Yeah, it's been a while since I've done a writing progress update, isn't it? I confess I've gotten a little knocked off the tracks with respect to blogging in the past month and I keep reminding myself that one of my New Year's Irresolutions was not to beat myself up about that. (Poor Abiel LaForge is sitting there on the front lines waiting for the war to end.) So where are we...?
Looking at my revised chapter outline, I have two and a half chapters to go to complete my zeroeth draft of Floodtide. "Zeroeth draft" because there are still a bunch of placeholders and "expand this"s and "this needs to get moved elsewhere"s. But in two and a half chapters, I'll have written through to the end of the book. That's something.
When people ask me about my writing process, my usual response is, "I'll let you know when I've used the same one twice." And Floodtide is no exception. None of my previous first drafts were quite this chaotic, in part because I've usually broken my rule about "no re-writing until I'm done writing." For the two previous books, having a complete draft felt like I could predict fairly solidly how soon I'd be ready to present the manuscript to my publisher. This time, I haven't even sent off a formal proposal letter yet because I have no good estimate of how long it's going to take me to whip the story into shape.
Part of that is because I plan to go out and hire myself a developmental editor who knows something about what a good YA fantasy should look like to help me make Floodtide the best book it can be. And I don't know how long that process will take, either finding the right person or working through the revisions with them. It's a bit of an unsettled feeling, but since I want Floodtide to be a book that can be an independent introduction to Alpennia, I figure it's worth taking the time.
(Oh, and the river isn't actually still rising at this point. The waters have started to recede. But not the troubles.)
This month I’m getting my fill of a particular sort of academic study that brings together parallel examinations of several related subjects (or persons) to build a layered case for the author’s conclusions. There is often a tendency to throw in a section of random leftover topics somewhere toward the end. This sounds a bit more negative than I mean it to feel -- academic writing has some rules and structures that are quite different from a more popular approach to historic topics. But it can make it hard to recommend books like this to a general reader. And yet, if you are planning to set a piece of historic fiction in western Europe in the 17-19th centuries, you can find a wealth of intellectual background and social understandings and expectations in works like DeJean, Andreadis, and Vanita. This applies in particular if you mean to set your fiction in intellectual or literary circles.
This book, in a way, continues on from Andreadis’ examination of English uses of Sappho in the 17-18th centuries, focusing on similar topics and treatments during the Romantic and Victorian eras, but with a slightly broader focus on how Sappho (and the Virgin Mary) inspired considerations and understandings of non-normative sexuality in general, not just female homoeroticism.
And with this entry, I conclude my Pride Month Special focusing on topics relating to Sappho. Maybe I should start planning now for another special topic for next year's Pride Month. (Though, to some extent, for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, every month is Pride Month!) Do you have any suggestions for next year's focus?
I'd also like to add a teaser that the podcast sister-project (The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast) will be expanding in format in August, with additional content beyond my historic essays. Stay tuned for more details!
Vanita, Ruth. 1996. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-10551-7
A study of 19th century English writers working on homoerotic themes, with attention to how Sappho and the Virgin Mary feature as alternative models of female bonds and women’s creativity.
Introduction: Imagined Ancestries
Vanita was inspired by looking at Virginia Woolf as a Sapphic writer in the contexts of the Aestheticists and Romantics to challenge the idea that Sapphic writers were isolated from mainstream literary traditions. [Note: This beginning point explains why such a significant amount of the later part of the book focuses on Woolf and her contemporaries.] She looks at love between women as a literary force for both female and male writers, in contradiction to post-Freudian views of writers as operating in a phallocentric universe. These forces manifest in several ways: women’s search for non-biological ancestry (and descent) as creators, an erotic aesthetic focused on joy rather than reproduction, and love between women in literary and mythological ancestors.
The Marian model of relationships between women focuses on a mother-daughter dynamic of nurturence and mentorship, while the Sapphic model focuses on a passionate dialog between women. Both involve female communities and the models are not exclusive. The models considered here are not specifically about sexuality, but do center on erotic and affective preferences. Vanita is less concerned with issues of class than gender and sexuality, considering class to be less stable.
Romanticism was concerned with a search for alternate non-biological forms of family and community--a search for intellectual and spiritual ancestors in contrast to society’s primacy of biological ancestry. Affective relationships show an overlap between the “mentor” and the “crush”. Non-biological kindred are linked to relationships between women by pinning immortality on textual survival, not on the production of children.
Victorian radical and feminist networks included important alliances of homosexually-inclined men and women, and these networks are particularly apparent in literary communities. Vanita wants to challenge the traditional view of gender segregation in these networks. She reviews various schools of thought regarding gender dynamics in history and argues they omit significant chunks of data that incorporate themes of bonds between women. For example, she examines the concept of Mary’s immaculate conception as a ret-conning [my label] of her “perpetual virginity” as a way of elevating the Virgin to an icon of autonomous creativity and women’s community. As another example of overlooking female communities and bonds, she points out that Foucault’s focus on the historic influence of gender segregation fails to consider the female side of gender-segregated societies, such as Sappho’s community. Further, she criticizes the tendency to gender sexual activity as inherently masculine and love as inherently feminine.
Chapter 1: The Marian Model
The cult and legend of the Virgin Mary developed on a foundation of very thin fact, but created alternative models of femaleness for women in pre-modern England. [Note: in fact, throughout Christian history, but this book is looking specifically at England, so the discussion is skewed in that direction.] Mary gave women a focus for empowerment and a basis for rebutting misogyny. After the Reformation, Mary worship became identified with Catholicism, which was problematic in England. Mariolatry became a focus for Protestant hatred and also a focus of anxiety in the Catholic hierarchy, where it was felt to be tinged with paganism.
Catholicism was a continual fascination among English intellectuals but was viewed negatively in English popular culture. Catholic clergy and nuns were often portrayed as sexually frustrated or perverted. But the cultural presence of Mary was not so easily stigmatized, due to her pervasive presence in art, everyday life, and popular culture, not least because of the omnipresence of the name “Mary” for historic reasons. In the 19th century, there was a shift from framing Mary as the “mother of God” to seeing her as an autonomous agent, acting on behalf of mankind. [Note: I’m assuming that Vanita is referring narrowly to post-Reformation English perceptions here, as the image of Mary as an autonomous intercessor goes much further back.]
Due to the exclusion of Mary from Protestant theology, Protestant writers were free to re-imagine her in new and transgressive ways. For example, discourse around the word “conception” was highly gendered. For a man, “conception” immediately evoked inspiration and intellectual pursuits, while for a woman it assumed biological children. Biological conception frames women as a passive recipient, while intellectual conception is framed as active. In contrast, images of the Annunciation depict Mary with signifiers of the intellectual framing of conception: she is alone, in contemplation (very often depicted as studying a book). She is shown “receiving” Christ in the way one would receive an idea, absent of biological functions. There is an absence of the imagery of heterosexual conception. God is symbolized as a a dove, or via the image of a genderless angel. Mary receives a “word”, the usual precursor to intellectual conception, not pregnancy.
Mary’s experience cannot be duplicated by ordinary women, but can inspire imitation. The state of virginity implies that one is safe, free, and autonomous (i.e., not under a husband). But if “sex” is defined entirely in terms of penetration, then virginity does not imply a non-erotic existence. The immaculate conception (i.e., Mary herself being born free of original sin) and virgin birth (of Christ) create an image of a non-biological (in the sense of non-heterosexual) lineage that focuses primarily on female antecedents. Mary also presents a model of marriage resistance in that legend attributes to her a refusal to marry until assured that her marriage to Joseph would be chaste.
Protestantism rejected the concept of celibate religions vocations, and the Puritan concept of “companionate marriage” could be seen as a similar rejection of celibacy. In this context, a woman’s refusal to marry made her suspect. Mary presented one of the few models for an alternative. Early Christian legends often associate marriage refusal with martyrdom (i.e., virgins who aspire to a life of chastity or simply refuse to marry a pagan are martyred in punishment for their resistance). Spiritual marriage to Christ was another way of framing marriage resistance. But in the secular realm, unmarried women--especially older women--were seen as a social “problem” and a disruptive force.
Another symbolic association of Mary is books and reading. She is commonly associated with female education, or with her role in the education of the young Jesus.
It is possible that one of the attractions of Catholicism for homosexuals was the practice of confession and absolution, and the framing of suffering as a positive experience, with Mary providing a compassionate and forgiving response. The cult of Mary was attractive to marginalized people in general, offering mercy as contrasted with the rigidity of the law. For that matter, legend suggested that Mary herself was accused of (hetero)sexual transgression due to her unmarried pregnancy.
