Last week I talked about how manipulation of point-of-view can change the entire flavor of what I’m writing. This week, rather than talking about my own writing, I’d like to bring together three things that have passed through my brain recently about understanding and portraying romantic relationships between women in historical settings.
The one that really sparked this train of thought is a podcast titled Frankentastic being created by Tansy Rayner Roberts and put out by Twelfth Planet Press in fulfillment of a stretch goal for the kickstarter for the forthcoming anthology Mother of Invention. The premise of Frankentastic is a fairly straightforward re-gendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein read as a serial. All the male characters (which is the vast majority of the on-page characters) become female, while the female characters are converted either to male or non-binary characters. Other than names, pronouns, and gendered references (like mother/father/parent), the text remains completely as the original. But what seems like a simple little conceit makes some interesting differences in how the characters in their relationships read.
The biggest thing that struck me was how overwhelmingly homoerotic the language of the story is: not merely in the context of Victor(ia) Frankenstein and friends, but also in the context of the initial framing story of Robert(a) Walton’s sea voyage and the interactions with associates and crew. The language these characters use is effusively and overwhelmingly romantic and even sensual with regard to same-gender friends and associates. I don’t know whether it is striking me more in this audio version than it did back when I read the book due to the immediacy of the medium, or whether I notice it more when those exchanging the sentiments are women for personal reasons, or whether I’m more likely to discount such effusive sentiments as literary convention when spoken between men, or some other reason. But the take-away observation here is that an early 19th century writer, of good birth if unconventional lifestyle, considered it normal, natural, and unremarkable to put expressions of same-sex devotion and love in the mouth of her characters that—if written today—would be interpreted unambiguously as expressing homosexual desire.
And although Shelley’s work placed this language in the mouths of male characters, I know from the research I’ve studied for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project that similar language was considered normal, natural, and unremarkable between actual women in everyday life. We know this from correspondence and diaries and reported conversations, as well as from the depictions of emotionally intense female friendships in literature of the time. It’s one thing to read books are articles discussing this phenomenon, but somehow it’s a viscerally different matter to listen to it being expressed in audio, and particularly in a context where gender-swapping has highlighted the import of the conventions.
So, there’s that.
The second stream feeding into these thoughts is having just read Farah Mendlesohn’s Spring Flowering (set in the same era) and seeing how noticeable the contrast is between how her characters express and enact the spectrum of same-sex emotional (and sensual) relationships, reflecting the same conventions we seen in Frankenstein, as compared to the depiction of historic characters more commonly found in lesbian historical fiction that attributes a very modern-feeling guilty self-consciousness around experiencing and expressing same-sex romantic desire. The characters in Frankenstein feel no need to reassure themselves or their companions of the purely platonic “no-homo” nature of their relationship, just as their real life sisters felt no embarrassment or guilt at the most effusive expression of emotional bonds with each other. Because that was how close friends were expected to act with each other.
Now, you may protest that close friends may have felt free and unselfconscious to act in that way precisely because there was no actual erotic component to their relationship. But we know that isn’t the key, because we know that some early 19th century persons who wrapped the enactment of their romantic friendship in this effusive passionate language and behavior also had erotic relationships. Not all of them. Perhaps not even most of them. But some of them. And we know—from our admittedly scanty scraps of direct evidence—that they did not consider their feelings to be a separate species of relationship from non-erotic romantic friendship. And I must acknowledge that the differences between male and female sexuality may make the two experiences diverge somewhat on this point. But the point is that you can write an early 19th century story in which two women proclaim their love for each other publicly, express themselves in the most passionate terms in correspondence, writing of the desire for kisses and embraces and the longing to sleep together and the dream of sharing their lives together, have these desires and expressions be known to all their associates, and have them be free of both internal and external condemnation and suspicion for those expressions. (Which isn’t to say that there weren’t occasions when women’s passionate friendships did rouse suspicion and censure, but only that it was a far from universal consequence.)
The third stream of thought on this comes from editing an author interview for my podcast where the author is talking about honoring how brave and daring and ground-breaking woman-loving-women in history were. And this is where I long to immerse people more in the historical context—the ways that actual women in history expressed and enacted their same-sex relationships. Because they weren’t all lonely, daring radicals—not necessarily and not generally. Not until the 20th century, that is. For the most part, they were finding ways to express their love and desire for each other in ordinary and conventional ways that their society considered not merely acceptable but, in many cases, praiseworthy. To be sure, the ways they found generally did not involve making public proclamations of the sexual nature of their relationships, or of political agitation for legal equality (hard to do when women as a class did not have legal equality!). But the depiction of pre-20th century women who loved women as having the same sort of tormented and conflicted internal life that we see depicted for early 20th century women is simply flat-out historically inaccurate. And I’d love to see more historical fiction that reflected that. Perhaps what we need is more familiarity with literature of the times that depicts intense same-sex emotional relationships—and if we can’t find them with women, then gender-flip the men and enjoy the ride!