My friends are often frustrated at my resistance to their suggestions of books or movies they think I’d like. “This is just up your alley! You’ll love it! You liked X so you’re going to love Y! I think this is really your sort of thing!” When I don’t want to deal, I’ll point out that I have an enormous to-be-read list already and mumble something about adding it to the list, or I’ll leave my movie-going up to the chance of which movies my friends are getting a group up to see when I happen to be available. But sometimes I’ll push back and point out that my friends’ recommendations—not just of things they like, but of things they actively think I’ll like—have a success rate that isn’t much better than random. So bringing something to my attention is fine, but when I say it doesn’t grab me, just accept that it doesn’t grab me.
Comic book movies are one of my weak spots in this process. And just like Lucy and the football, I have a weakness for believing that maybe, just maybe, this time the movie that all my friends are saying is the best Marvel movie ever will actually recapture the things that I enjoy about graphic novels, and will spark that sense of wonder I felt back at the beginning of the long chain of big SFX budget features that gobsmacked me by putting my comic book fantasies up on the big screen.
The thing is, what the movie makers are taking away from the success of comic book movies is exactly what makes me swear every single time that I’ll never again let myself be fooled into giving them one more chance. Explosions and long lovingly-drawn-out sequences of extreme meaningless violence. Not merely not my thing, but something that a movie needs to actively overcome by being extremely (and I mean extremely) good at everything else.
Thor: Ragnarok did not overcome.
Honestly, except for that one heartbreaking flashback scene with Valkyrie where we are allowed to pretend that the companion she sees fall in battle was her girlfriend (and we aren’t actually told that, we’re just tossed the crumb of not having it outright contradicted), all I came out of Thor:Ragnarok with is the memory of constant non-stop fight and chase scenes. Boring. Unutterably and mind-numbingly boring. And if you edited out all the scenes of violence from the movie, you might possibly have ten minutes left of pratfalls and embarrassment humor.
And yet, everywhere I look, people are calling it the best Marvel movie ever. People whose taste and opinions I ordinarily find trustworthy. So if you’re ever in a position of raving to me about how wonderful something is and how I absolutely must read/watch/play/try it and I get this pained and evasive look on my face and mumble something about there only being so many hours in a day, just…take no for an answer. Ok?
Readers and writers both have strong opinions about point of view, even when that strong opinion is, “Any point of view can work if you’re skilled enough.” I’ve heard authors proclaim that they’ll only use one specific type of point of view because that’s the only one that works for them. Fair enough. One can’t argue with what works.
I’ve found two ways in which point of view can be the key to telling the story I want to tell. One is in limiting what the reader is allowed to know, and thus positioning them with respect to specific characters in the story. One of the reasons I’ve stuck to a very tight third person POV in the Alpennia stories (at least so far—don’t count on it staying that way!) is to manipulate what the reader knows about the events of the story and the motivations of the other characters. An omniscient point of view can either remove suspense or leave the reader annoyed about selective omissions of information.
But a second reason I’ve found to choose a particular point of view is to break myself out of specific storytelling modes. This is particularly the case when I’m working with traditional tale forms, such as the Merchinogi stories. The immense weight of the original literary style of medieval romances can be hard to fight if you use the same tools as the original tellers. Medieval romances can be wonderful for their flights of description and their use of repetition and cadence, but they’re really bad at showing interiority. King Arthur may have done great deeds, but we don’t get a lot of insight into what he thought about those accomplishments, or why he made the choices he did. When I first started writing “Hoywverch,” I used the third person to match the original Mabinogi, but found the result more flat and simplistic than I cared for. Shifting to the heroine’s voice helped me break free of that flatness.
Retold fairy tales are another genre where the stylistic weight of the original material can feel overwhelming. In my first draft of “The Language of Roses”—my Beauty and the Beast retelling--I followed what has become my default mode: tight third person rotating between key viewpoint characters, with events allocated carefully to keep the reader in suspense regarding important plot points. And it felt like it was working fairly well until I decided to bring in the fairy who laid the crucial curse as a viewpoint character. She had an important role to play in setting up certain elements of the backstory that no one else had put together yet. But I found the scenes I’d given to her somewhat lackluster. She was thin. A cardboard prop. And the crucial world-building information she supplied felt wrong as something a character would ruminate over on her own.
