Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35e - By Her Pen She Conquers by Catherine Lundoff - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/06/29 - listen here)
Today we present the second story in the 2019 fiction series: “By Her Pen She Conquers” by Catherine Lundoff. Catherine is an award-winning writer, editor, and publisher from Minneapolis. She is the author of the queer werewolf novel Silver Moon and the collection Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and is the editor of the fantastical pirate anthology Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), as well as having a number of published short stories in many genres. She is also the publisher of Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world.
“By Her Pen” is set in the London theater scene at the very beginning of the 19th century. This story represents a repeat appearance for Catherine Lundoff in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast fiction series. Her story “One Night in Saint-Martin” was our debut fiction episode last year.
The narrator for this episode will be...me, your podcast host. I’ll skip the bio because you probably already know as much about me as you need to.
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.
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“By Her Pen She Conquers” by Catherine Lundoff
Narrated by Heather Rose Jones
Miss Penny Armstrong walked slowly out into Drury Lane from the Theatre Royal and stifled a quiet sob. She clutched a parcel to her scant and somewhat chilled muslin-covered bosom and tried not to wonder too much where she would find shelter for the night ahead. She had been so certain that this play, her best, would be the one that would impress Mr. Sheridan or Mr. Bannister enough to perform it. Even enough to advance her a few shillings until it opened to great acclaim.
Her father’s stories about Mrs. Inchbald and Mrs. Cowley, whose acquaintance he had made when he himself trod the boards in Bath and London, swirled around in her mind. An admirer of both women and their skillful use of the pen, he had encouraged his only child to follow in their footsteps. His death and that dream had been enough to send her to London to try her luck here, at the best known theater in the land, with no introduction or connection or aught besides her writing and her father’s scarce-remembered name to recommend her.
The depth of her naivety took her breath away now, though the sensation of faintness that she also felt might have been due to the smoky air of London and having eaten no more than a crust of bread a day for the past sennight. She leaned back against the stone wall of the theater and tried not to consider its cold, impenetrable surface as a metaphor. A passing laborer muttered something crude at her and she blushed and cringed.
She had to leave this place, but where could she go? Her last shillings had been spent yesterday. Her room was lost to her and she had neither family nor friends in London. As for her position as seamstress at one of the less fashionable shops near Cheapside, that had vanished when she left to try her luck at the theater. What more was left to her but the river’s embrace? She shuddered at the thought, and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to think of an alternative.
That was long enough for a street urchin to dart up and attempt to yank her precious package from her drooping hands. This small act of violence was enough to summon the tiger in her soul and she snarled at him to get away, locking her hands around her precious papers as tightly as she could.
“Here now, Scrapper, leave off. You’ve no use for what you can’t read.” A sharp cuff on the head and a tossed copper sent Penny’s assailant scrambling to retrieve it, before running off down an alley with his prize. Penny eyed her rescuer sidelong, wondering if she should run after him. What she took to be a tall thin lad a few years older than herself gave her a lopsided grin and a knowing look. “You’re no lightskirt from the looks of you. What are you doing loitering by the theater door, then?”
Penny blinked and her head swam for a moment. Surely, he couldn’t think that she was…didn’t assume that…the alley snapped back into focus as the young man caught her arm. He very gently pried her fingers loose from her precious bundle and put it into a sack that he was carrying. A moment later, she realized her loss. “No!” she lunged forward, only to find herself caught and held up by the arm once again.
“I’m not for stealing them, miss. This is just for carrying. Come with us and get some supper, there’s a lass. Then you can tell us all about how you came to be tangling with the likes of Scrapper outside the Drury Lane, finest theater in the land.” He gave her another crooked grin and she realized something that she hadn’t noticed before.
“You’re a lass too!” She gasped out the words, then clapped her hands over her mouth. What if it was a secret? She had met such girls before, living as men to earn their way. Had she unmasked one of them?
A motley crew of striplings, lads and lasses both, stood on the cobbles some yards away, watching them. One of them called out something to her companion, a phrase she couldn’t understand, and the lad who was no lad laughed. She did not seem offended or distraught. “C’mon. We’re off to the King’s Arms for ale and stew. You can tell me what this is all about while we eat.” She extended her elbow to Penny as if she was the lad that she seemed to be and Penny took it, eyes wide and hand trembling.
“What are you called, lass?”
“Penny. Penny Armstrong. My father was Richard Armstrong. He was a player in Plymouth and Bath.”
