we’ll meet you downstairs when I get him ready.”
“And then off to the tailor?”
“And then off to the tailor,” Coletta agreed.
Luca walked out of the room, turning back around and leaning over the door frame, lingering for a moment. She watched her family for a moment longer, and then turned and walked down the stairs, walking into her study, and settling into her chair.
The familiar scent of paper and ink and saltwater greeted her. The stacks of papers blocked the light in the window, and the lone candle sat unlit in its holder. Her father seemed to have already brought in the bowl with the water for her, and she smiled at the freshly mixed ink and the shaved feather pen. She ran her finger over the tip, checking to see whether it was to her liking, and grabbed a page she was working on the day before. She dipped the pen into the ink, and set it to paper, her blackened fingers flowing over her work, and a serenity she had only just gotten used to surrounding her in easy companionship.
Copyright © 2018 V. M. Agab
As I hope it will become apparent, I'm trying to get caught up on a bunch of reviews that are on my to-do list. ("Hope" because I haven't actually gotten caught up on writing them all.) The hardest part (other than getting the "round to-it") is trying to make up plausible reading dates to insert in the Goodreads version of the reviews. I know the general period in which I read these things, but specific dates are non-recoverable.
Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole (self-published, 2018)
I previously reviewed Cole’s story “That Could Be Enough”, which I read out of order. Now I’ve gone back and read the other stories: Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” about a Jewish couple who end up on opposite sides of the revolution (or do they?) and learn new things about each other and about the meaning of freedom and legacy; and Courtney Milan’s “The Pursuit Of...” which again begins with an “enemies to lovers” scenario, this time between a white British officer who has fallen for American ideals (and one American in particular) and a black American who takes a more cynical view of the whole liberty and freedom thing.
I wouldn’t normally have read these stories simply because time is limited and I have a really long TBR list with material nearer and dearer to my heart, but that said, I really loved both of them. (Though not as much as I loved Cole’s contribution. See: “nearer and dearer”.) They both tackled issues of identity and inequity in history in ways that didn’t flinch from truth while still giving the reader an enjoyable and realistic relationship. I especially love Lerner’s intimate immersion in the historical Jewish experience that explores questions of integration and co-existence while maintaining identity.
If I had all the time in the world to read, I’d be seeking out more from all of these authors. And if you aren’t constrained by the same desires I have (#1 to focus on my own writing, and #2 to focus my reading on queer women) and you enjoy top-of-the-line historical romance, I encourage you to read my share.
Murder on the Titania by Alex Acks (Queen of Swords Press, 2018)
This is a delightfully clever series of steampunk adventure/mystery stories featuring Captain Marta Ramos, a somewhat gender-queer bisexual tinkerer, swashbuckler, and outlaw leader. The flavor of the stories made me think oddly of a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, with an overlay of Jules Verne, mostly in the sense of having a central solidly-anchored buddy relationship between the mercurial and brilliant Ramos and her stolid and long-suffering righthand man, Simms. Together they work their way through locked rooms, red herrings, and mysterious objects. The “delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz” provides a romantic interest for Ramos in several of the stories in an enemies-to-flirtatious-rivals fashion. There isn’t anything resembling a romance arc, but there’s more than sufficient in-story evidence to make queer readers feel represented.
One of the things I loved about this series is how it played with genre tropes and rooted the steampunk elements solidly in an American setting--though one with unexpected twists. For example: you immediately see a reference to the Duke of Denver, that staple title of Regencies, and then are knocked off balance by realizing he’s the Duke of Denver, Colorado and suddenly all your expectations of the implied world-building shift sideways. The stories don’t waste time explaining these shifts but any reader familiar with genre fiction should be charmed by working out the setting on the fly. Another amusing feature (though one that required me to chuck my sense of disbelief off a cliff) was the use of railroads and trains in ways that felt more reminiscent of seagoing adventures than transport constrained by terrestrial linearity.
A great collection; highly recommended.
The deadline is fast approaching, but here's another guest post from a LGBT SFF Storybundle author!
Tenea D. Johnson writes:
It’s a good time to read Smoketown. A place that’s given in to its own fears to the extent that its people are living an unnatural life in a restricted place doesn’t seem so extraordinary at the moment. But even in such places there’s still magic, and when enough people pursue their goals in spite of restriction they can change anything. They can change everything.
Collective action is sometimes just accumulated will and unbeknownst to them, people can save each other, even if some only meant to save themselves. Smoketown is a story about that, among other things. It’s also about hope lost and regained. And really there’s never a bad time for that.
Only 2 more days to take advantage of the LGBT Science Fiction Storybundle! Although I'm not a contributor to the bundle, I offered to host promotional posts from bundle members to help spread the word. Here's a post from Geonn Cannon, who has been a regular in the Storybundles that Melissa Scott has put together.
It’s literally been a full year since I blogged, which is a shameful thing. But it makes what I’m posting today more important! Right? Maybe. We’ll see.
You have less than a week left to take advantage of the LGBT scifi storybundle! There are a lot of reasons you should grab this while you can. First and foremost, you get a lot of great stories from some amazing authors for a small price. You’re giving money directly to the authors of the books you’re enjoying. That alone is worth it! But you can also decide to use part of your purchase to help fund the Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian organization which helps LGBT individuals escape violence and persecution in their home countries.
With the state of the world right now, when a country which was once a bastion of hope and freedom is becoming more unrecognizable by the day, you need a chance to escape to a world where LGBT people are front and center fighting and saving the day. In the main bundle, you get my book THE REMNANT FLEET, which features Bauwerji Crow, a refugee from a planet where she lived as a second-class citizen until she decided to break free and found a new home on a space station among a vast community of other races. In the bonus bundle, you get my book RAILROAD SPINE, Dice Bodger is a bisexual woman who has everything taken away from her by a cruel government, and it leads her to joining a group of freedom fighters determined to find a better world.
Go here and check out the books, find out about the Rainbow Railroad, and get yourself an amazing bundle!