And then, on this morning’s drive, the first line of her first scene came to me in a different voice. An accusing, critical, second person voice. And things clicked. It’s an omniscient voice: someone who knows everything that has happened in the past and who hints at knowing how the story will come out when none of the characters themselves do. (I have a suspicion just who that voice is, and that may shape some of the rewriting.) This isn’t a second person POV where the reader is being addressed, which is the version that people who dislike second POV tend to rail against—the “choose your own adventure” type that tries to force the reader into being a participant. It’s a voice that allows the fairy to remain a cipher while providing the reader with a very personal glimpse of her.
Ah, Peronelle! You are patient now. Patient enough to stand outside the gates of Betencourt for days to see what might befall. You were not so patient when you were…but no, you were not young. It has been very long since you were young, hasn’t it? The fée are young only once and old for a very long time. But one may be foolish and impatient at any age. Do you remember when you were young, Peronelle? Do you remember your parents and the glittering tower where you dwelt with them? Do you remember the guests and the balls and the hunting parties when they would ride out to slip between the worlds and tease those in mortal lands? Do you remember learning to walk the worlds for yourself and how to draw glamour after you to hide the truth from mortal eyes?
And having made that choice, I now needed to know what to do with all my other points of view. That second person wasn’t going to work for all of them. I wanted differentiation. But at the same time, having one character’s scenes in second and the other three POV characters all in third felt unbalanced. Well, it isn’t really three—more like two and a single chapter from the remaining character. What if (I thought)…what if I gave one of them a first person approach? What if my Beauty (who isn't named Beauty) tells her own story? That would work well for her: the confused innocent who is still sorting out her place in the world and how she feels about it. Yes, that feels right. While the third primary viewpoint character (who is definitely not the Beast) is more knowledgable, more controlled, more deliberately distanced. Third person works for her.
Now my immediate reaction to this idea was, “You know, this is one of the features of N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel The Fifth Season—a feature that is a key element of the plot—and maybe it’s going to look a little bit like you’re being a copycat?” Well, heck. If you’re going to be a copycat, copy a great writer. You can make any approach to point of view work if you do it well, and if you don’t do it well, it doesn’t matter that someone else did make it work. But I’ll acknowledge that the idea of mixing first, second, and third person in the same story isn’t some fantastic new invention I came up with.
Maybe I’ll make it work, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll finish up the whole story and decide I need to unravel it and do something different. But when I heard that voice snarking at Peronelle, something clicked into place. And any author can tell you that when you feel that click, you should pay attention.
This description of a group of flamboyantly-dressed women "crashing" a medieval tournament and setting tongues wagging can't help but send my imagination racing. Think of what a great opening for a movie it would make! It's the sort of image that feels anachronistically modern...except that it was recorded as an actual event in a historical chronicle. And though there may have been some interpretation and exaggeration in the telling, there's no reason to doubt that the essential facts are true. Who were these women? Why did they show up at the tournament in masculine dress? Whose clothing was it? Husbands' or brothers'? Was it planned or spontaneous? Did they try to participate in the tournament itself? If so, did they succeed? What happened afterward? Was "matrimonial restraint" reimposed on them or did the experience change their view of themselves and what they were capable of?
Knighton, Henry. 1995. Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396. Edited and translated by G.H. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-820-503-1
Latin text and modern translation of a historic chronicle of the 14th century.
I don’t usually include primary texts in this project, in part because there’s more value in reading the interpretations of historians (of which I am only an amateur) and in part because the selection and excerpting of relevant sections is itself an interpretation process, which I am hesitant to perform. But in this case the relevant excerpt is short enough to include in its entirety. So I’ve included both the original Latin (for fun) and Martin’s translation.
Martin suggests that the claim that these cross-dressing women appeared at multiple tournaments was most likely a generalization from a single noteworthy event. The claim that they were rained out every time they appeared supports this suggestion, as it seems an unlikely coincidence (excluding the possibility of actual divine displeasure). Martin also suggests that a previous editor is mistaken in locating the tournament in Berwick (a location I included in my previous discussion of this event). The chronicle did discuss a tournament in Berwick in an earlier entry, but this specific description doesn’t indicate a location.
Nota de dominabus in hastiludiis. Illis diebus ortus est rumor et in gens clamor in populo eo quod ubi hastiludia prosequebantur, quasi in quolibet loco dominarum cohors affuit, quasi comes interludii in diuerso et mirabili apparatu uirili, ad numerum quandoque quasi .xl. quandoque .l. dominarum, de speciosioribus et pulcrioribus, non melioribus tocius regni, in tunicis partitis scilicet una parte / de una secta, et altera de alia secta, cum capuciis breuibus et liripiis ad modum cordarum circa capud aduolutis, et 3onis argento uel auro bene circumstipatis in extransuerso uentris sub umbilico habentes cultellos quos daggerios wlgaliter dicunt, in powchiis desuper impositis. Et sic procedebant in electis dextrariis uel aliis equis bene comptis de loco ad locum hastiludiorum. Et tali modo expendebant et deuastabant bona sua, et corpora sua ludibriis et scurilosis lasciuiis uexitabant, ut rumor populi personabat.
