(Originally aired 2021/03/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2021.
It’s tempting to open with some comment on how it’s now been an entire year for me of living under threat of Covid. A year of working from home and having only minimal face-to-face socializing. But honestly, I’m just tired. Not too tired to keep on plugging away at what it takes to help fight transmission, but tired of having our shared experiences all revolve around this ongoing disaster.
Have you ever read a novel about the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago? They’re out there, but for the most part it’s like the world collectively flinched away from it and moved on to the Roaring 20s. But part of what made those 20s roar was a manic relief at having survived. Survived World War I, survived the pandemic, survived the historic changes that happened in parallel with them.
One of the interesting things about historical fiction is how it can fasten itself to specific events—specific stories that can only happen in one particular time and place. Oh, you can have historical fiction with somewhat generic settings. I’ve read books where it was hard to tell what century the story was set in, the details were so generic! But there are events that nail a story down to a specific time. If you set a story during the Stonewall riots, there’s only one time and place you could be talking about. And there are settings where the omission of key features says a great deal about how we, collectively, have chosen to process and remember history. If you read a Regency romance that never mentions servants—or never mentions where the wealth that supported those balls and gowns came from--the author has failed to grapple with essential truths about their characters.
A hundred years from now, if people write novels set in the ‘20s and gloss over both the immense disruption this pandemic caused, and the societal failures that made it worse, they will not be writing historical fiction so much as fantasy. Will they choose to forget? To omit? To look away? Will someone, some day, write a novel set in 2020 that mysteriously fails to take note of what we’re going through? I wonder.
2021 Fiction Series
The podcast schedule means that last month’s episode was recorded too early to be able to announce the line-up for the 2021 fiction series. And presumably those who were eager to find out what stories we selected have already read about it on the blog. But for completeness’ sake, here’s what you can expect. The first story of the year, of course, was Diane Morrison’s “A Soldier in the Army of Love” which we bought last year. So this year’s picks include what will be the first story of the 2022 season, due to the same scheduling.
Selecting stories is a complex process. Is the story well written? Is the prose solid and competent and good at communicating the author's ideas? Does the story fit with the theme of the program? You might think that would be a given, but there's a lot of room for interpretation and differences of opinion. Does the story grab me and keep me reading? Does it start and end at the right places and is the chunk of story the right size for the word-count? Does the language of the story sing to me?
I'm a sucker for just plain beautiful writing. And by that I don't necessarily mean "pretty" writing, but the ability to use words not just to explain what's going on, but in the way that an artist uses brush strokes. This aspect can be very much a matter of personal taste, and very often it's the feature that helps me make that difficult choice between two excellent stories.
And finally, how does the story fit into the overall program? Do I have a balance of settings and themes? Have I made the series as diverse as possible, given the available materials? So: here are the stories that sang to me from this year's crop.
"Palio" by Gwen Katz - The fierce competition of the famous Siennese horse race, set in the 17th century.
"Moon River" by Mandy Mongkolyuth - Two young women join forces in the aftermath of the third Anglo-Burmese war in the late 19th century.
"Abstract" by Kat Sinor - Set at the dawn of history, two artists share their visions deep in a torch-lit cave.
"The Adventuress" by Catherine Lundoff - The further adventures of the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the courtesan-spy Celeste Girard as they hunt down a certain Englishwoman who may be in a similar business.
I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have!
Publications on the Blog
On the blog, I finished up the last article in the collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, which was Leslie Choquette’s “Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in Nineteenth-Century Paris.” It’s particularly interesting to see Paris developing as a center of a public and self-conscious queer culture during the era that we associate with sexual repression in the English-speaking world.
After that, I went back to my stock of downloaded journal articles, which will probably take up the next several months and be somewhat random in topic. First is Martha Vicinus’s “They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong” which takes an interesting look at the difference between the history of modern lesbian identity and the history of women loving women.”
Another article that contrasts historic and modern experiences is Katherine Binhammer’s "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought,” which finds some interesting parallels between the sexual insecurities of early proto-feminists, and the “sex wars” of second wave feminism.
I’ll finish out the month with Nan Alamilla Boyd’s very brief essay "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person” which also addresses the idea of what it is we study when we study lesbian history.
Book shopping for the blog has picked up again, since I was looking for an unrelated second-hand book and decided to pick up enough titles to get free shipping. (The unrelated book is America’s First Lady Boss by Curtiss S. Johnson, which is a biography of my great-great-grandmother, Margaret Getchell LaForge.) One book I’ve had my eye on for a while, but wanted to find second-hand is Norman W. Jones’s Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. It’s an academic study, and probably started life off as a thesis or something, so I have no idea how interesting it will be for the lay person. But I’m rather tickled at the idea of queer historical fiction being a topic of study.