Chapter 2: The Sapphic Sublime and Romantic Lyricism
Vanita suggests that the Sapphic ode is one of the foundational inspirations for English Romanticism. It is defined by an intensity of personal and emotional voice. Instead of making logical and rational arguments, the Romantic position is to be overpowered by emotion--an experience that is at the core of Sappho’s poetry. Like Sappho’s work, Romantic poetry frequently uses dialogues between women or feminized entities such as Nature. In Romanticism, models for relationships--even between men--elevate nurturing and tenderness. The Romantic movement challenges the perception that male writers have always ignored and trivialized women’s writing. Vanita discusses Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as an example of this perception. There is a conflict between looking at academic writing about women versus imaginative writing about women. A Room of One’s Own focuses on the former but even Woolf notes the influence of women in men’s imaginative writing.
Vanita challenges the literary historians’ assumption that Sappho as an icon of love between women emerged only in the late 19th century (with the influence of the sexologists) and that previously the Phaon myth (framing Sappho as heterosexual, at least at the end) reigned. She traces the history of English familiarity with Sappho’s work, both in Greek and Latin and in translation, and traces the timeline of knowledge and discussions of Sappho’s homoerotic expressions. Although Anne Dacier’s French translation (17th century) largely elides Sappho’s lesbianism, she was an anomaly. Dacier’s father (Tanneguy LeFevre) published an edition of Sappho's works with commentary that confirmed her lesbian interests. In the 18th century, discussions of Sappho included reference to at least four specific women thought to have been her lovers. There are also poetic acknowledgements of Sappho’s homoerotic interests, such as in John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633).
The Romantic poets had a fascination for the icon of Sappho as a great poet and experimented with works in what they considered her characteristic meter and style. These works were associated with floral and pastoral imagery and with “clitoral eroticism”, and references to both the Marian and Sapphic models of women’s relationships. Mary is often depicted with floral imagery. Sappho’s poetry frequently makes reference to specific flowers and floral garlands. The imagery of flowers and gardens is prominent in Romantic poetry. The chapter concludes with discussion of some specific Romantic works on these themes, e.g., by Keats, in which the garden is presented as feminine and faces incursions and attacks from forces depicted as masculine.
Chapter 3: Ecstasy in Victorian Aestheticism
Vanita examines the writer Walter Pater and influences from medieval, Rennaisance, and Romantic models of love between women, focusing on the theme of “images of clitoral ecstasy”. Pater saw love between women as a crucial model for love in general, including male homoerotic love. There were two competing models of male homoeroticism at that time, one focusing on “manly comrades” with themes of militarism, the other with Romanticism’s appeal to the past.
There is a discussion of Victorian era alliances between male homosexual radicals and feminists. Pater’s critical study The Renaissance is discussed in detail [Note: Much of the rest of this book consists of focused studies of specific works and authors. These notes are going to skim them fairly lightly.]
In comparison to Pater, J.A. Symonds falls on the “manly homoeroticism” side, displacing the passionate/hedonistic attributes of homoerotics onto Sappho (discussed in his study of Greek poets) and collaborating with Havelock Ellis on theories of homosexuality. He saw female same-sex passion as “unfruitful” and indicating a lack of control, contrasting with a cultural ideal of manliness. He saw a connection between male homoerotic love and genius.
Also discussed is the painter Simeon Soloman, an associate of Pater, who produced many homoerotic images of both men and women, including depictions of Sappho. Criticisms of his work included accusations that it was “insufficiently manly.” The chapter concludes with discussions of several other poets, including Oscar Wilde, who included Marian themes of compassion for those in despair.
Chapter 4: Anarchist Feminism and the Homoerotic
The highlighted authors in this chapter are Wilde, Carpenter, and Shelly. Oscar Wilde viewed the ends of feminism not as helping women better fulfill stereotyped roles (e.g., “to be a better mother”) but in an anarchist context. He provides an example of Victorian homosexual men promoting women’s education to enable women to have greater freedom and creativity, rather than to become better wives and mothers. As editor of Women’s World, he promoted women’s opinions regarding their own needs, including non-European voices. There is a discussion of Shelly as being popular among late 19th century writers on same-sex friendship and love in a feminist context. The latter part of the chapter is a long detailed analysis of Shelly's familial verse drama The Cenci”.
Chapter 5: The Search for a “Likeness”
One of the continual conflicts in the philosophy of love is between whether similarity or difference is the driver of desire. This chapter looks at the trope of likeness or similarity in 19th century women’s writing as “forging mythologies of love between women”, especially in the work of Jane Austen, the circle of the Ladies of Llangollen, and “Michael Field” (the writing pseudonym of Katherine Harris Bradley and her neice and partner Edith Emma Cooper).
The mythology of similarity as an ideal offered space for resistance to marriage and parenthood. Romantics worked with two major paradigms of love as likeness: the concept of God creating man “in his image”, and Plato’s image of the beloved as reflecting the “likeness of the world above” on earth. Themes of women experiencing love based on similarity are sometimes criticized as mere narcissism.
Austen’s Emma is analyzed as an example of a woman attracted to the the possibility of creating a beloved in one’s own likeness. Emma is continually searching for connection with other women or mourning the loss of connection. She seeks to replace the lost mentor-sister relationship she had with her governess by becoming a mentor in turn, but this quest is somewhat abruptly replaced with a heterosexual resolution.
In contrast, the Ladies of Llangollen (two upper class Irish women who eloped together to Wales and spent the rest of their lives as a couple) created that relationship of perfect similarity, abetted by female allies. Contemporary poets celebrated their idyllic union and they referred to each other with language that emphasized likeness, such as “better half”. They challenged attempts to reframe their relationship as mimicking a heterosexual couple (with Eleanor Butler cast as “the man”). Though they habitually dressed in a somewhat masculine-influenced fashion (riding habits and top hats), the emphasis was always on their similarity.
Michael Field was the nom de plume of two women engaged in a literary and romantic partnership. When the alias was uncovered, they explained that it had been chosen to free them from the limits and preconceptions imposed on female authors. Use of the common name created a symbolic unity. They used the language of marriage to describe their relationship and referred to their common literary output as their children. Their work regularly included themes of how the joining of two people “of exactly the same nature” produced a stronger whole. Their use of classical allusions in poetry included references to Sappho.
Chapter 6: Sapphic Virgins: Mythmaking Around Love Between Women
This chapter looks at Romantic anarchism as a contrast to models of patriarchal violence. The scope is late Victorian and early 20th century writers that combine Romanticism with concepts of evolution. They use idealized relationships between women as an ideal toward which humanity evolves.
George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads posits a shift in evolution from the physical to the mental, symbolized by the heroic feminine. The protagonists are “new women” whose bond (disrupted by heterosexual imperatives) is the core of the story. It presents virginity, marriage resistance, and non-heterosexuality as evolved traits. The conclusion retains this focus, though not in a triumphant fashion.
E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End similarly disparages heterosexual marriage and elevates love between women, though not in an uncomplicated way.
Hope Mirrlees' Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists (the Jansenists were a theological movement emphasizing original sin and the necessity of divine grace) openly invokes both Sappho and Mary. The protagonist Madeleine fuses Sapphic and Marian myths and is overt in the erotic and sexual aspects of her yearning for her namesake, the (historical) novelist Madeleine de Scudéry. The story situates the character in the precieuse tradition that considers perfect friendship as only possible between two women. The protagonist sees her beloved as “the modern Sappho” and her lifelong attraction to women is traced. She prays to Mary to grant her friendship with her beloved and fantasizes declarations of love but fails to express them in person. When she finally meets the object of her desire, both are disappointed in the other. The story ends in madness and disappointment, but an epilogue to the work, supplied by Mirrlee’s partner Jane Harrison, frames the protagonist as a divinely-mad artist rather than a victim of despair.
Chapter 7: Biography as Homoerotic Fiction
Victorian biographies that framed “geniuses” of the past (Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, DaVinci) as homoerotically inclined were a way of legitimizing those feelings by the biographers. If history is the biographies of great men, and great men can be linked to homoeroticism, then the course of Western Civilization can be seen as founded on homoerotic impulses. Vanita looks at the interface between homoerotically inclined academic histories by authors like Pater, and the works of sexologists like Freud who treated the same historical figures.
The majority of the chapter focuses on Virginia Woolf’s biographical fictions in a similar context of romanticizing homoerotic aspects of historical figures--both “great men” and ordinary people. The author looks at the experience and performance of homosexuality in the Bloomsbury group, combining a sublimated repression that was turned into artistic expression, alongside open eroticism and hedonism. Woolf intertwined her experience of alliances with male homosexual friends and her construction of love between women. The interplay of bonds of non-sexual friendship within the group created ambiguity when marriage might express an intellectual intimacy within a community of “outsiders” rather than being inspired by erotic love. In a context where works overtly addressing lesbianism (e.g., The Well of Loneliness) were banned, Woolf could use male homoeroticism as a dodge for considering her own homoerotic desires in writing.