Et sic nec Deum uerebantur, nec uerecundam populi uocem erubescebant, laxato matrimonialis pudicie freno. Nec hii quos sequebantur animaduertebant quantam graciam et prefulgidam expedicionem Deus, omnium bonorum largitor Anglorum milicie contulerat, contra omnes inimicos undecunque eis aduersantes et quali priuilegio triumphalis uictorie in omni loco illos pretulerat. Sed Deus in hiis sicud in cunctis aliis affuit mirabili remedio, eorum dissipando dissolucionem. Nam loca et tempora ad hec uana assignata, imbrium resolucione tonitrui et fulguris coruscacione, et uariarum tempestatum mirabili uentilacione preocupauit.
A tale of women at tournaments. In those days a rumor arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom's better sort. They were dressed in parti-colored tunics, of one color on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes wound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumor ran.
And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint. Nor did those whom they accompanied consider what grace and outstanding blessings God, the fount of all good things, had bestowed upon English knighthood in all its successful encounters with its enemies, and what exceptional triumphs of victory He had allowed them everywhere. But God in this as in all things had a marvelous remedy to dispel their wantonness, for at the times and places appointed for those vanities He visited cloudbursts, and thunder and flashing lightning, and tempests of astonishing violence upon them.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16a - On the Shelf for November 2017 - Transcript
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2017.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that when it comes to history, my heart lives in the middle ages. Last week’s episode on women knights in shining armor was a lot of fun to put together. But the middle ages isn’t just about pageantry and castles. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been covering a number of publications that look closely at how medieval people thought about sex and gender. The essays in the collection Premodern Sexualities ask questions like “what does it mean when homosexuality is not considered an identity but being a prostitute is?” Or “what was the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation, and how did that affect how medieval law treated people with ambiguous bodies?” It can be easy to acknowledge today that gender and sexuality are social constructs, but it can be harder to accept that people in the past used such different constructs that it can be hard to draw clear parallels between our lives and those of our ancestors. When we encounter hints of homoerotic sentiment in the writings of women like Margery Kempe, do we work too hard to try to fit them into our modern identity boxes?
When I finish up the papers from the Premodern Sexualities volume, I look at the original text of Knighton’s Chronicle that I talked about in last week’s episode--the one about the gang of cross-dressed women showing up at a 14th century tournament. I don’t usually include primary sources in the blog, but sometimes it’s fun to let a text speak for itself. After that I cover an article on an unusual joint memorial brass to two women from 15th century England. Memorials like this gave me an idea for a future essay, so hold on to that thought.
After that, the blog is going to plunge deep into the pool of historiography and theory with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. This book was a lot more dense than what I usually choose to cover and talks more about talking about history, than looking at the past itself. I’ll be continuing on a similar theme of historic theory for much of the rest of the year, covering the articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which includes a lot of essays on what it means to think about lesbian history as a field of study, and the academic conflicts between various ways of approaching the study of the past. I’m finding the debates intensely interesting and it makes me want to find people to discuss the parallels between the study of lesbian history and the creation of lesbian historic fiction.
This month’s author guest is someone I can imagine having those discussions with. Farah Mendlesohn is publishing her first novel: a lesbian regency romance titled Spring Flowering. Farah is an academic with a background in history and literature and has a lot of interesting things to say about the social dynamics of gender and sexuality in the early modern era. And I can’t wait to read her novel, which should be on my iPad by the time you’re listening to this.
This month’s essay is going to be on the vocabulary of women who love women, looking at the words used in various languages and cultures across the ages, both technical language and everyday slang. You can tell a lot about how people perceived lesbian sexuality by the root meanings of the words that were used. But you can also learn a lot from the simple fact that such vocabulary existed and by noticing how and when it was used.
This month’s Ask Sappho question touches on the question of how women have communicated their desires in the past. Rose Herman-Pall asks “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?”
The question doesn’t specify a particular era or culture, but I’ll focus in the last several centuries in England and America, since that’s the context most listeners are likely to be familiar with. And this is going to be a lot more off-the-cuff than usual, so there’ll be no footnotes in the show notes.