The second is Anna Clark’s The History of Sexuality in Europe: A Sourcebook and Reader which is a collection of articles on a variety of themes, probably meant for use in a college class. The third title will be a bit of a challenge for me: Marie-Jo Bonnet’s Un choix sans équivoque. Recherches historiques sur les relations amoureuses entre les femmes xvie-xxe siècle, with a title that translates to An unequivocal choice. Historical research on romantic relationships between women of the 16-20th century. Have I mentioned that I’ve never actually studied French? But depending on the topic, I can muddle my way through, and this is said to be the definitive work on the history of lesbianism in France.
Last Month’s Essay
I was reminded of Bonnet’s book when doing the background research for last month’s essay on 17th century salonnière and fairy tale author Madame de Murat. (I was also reminded that I can muddle through French a little, when I found the French Wikipedia page on Murat more useful than the English one.) And speaking of that essay on Murat…
Interview with Mari Ness
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
This Month’s Essay
I enjoy doing the in-depth biographical essays like the one on Murat, but sometimes you want to remind people of the richness of the history out there with more of a brief skim through history. This month’s essay was inspired by a discussion online about yet another historical movie with sapphic themes that seems to have gone out of its way to pick a tragic story. One big problem with the love affair filmmakers have with tragic stories is that they leave the audience with the mistaken impression that there were no happy endings in history for women who loved women. So for this month’s essay, I’m doing a shopping list of actual historic women who lived interesting lives, loved other women, and did not have those relationships end in tragedy and misery. Hollywood, take note!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the new book announcements! Newly published sapphic historicals are unevenly distributed across the calendar at the moment. When I ran my searches for this month, I found only one title published in March, but a good half-dozen February books that hadn’t turned up last month.
And we’ll start by casting back to January. S.W. Andersen has a self-published series set in the wild west with a fierce gun-toting loner heroine. A Call to Justice is the third book in the series. I’m not sure if the series as a whole has a title. The protagonist, Sarah Sawyer, has settled down at last, but a thirst for justice, when tensions rise between settlers and the native population, leads her to pin on a badge.
The first February book is one I postponed from last month’s show because it’s an Audible Original and didn’t have a pre-order link until it came out. The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner is a gothic story inspired by Jane Eyre, in which the new governess is confused and intrigued by the mysterious woman confined in her employer’s house. Next month, we’ll have Rose on the show to talk about her book. If you love audio books, this story was designed for the audio format, though it will be available in print at a later date.
It's hard to evaluate how a memoir-style novel fits into historical fiction when it spans a long era culminating in the present. Sally Bellerose’s Fishwives, published by Bywater Books, sits in the Southern fiction tradition, following a life-long couple from their first meeting in the ‘50s through a lifetime of love, conflict, and growth.
Another book set in the ‘50s is G.B. Baldassari’s self-published Flying High, which looks to be riffing off the once-popular genre of flight attendant romance, but this time matching British Chief Pursar Charlotte Thompson with Californian Claire Davis—a meeting that perhaps wasn’t meant to have happened.
For a short-story treat, try Lara Kinsey’s self-published Victorian-set “Bump in the Night,” in which a desperate wallflower has a spooky encounter with an unexpected intruder. The cover copy suggests a supernatural encounter but is it truly magic or only illusion?
We go back to a wild west setting for Ruth Hanson’s The Railwalkers from JMS Books. In the lawless aftermath of the American Civil War, rebellious heiress Violet Donovan finds escape from the expectations closing in on her when a false murder charge puts her in the hands of a diverse group of vigilantes for justice, called the Railwalkers.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this next book: The Ledge Light: New London by Diana Perkins from Shetucket Hollow Press. It appears to be set in an unspecified time maybe in the 19th century, in Long Island sound, when a farm girl seeks her fate in gender disguise and that fate takes her to a lonely lighthouse. The cover copy isn’t very clear about what the sapphic content might be, so it might be a gamble. But I’ll note that the real Ledge Light was said to be haunted, so perhaps this story explains that.
The last February book is a French title: Eleutheria: Chronique des Amazones, by Helena Manenti from Homoromance Éditions, which has been the source of several French-language titles we’ve mentioned before. Set in classical Athens, the young, aristocratic Nyssa has a chance to leave the golden cage of her marriage for the chance to escape to a feminist utopia when she encounters an enslaved woman who will turn her existence upside down.
And there’s one lonely March release in my list at the moment. A supernatural adventure slipping between times and worlds: Girls in Black, book 2 in the Ranger Paraversum series by Vesna Kurilic from Shtriga. The aftermath of World War II is complicated enough, but Lina needs to figure out how to keep her parallel-world doppelganger secret from her landlady and her employer. And then there’s the problem of how long she can stay in this world at all…
What Am I Reading?