Chapter 8: The Wilde-ness of Woolf
This chapter is a detailed analysis of Woolf’s Orlando and other works. It discusses how the intepersonal loves and conflicts among Woolf’s circle of female friends and lovers affected and appear in their writing.
Chapter 9: Dogs, Phoenixes, and Other Beasts
This chapter discusses the concept of difference as essential in (heterosexual) attraction, and of the developing concept of homosexuals as a “third gender”. It explores the use of non-human creatures to express this sense of otherness in homoerotic texts, through also drawing on the tradition of animal stand-ins in heterosexual love poetry. Vanita explores how the symbolism attached to the chosen animals expresses attitudes toward, and experiences of homoerotic desire. The detailed discussion revolves in particular around the works of Virginia Woolf.
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It's been a lot of fun doing a themed set of blogs and podcasts this month focusing on Sappho. The new episode is out, talking about the transmissiong of Sappho's body of work down the centuries, with examples of translations and works inspired by her poetry. I'm looking for other topics where I can coordinate publications and podcasts. And look for some changes coming to the LHMPodcast in August, with an expanded schedule and new types of content. Just as a hint: one of the new features will be interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer female characters. If there's an author you'd like to see us feature, let me know. (I can't promise anything specific, since I'm looking to create a balance of topics and representations, but I'm definitely looking for ideas.)
I just got an acceptance letter from Lace and Blade 4, an anthology of...well, of stories that the words "lace and blade" conjure up, for "Gifts Tell Truth", a new Alpennia story about Vicomtesse Jeanne de Cherdillac in her wild 20s (and a French spy/opera singer). The anthology won't be coming out until 2018, so that's plenty of time for you to get excited about it.
Usually when I cover books of the density and length of those I'm doing this month, I break them up into multiple entries to spread out the work of reading and summarizing. But because I wanted to do this "Sappho Special," I'm doing a book a week, and it's being a big grueling (as well as making for some very long blogs). Andreadis is a very dense but readable work, though the theoretical interpretation gets a bit repetitive in later chapters. For this reason, I took more extensive notes in the first few chapters than later ones.
I'm not entirely convinced by her central thesis: that "respectable" women with same-sex inclinations developed a "language of silence" either in order to avoid being associated with (or associating in their own minds) with those sexually transgressive women whose activities were becoming increasingly discussed (if decreasingly described) in popular literature. Phrased in that way, it seems either a bit self-evident (i.e., that people who considered themselves part of "polite society" didn't talk about the details of physical sexuality in public) or perhaps a bit circular (i.e., that women who talked more openly about physical sexuality were those who didn't mind being identified as "transgressive" even if they participated in elevated literary circles).
What is the difference between a Katherine Philips and a Margaret Cavendish? Does it truly represent two separate spheres of thought, or are we sorting historic people into categories based on our own perceptions of what place their work held in society? Are they, instead, individual points on a subtler continuum of approaches to expressing (and experiencing) same-sex eroticism?
Andreadis, Harriette. 2001. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1550-1714. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226020099
An examination of diverging treatments of female homoeroticism in English writing in the long 17th century, and of how the image of Sappho was used both in discussing transgressive sexuality and “chaste” passionate friendship.
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
England in this era is sparse in documentation of same-sex behaviors between women, in part due to the silence of the law with regard to such activity. So this book focuses primarily on textual representations (both by men and women) and thus necessarily is skewed toward the literate classes. This is an era before the evolution of a clear binary between homosexual and heterosexual identity, though the concept is beginning to emerge in the later part of the 17th century.
The material tends to fall into two approaches, based to some degree on the gender of the author. Female-authored works tend to focus on poetic expressions of emotional intimacy, while male-authored discourse tends to focus on physical sexuality in medical and advice manuals and travelogues. Some of the latter were written by women as well, but there are interesting differences in tone. And beginning in the mid 17th century, we also have female-authored works that are deliberately transgressive sexually. The image of Sappho makes her appearance across all these genres.
Toward the end of the period under study, Andreadis also looks at the court of Queen Anne in the context of an emerging concept of binary sexuality. In that era, the use of accusations or rumors of female homosexuality begins to be used to control or silence women’s erotic expression.
Chapter 1: An Erotics of Unnaming
When it comes to clearly named female same-sex relations, there is a textual history discussing tribadism going back to classical times. But this concept/term always carries a clear sense of sexual transgression and social ostracism. Women in early modern England who experienced same-sex intimacy would not necessarily have seen themselves reflected in this available vocabulary. Nor would they necessarily have considered their desires and the expression of them to be incompatible with socially obligatory things like marriage and children. In this context, they might instead use oblique discursive strategies to express their same-sex desire while evading condemnation.
In this era, individual concepts of identity were determined by external and social attributes rather than by interior self-image and individual subjectivity. Self-identity develops within a communal conversation, and the development of specific identities can be traced within that discussion. If the overt discussion of female same-sex erotics was primarily between men and focused on displacing that concept to “others”, what was available for women to express?
A vocabulary existed for transgressive same-sex activity between women: tribade, fricatrix, rubster, lollepot (17th c. Dutch), Tommy (18th c. English). Use of these words was marked by context and time/place and could convey nuances of approval or disapproval. While vocabulary can define specific behaviors, not all behaviors modernly considered to be sexual would have been so in all times and places--especially if they didn’t correspond to a heterosexual model of sexual activity. The prevalent vocabulary of “rubbing” interacts with the motif (popular in medical literature) of sex between women either being caused by, or causing, an enlarged clitoris. Male writers obsessed over this motif, imagining such organs to be capable of penetrative sex in imitation of heterosexual intercourse. Descriptions of enlarged clitorises were often “othered” into the past or into foreign lands.
Turkey was a very popular locus for English writers to situate female homoerotic behavior. [Note: During the 16-17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire, with its capitol in Istanbul, was at the height of its political power and geographic spread, making it not only more familiar to Europeans, but a clear candidate to stand in for non-Christian foreignness in general.] Nicolas de Nicolay’s Turkish travelogues explicitly connected sexual activity between women in Turkish bath houses with the image of Sappho. Jane Sharp’s midwifery manual was explicit about anatomy and sexual practices between women, but also displaces both the sex and the motif of clitoral penetration to foreign lands. “In the Indies and Egypt [women with enlarged clitorises] are frequent, but I never heard but of one in this country; if there be any, they will do what they can for shame to keep it close.” De Busbecq (1589) was another writer who provided detailed descriptions of sexual activity between women in a Turkish context.
As the 17th century progresses, there is increasing interest in female sexual transgression, especially in foreign contexts, but there is a shift to avoiding explicit naming of behaviors, or reference to specific practices. Examples of this interest includes news reports of “female husbands” (i.e., married couples where one member is living as a man), “hermaphrodites” (ambiguously used to describe women who sexually desired women, women with enlarged clitorises, and possible also intersex persons), and passing women (women living as men, especially in military contexts). These sensational stories often implied, but now rarely named the possibility of sexual activity. Women serving in disguise as soldiers were an exception where their image was often desexualized in order to treat them as models of patriotic heroism.
This retreat from explicit discussion of sexual behavior appears in Lady Montagu’s 1717 descriptions of women’s baths in Turkey. Although she focuses on casual nudity in the baths and discusses the women’s beauty and appreciation thereof she deflects any suspicion of “wanton” or “immodest” activity. This “unnaming” as well as the need to deny the behavior serves the counter purpose of creating an expectation of the possibility.
Roughly in the same era, satiric texts such as the anonymous polemic Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) were more open in claiming that women were engaging in sex together in England (with the implication that it was due to foreign influence). Texts such as this introduce new vocabulary, such as “game of flats”, as well as invoking Sappho as a symbol of sexual activity between women. But even in this context, specific sexual acts are not described. Much more is known in this era regarding men’s same-sex practices and subcultures, not only because men’s activities are more likely to be recorded, but because English law took active notices of them. The various genres of text discussed above show that knowledge of female same-sex possibilities was available, but also that there was anxiety about women’s access to that knowledge. Later editions of texts such as Jane Sharp were bowdlerized for “women’s editions”.
In a context where overt discourse about sex between women was disapproving and oblique, how did those women who didn’t consider their own feelings and actions to be transgressive express those desires? Or, conversely, when women expressed passions for each other in writing, what physical behaviors might have accompanied those desires? There are textual genres that could speak to the question if we could identify examples. Anne Lister’s private diaries (1791-1840) are a clear example of a sexually transgressive woman constructing her own identity and vocabulary in writing, and to a limited extent, in correspondence with other women. Prosecution records might supply evidence [but, in England, tended to be focused on issues of fraud rather than sexuality].
The avoidance of “naming” physical behaviors may have been part of a somewhat conscious strategy by women to avoid condemnation. The behavioral boundaries between friendship, love, and sexuality were not solidly established, but we can examine the social frameworks around “passionate friendship” and see what behaviors they accommodated.