In the past, when I’ve done research for historic re-enactment, or answered research questions for authors, I’ve always found it a useful exercise to take a question that starts out “How did they...?” and back up a step to ask, “Did they...?” I remember once someone asked, “How did medieval people get going in the morning when they didn’t have coffee yet?” That started a conversation on the history of breakfast as a concept, and the other changes in society that happened around the time that stimulating beverages like coffee and tea entered Western society, and the ways in which rituals around those beverages have become so ingrained in our lives that it’s hard to imagine life without them.
So let’s think about what underlies that question: “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?” There are at least three important assumptions here that we need to unpack before thinking about an answer. The first is that women needed some special way of signaling their desires to each other. The second is that women have always had a specific concept of lesbian desire as something different from the default. The third is that women would have viewed heterosexual marriage as a barrier to expressing those desires.
For those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century--and that’s pretty much all of us at this point--it can be just as hard to imagine a world in which same-sex desire is not considered a separate, fixed, inborn orientation as it is to imagine a world in which people have never encountered coffee or tea. But when you look at women’s literature around romance, affection, and passionate expression during the last several centuries (and earlier as well, but I’m focusing on maybe the 17th through 19th centuries) it becomes clear that passionate and romantic feelings between women weren’t considered some special separate aberration, but were considered normal, natural, and desirable. It was women who didn’t experience sentimental attachments to female friends who were considered odd.
In a world where women are expected to call each other beloved, to speak of their undying devotion to each other, and to long for each other’s presence and embraces, in a world where it is utterly normal to exchange kisses, caresses, and embraces, both in public and in private, in a world where it is completely expected that people of the same sex will sleep in the same bed as a sign of their close emotional relationship--or simply for the sake of convenience--it can be hard to figure out what sort of special signal a woman would need to use to express romantic interest in her special friend.
I emphasize the word “special” because this isn’t to say that women didn’t have ways to indicate that they wanted to shift the intensity of the friendship. We can see some methods in the diaries of Anne Lister because she talks about them explicitly. She talks about mentioning certain works of literature that discuss same-sex desire to see if the other woman is familiar with them. Or maybe she kisses the object of her interest in a more lingering way than she would kiss an ordinary friend. But the fact that she kissed her would have been considered normal.
Another thing to consider is how geographically circumscribed most lives were before the 20th century. The vast majority of people you interacted with would be people you’d known all your life. People who lived in the same town as you--or if you were part of the minority who lived in a large city, people who lived in the same neighborhood or who were part of your family’s social circle. If you wanted to delicately hint that you wanted a deeper relationship with someone, you weren’t likely to be dealing with a stranger. It would be someone you’d known for some time. Someone whose opinions and responses you were already familiar with.
When considering the lives of pre-20th century women, it’s also important to understand that the dividing lines between sex and affection were drawn in different places at different times. Activities that we consider sex acts might have been considered ordinary expressions of very close friendship. A woman might want to make sure that the object of her affection felt the same degree and intensity of attachment that she did before committing herself wholeheartedly, but it wasn’t necessarily a negotiation that either of them would have felt needed to be done covertly. And they wouldn’t have considered the degree of attachment and affection between them to be something separate and apart from what other female friends felt for each other.
But--you ask me--what about the historic records we can find in which women that we would consider lesbians are criticized or punished? This gets back to the question of how society is drawing lines between concepts and behaviors. You will find women being criticized if they claim male social prerogatives. If they cross-dress. If they marry a woman in the guise of a man. You will find women being criticized if they explicitly resist the expected forms of society. If their attachment to a female friend leads them to reject what would be considered a desirable marriage. In some eras, if they are open about genital sexual activity of any type--with a woman or a man--this will be cause for censure. And in some eras, public discourse around stereotypes of female same-sex sexuality is used to communicate expectations and limits, and to create social divisions that prevent women as a class from advancing women’s causes. In eras when outspoken, socially active women were accused of lesbianism, the point wasn’t to control women’s sexual activity, but to control women’s social and political agency. Sex itself wasn’t the point, it was the weapon.