And me? What am I reading? I’m still struggling with my fiction reading habits (and I’m making a big push to get caught up on my reviews, which I think will help) but one book that easily broke through my reading block is Aliette de Bodard’s brand new Vietnamese-inspired historic fantasy, Fireheart Tiger. This is a bright little gem of a novella, set in a Vietnam-inspired fantastic past, in which an undervalued princess meets a former lover in very awkward circumstances, and…but let’s just move on to hear what the author has to say about it.
Author Guest: Aliette de Bodard
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Aliette de Bodard Online
This is a fascinating article and I only skim through the concrete examples it touches on. What is the relationship of pain to pleasure? And why is that relationship specifically focused around women's same-sex encounters? Is there a logical connection or are they simply tools in defining "normative" sexuality in contrast?
Binhammer, Katherine. 2003. "The 'Singular Propensity' of Sensibility's Extremities: Female Same-Sex Desire and the Eroticization of Pain in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Culture" in GLQ 9:4, 471-498.
In this article, Binhammer compares the social meanings of three parallel forms of “sexual excess” in late 18th century British literature, and how the three are linked structurally in the popular imagination. Specifically: sex between women, sexualized whipping, and the emotional experience of extreme “sensibility”.
She begins with a familiar recounting of the difficulties of defining and studying lesbian concepts during the 18th century. She argues that female same-sex desire (in its various manifestations), rather than being scarce in 18th century contexts, is central to the development of late 18th century bourgeois models of sexuality, by participating in mapping the boundaries of acceptably moderate sexual conduct.
Same-sex desire could be viewed as a “propensity,” that is, a personal taste, among other non-normative sexual tastes catalogued at the time. But increasingly, sex was being defined around a central “acceptable” model of moderated heterosexual intercourse between married partners for the purpose of reproduction. Extremes of many sorts were felt to detract from or interfere with this goal, including excessive sexual activity, excess desire that could only be satisfied by alternative activities, or even an excess of emotional response.
Within this context, female same-sex desire became a signal of when moderate experiences and feelings became unacceptably immoderate. This is examined in three specific contexts. One is the rise of scenes of female erotic flagellation in pornographic literature, and possibly in actual practice. Another is the culture of sensibility and the fetishization of empathic emotional pain. Tying these together is an association of each specifically with female same-sex contexts.
The emerging fascination with sexual flagellation in pornography in the 18th century coincided with the rise of the culture of “sensibility”, especially within the novel. In both contexts, there developed an understanding of pain (both physical and emotional) as obscene and deviant. Pornography deliberately violated social taboos around sex, and the eroticization of pain defined it as forbidden and therefore obscene.
[Note: Perhaps because of the focus in this article on the specifics of the 18th century, Binhammer doesn’t touch significantly on the potential erotics of both physical and sympathetic pain in the medieval context of penance and contemplation of the passion. A religious connection is made in 18th century flagellation pornography, but within the context of anti-Catholic sentiment. And there is a comment that the flagellation scene in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is considered a turning point in the depiction of whipping as being primarily for erotic stimulation.]
Flagellation, like f/f sex, was commented on and described as an arbitrary taste. That is, something that an individual might indulge in and prefer for illogical reasons. And sexual flagellation came to be strongly associated with women, and especially with same-sex erotics, to the point where the two were intertwined. Such scenes typically involved a woman in authority over other women (governesses, schoolmistresses, the mistress of servants) where some excuse is found to require punishment. The erotic aspect might be present for the agent alone, or there might be a male voyeur in the scene, but the most common formula was for two women to act as partner in “disciplining” a third, subordinate woman or girl.
Within female institutions, the instigating event might be depicted as “innocent” sexual play between girls that then is punished by an authority. The whipping is then sometimes blamed for the awakening of an excess erotic desire in the victim (or in the agents) which then requires more extreme actions to satisfy.
Somewhat more unusually, one text described a female “flagellant club” in London in which the members drew lots for who would take each role, and then would trade off “when the sensation became too intense.” This was depicted as the equivalent of male social clubs, complete with meetings, speeches, and such. [Note: compare with the French depictions of the Anandrine Sect from a similar era.]
Such depictions in literature have been a source of contention among historians, on the one side declaring that they should only be understood as male fantasies, and on the other side noting that some women (in modern times) do engage in sexual discipline and one shouldn’t reject the possibility of actual female flagellant clubs on a “but women don’t do that sort of thing” basis.
The depictions of f/f sex in pornography contradict the heterosexist ideas that such activity is inconsequential, is only a precursor to heterosexual activity, or necessarily involves gender role-play. Contrary to the “precursor” image, sex between women is often depicted in these texts as a consequence of women being bored or unsatisfied by m/f sex. Pornographic flagellation involving men often depicted it as a way to excite a flagging desire, but with women it’s seen as a way to satisfy an excess of desire. The same theme is seen for f/f sex generally: that it’s a natural consequence of excess. [Note: the motif that f/f sex would merely stimulate women to a point of unsatisfied arousal that could only be requited by m/f sex was more dominant in a slightly earlier era.] This is one motif that we see in the depictions of Marie Antoinette as being sexually voracious and therefore turning to women when men were insufficient.