The shift of patriarchal structures from tacit assumption [“this is just they way things are”] to a consciously policed system in the 18th century parallels the emergence of a more modern concept of gender difference and sexuality. The naming of female same-sex eroticism is part of this dismantling of a tacit, unarticulated understanding of sexual behavior. This included distinguishing between friendship and erotic interactions. Sexuality between women could be invisible as long as it did not involve a penis-analo. When named, behaviors such as kissing, touching, manual stimulation, etc. could be categorized as sexual. As long as women didn’t challenge male prerogatives, there was no need to stigmatize what they did together, but as such challenges were articulated, behavior came under scrutiny.
When the language used to describe homoerotic sex acts appeared only in Latin texts, that textual knowledge was available only to an educated elite--primarily male. But as Latin texts began being translated into vernaculars in the mid 16th century, this textual knowledge became accessible to more women. And in parallel to this access, we see the increasing displacement of discourse about female homoeroticism into foreign cultures.
As this discourse became more available, female same-sex relations became a significant theme in 17th century English literature. Earlier, Ovidian motifs such as those in Shakespeare and Lyly were resolved via magical sex-change before the plot approached the enactment of sex between women. But as knowledge of the possibility of such sexual activities comes into focus after the Restoration, women (and men) begin embracing literature with real or feigned transgressive homoerotic acts, as in Manley’s The New Atalantis and Aphra Behn’s poetry.
So the wider dissemination of sexual knowledge in textual sources results in a coherent vocabulary and codification of certain behaviors as transgressive, which in turn produces a clear distinction between texts that name transgressive relations and those that don’t.
One fascinating example of this is medical texts that discuss the treatment of women’s “hysteria” by means of manual stimulation of the genitals (including digital penetration) by doctors or midwives to produce “hysterical paroxysm” (i.e., orgasm). Within a medical context, this was not treated as sexual activity. By “unnaming” such activity, it was framed as non-transgressive.
Overtly transgressive women writers continued to name sexual acts (often obliquely) while “respectable” writers adapted romantic and eroticized heterosexual tropes to describe relations between women that might otherwise be suspect. Poetry written from one woman to another was a vehicle for passionate feelings that went beyond the expectations of friendship, and in some cases there is clear corroborating evidence that the poetic language was not simply conventional and that there was a strong emotional bond between the women. But this literature of passion doesn’t indicate how the authors and the recipients understood themselves, or whether they would have seen any connection between their feelings (and behaviors) and those of “tribades”. Would they, in fact, even have had a name to identify their experiences?
Although it was common for such authors (and their audiences) to make overt assertions that their love was “chaste”, this didn’t necessarily mean anything more than that there were no men and no penetration involved. As with medicalized behaviors described above, within a heterosexist paradigm, behaviors like manual and oral stimulation or other non-penetrative activities could be excluded from the category of “sexual acts”.
The emerging construction of “Romantic Friendship” in the 18th century could be clearly erotic without being considered unacceptably sexual. Such relationships tended to become suspect only if they came in conflict with social expectations, e.g., for marriage. Modern historical studies--especially those that try to establish a continuity of “identity” communities”--often look for modern-style paradigms in people’s lives, rather than trying to identify the contextual self-understanding of historic subjects.
The chapter concludes with a review of various academic studies of pre-1900 “lesbians” that try to evaluate them in terms of modern sexual identities and ideals. On the other end of the scale, studies such as Faderman’s [Surpassing the Love of Men] can strain to avoid acknowledging a corporal erotic component in Romantic Friendship contexts. All of these studies of women’s same-sex behaviors in England are made more difficult by the lack of legal persecution, and so the absence of trial records. [Note: I’m sure that the women in question were happier for this “difficulty”!]
Chapter 2: Representing Sappho: Early Modern Public Discourse
This chapter looks at representations of Sappho as a symbol of female same-sex desire. Andreadis disputes DeJean’s claim that English treatments of Sappho were merely later copies of the French reception. Sappho’s passion for other women was well known to English people of the 16-17th century who had access to Latin. There were three primary representations: Ovid’s mythologized suicidal abandoned (heterosexual) woman; as the earliest example of female poetic prowess (usually presented with a glossing over of the sexual aspects); and as an early example of “unnatural” female sexuality. This chapter reviews examples of each of these. But these three views were not always distinct and specific treatments showed them as interconnected.
The myth of Sappho and Phaon traces back to Ovid but was also inspired by earlier Attic comedies that conflated a myth about Phaon and Aphrodite, substituting Sappho in place of the goddess. Latin commentaries on the Phaon myth continued appearing in the medieval period up through the 15th century and identify Sappho as a “tribade” who had “shameful intimacies” with women who were her “concubines”. The vocabulary leaves no room for doubt that sexual activities were involved.
The first Latin edition of Sappho’s work published in England in 1583 retains enough of this material for clarity. But these same-sex erotics were contrasted with her destructive unrequited heterosexual passion for Phaon. A 1567 English translation of Ovid makes clear that “Lesbian lasses” attracted her desire before she forgot them for Phaon. But a 1636 translation softens the sexual aspects, speaking only of her “love” for women and not emphasizing the “shame” of that love. In this version, the “Lesbian lasses” loved Sappho for her poetry, not erotically.
The Phaon story was mentioned in Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion, a collection of moral lessons for women. He presents Sappho as not only failing to win Phaon’s love, but losing the love of her former companions to him--companions with whom she once enjoyed “preposterous and forbidden luxuries” (but nothing more specific) whose loss led to her suicide. In these English editions, the nature of her former life is erased and only her despair over Phaon is blamed for her death. The loss of the cloud of erotic transgression then allows writer to redeem her reputation as a poet, as when the playwright Lyly uses Sappho as an allegory for Queen Elizabeth.
Sappho’s reputation as a poet existed in parallel with the Phaon myth and was revived in the mid 16th century with new published editions of her work, first in France. Full editions were published in English only in the late 17th century (with individual works earlier), by which time the French translations were also available there. Although the two most significant of her surviving works made clear her passion for women, Sappho held a place as the sole (known) ancient model for female poets and writers, and therefore was regularly used as a standard of comparison.
When comparing their contemporaries to Sappho, early modern English writers sometimes felt the need to disclaim Sappho’s “shame”, as in Abraham Cowley’s praise of Katherine Phillips, of whom he notes that her “inward virtue is so bright” compared to Sappho’s more questionable morals. In the 17th century, literary women were regularly compared to Sappho despite this strain of discomfort around her sexual reputation.
Sappho appears regularly as an icon of female same-sex desire. She is mentioned, for example, in medical texts in discussions of tribadism and the function of the clitoris in sexual desire. These texts were primarily in Latin and aimed at an elite male audience. When vernacular versions of these texts began to appear in the early 17th century, they retained the fascination with tribades and the motif of an enlarged clitoris, accompanying the descriptions with strong condemnation. The connection with Sappho is brought in later in the mid 17th century. [Note: the chronology here appears confusing but I'm trying to extract an overview from a more complex presentation in the book.] A few other classical figures were cited as examples of female same-sex transgression, such as Philaenis (mentioned in one of Martial’s epigrams).
The vocabulary of sexual activity between women, such as “tribade” was introduced in English vernacular texts in strongly moralizing and condemnatory contexts. And we see the beginnings of the use of accusations of same-sex desire to control or suppress female intellectuals, as in Ben Jonson’s satirical reference to the court poet Cecelia Bulstrode as a “tribade” who is (homosexually) raping a (female) muse. Male poets played with themes of transgressive female sexuality, as in Thomas Woodward’s imagery in a poem to John Donne of their muses engaging in “tribadry” to inspire a poem between them, or in Donne’s similar image of sex between women as poetic inspiration in “Sappho to Philaenis”.
A search through the various vernacular genres of the 16-17th centuries identifies a burgeoning vocabulary for sex between women. In 1653 we find “confricatrices” and “rubsters”, in 1595 “fricatrice” (though this word seems by 1700 to have broadened into an all-purpose sexual insult, even being used of men), and by the 18th century “tommies”. These slang terms imply friction (rather than penetration) as the focal activity, but male visions of sex between women considered it impossible for friction alone to be capable of providing sexual satisfaction, as in a 1673 poem which implies only penetration is capable of satisfying.
“Respectable” literature shifts to more evasive language in parallel with the rise of this language of sexual transgression in the more explicit genres. The 17th century may have seen the establishment of female homoerotic subcultures in parallel with the better documented male subcultures. The slang terms and a various popular culture reflections of a prurient awareness of female same-sex eroticism are the only solid traces. But the silencing of same-sex erotic sentiments in “respectable” discourse may be another clue.
The 18th century saw the definition of “sex between women” narrowed to a specific set of forbidden behavior which could still be associated with Sappho. The shift in how same-sex affections were treated by women who were not comfortable being associated with transgressive sex may have been a deliberate protective strategy to divert suspicion.