So getting back to our third assumption--that women who desired other women would have considered marriage to a man to be a bar to those relationships or to expressing those feelings. This takes a very modern position on the optionality of marriage. For most of history, marriage was not about making an individual, voluntary choice based on erotic desire or even on romantic attraction, even in eras when romantic attraction was held up as an ideal. Marriage was primarily an economic transaction--at the very least a major influence on one’s economic and social status. As a parallel, consider how absurd we would consider it to think that one’s employment should be based primarily on personal bonds of affection with the employer. Sure, in some cases you may be offered a job because of personal connections. And sure, in some cases you may end up having a personal friendship with your boss. But those things aren’t considered expected. A woman opting out of marriage because she didn’t have a pre-existing erotic attraction to the man she was marrying would have been considered as silly as we would consider refusing a job because you didn’t think your future boss was hot.
Another aspect of pre-20th century society that we sometimes have a hard time imagining is how strongly gender-segregated people’s lives were. (Think about that awful politician who said he had a rule never to be alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Now imagine everyone in society thinking that way.) In a society that considers a woman suspect for any sort of emotional attachment to a non-related man, it’s not only expected that your close emotional bonds will be with other women, but that is considered desirable. Friendship, as the theory went, was only possible between equals, and men and women could rarely be equal. Women were expected to rely on other women to fulfill their emotional and affectionate needs. (Just as men were expected to rely on men for those needs.) In that context, the dividing line between affection and romantic love was functionally non-existent. The dividing line between ordinary physical expressions of that love and something that went beyond the norm was exceedingly fuzzy. And that dividing line would be negotiated between two women who already had established an emotional bond and engaged in a lot of physical expression of that bond already.
So, to a large extent, the original question presumes a universality to our 21st century experiences of desire, our expressions of desire, and our social expectations. We won’t find 18th century women secretly signally their erotic desires to complete strangers by using carefully color-coded handkerchiefs, because they had no need to do so. They would be walking side by side in the park, with arms twined about each other’s waist, leaning in for a kiss the way that good friends were expected to do, and then maybe lingering over that kiss just a few moments longer than they ever had before, to see how the other woman would respond.
Call for Submissions
And now for a special announcement. I’ve been pondering what to do with the occasional fifth show when there are five Saturdays in a month. And the idea that kept coming back, as persistently as a cat at feeding time, was to include some original lesbian historic fiction audio short stories. So I’ve posted a call for submissions on my website. You can find the link in the show notes. In January 2018 I’ll be accepting submissions of original, unpublished short stories of up to 5000 words and choosing two to record for the show. The text will also be published on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. I’ll be paying professional rates because the purpose of the Project is to encourage people to write and enjoy really great lesbian historic fiction, and you only get the best by letting authors know you value it. There are some content specifications, so be sure to read the call for submissions if you’d like to submit a story for consideration. Instructions on how to submit will be posted closer to the submissions window, but this gives you two months to get writing.
(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in modern lesbian romance. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)
The Locket and the Flintlock has a solid historic romance concept: the carriage bearing Lucia Foxe, her father, and her sister is accosted on the road by a gang of highwaymen and they are robbed of their valuables, including the locket that Lucia’s dead mother left to her and which she loudly protests the loss of. (This is, by the way, lesbian highwaywoman romance standard plot point A.) Alternating points of view between Lucia and the leader of the highwaymen, Len Hawkins, leave us in no doubt of the gender of the latter and that she will be the love interest. A reference to the poetry of Byron and to Lucia’s brother being off in the Peninsular Wars appear to narrow the setting down solidly to ca. 1812-14 or so. The Foxes are members of the rural gentry and Lucia is starting to age out of expectations for an advantageous marriage. The set-up is perfect for her to be swept off her feet by a dashing highwaywoman with a heart of gold whose philanthropic interests extend to supporting the anti-industrial actions of the Luddites.
Unfortunately the core of the story is obscured by the prose style, including overly detailed descriptions of the setting, and the characters repetitiously examining their every emotion, regret, second thought, and aspiration. Beyond that, the writing is solidly workmanlike, other than a tendency for the characters to explain their actions to the reader rather than to experience them.
There are serious plausibility issues with the plot and setting. All the major characters are given to impulsive actions that should long since have proven fatal (especially to highwaymen). Two examples will suffice. Scant days after robbing the Foxes’ carriage, the highwaymen just happen to ride past Foxe Hall at a close enough distance that Lucia is able to recognize their faces (at night, in the dark) from her bedroom window. And having done so, Lucia sneaks out of the manor in the middle of the night, evidently in her nightgown (though with a cloak), and rides her horse bareback after the highwaymen to demand the return of her locket.