The final theme in this conjunction is the culture of “sensibility”, that is, a heightened emotional response including empathy for other’s distress and pain. While sensibility was considered a desirable characteristic, if taken to extremes it could be viewed as self-indulgent and generating perverse pleasure in suffering. [Note: This is exactly what Jane Austen is depicting in Sense and Sensibility in the character of Maryanne.] A key connection with erotic flagellation is the concept of excess, of going beyond accepted boundaries in one’s sensations. Excessive sensibility created erotic pleasure out of emotional pain, rather than physical.
This excess of sensibility in novels is evoked most often in relations between women, most often as depicted by female authors. Particularly in scenes of illness or suffering, one women will experience intense emotions in identifying with or caring for the sufferer. Even when women writers warn against this excess, they represent it in their work for the vicarious pleasure of the reader. One of the reasons women were warned against the reading of novels was due to the intense emotional reactions they were thought to provoke. The sympathy and care for a suffering loved one, when recorded in diaries and letters, may in some cases either encode or displace same-sex erotic feelings that could not be recorded directly, as in the scenes of tender care in Eleanor Butler’s journal.
In summary, Binhammer sees connections and parallels in the ways that “painful pleasures” are used to define and police the boundaries of acceptable eroticism, and how the excess of feeling associated with them was depicted as a uniquely female same-sex experience. In this, these connections do not define a “lesbian” experience, but show how same-sex erotics are part of a more general contrast with the narrow, bourgeois sexuality as it was being defined in the late 18th century.
Set in the same magical-Regency world as Cho’s earlier Sorcerer to the Crown, but overlapping only slightly in characters, this book tells the story of two sisters in Malaysia, struck by a curse that sends one on a quest to England and fairyland to find a cure for her sister’s fading. Along the way, she must conceal her own lack of magic, enlist the aid of the sorceress royal and a dragon, and untangle the mystery of her own identity.
The story was utterly delightful, full of brash and daring women, incidentally queer relationships, unexpected magic, and a couple of plot twists that were no less enjoyable for me having predicted them from the beginning.
This is a psychological study of the confined lives and expectations of women in post-WWII England. Using flashbacks, it traces the lives of a mother and daughter as every turn seems to snatch away what they felt they were promised, constantly requiring them to have less, to do less, and to be less (manifested as anorexia by the daughter).
I wouldn’t call it an “enjoyable read,”—it’s very much a literary novel rather than the genre literature I usually pick up. But there’s a strong artistry in the character depictions and an immense depth of understanding of the psychology of the times.
There are hints of queer elements in the story (the daughter is rescued by a lesbian friend, and there are some episodes in the flashbacks that I read as homoerotic, though they may not have been intended as such). But it’s very background and subtle.
On a whim, I picked this up in audio because I wasn't sure when I'd get to it on the page. Given how late I am to the party, I'm aware that there's now an entire series of the "wayward children" stories, involving those who have gone through portals to another realm...and now can't find their way back. But this first story is less a classic portal fantasy than it is a classic murder mystery. And when all the inhabitants of the mysterious spooky mansion are more than a little odd, sorting out the suspects can be a problem.
I really enjoyed the worldbuilding behind McGuire's version of portal fantasy. And the protagonist captures the desperation and angst of being a Strange Child doomed never to find her way to the place she belongs. (Been there, though a different flavor of Strange.)
I don't quite know why, but this book just didn't grab me and I ended up not finishing it. Maybe it's because I'm enough outside the online culture being depicted that it felt both alien and over-explained. Maybe I had too hard a time trying to get inside the protagonist's head.
The basic premise is that a lonely teenage girl, dragged on the run by a mother who has genuinely excellent reasons to want to move invisibly through society, finds illicit friendship and connection through an online chat board (that is, her participation is illicit, not the chat board in general). But the Presence behind the board isn't at all what it seems, and Things Start Happening. If you enjoy imaginative stories about plugged-in culture, you may well like this much more than I did.
There are times in your life when you really need a deeply engrossing story that will take you away from the here and now for the space of a couple hours. One of those times is when you’re sitting in an emergency room waiting for them to confirm your pulmonary embolism. One of those stories in Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I don’t recommend the former, but I do recommend the later.
A historic fantasy in a China-inspired setting, the story uses a quiet, measured narrative style to build tension with the feel of a thriller. Quite a feat when the action is all in the past and one of the principle characters has just died. The framing story involves the non-binary monk Chih, whose vocation is to collect histories, and whose immediate task is to unravel certain mysteries known to the empress’s handmaiden, Rabbit. The empress is a political hostage, imprisoned, powerless…or is she? There are several delightful twists to the plot, and half the fun is trying to guess what they’ll be from the scraps and clues, in parallel with Chih’s quest.
