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Lesbian Historical Fiction as a Field of Study

Wednesday, June 1, 2022 - 07:00

Several years ago, I ran into references to this book as an in-process project and have been waiting eagerly for its publication. Blogging it as a LHMP entry is a bit meta: a blog in support of lesbian historical fiction looking at a study of lesbian historical fiction as a genre. Garber is looking at a number of questions that have been simmering in the back of my mind over the years of looking at LHF as a field. Why do we write historical fiction? In particular, why do we write queer historical fiction? And what does it mean to write specifically lesbian historical fiction? How does this genre re-fashion history to fit the needs of lesbian identity? And how does it re-fashion lesbian identity to fit the context of history?

I'm particularly delighted to find that Garber identified a trope that I'm also fascinated by and has given it a name: the "romance of the archives". That is, the type of cross-time story in which a (relatively) contemporary person is exploring and coming to grips with their own identity and relationships by means of researching specific queer-coded individuals in the past. I intend to adopt this label for my own use.

As is often the case with academic books, some of the chapters were originally independent papers, which can give an episodic or patchwork feel to the whole. Certain subgenres are given prominence by having a chapter focus on them, others get far less mention. Some chapters focus more on "literary" works, others on genre fiction. And--as is also common with academic books--there's a point when you have to stop accumulating primary material and start the analysis, so the content is strongly focused on publications from the 1990s and 2000s, with a much smaller proportion from the 2010s than their representation in the field. It also focuses almost exclusively on the output of small presses, with almost no examples of self-published or author-imprint books. This may help explain some of the differences between Garber's take on popular themes and my own analysis. For example, I don't see "western" stories being as predominant as she does, but it may be that among earlier works from the small presses this is a more accurate assessment.

It was a lot of fun to read through this book and find many of my own thoughts and assessments echoed there. OMG, lesbian/sapphic historical fiction is a real field of serious study! I don't usually talk about upcoming interview prospects until I have them recorded, just in case things fall through, but I'll be daring enough to note that I'm in discussion with Professor Garber to come on the podcast to talk about her work.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Garber, Linda. 2022. Novel Approaches to Lesbian History. Palgrave, Cham. ISBN 978-3-030-85416-4

Chapter 1: Who Knows, Who Cares, and Why Bother

The book opens with Garber laying out the reasons for tackling this subject and her personal history as a reader of lesbian historic fiction. Why is it that lesbian historic fiction is important to the project of lesbian identity, if not the project of lesbian history? And what is the relationship between history and historic fiction when juggling the competing cultures and preoccupations of research and representation? These are some of the questions this book tries to address.

Chapter 2: H(a)unting the Archives

This chapter has a largely literary focus looking at the creation of a “usable past”. Garber comes up with the term “romance of the archives” to discuss cross-time stories in which a character is researching lesbians in the past. [Note: I may start using this term, since it’s a clearly identifiable story type, and one I’ve been commenting on for some time.] The example is used of the film Watermelon Woman, which is a “fake” biography creating history where it has been erased. Similarly, in the novel Impasssioned Clay, the discovery of a body wearing a “scold’s bridle” provokes research into the literal and social “silencing” of women. In discovering the nature of the dead woman, the protagonist discovers her own identity.

Ghost stories and time travel stories similarly construct queer genealogies. In a typical example of the “romance of the archives” genre, an archival researcher finds an imagined or supernatural connection with the past more satisfying than book research. The tension between documented history and the attraction of historical fiction are integrated in this novel by each partner in the framing relationship focusing on one side.

Time travel can similarly provide direct unfiltered access to a (fictional) past that bypasses the gaps in the historic record and the inconvenient non-alignment of historic and modern identities. Add in reincarnation in a family line, and both the personal disruption of history and the knowledge gap can be closed in a happily ever after where the modern protagonists affirm and consummate the relationship disrupted in and by history.

Chapter 3: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lesbian Sex* *But Only in Historical Fiction

Chapter three focuses on the place of sex in lesbian historical fiction. This consideration exists in the context that some researchers consider evidence of sex as the only acceptable “proof” of historical lesbian identity. Sex in lesbian historical fiction creates the image of understandable lesbian identity. It also serves to contradict (or contrast with) the image of lesbian sex in popular culture. Activists and scholars of lesbian history have taken positions ranging from “does it matter?” (promoted by proponents of the “women-identified-women” approach) through to “it’s a sine qua non”. Sex as a defining feature contributes to “the historical denial of lesbianism” even for couples engaging in clearly romantic marriage-equivalents. This position appears in the variants “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” and as “sex between women isn’t really sex”. (There is a summary of various opinions and positions on this question.)