Plot holes and world-building holes abound, with the geography of the neighborhood being conveniently elastic depending on whether locations need to be nearby or completely unfamiliar. The author has done her research on many aspects of the historic setting (in particular the Luddite movement) but the presentation of the economics and logistics of early 19th century rural English society left me scratching my head. (There is a startling lack of servants at crucial points, and somehow the household and stable chores of maintaining a robbers’ hideaway don’t involve anyone actually doing domestic labor.)
That said, if you're forgiving regarding plausibility in your historic setting, and you’re willing to overlook the protagonists' suicidal impulsivity in exchange for lots of angsty self-examination and a few hot sex scenes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this book.
It may seem premature to think about the results of some of my recent activity, but the fact is that there have already been significant results—and most of them are all in my head.
To recap: two weeks ago I took a weekend to master the workings of Hootsuite in order to automate regular promotional postings on twitter and facebook. (Also Mailchimp for maintaining a mailing list, see below.) It literally took an entire weekend (in part because coming up with the catalog of content was very draining) but now I have a rotating set of hundreds of different posts, referencing all my projects and publications (both on sale and available for free), with a variety of target links, posting at variable times of day, such that both twitter and facebook will see two to four posts per day, but (ideally) no one will always be seeing the same content in the same place at the same time. Someone who religiously follows my every post in either location may feel that it’s a bit relentless (and I plan to do a reality check with some of them at the end of the month), but the casual reader will just get the occasional reminder without it feeling repetitious. Having done the initial set-up and created a content spreadsheet (you knew there was going to be a spreadsheet, didn’t you) I anticipate that regular maintenance will only take a couple hours a month.
And there have already been results. The most concrete is the additional sharing that the posts are getting. I hardly expect anyone to boost all of the posts (and I’m immensely grateful for anyone who interacts with them in any way). But the “limited shotgun” approach makes it easier and more likely that my existence will be reflected into places where people may not have encountered me before. In essence, I’ve set up an automated pitching machine, making it very simple for people to hit things out into the world when one of the posts arrives in a convenient batting zone. Another benefit of having automated my promo is that I find myself having a lot more emotional space for focusing on promoting other people and their work. (As well—to be sure—as feeling the incentive to be sure my feeds have a proper mix of non-self-promotion content!)
But, for me, the most important consequence that I’m already seeing is that I no longer have that sense of each individual promotional post being a major emotional project that leaves me feeling drained and depressed. By separating the act of content creation and the act of sending that content out into the world, I’ve removed a major emotional weight from the process. (Or at least displaced it into a concentrated period set aside for the purpose.) I no longer feel like I’m drowning in invisibility and struggling just to draw one gasping breath at a time. I look at my timelines and I’m there. I’m present. I exist. To the best of my recollection, I haven’t had an episode of book-related depression in the last three weeks. I’m sure I’ll still have them, but maybe I can reduce the frequency. And—before anyone thinks to do so—please do not say anything along the lines of, “Don’t you wish you’d done this sooner?” This was a massive amount of emotional work. I had to fight through a lot to get to it. I did it when I could, and not sooner.
Along with automating the promo, I’ve put two major new things out into the world. One is a monthly author newsletter. The first issue went out this morning, and to encourage new subscribers, I’ll be giving away some books to a random selection of people subscribed by November 30. (I’ll put up a separate posting with the details about that.) Originally I was figuring that the November newsletter would be a “test run” to make sure the system worked properly, but I have over 30 subscribers already! The newsletter certainly won’t replace the writing-related content on my website (though I may be cribbing from some older essays on Alpennia world-building to recycle). There are people who simply don’t follow blogs who are happy to have a mailing list appear in their in-box. Once a month is a manageable schedule. Besides the hypothetical benefit to my fans/readers, it’s much easier to track numbers of dedicated fans via a mailing list than by trying to decipher blog traffic or other open-access contact points. The newsletter will provide two additional intangible benefits. Because I plan to use it as an outlet for material that is either exclusive to the newsletter or that will only be made publically available later, I’ll have more of a sense that I’m creating things for people who genuinely appreciate it, rather than tossing messages in bottles out into the waves. That gives me more incentive to create things like non-commercial short fiction. Secondly, the newsletter provides an opportunity for fans/readers of my work to feel a sense of community—at least I hope so! It’s a phenomenon I’ve never entirely grasped as an experiencer, but I know it’s important to many other people. Important enough to be worth creating.