The narrative style is likely to be different from what you expect from a fantasy novel, but I recommend embracing it and letting it lead you, bit by bit, into the story. There’s a second novella featuring another of Chih’s story-collecting adventures and I’m looking forward to equal enjoyment. Oh, and both books have sapphic elements, so there's that as well.
This sapphic, Vietnamese-inspired historic fantasy is warm and cozy, like sipping tea in front of a blazing fire, with a cat sitting on your lap, where the cat might turn into a tiger and the fire might burn your palace down. Aliette has the knack of compressing enormous amounts of world-building into a very few pages. You can easily read this story in a single bite, but it immediately plunges you into the deep back-story of a princess-hostage, the fraught politics of maintaining an unequal power balance, and the personal hazards of re-igniting an old love affair. (With the delicious queer context of a world in which a princess could take a princess as her consort.) But not everything is what it seems, and sometimes the seductive lure of someone who sees you and desires you—when no one else seems to value you—is the deepest peril of all.
OK, that sounds like I’m trying out to write book blurbs. But really, Fireheart Tiger is delicious and heart-warming and leaves you guessing until the end.
Is the study of history concerned with discussing concepts, and only secondarily the people who embody them? Or is it the study of people and their institutions, with ideas and theories emerging secondarily from those lives? Both approaches have their value. They answer different questions. In this very brief essay, Boyd stakes a claim for studying ideas and then relating people's lives to those ideas. And from the point of view of "does it make sense to study the history of the idea of lesbianism?" I'm not going to argue against that approach. But at the same time, I find that the histories that most inspire me come from the other angle: the study of people in all their messy particularity, whether or not they fit neatly into ideas and theories.
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. 2013. "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no. 2 362-365.
This is a very brief paper—the sort you might expect to hear as an introductory presentation at a conference, touching lightly on key concepts but not really focused on new or analytic information.
Boyd is poking at the difference between “lesbian history” as the study of a category, of “a kind of person,” and as the study of particular historic individuals, communities, and institutions that we associate with that category. She asks whether it’s appropriate to use the word “lesbian” to identify people and communities who did not use that word for themselves?
[Note: It always seems to be specifically the word “lesbian” that provokes this sort of strict scrutiny, though I suppose one could view Foucaultian theories as doing the same thing to the word “homosexual”. But how often do you run into historians seriously questioning, “Can we call a community European if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community working class if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community multi-ethnic if people don’t use that term?” What is it about the word lesbian that provokes people to shy away from applying it in descriptive ways, as opposed to viewing it as something that must be claimed or bestowed?]
Boyd actually takes the broad view that lesbian history concerns the idea rather than the specificity, and that it includes all people and institutions that participate in producing the meaning(s) associated with that word. The idea of the lesbian has been spread and transmitted across time and space, changed and changing in the process. But it is imbued with specific situational meanings within the very different contexts to which it applies.
There is a nod to the ways in which using a Western vocabulary item for a concept that transcends Western culture carries the risk of making that usage a form of colonialism. She also notes the “contentious borders” between lesbian and transgender identities. Lesbian identity can be treated at the same time as an identity one must choose or recognize for oneself, but also as an essential identity that exists whether recognized or not.
This idea—that the “lesbian as a type of person” has always existed across time and space—has ideological significance, and Boyd suggests that we need to ask, “To whom is this idea useful? Whom does it serve?”
And it’s undeniable that even if one considers there to be an essential, timeless concept of lesbian identity, the communities and manifestations of that identity are constantly changing. Multiple versions of lesbian identity may be performed side by side in the same culture and may have independent histories and experiences even when specific individuals may cross between them.
[Commentary: Overall, this article seems to be speaking primarily to 20th century lesbian history with perhaps a bit of awareness of the later 19th century. But all the specific cultural references are from the second half of the 20th century. It’s also written with a fairly high level of theory-jargon. (I haven’t been able to parse out exactly which flavor of theory it’s coming from.) Not useful for the general reader.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 195 - Madame de Murat: Author of Fairy Tales, Lover of Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/02/20 - listen here)
In the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I’ve regularly discussed how the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries were the focus of a woman-led intellectual culture rife with possibilities for authors of historical fiction. The salonnières—mostly, though not exclusively, aristocrats—directed the attendance and topics of their salons with an autocratic hand and could elevate or banish the cultural and intellectual pop stars of their day from their lively and intimate gatherings.
At the end of the 17th century, the salons served as a counter-balance to the regimented and hierarchical life of the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles. If you’ve watched the tv series Versailles, you’ve seen the culture they were reacting to (though in a Hollywood version). While the glittering, over-the-top world of Versailles was coming into being far from the city, the salonnières of Paris were inviting the top philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists of the day to gather in their bedrooms—literally!—to discuss and celebrate ideas in a subculture that promulgated the ideal (if not always the reality) of a social equality of the mind.