Garber asserts, “lesbian historic fiction, by definition, starts from the premise that they did 'do it' and then proceeds to imagine how they did it.” [Note: I find this position depressing from an ace point of view. There ought to be room in lesbian historic fiction for stories that can imagine lesbian readers finding a historic connection with women in romantic relationships even if they didn’t engage in sex.]

Garber estimates that 2/3 of lesbian historic fiction are “coming out” romances with the structure: two women meet; at least one doesn’t understand her attraction;  smoldering frustration; kissing; then sex. The chapter goes into a brief history of the romance genre, the rise of more explicit texts in the 70s, a discussion of positive and negative views of romance as “porn for women,” and the relationship of romance to feminism. Lesbian romance has been critiqued in parallel ways as formulaic and clichéd, but in the context of queer literature a happily ever after can be seen as wildly radical rather than as conventional.

The most prolific publishers of lesbian romance are Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and in an earlier era Naiad. [Note: as my annual surveys show, while this may be true for lesbian romance as a whole, these publishers produce only a small percentage of current historical fiction. But if one is looking at the pre-ebook era, the impression may be more accurate.]

Lesbian historic romance follows the same basic formula as mainstream romance with sex scenes following a similar pattern. The sex tends to be conventional, and reflects how the mainstream expects lesbians in history to have behaved. This assimilates lesbians into a mainstream arc, moving from sexual innocence to true love.

A difference from straight romance (other than both protagonists being women) is the prevalence of coming-out plots. The “difficulty that must be resolved” is recognition of sexual identity--not just a recognition of sexual attraction in general, but accepting same-sex attraction. Coming out is intrinsic to the genre – for a happy ending the character must not simply accept her love for the other, but recognize and accept her identity as a lesbian.

See Bonnie Zimmerman’s three myths of lesbian origins: 1) the creation of the lesbian self, 2) the formation of a lesbian couple, 3) the finding of a lesbian community. But most lesbian historic fiction depicts a world where the characters have no label for themselves and no community.

Garber considers the depiction of a historic character finding identity/community with others to be anachronistic. Thus the post-Stonewall lesbian novel is a project of defining/creating an assumed (but fictional) “truth” about lesbian identity and continuity through time.

Explicit content in lesbian romance parallels the shifts in straight romance. Genres proliferated distinguishing porn, erotica, erotic romance, and sexy romance. Due to the prevalence of coming-out plots, lesbian historic romance often delays sex to relatively late in the story. The content of lesbian sex scenes must be explicit to counter the image of sexless “cuddling”. But this also requires defining what “counts” as sex. Kissing, especially passionate kissing is a given. Fondling and caressing, especially of the breasts is only a stop along the way. Digital penetration and oral sex are the equivalent to PIV for heterosexual romances in defining “doing it”. Unambiguous descriptions of orgasm are also essential.

There is a survey of historic commentary on female same-sex erotics and examples of how characters in lesbian historic fiction express recognition of same-sex desire. There is a summary of sexological theories of inversion, the myth of the large clitoris, various social habits and practices perceived as masculine that are attributed to female “inverts”. As these stereotypes have largely fallen out of the popular imagination, they are generally ignored in lesbian historic fiction, with the exception of the trope of the “mannish lesbian” (butch) which is addressed either through erasure (femme-femme romance) or by clearly indicating that the butch character identifies as a woman. Butch characters in lesbian historic fiction are rarely conflicted about their gender identity and often jump at the chance to adopt a more feminine performance if the social conditions that triggered gender-crossing are removed.

While superficially anti-trans, this trope must also be seen as a refutation of earlier stereotypes about lesbians (i.e., that they “want to be a man” or that “one of them is the man”). But readings (and perhaps in some cases, motivations) of transphobia must be recognized. [Note: the insistance on clear charter gender identity as female is changing.] The question of how to balance these readings persists, especially as the authorial voice may assign gender to the character in question.

Another conventional trope –- that homosexuality is immature development -- is turned around in lesbian fiction where same-sex desire is the means by which the character moves from adolescence to adulthood. The validation of maturity by the lover as part of finding one’s place in life. [Note: This is reminiscent of the often vain aspirations of actual historic romantic friends, where the achievement of a home together is the goal. In lesbian historic romance, that goal is treated as achievable.] Lesbian historic fiction challenges the stereotype promulgated by sexologists of the lesbian as immature, or the lesbian as predator.