“Ah,” her companion nodded as if the name was familiar, though she was far too young to have known Penny’s father. “Jess.” She gestured with the package toward herself. Or was it himself? How was she to think of her strange new companion? Jess must have seen her puzzlement, but then they were surrounded by the others and swept down a grimy alley and into a somewhat cleaner tavern before anything more could be said.
Penny had an impression of dark corners and heavy furniture in a crowded room where the bright fire cast shadows over the whitewashed walls. From habit, she recognized many at the tables as actors and other theater folk from the way they carried themselves as well as their accents and dress. Jess tugged her into a corner table and nudged her onto a bench before she could get too bewildered by the tumult.
“You must think me a country mouse indeed.” She took her package from Jess’s bag and wrapped her arms tight around it again for a long moment.
“Jess has a eye for the damsel in distress, she does. Too many young lover’s roles have gone to her head.” The dark-eyed beauty on the other side of the table gave Jess a jealous sidelong glance, before meeting Penny’s eyes. “And where might you be from, country mouse?”
Her tone set Penny’s back up and she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. Her answer, when she gave it, would have put Scrapper’s barely comprehensible Whitechapel cant to shame, “Gor, an’ whut makes you think ey’m not from Lunnon, then?” She tilted her head in a fair imitation of the urchins that she tried to avoid on the streets around Drury Lane and Covent Garden and glared at the other girl.
Jess burst out laughing at both of them. “Aye, Susan, her father trod the boards in Bath and trained her well, by the looks of it! Here, Penny, give over. The ale’s here and the stew not far behind. Let us quarrel on full stomachs, at least.” A plump barmaid planted tankards before them, while another brought bowls.
Penny grabbed her clumsy pewter spoon and seized a chunk of what might have been meat floating on the top of a warm muddy sea. It was in her mouth and swallowed before she remembered her circumstances. Stricken, she put her spoon gently down and stared at Jess. “I have only a few pennies left. I forgot.”
Susan rolled her dark eyes heavenward as Jess gallantly assured her that she had a few shillings to pay for them both. Besides, everyone knew them at the King’s Arms. And knew when the nearby theater paid its actors. Unsurprisingly, Susan’s expression and Jess’s words caught the attention of their friends and soon Penny was the focus of a circle of not entirely friendly eyes.
“What’s in the parcel, then?” asked a blonde girl on the other side of Susan, her Cockney accent clipped and harsh. A chorus echoed the question and even Jess raised an eyebrow and looked at her. A table full of curious faces awaited her answer.
Penny stumbled through her thoughts, looking for a safe version of her tale to tell. Would they laugh at her if she told them the truth? Could they somehow make this worse? She hadn’t even been able to talk to Mr. Sheridan. Her play, and by extension, she herself, had been dismissed out of hand by one of his managers. But there were other playhouses in London. Perhaps, if she had help, a manager at one of the others might…
Susan cleared her throat loudly in annoyance, breaking into Penny’s spiraling thoughts. For a moment, Penny saw the same look of dismissal that the manager at the theatre had given her and flinched. Jess murmured, “It can’t be all that bad.”
Penny closed her eyes again for a moment and dug her fingers into the grimy cloth wrapped around her play. Hunting for her courage had never seemed so difficult. When she opened them, she looked only into Jess’s friendly blue eyes. “It’s my…my play.” Her voice squeaked on the last word and it was all she could do not to look away.
“A playwright, is it!” “A country mouse fancying she can write plays!” “What does she know about it!” “What’s it about?” “Show it to us!” The chorus of demands and dismissals was overwhelming and Penny looked from one to another of them in a panic.
At last, she stammered, “I can write plays! I can!” Then she burst into tears and Jess patted her shoulder awkwardly. The girl’s touch sent an odd jolt through Penny and she choked off a sob to stare blankly at the other girl. Their eyes met and Penny felt herself flush and looked away quickly.
“Here, here. Let her eat her first before you start demanding that she read a play to us. Even you lot know better than that.” Jess scowled around the table and pushed Penny’s bowl back in front of her. Still weeping, Penny did as she was told and spooned up a few more mouthfuls of her rapidly cooling stew.
After a few moments of comparative quiet at their table, she stopped eating long enough to ask, “Are you all players, then?” A couple of nods, including an imperious one from Susan and after a moment, a more tentative one from Jess and some of the others.