The gender dynamics of the salons were not always predictable from those principles. The salon movement had its roots in the exclusion of women from public intellectual life. Often given a rather minimal education, and excluded from universities and academies, aristocratic women with curious minds began the salons as a program of self-education, inviting learned men to present lectures and act as private tutors. From these beginnings, they grew into an elaborate social structure in which women vied with each other to attract the most interesting and prestigious guests, as well as mentoring younger women who would go on to found their own salons.
But gender relations had another influence in later 17th century France as well. Among the aristocracy, during that era, marriage was overwhelmingly a matter of economic and alliance contracts between families. The personal interests of the spouses were of little account—both for men and women—and as a consequence there was a thriving culture of extramarital relations and little expectation of affection between husband and wife. This culture of libertinism embraced same-sex as well as opposite-sex relations, despite legal condemnation of the former. It was understood that some people had a preferred taste for their own gender, though the concept of orientation, as such, was not well developed.
One additional strand of this story arises from the fraught marital relations of the upper classes. Have you ever noticed how traditional fairy tales lean heavily on forced marriages, runaway brides, the thwarting of true lovers, and often cruelly repressive relationships between parents and their eligible children? The genre of literary French fairy tales arose in the mid 17th century as something of a game within the salons where writers—and especially female writers—would re-work traditional tales into elaborate, convoluted, multi-layered imaginative tales that were infused with criticism of the culture of the day. These aristocratic women whose own marriages had, often as not, been imposed on them willy-nilly, found themselves imprisoned, not always in literal towers, but in lifelong social contracts. In fairy tales they could feature clever, persistent heroines who endured grinding hardships but won through to true love in the end. Or who failed in heartbreak and tragedy. In stories, they could critique the forces that they were often powerless to oppose in their own lives.
At this point, let us turn our tale to one particular writer of fairy tales. Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat was born around 1668 or 1670 (accounts differ), possibly in Brittany, possibly in Paris, possibly elsewhere (accounts differ), to an aristocratic family. She was possibly the daughter of the marquis Michel de Castelnau, but the details are not certain. She may have inherited the marquisate of Castelnau at age two when her father died, which might well have made her a considerable heiress. She married Nicholas de Murat, Count de Gilbertez possibly in 1691 at age 23, or possibly in 1686 at age 16 (accounts differ). Many of the details of her early life come from a collection of legends about her written a century after her death. And some of the details in that work are easily falsified. Hence the uncertainty.
I can find no clear references to her husband’s age (and evidently the later legendary history adds confusion from a second Nicholas de Murat), but if the marriage followed usual aristocratic patterns at the time, he was likely significantly older, and tangential evidence suggests perhaps 40-ish. And—following usual aristocratic patterns at the time—the marriage was not an affectionate one. Indeed, there are suggestions that it was an openly hostile one on both sides. Madame de Murat is later quoted as claiming that her husband made no complaints about her conduct and therefore it was no one else’s business, however a police report—have I mentioned that most details of her personal life are taken from her police record?—a police report includes the assessment that, “Her poor husband…only remains quiet in order not to expose himself to the rage of a woman who has considered killing him two or three times.”
But we’ll get to that later.
Around the time of her marriage, she became a regular participant in the Parisian salons of the Marquise de Lambert and became part of the fairy tale writing set that included Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy (who invented the term “contes des fees” or “fairy tales”) and Catherine Bernard. De Murat began writing fairy tales of her own in the 1690s, but her earliest surviving published work in 1697 was in another genre entirely.
One strand contributing to the development of the novel as a literary form was the fictitious memoir. Presented as a work of fiction, this genre provided a certain plausible deniability to the content when authors either detailed events of their own lives or criticized the lives of their contemporaries. Names were obscured by the transparent fiction of using only an initial or a nickname. But within this fictional costume, authors were able to openly discuss their own lives and experiences—an opportunity particularly embraced by female authors.
De Murat’s first published work, Memoirs of the Countess of M***, was written in heated conversation with an earlier fictitious memoir Memoirs of the Life of Count D**** before his Retirement, by Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, seigneur de Saint-Evremond. Saint-Evremond’s work was openly misogynistic, depicting women as incapable of virtue and honesty. De Murat’s counter tells the story of a young wife subject to physical and emotional abuse due to her husband’s jealousy, who attempts to escape the marriage but is pressured by her family to return. How closely the tale marches with her own experiences is impossible to know, but the general shape is plausible. One version of her biography indicates that having presented her husband with a son the year after they married, she separated from him due to his mistreatment. Evremond’s memoir appears to have been forgettable, but de Murat’s was a best-seller.