Chapter 3: An Emerging Sapphic Discourse: The Legacy of Katherine Philips
Female literary expression in the 17th century displayed a wide variety of erotic possibilities. Women’s works were addressed to both men and women and used a variety of styles. This chapter looks at those styles used to express female same-sex erotic affection, and how the means of that expression was both commonly known and increasingly circumscribed by deliberate silence.
Katherine Philips is a central figure in examining this phenomenon. Philips’ reputation is based on privately circulated poems addressed to intimate female friends. She established the acceptability of female poets and helped develop “chaste” vocabulary to express clearly erotic feelings toward women. She also wrote more public and conventional works, such as elegies. Though of middle-class birth, her talent and personality brought her into court circles after the Restoration. In her poetic persona of “Orinda”, she was lauded by her male contemporaries. Her legacy was somewhat diminished in the 19th century but she has been reclaimed in the 20th, especially for the eroticism in her work.
Philips’ poetry features a clear emotional focus on other women and an original use of literary conventions. Her work can be situated within a tradition of male friendship poetry with homoerotic overtones. And she is the earliest known example of printed English poetry expressing female same-sex love (as opposed to works recorded only in manuscript). Katherine Philips’ works depict a “society of friendship” and echo earlier conventions of the Cavalier poets and “préciosité”. Another feature is the use of pastoral nicknames. But the emotional vibrancy of her work doesn’t fit the “préciosité” mode of hyperbole and excess. Her early works are private and contemplative, focusing on platonic love poems to female friends. Her later work was more in a public, neo-classical mode, during and after the Restoration.
Her poems expressed a desexualized (with caveats) passionate and erotic version of platonic love. There is emotional eroticism, but not genital reference (hence the “desexualized” label, if sex is equated with genital activity). She uses the rhetoric of heterosexual love as it was imagined in the 17th century. In echoing heterosexual love poetry, she claims the “active” role typically associated with a male suitor. Philips had several very personal romantic associates. Mary Aubrey (dubbed Rosania) was a school friend, who fell from Philips' favor after she married. Philips’ next romantic object was Anne Owen (called Lucasia). Their relationship also became rocky after Anne’s marriage. Philips’ later relationships were with women who served more as patrons than companions.
The chapter continues with an analysis of several poems, examining the erotic imagery and comparing Philips’ work with that of John Donne. There is a consideration of Katherine Philips’ antecedents, whether or not she was aware of the specific works. One prior poem expressive of female homoeroticism appears in the Maitland Quarto manuscript (1586) describing a passionate friendship between two women, invoking famous male friendships as models (as well as iconic relationships between women, such as Ruth and Naomi), and bringing in a wish to change sex in order to marry the beloved. Regardless of the unknown context for this isolated poem, it shows a search for a non-transgressive vocabulary for expressing love between women.
The coded classical language of male passionate friendships in the Renaissance was socially sanctioned and more widely available as a model than the few known surviving female examples. The discourse of relationships between men in the Renaissance distinguished intense friendship and physical sexual enjoyment, but as part of a system whereby true friendship could only exist between equals. Thus true friendship was not considered possible between men and women or between “respectable” men and men of a class considered acceptable as homosexual sex partners. Parallel Renaissance models for female friendships were entirely lacking.
One of the things that shifted, moving into the 17th century, was the rise of the concept of companionate (heterosexual) marriage, reframing heterosexual relationships as an equal partnership, and necessarily elevating women as worthy of friendship. The emergence of acceptance is seen in writing like Kenelm Digby’s descriptions of his wife as being capable of such friendships because she has a “masculine soul”. [Note: Andreadis doesn’t touch on the issue that women didn’t always have the social power to maintain independent friendships, in the say that men did. This may also have contributed to the lack of female models. The literature and correspondence around the Romantic Friendship phenomenon often bewails the social or economic difficulties around maintaining friendships between women.]
There is general agreement that women’s status was determined by marriage--both determined by the married state, and within that by inheriting the status of the husband. Katherine Philips considered that marriage heralded the end of a passionate female bond. Fantasies of female friendships often focused on an imagined Arcadian retreat from “the real world” that would also remove them from the status relationships of urban court life.
Philips herself was married at 16 to a 54-year-old man. Though the marriage was amicable, they were different in taste, politics, and lifestyle. He was a parliamentarian and preferred rural life, she a royalist who preferred the intellectual life of London. They spent much of their time apart. Philips’ poetry never expressed unhappiness at this separation in distance and thought, in great contrast to how she addresses separations from her female friends. She was devastated when her special friends married, and expressed it poetically in terms of apostasy and grief. She reacts like a scorned lover.
Her final known passionate friendship was with a woman addressed by the pastoral pseudonym of “Berenice”, whose identity is not certain but appears to have been a member of the Irish nobility. To Berenice, the language of friendship is tinged with an awareness of class difference and supplication. Katherine Philips died at the age of 31 in London of smallpox.
An examination of the boundaries between friendship and love, and the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of them, were being openly debated at this time in Philips’ circle. The existence of expressions of love that “should be kept at a distance” are mentioned, but never specified. But anxieties of this type emerge in the evocation of Sappho, especially as a comparison for Katherine Philips’ poetry. In calling her “another Sappho”, the possibility of unacceptable eroticism is both raised and refuted by hasty claims that Philips was “more virtuous than Sappho.” [Note: one might call it an early instance of the “no homo” reflex.]
The discussion moves on to two other women writers of the 17th century: Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn. They were more willing to tackle female homoeroticism in a transgressive fashion. Cavendish was protected by her rank (Duchess of Newcastle) and Behn by having little social standing to lose and by tackling adventurous topics as part of building her reputation.
One of Cavendish’s key works in this field was The Convent of Pleasure, describing a women-only retreat. It directly tackles the potential for sexual desire between women, though framing it as transgressive. Behn addresses sexuality in a more playful and witty fashion, including (but not exclusively addressing) desire between women. A significant example is her poem “To the Fair Clarinda”. Somewhat later, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis (1709) was a thinly veiled satire on her contemporaries, including discussion of an all-female group “The New Cabal”. The work both makes clear the homoerotic sexual exploits of the group and entirely avoids any description of specific physical acts, invoking the reader’s imagination to fill in the silences. The targets of this satire are Queen Anne and her court, especially her female favorites. Manley could write about these topics because her own moral position was fairly abandoned, but possibly also because she wasn’t depicting her own desires.
Chapter 4: Doubling Discourses in an Erotics of Female Friendship
This chapter looks at the development of a coded, sexually evasive language of erotic female friendship that developed in parallel with an identification of sexual acts between women as transgressive. Andreadis posits that it was the public discourse about sex between women that created the necessary redirection. [I.e., she considers it a form of self-censorship to avoid the need to identify oneself as transgressive, or to deflect one’s thoughts away from transgressive desire.] This was associated with an impulse to create idealized female communities.
Andreadis considers this in the context of the “fundamental uncertainty of the category ‘lesbian’” among researchers seeking to identify both past behaviors and persons as “lesbian”, combined with the erasure of those feelings and behaviors from the historic record. She discuses Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum” versus Stimpson’s focus on sexual desire as the defining characteristic of lesbianism. The focus of historians on specific narrow behaviors parallels the historic use of stigmatized transgressive behaviors to manage women’s experience of desire.
By the mid 17th century, sexual transgression by women is increasingly discussed in two contexts. One is a genre of “expert” texts (medical, travelogue, and to some degree erotica) that was overtly misogynistic and often prurient. The second were allusions by male literary writers and the more unconventional female writers. More conventional women shifted to a vague and self-protective mode. [At this point, Andreadis is repeating many of the points and discussions already covered.] Their work emphasized “virtuous” and “chaste” friendship. Andreadis seems rather certain that “respectable” women did not see any connection between their passionate friendships and women who engaged in transgressive sex, rather than suggesting that their coded language was hiding the similarity. The erotic experiences of these women are then found in the silences when emotions are expressed but not acknowledged as sexual. The common genres for this expression included poems of praise or elegy, works on the topic of friendship, writing about feminine roles, and dedicatory texts.
The Restoration brought sexual permissiveness and social shifts including the potential for women to write professionally. There was a developing importance of the bourgeoisie and the rise of an ideal of domestic life. The chapter continues with a study of several women writers who worked in this tradition, including Anne Killigrew, Anne Finch, and Jane Barker. [Note: I’m trying to skim over the material a bit more, since a great deal of the theoretical analysis has become repetitive.]
Chapter 5: Configurations of Desire: The Turn of the Century at Court
This is largely a summary of what has gone before:
As examples, Andreadis discusses several treatments of the Calisto myth, showing approaches to female same-sex eroticism as a contrast to descriptions of “chaste” love. There is a discussion of the rumors and gossip about female friendships in Queen Anne’s court, as well as slightly fictionalized examples of transgressive female affection among the court members.