Garber notes that lesbian historic fiction counters the predator stereotype in two ways. Firstly, by having the experienced partner hold back until her partner takes the initiative, or by means of a conversation explicitly asking and receiving consent. [Note: But compare with the rise of consent culture in historic romance in general!] The second means is depicting both partners as sexually inexperienced, such that neither fits the “predator” stereotype. These approaches can be contrasted with, for example, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and its contemporaries in which the authors accept the stereotype of the sexologist’s “invert” to make a plea for tolerance based on pity.

But in the embracing of sex-positivity since the 80s, lesbian historic fiction, in general, sticks to relatively conventional “vanilla” sex, focusing on mutuality and similarity, rather than including power imbalances or role-playing. [Note: I wonder how much of this is the conventions of romance versus those of literary fiction?] The emphasis on equality, mutuality, and “vanilla” sex is another contrast to the stereotype of predation, or that F/F relationships mimic M/F ones.

This purpose may also underlie the dearth of sex toys, especially dildos, in lesbian historic fiction, despite their prevalence and acceptance in contemporary lesbian culture. It’s as if there is an ongoing need to challenge the claim that lesbians “want to be men”. Sexologists up through the mid 20th century emphasized the presence of a “masculine” partner in lesbian relationships, and over-emphasized the role of dildos.

In lesbian historic fiction, the rare examples of dildos appear in gender disguise plots where one character uses it as part of the presentation. This type of plot often touches on the overlap between gender disguise and transgender identity, though not always sensitively. Plots with gender disguise involving a dildo often have a more explicit and frequent focus on sexual encounters. In novels marked and marketed as lesbian historical fiction, the disguised character is always brought to an acceptance of female identity within the relationship, regardless of public presentation. [Note: It might be pointed out that this goes with the territory of identifying a book as a “lesbian” story.] Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is the rare exception where the presence of a dildo is not within a cross-dressing context. Garber suggests that ambivalence about dildos in lesbian historic fiction reflect ongoing debates in lesbian culture regarding its symbolism.

Regardless of the specific type of sex written into lesbian historic fiction, the presence of on-page sex establishes lesbianism (as a sexuality) as undeniable historic fact. In the absence of a general acceptance of lesbian sexual presence in history, the inclusion or not of sex scenes in lesbian historic fiction is meaningful.

Chapter 4: Tomboys and Indians

Garber asserts that a quarter of lesbian historic romances are set in the American West and explores that specific sub-genre in this chapter. [Note: Estimates of this sort depend greatly on how one defines the data. By my own database, I’d say that the most generous estimate would be that Westerns make up perhaps 5% of all lesbian historic romances. Still a significant proportion, but not quite as dramatic a claim.]

The problematic aspects of the American myth of the Wild West cannot help but tinge the lesbian historic fiction set there, with rare exceptions. The protagonists see the (mythical) western frontier as a place for self-actualization, independence from social conventions, and anonymity. The keywords “freedom”, “independence “, and “opportunity” appear frequently. But as in mainstream westerns, the price paid by others for the opportunities is rarely mentioned, even when Native American characters are included sympathetically. The white lesbian experience is generalized and centered, even when connections with other “outsider” characters are noted. This theme is developed in significant depth in the chapter.

Another category of “western” lesbian historic fiction uses positive stereotyping and appropriation of Native cultures to frame a protagonist as “not like other [characters]”. Perhaps the character has been mentored or adopted by a Native character. Native cultures may be depicted as more accepting and supportive of same-sex relationships. In return, the white character often becomes a leader or spiritual figure in the Native culture. Often there is a spiritual transformation that triggers this. Garber makes an explicit connection to New Age spirituality’s appropriation of Native culture.

As with heterosexual Western novels, these books tend to use the window dressing of Native cultures to enhance a white (or stereotypically mixed-race) character, while promoting the “authenticity” of the narrative, and often invoking tenuous native connections of the author.

Similar dynamics can play out in lesbian historic fiction with an American Civil War setting, with a protagonist establishing anti-racist bona fides while failing to grapple with the realities of the Black characters, or treating the North-South conflict as a romantic context for interpersonal conflict, while skimming past the socio-political basis for that conflict.

Rarely are these stories written by Black authors, which contributes to the preponderance of the mythic plots. Rare exceptions, like Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, are far less likely to treat the past as a romantic, desirable setting. There is not the same opportunity to paint a reclaimed positive past for Black lesbians that is available to white lesbians.