“And you? Are you also a player like your father?” Susan didn’t look like she thought it was possible and Penny felt her back stiffen. Certainly, she was not comely enough for the maiden’s roles, but she had played maids and cooks and once, even the role of the principal boy in the panto at Plymouth. Somehow, she didn’t think that would impress London players.
“I have trod the boards,” Penny said at last. “But not here in the City.” There, now she had shown herself to be the country mouse they all thought her, but there was no help for it. Her play was what she cared about and now even that long-held hope was dwindling. “Does the company seek players?” she asked at last. Perhaps she might work her way in, demonstrate her abilities until she could get them to recognize the one that she hoped would be of greatest interest to Mr. Sheridan.
Jess raised a blonde eyebrow. “What of your play? Players we have in plenty, but a lass that seeks to live by her pen, that is something different. Now tell us what your tale is and why you came here to the Theatre Royal instead of the playhouses in Plymouth or Bath.”
“And trippingly, with a will, or Master Barstow will come to fetch us soon with blows and shouts,” a slender dark-haired boy on the other side of the table added. His words sent a ripple of apprehension around the group.
Penny nodded. She’d had her fair share of ill treatment even in Plymouth. She could only imagine that in London, where so many aspired to be players, it would be even worse. With a deep breath, she began, her words scrambling over each other at first in their hurry to get out of her mouth, then slowing as she pitched her tale as she would her lines. Perhaps, if she couldn’t persuade the manager, she might persuade the players and come to the Theatre Royal that way.
In any case, a sympathetic audience might help her to find lodgings or even a place at a panto or perhaps the theater at Covent Garden until she was able to try again. She polished her words like river stones, weaving a tale of being raised in the theater by her parents, both players themselves, until they died, her father a few years after her mother.
Then she had been left to find her own way from the pantos to the theaters to the shops and from there into service and back again. All the while, she dreamed of writing a play, of emulating Mr. Shakespeare and Mrs. Behn and spinning her words into something that a talented player might speak up on the stage. Their stage, to be exact. And this company of players.
When she finished, they were all looking at her and most seemed more sympathetic than they had been when she started. Susan was the main exception. Her voice was contemptuous, disbelief dripping from her words. “But what is your play about? A country lass who has always dreamed of Drury Lane?”
A large man swung the door open and stomped over to their table. “Here, you lot. Back to the Theatre with you. Master Sheridan wants a new rehearsal and you’re to stay until he says it is done and ready for the Prince Regent himself.” All around Penny the players scrambled to their feet and fled, the ones closest to him ducking to avoid his rapid cuffs and curses. He glared when Penny cringed away from him, but didn’t get up.
“Come on,” Jess murmured to her. Jess tilted her head up to look at the big man. “She’s my cousin, Master Barstow, up from the country. She’s a good hand with costumes, she’s trod the boards in the pantos and can speak lines in the bargain.”
Penny forced herself to look up. “If you please, sir, I worked at the playhouses in Bath and Plymouth until my father died, and I came to London looking for work.”
Barstow growled an oath into his beard and narrowed his eyes. “You,” he gestured at Jess, “back to the theatre with you.” Then, after a moment, he added with a gesture at Penny, “Well, go on. We’ll soon find out if you’re telling the truth about knowing lines as well as a needle.”
Penny scrambled to her feet and followed Jess, her heart once more full of all the hope that she had thought lost a few hours before and her parcel clutched tightly under her arm.
It was a fortnight before anyone finally returned to the subject of Penny’s play. By then, she had learned to hide behind the scenery while fixing an actor’s costume, to assist in memorizing lines and to duck when Master Barstow was in his cups or was filled with one of his rages. She slept in a couple of squalid rooms near the theater with Jess, Susan and some of their friends and she fancied that their sophistication was rubbing off on her. Most importantly of all, they didn’t interrupt her when she was writing.
With a dogged determination, she returned to the play, the one that Mr. Sheridan’s manager had rejected. As she spent more time at the theater, she began to see the scenes that could be made stronger, the lines that needed to be cut. The precious pennies that the actors tossed her way were spent on old quills that she could piece together and rag paper that she had to smooth before she could use. Ink was scavenged from the leftovers from Mr. Sheridan’s office and whatever the other apprentices and Jess’s other friends could find.