I ran across this book during my “book release re-boot” promoting titles released in November 2016 and was rather startled to realize I hadn’t taken note of it when it originally came out. But that was what the re-boot was about, after all. A Certain Persuasion (very clever title, by the way) is an anthology of queer stories inspired in some way by the fiction of Jane Austen. It includes new looks at Austen’s protagonists, imagined back-stories for minor characters, and stories about modern characters that interact with the Austen canon in some way. Please note that, although I attempt to avoid significant spoilers in this review, I do not consider the identity of transgender characters to be a spoiler and will discuss this aspect of relevant stories.
The stories are all solidly written and well-edited, though a couple had the somewhat annoying feature that seems common in Austen pastisches of lifting whole chunks of the original texts into their new settings. I was most fond of the stories that focused on a brief, crucial encounter between the characters, rather than trying to tell a sweeping epic in short story length. I don't specifically look for erotic stories when I read material of this sort. None of the stories was so explicit that I skipped passages, and the more physical scenes were generally integrated well into the story so that they didn’t jump out as “insert sex scene here.” The mannered nature of Austen’s settings work well for queer romance aimed at modern readers, as the slow formal pace of social interactions provides a rich context for characters to sound each other out and explore the potential for mutual attraction that falls outside society’s norms.
The mix of stories is rather unbalanced towards the masculine, though it includes a wide variety of representation. Of the thirteen stories, four involve romance between two cis women, six have romance between two cis men, two involve romance between a cis man and one each of a trans man and a trans woman. And one story is ambiguous within the story itself regarding whether it involves a passing woman or a trans man (the author’s notes indicate they intend a trans framing) with the implied potential (if the story continues on Austen’s plotline) of romance with a cis woman at a later date.
“A Charming Marine Prospect” describes a chance erotic encounter between Persuasion’s William Elliot and the unfortunate Richard Musgrove (though perhaps not so much unfortunate here as having decided to opt out of the family drama). A fossil-hunting expedition in the neighborhood of Lyme sparks a brief erotic encounter. I enjoyed the way the fossil-hunting profession was brought in. The prose is solid and has a very Austenesque feel to it.
“One Half of the World” depicts a delicate negotiation between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith regarding turning their friendship into a lifelong companionship à la the Ladies of Llangollen (whom Harriet specifically references). I’m afraid I found this story over-long, too talky, and devoid of believable romantic chemistry. That is, I suppose I can believe it as a negotiation of two expected spinsters regarding a home-sharing agreement, but not as the careful sounding-out and planning of two women admitting that they hope the other also considers their friendship closer than the ordinary. And though I’m happy to accept new takes on canon characters, the Harriet in this story bears little resemblence to the mousy, uncertain, devoted follower of Emma.
In “Hide nor Hair”, a orphaned man at the beginning of adulthood discovers the joys of love and a quiet country life with the governess he hires for his younger siblings--a governess whose only noticeable flaw is a need to shave more regularly than is typical for a woman. This is one of those “slow, delicate negotiation” stories that the collection does well. I can’t quite figure out which Austen novel the characters are meant to evoke, though.
“Outside the Parlour” is a somewhat rambling exploration of an alternate Fitzwilliam Darcy, whose romantic entanglements with men provide a motivation for his very ambiguous attitude toward the marriage market and toward Elizabeth Bennet in particular. It provides a keen exploration of the hazards and sorrows of a Regency-era Englishman who had erotic leanings toward his own sex, while Lizzie is relegated to the role of the one woman Darcy might have been able to bear being married to, should he conclude it was necessary to marry at all. The story makes an interesting contrast to the more traditional romance arcs in many of the other pieces in this collection.
Margaret Dashwood is the youngest of the Dashwood sisters and a woman longing for the joy of a female confidante and friend with whom she can share her doubts and uncertainties about the prospect of marriage to a man. In “Margaret”, she is solicited to lend respectability as a lady companion to the household of Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza (and her young son who bears a noticeable relationship to their neighbor Willoughby), and discovers that companionship can lead to love. A realistic study of the fine lines between respectable and scandalous for unmarried women of that age. And as with some of my other favorites in this collection, it presents a realistic picture of how women might broach the subject of turning companionship into something more passionate.
In “The Wind over Pemberley” an encounter between two modern-day Austen fans on Pemberley Cliff (a setting that confused me greatly at first, as Derbyshire has no seaside cliffs that I’m aware of!) turns a shared literary interest into an erotic encounter, though a tragic ending. It’s interesting that the stories in this collection that fall short of a happy ending are the ones with modern settings, perhaps because modern characters have more scope for genuine happiness and therefore may be allowed to fall short of it?
“Cross and Cast” has a similar modern setting, with characters that echo persons and relationships in Pride and Prejudice crossing paths in a “dancing with the stars” type of reality show involving Regency dancing. I liked how the play of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and the nursing of hurts paralleled the original text in new and believable ways for the modern characters. It can be hard to set up an Austenesque plot in the modern day, given the very different social rules and dyamics, and this one did it very well.
Simiarly, in an excellent modern parallel for the family and romantic dynamics of Persuasion, “Know Your Own Happiness” allows a young man to revisit his capitulation to his family’s rejection of his bisexuality with a chance to choose true love this time. I particularly liked the subtlety with which the theme was developed. For much of the story, the Austen reference is all about the protagonist’s reluctant attendence at a book club...and then the Captain Wentworth-analogue enters and suddenly all is made clear.
The third modern-setting story of the collection involves living history...or does it? A cynical young man has an ecounter in an Austen museum with a deliciously wicked Wickham actor in “Thirteen Hours in Austen”. Wickham’s challenge to be allowed an illicit night in the museum to open the protagonist’s mind brings a bittersweet ending after a fun costumed romp.
“Man of War” is a story rich in naval details (perhaps a little too rich?) as William Price (the brother of Mansfield Park’s protagonist) mentors a promising seaman. Those not familiar with the rich history of women serving in 17-19th century militaries in male disguise may question the believability of the story’s trans man serving as a sailor but I enjoyed how the motif was handled. The story does not end in romance, but transforms Price’s understanding of his own desires in a promising way. I felt the story suffered a little from an excess of technical naval details, and perhaps too rosy a vision of the inherent benevolence of naval officert toward their crews.
We have a gender-flipped retelling of a core Austen story when “Elinor and Ada” follows the trials of Elinor Dashwood’s secret love for Ada Ferrars, who stands in place of Edward. There has been a certain reorganization of family relationships: instead of Ada being the brother to John Dashwood’s wife Fanny and to Robert Ferrars, she is a cousin of theirs and something of a family poor relation. She has been serving as governess to the Steele sisters (rather than being tutored by their uncle) and had formed an indiscreet connection with Lucy Steele, who now holds certain letters over her as earnest for a promise to have Mrs. Ferrars set them up with an independent household. With those alterations (and the eventual substitution of a position as village schoolmistress at Delaford rather than the ecclesiastical living) the story otherwise follows the plot of Sense and Sensibility very closely. Rather too closely, perhaps, as it traces out the entire plot of the novel in the space of a short story, which makes for a great deal of summarizing and plot-outlining. This was also one of the stories that recycled significant chunks of text from the original story. While I loved the re-imagining of the plot, I wasn’t entirely delighted with the execution.
In-story gender-flipping also takes the lead in “Father Doesn’t Dance”, in which the Darcy sisters’ lack of a brother to inherit and the impending loss of Pemberley through entailment to an unknown distant cousin inspires a daring masquerade. The elder Darcy’s lingering fatal illness provides time for elder daughter Lavinia to conceive of, and convince her parents to go along with, a plan in which she will become her mythical long-estranged brother Fitzwilliam, thereby keeping the estate in the family and being able to provide for her beloved younger sister Georgiana. We have something of a “training montage” where Lavinia goes away to learn how to perform as a man from her cousin Richard Fitzwilliam (not yet Colonel Fitzwilliam) who will be Lavinia/Fitzwilliam’s co-guardian for Georgiana. The author’s note at the end indicates that she intends the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy in this story to be a trans man, but I didn’t see that implicit in the story itself, which presents the decision as entirely driven by economic and legal motivations. I think it can be read either way (i.e., as a trans man or a passing woman) as the reader pleases. But what I found fatally unbelievable was the motif of the “returning son that nobody at Pemberly has ever met or heard about previously”. Matters had advanced far enough that the dying Mr. Darcy had sent his soliciter on a quest to locate the legal recipient of the entailment. Would the soliciter have simply accepted “Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you about my actual son who’s been off traveling on the continent since forever”? We at least get a nod from the elder Mr. Wickham that he has guessed what’s afoot and is willing to support the filial fiction. Like the preceding story, this one also suffers from trying to stuff entirely too much plot into too short a story, though in this case the majority of the plot covers backstory before the start of Pride and Prejudice. If the premise had been more solid, I would have loved to see an expanded version that carried the plot onward, following Fitzwilliam Darcy’s studied cool distance as a ploy to preserve the secret of his identity, and how that facade falters and crumbles in the face of falling unexpectedly in love with Elizabeth Bennet.