The second new project might not seem like a promotional thing, but I assure you that I have only selfish purposes in doing it. The lesbian history podcast will be publishing some original short fiction, and I expect to get two certain and one less certain return from this. 1) Lots more people will know about the LHMP blog and podcast. There’s nothing like a call for submissions to get the word out about a project, especially one that comes with the chance of professional-level payment. 2) One of the goals of the LHMP has always been to promote the creation and enjoyment of great lesbian historical fiction. Publishing stories is a very direct way to achieve that goal. 3) This is the less certain item. I hope that taking on this project (and succeeding at it) will enhance my professional reputation in ways that will improve the chances of future opportunities, whether in the same genre or more on the SFF side. My current limited plan to publish two stories is a manageable project, whether it’s wildly successful or whether it flops. If it’s successful (even if not wildly), there’s a better chance that I may be able to take on similar projects in the future. If successful, it may help connect the LHMP with parts of its intended audience that have been resistant so far.
So, all in all, I think it’s been a very productive last couple of weeks.
But Heather (you say), you don't write horror! You don't write supernatural fiction! What do you mean you want to feature Halloween content today?
Halloween marks the end of the ancient Celtic year--the time when doors open between this world and the next--and what better day to have set the beginning of the action of "Hyddwen", my Mabinogi-inspired story about a woman who repays her debt to an otherworldly queen by being her champion in a very strange battle. Morvyth follows the footsteps of many an ancient Welsh hero in crossing that boundary on the day that falls between the years. No one who does so comes back unchanged. And one of these days I'll start writing "Gwylan" which deals with some unexpected fallout from that visit.
For my other Halloween-themed link, I invite you to re-visit the podcast I did last year for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, where I discuss Christina Rosetti's poem "The Goblin Market", including a full reading of the poem at the conclusion of the podcast. It's a spooky and frightening poem, but what I loved most was the shifting musical rhythms of the verses, with their repetitions and change in tempo. I've really started enjoying reading poetry as part of these podcasts just for the delicious taste of the language. (Hmm, maybe "delicious taste" isn't the best metaphor when talking about Goblin Markets!)
Margery Kempe seems to be a popular historic figure for "queering", that is, for identifying ways in which her actions and writings (and even her person) disrupted gender and sexual norms of medieval society. I'm not entirely a fan of this sort of approach. Just as the "search and rescue mission" approach (as labeled by Valerie Traub) popular in early gay and lesbian studies framed historic figures in terms of whether they could be "claimed" for modern sexual identities, the "queering history" approach similarly prioritizes the imaginations and interpretations of modern viewers over the historic material they examine. Studies like this that focus on women's social and emotional relations with each other are quite fascinating in their own right, but it seems to me that they do more to show that what we think of as the "norms" of pre-modern society perhaps are wrong-headed to begin with, rather than viewing Kempe as disrupting those norms.
Lavezzo, Kathy. 1996. “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X
This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history. As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.
Lavezzo 1996 “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe”
The medieval mystic Margery Kempe wrote her book partly in response to interrogation for suspect religious views. One specific anxiety that was voiced against her was that she would “lead...wives away” to join her in her own personal forms of worship. This article looks at the use of sorrow and compassion for the passion of Christ, but also for the figures of Mary mourning as a form of homoerotic bonding between women. This had the potential to create a female community of religiously-oriented mourning, identified with the Virgin, but with the women’s relationships made acceptable by being mediated through the figure of Christ.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 15d - Female Knights in Shining Armor - Transcript
Does your heart thrill at the image of a woman dressed in shining armor, striding out onto the tournament field to engage in combat for the honor of a fair lady? OK, I confess that there was a time during my long years in the Society for Creative Anachronism that I had a secret hankering to be either one or the other of those figures. It was never to be alas.
But in this episode, I’d like to take a look at the motif of women knights in shining armor in medieval and Renaissance Europe, especially when their stories introduce homoerotic elements. This is a much narrower topic than simply that of women in combat in general. For example, I won’t be talking about pre-medieval warrior-woman figures such as those in early German and Norse sagas, or the many women who passed as men to engage in combat in armies starting from the Renaissance onward. Nor will I be looking at classical stories of the Amazons--though Amazons are going to come up in a bit. This episode is going to be focused specifically on the image of medieval chivalry, on tournaments and quests and King Arthur and all that sort of thing, including how they were portrayed in Renaissance literature.
One of the women that comes to mind first when you mention medieval women in armor is the 15th century French heroine Joan of Arc. From very early in her divinely-inspired campaign to support the French crown against the English, Joan wore men’s clothing and armor openly as a symbol that she was leading an army. When she gave testimony in her eventual trial, she argued that wearing men’s clothing was an order given her by God--that she wasn’t trying to become a man, but simply that it was what you wore when you were in combat. Joan carried a sword but testified that in battle she only carried her banner, so that she wouldn’t kill anyone herself. But it’s clear that her physical presentation was important in gaining the support and loyalty of the military forces she meant to lead. Her adoption of male dress also ended up being one of the lynchpins of the English accusations that led to her execution. There was little else they could pin on her, other than being a member of an enemy army.