While recognizing that the majority of lesbian historic fiction westerns continue to operate within the bubble of white privilege, even when the characters are superficially depicted as unusually accepting and unprejudiced, several authors are noted as writing in the same setting from within marginalized cultures, though still typically through the viewpoint of white characters who observe and call out the systemic racism.

Another approach is to use a conditionally-white character to draw parallels between prejudice against Native Americans and those against non-Anglo settlers such as Irish and Italians. Occasionally a book written from the viewpoint of the more deeply marginalized residents of the Old West grapples with issues of racism and persecution on a grittier level.

Because the Western is fully entangled with images of heroic masculinity and white male adventures, lesbian historic fiction using the Western as its structure is largely the story of female masculinity trying to lay claim to that same legacy. A butch character is practically a requirement, whether passing as a man or openly transing gender “for practicality”. The butch protagonist of the lesbian western is definitively “not like other girls”. She is a gender outlaw and her sexuality sometimes appears more a consequence of that rejection of traditional femininity then a cause of it. As Halberstam notes, butch characters in westerns don’t necessarily challenge the gender binary. In a genre where people assigned male need to struggle and fight to achieve full manhood, there is a context for people assigned female to achieve the same if they work hard enough.

But one key feature of lesbian Westerns is that the butch character retains some ineradicable female nature – whether physical or psychological – and this is often a topic for the character’s internal conflict or self-reflection. Both the attraction to female masculinity and the rejection of relations with men are often depicted from a feminist angle – that it is not possible for someone inhabiting a traditional female role to be a fully realized independent human being. Lesbian desire then becomes as much a feminist necessity as a personal characteristic.

First wave feminism sometimes makes an appearance, giving the characters either inspiration, or a context, for expressing their feelings in this area. Both in fictional history, and in the study and interpretation of history, female masculinity in the Old West becomes a site of contention between lesbian, transgender, and gender-queer framings.

Some authors engage with such figures/characters explicitly, declining to categorize them. But authors specifically writing for a lesbian readership typically give their butch character a “tell” that clearly categorizes her as female, and thus a participant in a lesbian relationship. [Note: with a wider market for queer fiction among a more diverse readership, I feel this is loosening up, to some extent.]

Overall, Garber concludes, lesbian Westerns tend to be rather conventional and conservative in genre, outside the one subversion of introducing a butch character as the “cowboy hero”. The femme characters often fall in the most conventional of tropes: the prostitute with a heart of gold, the schoolmistress, the farmwife. And the happily ever after is typically the ability to portray the image of a conventional nuclear family, complete with children. And, as a whole, lesbian Westerns too often perpetuate white mythologizing about colonialist history.

Chapter 5: Unsafe Seas for Women

[Note: the chapter title is playing off Bonnie Zimmerman’s 1990 publication The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989.]

Chapter covers several sub genres that have in common a theme of sea travel, whether the sea-going life of pirates, or the act of trans-oceanic emigration. There’s a bit of thematic whiplash as the chapter starts by discussing pirates, then moves to the immigration theme, before returning to pirate stories.

Pirate fiction is a more promising context for challenging the racist and imperialist past than westerns. Even stripping out the romanticism, the pirate culture of the 18th century involved ideals (not always maintained) of multi-ethnic egalitarianism, direct democracy, and economic fairness. The documented existence of at least two female pirates (Anne Bonney and Mary Reade) has inspired many lesbian pirate stories, whether as fictional biography or using those two as a model for original characters.

The age of exploration also inspires many stories that embrace imperialist and colonialist goals, and though these are a minority within lesbian historical fiction set in this era, Garber examines some titles that embrace the Intrepid White Explorer, or the Archaeologist's Orientalist Fantasy.

This chapter covers, more broadly, stories in which the crossing of seas is both a hazard and a quest.

European emigration to America forms another category of setting for lesbian historic fiction, carrying the motif of reinventing oneself. Such characters include a wide range of class backgrounds and motivations. Sometimes a couple travels together, hoping to escape scrutiny and disapproval. Sometimes the arrival in a new community provides the context for establishing a relationship. (Cross dressing/passing may be involved, but it’s not a default element as it is in the western.)

Various aspects and social movements relating to the immigrant experience may be key plot elements, such as labor activism and feminism. The issues around ethnic and religious prejudice that both drove emigration and met the immigrants in their new home are also prominent story elements.