Mansfield Park again takes the stage in a story set well after the novel concludes when Fanny’s sister Susan encounters the former Mary Crawford--now the widowed Mrs. Lynd--in Bath and a hesitant and daring courtship ensues that secures Susan a future home with her new Romantic Friend. For a reader who is not fluent in the characters and relationships of Mansfield Park, there may be either too much info-dumping on this point or too little. (I confess that MP makes me want to throw books across the room, so I have less familiarity with it than many of the others.)
One thing I very much enjoy in this collection is the historic verities that are reflected in the differences for the male and female characters. Men have the agency to more directly pursue their desires, but with far more perilous consequences for public disclosure. Women risk social ostracism for any sort of deviance from the paradigms of heterosexual marriage, but the realities of “surplus women” and the structures of Romantic Friendship give them a more open means of securing lives together. I don’t know whether it’s a consequence of following these historic archetypes, or simply a difference in what the authors expect their readers to prefer and accept, but there is virtually no erotic content beyond kissing in the women’s stories, while the men’s stories frequently include overt (though not overwhelming) erotic scenes. Overall, this is a pleasant collection of queer Austen re-imaginings that will serve well for the reader who finds that concept intriguing but isn’t ready to venture the vast sea (that I imagine exists) of Austen fanfic.
When Heather invited me to be guest blogger, I didn’t hesitate. It’s so nice to see there are other people like me who are interested in the place lesbians took in history and in the strength and perseverance they had to maintain just to love another woman.
My first historical romance, Water’s Edge, begins in 1888. It’s not about a political figure or a famous woman of any kind. It’s about two young French Canadians, Emilie and Angeline, who meet in Fall River, Massachusetts. My characters are fictitious, but the context in which they evolve is historic. It’s that context I want to talk about here. I think understanding the historical context in which Emilie and Angeline grew up is the only way to fully realize how determined they had to be to love each other.
Canadians have migrated to the United States, temporarily or permanently, for as long as both countries have existed. I moved to Missouri back in 1998 and spent thirteen years in the country—most of these years were spent in Albany, New York—before I moved back to Canada. My father spent almost two years in New Jersey with my mother and my two older brothers while he worked as an ironworker on the World Trade Center construction site. His father moved to Massachusetts as a young man to work in cotton mills before he went back to Canada and married my grandmother. And that’s just my own family history. There’s nothing special about Canadians spending a few years in the United States, and I’m not even talking about snowbirds, who migrate down to Florida every winter.
What’s extraordinary about the period I describe in Water’s Edge, however, is the number of people who moved to New England in a relatively short extent of time. Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians made the move to work in textile mills in New England. That’s a massive migration, right? Why did they do it, you might ask? In most cases, it was simply to run from poverty. They couldn’t survive on their farms, or had accumulated too much debt trying to modernise their farms, and they were forced to move to New England cities where jobs in textile mills were easy to find.
It certainly wasn’t an easy decision to make. Not only did they have to leave their home and everything they knew behind, but they also had to face a certain stigma. They were often seen as lazy, as if the reason they couldn’t survive on their farms was because they didn’t work hard enough. They were also described as traitors for leaving their country, their duty, their true purpose. In other words, people didn’t move because it was a cool thing to do. They did it because they had to find a way to feed their family.
In Water’s Edge, Emilie’s father takes his family to Fall River, Massachusetts, but that was only one of several options such as New Bedford, MA, Woonsocket, RI, or Waterville, ME to name a few. Like Emilie’s father, most thought they’d work in the United States until they had enough money to come back and pay their debt, or until things got better back home somehow. Some, like my grandfather, did come back to Canada. Thousands of families, however, settled in New England for good and became the first generations of Franco-Americans.
So once they made the difficult decision to move and escaped poverty in Canada, life in the States must have been a piece of cake for these French Canadian families, right? Well, not exactly. Let’s say they weren’t the most popular people in New England. Americans didn’t like them because they didn’t try to adapt to the American culture. Instead, “little Canada’s” popped up all over New England. They had their own churches, their own schools, and they kept speaking French as much as they could. Remember that they didn’t think they’d stay, so they didn’t make an effort to blend in. Other groups such as Irish, Italians, or Polish, who worked with them in textile mills, didn’t like them much either, but for other reasons. Every time these groups tried to fight for better working conditions, with strikes for example, French Canadians were there to do the work. You can imagine how frustrating that could have been for their coworkers. On the other hand, you can probably also imagine that no matter how bad the working conditions in the cotton mills were, they were still better than starving on the farm back in Canada.
That doesn’t mean other groups were not right to complain about working conditions in the mills. They were absolutely terrible. Men, women, and children all worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. The mills were noisy, hot, and humid. It’s a wonder anyone could breathe. Several millworkers suffered from lung diseases, and sometimes died from them. It was hard work, and it didn’t pay much.
So there you have it: the context in which Emilie and Angeline grow up and realize that what they feel for each other might be more than friendship. As if they didn’t have it hard enough already, they’re faced with feelings they’ve never heard of. Girls like them grow up to work at the mill and marry boys who work at the mill so they can have children who will, as soon as they’re old enough, work at the mill. There simply isn’t any other model to follow. How will they make it work? All I can say is that it won’t be smooth sailing to happily ever after. The way will be long and sinuous. The waves will be strong, but so are Emilie and Angeline.
Genevieve Fortin was born in Rimouski, a small town in the French Canadian province of Quebec, Canada. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, she moved to the United States for her graduate studies in French literature. She stayed to work and spent a total of thirteen years in the United States, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Albany, New York. During that time she started and abandoned several novels until she started reading lesbian fiction. She found more than inspiration in the work of women like Gerri Hill and Karin Kallmaker; she found direction.
She is on twitter as @kenefief
I don't usually highlight reviews in my blog (I have separate pages for that), but I woke up to a really lovely Goodreads review of The Mystic Marriage from fellow Storybundle author K.J. Charles. If you have ever wanted to try some incredibly well-writen historical fantasy featuring gay male protagonists, K.J. Charles is pretty much the ruler of that sub-genre and I'm immensely flattered to be sharing a special LGBT+ SFF Storybundle with them and other equally talented authors. This truly is an unequally chance to think, "If I like the sort of writing and themes I find in the Alpennia books, what other authors are there writing similar work?"
[Amended to pronoun ambiguity until I have a chance to clarify my apparently erroneous assumption!]
I struggled a great deal with this text and especially with summarizing it. It wasn’t so much that I found flaws with some of the premises (particularly in regards to the author’s claim of special French “ownershp” of the post-medieval revival of interest in Sappho) but the prose is extremely dense, repetitive, and impossible to summarize. I confess that this book became a Did Not FInish after slogging through a little more than a third of it.
DeJean, Joan. 1989. Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14136-5
A very dense look at how Sappho influenced and was interpreted by the French literary establishment in the 16-20th centuries.
This is a study of the ways that writers and translators of the 16th century onward have used and re-made Sappho to suit their needs and prejudices. DeJean attributes the start of this process specifically to the French.
The fictionalization of Sappho began mere centuries after her death, in Greek comedies that included her as a character. The figure of Sappho continues to create anxiety today, especially around the topic of homoeroticism. One can read, in the treatment of Sappho during a particular era, what anxieties were prevalent regarding topics such as same-sex love and the acceptability of female writers and teachers. The translation of Sappho’s work--and especially the alteration (traducio) of the meaning in the process--reflected and influenced her image at the time.
DeJean is explicitly concerned with “the existence of a speical bond between the French literary tradition and the problem of Sappho.” The emergence of a French literary tradition in general occurs at the same era as the “rediscovery” of Sappho’s work. [Note: although DeJean doesn’t say so explicitly, one can view both as being fallout from the social and literary forces that defined the Renaissance.]
In the earliest era covered by this study (1550-1650) Sappho was seen as a “disembodied voice”, while the era of Great French Classics corresponds with seeing her as a figure of homoerotic desire. Sappho enters the English and German traditions in the early 18th century and their interpretations fed back into French understandings. DeJean sees Sappho’s reception in English and German culture as merely recapitulating earlier French treatments. [Note: The claim that Sappho did not enter non-French literary traditions until the early 18th century requires ignoring or redefining e.g., the 17th century English translations as mimicry.]
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, German writers dominated the discourse around Sappho, with English and Italian treatments coming into prominence after 1920.
The discourse around Sappho is primarily male, though consider Louise Labé (1524-1566) who “comes to writing” in Sappho’s name and whose work is described in relation to hers. Male authors tended to have a different relationship to Sappho than female ones, combining hostility with appropriation. Sappho becomes an accessory to male poetic relationships, either with their contemporaries or with classical (male) writers. This is particularly prominent in the strong (though not universal) theme of Sappho as the model of a tragically abandoned heterosexual woman.