Though the memoir was her first published work, it wasn’t the first splash she made through her writing. That would be her History of the Courtesan Rhodope, evidently written in 1694 but not published until 1708. This work was a not-particularly-veiled satire on Madame de Maintenon, the favorite mistress—and by then, wife—of King Louis XIV. Madame de Maintenon was not happy about it, and when she was not happy, the king was not happy. Some sources indicate that this work was the primary reason Murat was banished from court. Keep this in mind as we trace Madame de Murat’s life.
Let us recap: Madame de Murat marries roughly around age 20, plus/minus, and in the next half-dozen years, bears a son, leaves her abusive husband, begins hanging out in salons, writes a biting political satire, writes a best-selling feminist memoir, and begins publishing her collections of fairy tales.
This genre of salon fairy tales were not pretty romantic pieces of fluff. They were typically packed full of abusive suitors, coerced marriages, petty persecutions, cruel supernatural beings, and deeply cynical takes on human (and fairy) nature. The versions that are presented to us today are greatly softened and tidied up. These are the tales where Beauty’s Beast is a genuinely terrifying monster, where Cinderella’s sisters cut off pieces of their feet to try to fit the glass slipper and then Cinderella’s songbird companions peck their eyes out during her wedding. So in thinking of Madame de Murat as an author of fairy tales, let us think of her as a woman who has Seen Things and packs hard truths into her convoluted plots.
As I mentioned earlier, one consequence of aristocratic arranged marriages of the time was the normalization of extramarital relationships. It was expected that everyone would have lovers, the only question was how discreet they would be about it. Once she had separated from her husband, Madame de Murat was in a somewhat precarious position. As she herself wrote, “As soon as a woman lives separated from her husband, she provides weapons against her, and no one thinks she should feel insulted if they suspect her behavior.” De Murat perhaps provided them with a higher caliber of weapon than was wise.
In 1698, during the height of her literary success, and for the following four years, a Lieutenant General of the Paris Police was instructed—evidently by King Louis himself—to take note of Madame de Murat’s activities and warn her to reform her behavior under threat of banishment from Paris or even imprisonment. What were those activities? The police records begin with references to general “immorality and scandal” occurring during regular social gatherings at her house. She was accused of cursing and blasphemy, of singing lewd songs at all hours of the night to the disturbance of her neighbors, of pissing out a window during an evening of debauchery and—now we come to the specific reason for discussing her in this podcast—of “a monstrous attachment for persons of her own sex.”
Offered in evidence of this was an extended relationship with one Madame de Nantiat. Madame de Nantiat is first mentioned in a police report of 1700, when the Lieutenant General is describing, “A portrait [of Madame de Murat] perforated by several thrusts of a knife because of the jealousy of a woman she loved and left a few months ago to attach herself to Madame de Nantiat, another woman of the worst immorality, known less for the fines levied against her for gambling than for the disorderliness of her morals. This woman, living with Murat, is the object of her continual adoration, even in front of the valets and several pawnbrokers.” And there are continued references to Madame de Nantiat in de Murat’s life throughout her police records covering the next several years.
Who is Madame de Nantiat? We can assume that she, too, was a member of the French aristocracy. Nantiat is a town located near Limoges. Google-searches turn up a genealogy from the relevant time period for a Gaspard Chauvet, baron de Nantiat, a page to Queen Marie-Thérèse. (I should note that random genealogies on the internet should be taken with a large grain of salt, but with that information I was able to find more reliable references.) In 1681 the baron de Nantiat married Diane-Marie de Pontcharraud who was born in 1667, so she would have been very close in age to Madame de Murat and—if the dates are to be believed—married at age 14. Ah! And a further entry in that genealogy does identify her as the Madame de Nantiat who was the lover of Madame de Murat. It even lists the relationship among her spouses. Now, as I say, internet genealogies are tricky to rely on, but it’s just possible we’ve located our second protagonist. She outlived her first husband, as well as de Murat, married again, and lived to the ripe old age of 89.
Maybe it’s her, maybe not, but whoever Madame de Nantiat was, Madame de Murat was enamored of her and they were understood to have a sexual relationship—one that provoked violent jealousy in at least one of de Murat’s other female lovers.
De Murat was scarcely the only woman among the salonnières who loved her own sex. The Duchess d’Aiguillon, a niece of Cardinal Richelieu, was paired romantically with Madame du Vigean. Others for whom there is less evidence for a physical relationship left romantic correspondence with their female intimates. Such relationships might be considered scandalous, but they were accepted as within the normal range of behavior. Which raises the question of why de Murat came in for special persecution.
The police were trying to obtain sufficient evidence to arrest de Murat, but ran into a few practical problems. Her actual crimes--and lesbian sex was, in fact, a crime in France at the time, though not typically pursued against aristocratic women—her crimes took place in private spaces. Her neighbors were said to be intimidated by her and afraid to testify against her. But they are also quoted as considering it beneath their dignity to turn informant to the police. Her husband claimed he was in fear for his life if he tried to control her which, given that legal and social power was on his side suggests either that he was looking for excuses or she was truly formidable.