In these “immigration novels”, same-sex romance maybe a source of strength, the embodiment of the multicultural environment, or a motivation for migration. Immigration stories tend, on the whole, to be gritty, realistic stories of the search for safety and security.

Pirate stories, on the other hand, tend to be fantasies based on pop-culture inventions, focusing on the search for adventure and the perils of freedom. Garber notes that they often intersect with another narrative genre, such as ghost story, love story, or “romance of the archive”. Settings often emphasize the purported democratic and egalitarian culture of pirate crews, extending that spirit to embrace gender equality.

The criminality and violence inherent in piracy are framed in contrasting ways to retain reader empathy. Criminality may be viewed Robin Hood-style as a matter of higher justice. But protagonists are often shown to find violence as increasingly distasteful – a necessary tool for the last resort and perhaps a motivation for leaving the life at the book’s conclusion.

Pirate novels also give the characters a context for anti-slavery sentiment and actions, and for depicting a multi-racial community on shipboard, without introducing seriously anachronistic elements. (Garber notes that some historians dispute this image. But it’s well enough established that authors can’t be faulted for embracing it in fiction.)

The presence and acceptance of women in pirate society of the 18th century Atlantic is perhaps the least historic element of lesbian pirate novels. Within the documented exceptions (talking about Western culture here) cross-dressing/passing is a common element, and seagoing superstitions regarding women on ships are well documented.

The inherent subversion of the undeniable existence of Reade and Bonney provide a wedge for the fictional imagination. And the potential for erotic relations between the two was raised in literature of the time, even if only to deny its possibility. So no wonder that fictionalizations of a Bonney/Reade romance form a substantial sub-genre of lesbian pirate novels.

As with the Western, seafaring culture is entwined with particular images and archetypes of cultural masculinity. And the two most famous female pirates have back-stories that involve episodes of cross-dressing beginning at a young age. Both in the historic reports of Bonney and Reade, and in fictionalized characters in lesbian pirate novels, the performance of a fierce, competent hyper-masculinity in times of conflict is seen as the essence of their survival and success.

Garber also notes and explores the pop-culture popularity of cross-dressing heroines in 17th to 19th century media, specifically including the genre of seafaring heroines. (See, e.g., Dugaw 1989.) Pirate fiction also intersects with the general category of popular literature featuring charismatic criminals and especially female criminals. Moll Cutpurse (the historical figure and lesbian novel) is cited.

Chapter 6: The Usual Suspects

[This chapter focuses on history and historic fiction from the era when self-conscious lesbian identity was emerging.]

Given that lesbian historic fiction is the quest to find or create a history in which recognizable and knowledgeable lesbians exist, one fertile area is fictional stories involving historic individuals who undeniably were women who loved women, such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, or Natalie Barney. (Garber lists a number of relevant historic individuals, although the certainty of “identifiable” gets fuzzier the earlier you go.)

Within this topic, there is also the meta-fiction in which fictional characters explore and discuss the importance of telling stories that connect them with people they identify as lesbians throughout time, suggesting that the existence of such historic figures and the act of claiming them as lesbians is an essential part of lesbian culture. One author expresses that you cannot have a tradition of “lesbian literature” without a continuity of works that explicitly identify with such a tradition.

Novels in which Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas appear are cited as exemplifying this concept. With an actual historic grounding, the fictions that elaborate their lives and those of their contemporaries create a rich cultural history that feels absent from the strictly historical tradition. These fictions aren’t so much about Stein and Toklas as they are about the authors and readers who desire that richer history. And fiction can “claim” these characters for a lesbian historical tradition that has too often been erased or dismissed within heteronormative history.

But with a growing wider acceptance of queer themes in literature, fiction (or fictionalizations) about women loving women is expanding beyond the community who are creating stories “by lesbians about lesbians for lesbians”. This expansion raises new questions and concerns about “ownership”, representation, and the cultural purpose that such fictions serve.

Questions of representation and purpose also arise when one considers the fiction written by historical lesbians themselves, such as the Paris Circle of the early 20th century. These women were not concerned with creating a positive and uplifting legacy for their later admirers, and their themes and characters may strike modern readers as engaging in many of the same negative tropes and stereotypes that their male contemporaries applied to lesbian characters.

Garber closes with a meditation on what must be done in order to grapple with both the realities of history and the flaws of lesbian historic fiction as a genre, which risk repeating a history of biases and exclusions. She closes with the following: “In the meantime, lesbian historical novels provide a necessary if imperfect history, as well as copious material for a serious reflection on the definitions of history, identity, and above all, lesbian.”