Ah, Jess. And Jess’s friends, particularly Susan. They occupied an expected and unwelcome prominence in her thoughts as the days passed. She slept and ate with them, her bed a pile of clean rags in a corner of the room where the other girls slept. Inexperienced as she was with the ways of London life, it did not take long for her to become aware that Susan was Jess’s…leman. She stumbled over the unfamiliar word, even in her own thoughts.
And the more she turned the realization over in her mind, the more she was surprised that she wasn’t as shocked as she thought she would be. Jess was kind and handsome and…Penny felt her ears grow hot at the direction that her thoughts were taking. Besides, Mrs. Siddons’s maid was beckoning her now and she needed to look sharp or risk the great actress’s displeasure. She bustled over to do Mrs. Jennings’ bidding, belatedly aware of Susan’s speculative gaze upon her.
She forgot about the other girl in her errands and tasks, but Susan, it seemed, had not forgotten her. When they gathered at the King’s Arms that evening, she turned her dark-eyed gaze on Penny once again. “What is this play that you are writing, Penelope?” Her habitual London accent vanished into her stage accent, the one that she was developing for her role as Juliet in the Theatre’s next play.
Penny preferred her normal voice. She could read the other girl’s moods better when she spoke that way, even though those were as abrupt and shifting as the tides where the Thames met the sea. She wondered how Jess and the others endured the worst of them. A mocking laugh recalled her to where she was and who was interrogating her. “It’s…based on a tale about a Turkish Sultan and a shipwrecked English girl,” she spoke hesitantly, bracing for mockery and worse. Her heart still ached when she remembered its previous reception.
“Is it, now? And what do you know of Eastern potentates and shipwrecks?” Susan’s eyes sparkled with malice and Jess stiffened at her side, ready to interrupt.
“As much as you know of being a young virgin like Juliet, I imagine.” The words were out of Penny’s mouth before she could stop them. It was an open secret that Susan flirted where she would, Jess or no Jess. There were rumors of that and more and though Penny had tried to ignore them, it was too late to plead ignorance now.
Susan leaned across the table, holding Penny’s gaze with her own. “The country mouse is growing claws, it seems. What are you implying, little mouse? Do you think that stirring up the pot of ill will and rumor will get you what you want?” She glanced sidelong at Jess, then back at Penny.
Penny’s face burned as if it were on fire. Did Susan mean…the knowing snickers all around them were enough to keep her from looking Jess’s way. That would only make things worse. “I meant only that our levels of ignorance of the parts we play or write are, perhaps, not so far apart as your words suggest.” She had imagined herself as her heroine, a young Englishwoman, marooned in a strange land, more than once since she began writing, and never so much as now.
And like her heroine, she was in danger, peril that she barely understood. That much was clear from the way that Susan’s eyes flashed. She leaned forward, clearly about to say something cutting and cruel, only to leap to her feet with a startled oath. Jess righted her cup and stood up with her. “I am so very sorry! How very clumsy of me!” She sponged ineffectually at Susan’s beer-soaked dress with a rag from her pocket.
Penny pinched her lips together to bite back the startled laugh that was rising up her throat. Susan glared at both of them and stormed out, the sound of laughing actors lending wings to her feet. Penny looked up at Jess, looking for a way to express her gratitude, but Jess wasn’t looking at her. Instead, she was watching as one of the other actors trailed out the door after Susan. Jess’s face was tight and closed and her hands balled into fists, and a moment later, she followed them.
The others herded Penny back to the theater before she had a chance to wonder more about what was happening. Once there, they all spread out, seizing upon different tasks, some of them Susan’s or Jess’s, so that Master Barstow would not find them missing. When they were done, Penny was so tired that she could scarcely stand. Leaning against each other, she and the other girls staggered back to their room.
What they found there made Penny freeze in the doorway. Jess was pulling some ashes from the fire, small pieces of paper and scraps of rag. She wouldn’t look up to meet Penny’s eyes, but even in the shadows they could all see that she had a shiner and that she’d been crying. While the others ran to see to Jess, Penny’s gaze darted to her corner and her precious pile of rag paper. Gone. It was all gone.
With a wail of loss and despair, she ran to Jess’s side and dropped to her knees before the pile of ash, scattering it. “No, no, no!” She seized a handful of ash and a few fragments and waved it under Jess’s nose. “Did you do this?”
One of the other girls, Sarah, Penny thought her name was, grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little. “That bain’t Jess’s fault! She’d niver harm your words! That were Susan or I’m sore mistook.” She took one hand from Penny’s shoulder and gestured at Jess’s face. “And that’d be Sam’s work.”