These fictions of Sappho cast a longer shadow than the few historic facts of her life. Only in the mid 19th century do scholars begin to question the unity of the author and narrator in Sappho’s work. The result of that questioning was to see her poetry as representing symbolic and formulaic language, rather than personal experience.
Sappho’s perceived sexuality was a reflection of the attitudes of the reader. In the 17th century, Queen Christina of Sweden (who had romantic attractions--and probably sexual relationships--with women) saw Sappho’s poetry as unequivocally homoerotic, while her contemporary Madeleine de Scudéry (whose heterosexuality was, shall we say, not solidly established) viewed Sappho more ambiguously.
The three chapters in DeJean’s book reflect what she considers the three main approaches to Sappho in French thought. [Spoiler: I give up on summarizing them after the first one.]
The first step was the creation and dissemination of an established corpus of Sappho’s work; the second was the establishment of a “heterosexual Sappho”, including a narrowing of interest to the poems that support this reading; then the third phase in the early 19th century allowed new images of Sappho to break through with a return to the original Greek texts rather than relying on translations. In this last stage, Sappho is converted from a chaste poet to a highly sexualized courtesan and (depraved) lesbian. National traditions of Sappho studies diverge at this point with the French tradition leaning toward decadence and the German tradition toward chastity.
The general progression of interpretation was to begin with scholarship, which by its necessarily fragmentary nature lead to speculation, which in turn led to the creation of established fictions about Sappho. This study excludes from the timeline the treatments of Sappho as a pop-culture icon rather than as a historic poet, for example, Brantôme’s use of her as an icon of homoeroticism. [Note: This is one of the places where I feel that DeJean is cherry-picking evidence. She seems to have a vague presumption that the 16th century literary establishment did not have an image of Sappho as having homoerotic desires, and yet writers like Brantôme were part of that literary establishment. The pop-culture “Sappho the lesbian” cannot be walled off from the rediscovery of the work of “Sappho the poet.”]
One of these fictions that arose around 1900 was Sappho as an icon of passionate and expressive (rather than polished and professional) writing--a fiction that had her stand in for “women’s writing” in general as emotional rather than crafted. [Note: I am reminded of one of the bullet points in Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing: “She wrote it...but look what she wrote!”]
In this context, Sappho and the term “sapphism” came to stand for a sort of female “primal” passion, and her work is compared to various female ecstatic poets. Viewing her work as spontaneously emotional contrasts with an earlier tradition (beginning in the 17th century) that viewed her work as controlled and artificial, as opposed to being “authentic” and spontaneous.
This was a view rooted in neo-classicism and was particularly embraced in Germany, where it was tied to a vision of a chaste Sappho, or at the very least a heterosexual one. The analysis of her poetry that came with this view focused on the male figures, such as the man initially mentioned in fragment 31 (“He seems like a god to me...”). This dispassionate framing was also popular in English approaches to Sappho’s poetry. It often entirely erased the sexual implications in her poems, even de-gendering feminine language in the translations to render Sappho functionally asexual. Thus we have two contrasting fictions: the tragic abandoned heterosexual Sappho whose work is an expression of pure emotion, and the detached, asexual Sappho commenting wryly on the foibles of love.
Preliminaries: The Sapphic Renaissance (1546-1573)
There is a repeated pattern of a new generation of poets “discovering” Sappho, who becomes a stand-in for the male poet expressing himself in terms of feminine desires. The first French wave of this phenomenon in the 16th century does not create the fictions that DeJean is concerned with, as the later ones do. These waves of reception of Sappho’s work are often sparked by a new version or new translation that particularly catches the imagination of the time. Commentary in the mid 16th century editions focused on the technical excellence of Sappho’s verses, overlooking the emotional aspects. The object of Sappho’s desire that is referenced in her poems is often treated as indeterminate in gender or assumed to be male (in the face of grammatical evidence to the contrary). In a context like this, Louise Labé--the only female Renaissance poet who tackled Sappho--identified with the voice in fragment #1 (the hymn to Aphrodite) as a heterosexual woman. An ambiguous treatment of the pronouns in fragment #31 (he seems like a god to me) can erase the essential homoeroticism of the work.
The earliest French translation of fragment #31 undermines its emotional power. The re-setting of #31 by Catullus in a clearly male voice also influenced the poem’s reception and understanding. This led to poems imitative of Sappho’s style that owe more to Catullus than Sappho for their erotics. Male poets competed with each other for “ownership” of Sappho’s heritage and, in their hands, the original romantic triangle of a woman and man desiring the same female object became two men competing for that female prize. Instead of being identified with the desiring agent (the voice of the poem), Sappho is converted to a stand-in for the passive desired object, with the male poets competing with each other for the right to claim her.
More of Sappho’s work became available for study in the 1560s, but the primary focus continued to be on fragment #31, creating a conundrum. Without the same-sex desire expressed in the poem, where does Sappho’s undeniable reputation for same-sex eroticism come from? On the heterosexual side, the Phaon myth is cited, as well as claims that Sappho was simply bisexually promiscuous, but the catalogs of the names identified in her poetry as beloved by her have an inescapably female preponderance. The more extensive publications of Sappho’s corpus normally included the Phaon text attributed to Ovid, and this tended to eclipse other evidence.
Later fictions will not simply substitute male objects of desire for Sappho’s female beloveds, but will frame her as preferring men to women. Louise Labé provides an example of this. In her Sappho-inspired work, she identifies with Sappho-the-heterosexual rather than with the Sappho who desired women. Labé’s Sappho is a tragically unhappy straight woman, and she sees the unreciprocated love in the Phaon myth as the definitive heterosexual feminine experience. Curiously, of the material that Labé had available to her, only fragment #1 (the hymn to Aphrodite) reflects this image of unreciprocated love in any way. And confusingly, when Labé refers to “lesbian love” it is this image of the woman romantically abandoned by a man that she means.
Chapter 1: Female Desire and the Foundation of the Novelistic Order (1612-1694)
In the 16th century, there was a fiction of Sappho as being “essentially masculine” both because “speaking” in a poetic voice is considered a male prerogative and because of the way she relates to women. [Note: this is reminiscent of the medieval framing of gender as being defined in opposition to the gender of the desired object.] As a masculine figure, she therefore could and should be replaced by a man.
This version of Sappho is complicated in the 17th century by Ovid’s contribution, by which she becomes a sexually pitiable woman and her role as poet and author is erased. DeJean considers this shift to be tangled up with the emergence of the novel as a primary focus for modeling female possibilities. Novels offer the “woman’s side” of heroic tales, just as Ovid’s Heroides (with which the Sappho & Phaon poem was associated) offered fictional accounts of classic tales from the women’s point of view.
But to fit in this framework, Sappho’s story requires that she either be scandalous or asexual. To normalize her as a protagonist, scandal must be erased. Fragment #31 is a problem in expressing a woman’s lament for losing out to a male romantic competitor. But it meshes with the Phaon story if abstracted as the expression of an abandoned and despairing woman.
DeJean sees Taneguy L’Fèvre’s 1660 work as the last reflection of the earlier humanist tradition, where he focuses on Sappho’s desire for women and ignores her supposed male lovers. But in 1681 his daughter Anne Dacier published what would be regarded as the first French translation of Sappho’s work. She, in contrast with her father, dismisses the accusations of homoeroticism as slander and treat’s Sappho’s relationships with women as simple friendship. In her edition, Sappho’s fragments are reinterpreted to create a virtual male figure around whom Sappho’s life revolves.
Dacier’s work stands in contrast to other interpretations of the time (by men) that admit Sappho’s homoerotic desire but redirect the desire to men. By the end of the 17th century, Dacier’s version would triumph and be the foundation for Sapphic fictions of the 18th century. This shift, however, is not due to a universal aversion to discussion or acknowledging female homoeroticism. The 18th century was an era of vibrant discourse on that topic.
The remainder of the chapter traces the above themes in detail, as well as discussing the emergence of the novel as a literary movement.
Chapters 2: Sappho’s Family Romances (1697-1818)
The fiction covered in this section is that of the “family romance” in the Freudian sense--that is, the myth a child creates to imagine a better, more noble origin for the self. In the context of Sappho, this fiction re-imagines her either as an ideal of bourgeois maternity or as a depraved “bad mother”.
[And at this point, I confess to failure in my attempt to read and summarize this work and I won’t attempt even one paragraph on Chapter 3: Sappho Revocata (1816-1937). It isn’t often that I can’t at least skim the cream off the densest of academic prose, but I admit defeat. Maybe it was the mention of Freud that kicked me off the Leucadian cliff. For the average reader, the most useful remainder will be the Appendix that provides a chronological list of “Sappho’s presence in France,” covering all the significant editions and translations, and including non-French publications that DeJean considers relevant to the French reception.]