After the affair of the slashed portrait, de Murat claimed she was thinking of rusticating for a while and this seems to have mollified official interest somewhat. She pleads that she had only delayed leaving the city due to destitution. She needed to pay her debts before leaving and had no money for travel expenses or to make provision for her seven-year-old son. She has been surviving on loans and the profits of card-playing. The police report sounds genuinely sympathetic to her.
We hear nothing for more than a year and a half. One source suggests she may have spent the year in the Limousin region staying with Madame de Nantiat, based on information in her journals. Then there is another police report: Madame de Murat “has returned to Paris after a week’s absence…she has made up with Madame de Nantiat, and the horrors and abominations of their mutual affection rightly make all their neighbors shudder.”
King Louis XIV wanted her imprisoned, but she had friends in high places to run interference, presumably not just her fellow salonnières. De Murat also claimed at this time to be pregnant, which must have been a bit awkward as a get-out-of-jail-free card, given that she was not on intimate terms with her husband. A later note refers to her “pretending to be pregnant” to avoid imprisonment and there is no record of a child, though given the scantiness of solid records of her life this isn’t definitive evidence. The police make reference to leaving it up to her “closest relatives” to determine where she should be confined, perhaps suggesting that her husband had entirely washed his hands of her.
Within a week of her returning to Paris, in December 1701, someone sent the police a letter “regarding the abominable conduct of Mesdames de Murat and Nantiat.” The police strongly suspect that the author of the letter is a discarded lover “who formerly reigned over [the heart] of Madame de Murat” (perhaps she of the portrait-slashing?) and who was seeking revenge for the reconciliation of Murat and Nantiat. This ulterior motive doesn’t seem to have bothered the police much, for they noted, “the blasphemies, obscenities, and drunkenness with which they are reproached are not less true because of it.”
Two months later, Madame de Nantiat left for the provinces, just barely ahead of a warrant for her arrest, while Madame de Murat remained in Paris. Consequences are closing in on her. One option is to confine her in a convent, but the report notes that “she reckons that no religious community will be found bold enough to take her in. Indeed, I do not think there is a single one, and I could not have a good opinion of those that would be willing to take the risk.”
Imprisoning wayward female relatives in convents was a fairly common practice in 17th century France, but as the police noted, it wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of virtue. Especially when sapphic relationships were at issue. When Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarine was packed off to a convent by her jealous husband, she was accompanied by her girlfriend Sidonie de Courcelles and they simply carried on as before. When Julie d’Aubigny’s girlfriend was sent to a convent by her disapproving parents, Julie infiltrated the establishment to break her out by simply pretending to be interested in taking in the veil herself.
In this context, there’s an interesting episode in Madame de Murat’s fictionalized memoir, in which an anonymous letter accuses the Countess de M—and her friend Mademoiselle Laval of doing “horrible things” together and demanding that the police imprison her. In the memoirs, the two women are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent together which, of course, would hardly prevent them from continuing to do whatever things they might have been doing together.
One might think that this episode in the memoir was directly lifted from the events detailed in the police report, except that the memoir was published two years before the first police blotter item. The parallels, in whichever direction, certainly lend credence to a certain truth underlying both.
Two months after de Nantiat left Paris, Madame de Murat was sent to be confined in the chateau of Loches. It seems to have been a fairly light imprisonment. She corresponded regularly with her family and her friends in Paris and evidently entertained visitors regularly—though whether this consisted of recreating the philosophical salons of her youth or of the wild debauchery her enemies accused her of is open to speculation. But she kept scheming to escape. She forged a letter from her husband asking for her release. She staged a daring escape, dressed in men’s clothing, but was caught and then held in two other locations before being brought back to Chateau de Loches. She wrote an extensive journal of her captivity, framed as letters to her cousin Mademoiselle de Menou, which incorporated several more fairy tales.
Finally in 1709—seven years after her initial imprisonment—she was paroled by the intervention of her friend the Countess d’Argenton, on the condition that she stay with her aunt Mademoiselle de Dampierre in Limousin. During that period, she wrote her final novel, which some consider her best work. She was not allowed to return to Paris until King Louis’s death in 1715—a fact that strongly suggests that it was the king’s personal animosity toward her that underlay her persecution, rather than the specifics of her sexuality. By the time of her return to Paris, she was in poor health and only survived for one year more. She died in 1716 at age 46 (or 48, accounts differ).
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Countess de Murat lived multiple lives: unhappy wife, literary hostess, fairy-tale author and satirist, passionate lover, victim of royal persecution, stubborn rebel against her fate. In none of these was she unusual or exceptional for her day and age. But combined together they present a picture of a complex, intriguing, and very human character whose life would make excellent material for fiction or the screen. She fictionalized her own life and lived the real version of her fictions. She loved passionately, if not wisely. Remember her.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online