Jess grimaced then gave a cry of pain, pressing her hand over her injured eye. Penny reached out and hesitantly patted her shoulder. “You’ll be needing some raw meat for that, bloody as you can find.” She wondered where the words came from. She had no more in her.
“And where would we be finding such a thing this time of night?” Sarah rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Jess, there’s a lass. We’ll get you summat cool from the wash barrel to take the swelling down.” She nodded to Penny and they both scrambled to their feet, brushing ash from their skirts mechanically. Together, they pulled Jess to her feet and steered her over to the wash barrel.
Numbly, Penny grabbed a clean rag and began washing Jess’s face with it. She barely knew what she was doing until Sarah gently plucked the cloth from her fingers and nodded at the hearth. “Go see if there’s aught left.” Penny turned like an automaton, barely noticing Jess’s tightly closed eyes and red skin where she had rubbed too hard. She walked over and knelt near the pile once again.
She combed her fingers through the pile, her mind rejecting the evidence of her fingers. It was gone, all of it. Her lively English lass, the handsome but villainous Sultan, the clever English sailor who was a nobleman in disguise, all of them existed now only in her mind. As for the dialogue, all the clever speeches she had been at such pains to scribe, they came back to her only in bits and pieces, a word here, a line there.
Before she knew it, she was crying as she had not cried since her father’s death: deep, wrenching sobs that shook her whole body. How could this have happened? Why would Susan have done such a thing? They had not cared much for each other, but Penny could not imagine destroying something dear to the other girl out of spite.
A grubby bit of cloth dangled before her face and she snatched at it, blowing her nose with a great honk like a goose. The image made her laugh, despite her sorrow, and soon she was laughing and crying all at once and could no more stop herself than she could a runaway horse. Not even the realization that Jess and Sarah were staring at her as if she’d gone mad was enough to stem the flow of mirth and sorrow.
Finally, Jess’s hand on Penny’s shoulder pulled her back to herself with a shudder and a blush. She gave one last choking sob and wiped her tears away. “What am I supposed to do now? This was my only copy of my play. I’m not…good enough to be an actor or to sew costumes all the time. I had only my words and now those are gone too.” She stared piteously up at Jess.
But it was Sarah who spoke first. “Write another. Master Sheridan says he starts and stops with his plays, changing one for another, finishing or forgetting them as needs must, and there art none better’n him at scribing plays in all England.” She nodded to emphasize her admiration for the great man’s playwriting prowess.
“Aye, he has said as much,” Jess confirmed with a nod.
“But what am I to write about…” Penny began as her gaze dropped to the pile of ash and scraps before her. And how, with neither paper nor pen left to her? As if Jess could read her thoughts, she picked up a broken quill from under the wooden table beside them and plucked a small knife from her pocket. She began to trim the quill as Penny dragged herself to her feet to find whatever paper survived Susan’s inexplicable rage.
Jealous. She is jealous of…me. The thought struck Penny so hard that she nearly sat down in a heap on a pile of ash. For a long moment, she couldn’t fathom why the other girl felt that way. What cause did she have? Then Jess caught her eye and held out the sharpened bit of quill with a shy half smile that twisted a little against her swollen cheek. A spasm of guilt and tenderness went through Penny then and she scrambled for another wet rag to place on Jess’s face.
When she turned back, a couple of pieces of crumpled rag paper lay on the table, along with the broken quill and a small container of ink that they had found somewhere. Sarah gestured at her and Penny sat down on the stool that wobbled while Sarah began to sweep away the ashes around the hearth.
For a long moment, Penny imagined her original play, tried to remember the exact words and scenes. But she found her gaze turning to Jess and her thoughts to Susan. She turned it all over in her mind while the candle burned low and the others finally went to sleep. Penny herself slept for a bit, her head on the hard table, her dreams strange and filled with bits and pieces of plays that she had seen, pantos she had been in, even Jess and Susan.
She awoke before anyone else and blinked the sleep from her eyes. She moistened her pen and thought of a sultan who was a sultan no longer, but instead a lovesick countess, one who had fallen in love with a girl disguised as a boy, a girl who loved someone else. Her ink blotted on the rough paper at first, but after a few moments, her quill flew across it as her thoughts took flight.
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Links to Catherine Lundoff Online