Order of the Hatchet
In the middle ages, women were involved in most aspects of warfare, purely from necessity, though rarely in an officially recognized fashion. Men had their tournaments and Chivalric orders like the Garter and the Golden Fleece. But on at least one occasion, the valor of women fighting in defense of their city was so outstanding that it was recognized officially. In the mid 12th century in Spain, during the ongoing struggle between Islamic and Christian forces for the control of Iberia, the women of the city of Tortosa took up arms to withstand an attack when troop movements had left the city otherwise undefended. Taking up axes and any other weapons they found to hand, they held off the attackers successfully and with such valor that Count Berengeur who was leading the Christian forces created the Order of the Hatchet to honor them and bestowed it on the women who had fought. This wasn’t purely a symbolic honor, for it came with an exception from taxes, with the right to take precedence over the men of the town in public ceremonies, and the right to style themselves as Knights.
The Tournament Ladies of Berwick
Many social rules were relaxed or abandoned entirely in wartime, and if the women of Tortosa were knighted after the fact for their valor, it didn’t set a general precedent that opened up opportunities for others. But sometimes women don’t wait for permission to cross gender boundaries. A story is given from the 14th century history called Knighton’s Chronicle of a group of women dressing as men to take part in tournaments in Berwick on the Scottish border in 1348.
Tournaments served many purposes: as pageantry, as an opportunity to gather the nobility together for state business, as well as a chance to evaluate the equipment and battle-readiness of the king’s vassals. It also had a touch of the purpose that is more prominent in chivalric literature: as a grand sporting event where there were prizes and fame to be won. The tournaments being held in this time and place were a mixture of those purposes. In the chronicle, the event is titled “A Tale of Women at Tournaments.” The original text is in Latin and this is a modern translation.
“In those days a rumour arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom's better sort. They were dressed in parti-coloured tunics, of one colour on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes wound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumour ran. And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.”
It isn’t clear from the description that the ladies put on armor and participated in the combats themselves, as opposed to simply showing up and parading around. But just imagine the ladies riding on their chargers, with bright garments, swaggering around with daggers at their belts! The chronicler claims that God displayed his displeasure at their antics by sending a thunderstorm, but we’re talking about the British Isles here, so rain isn’t exactly unexpected.
A Tournament of women
In literature, women might participate in knightly tournaments with--if not approval--at least somewhat more admiration and tolerance. A 13th century German story opens in a community where the men have all gone off to negotiate a peace treaty with an invading force, and in their absence, the women decide to hold a tournament. They take on the clothing, armor, and heraldry of their absent men-folk as a means of doing them honor. Some of the women dissent, arguing that they should stick to feminine forms of honor, but those in favor of the challenge hold the day and many valiant deeds of arms are performed.
When the men return, they praise the women for this event, though evidently they get teased for it by men in other regions. One impoverished young woman who participated had no male relatives to honor. So she competed using the name of a famous knight. When he learns of this and comes to investigate the story, he’s so impressed by her that he gives her money for her dowry. (Note how this diverges from fairy-tale expectations--he doesn’t outright marry the girl, but rather he gives her the means to establish her own future.
The women’s adoption of armor and chivalric activities in this story is temporary and overt, with no intent to pass as men. And it is for the specific purpose of engaging in a masculine activity (that is, jousting). One might see it as a limited form of dressing for the job. These limitations may have muted the transgressive power of the activity, allowing the men to see it as praiseworthy rather than threatening.
Yde and Olive
The medieval French romance of Yde and Olive is probably my favorite story of the genre. The central motifs trace back to the classical Greek story of Iphis and Ianthe, as told by Ovid, but the details and the framing story belong solidly to medieval chivalric romance. The story exists in several variants that differ in how the plot is resolved at the end, but since the resolution is kind of disappointing for someone looking for a proto-lesbian love story, I’ll gloss over that part for now.
Like many other medieval romances, the tale of Yde and Olive is part of a long, epic genealogical tale that tells of many generations of heroes and kings. But the part we need to know is that Yde’s mother, who was the most beautiful woman in the world, died at her birth. Yde grows to so resemble her mother that her father develops an incestuous desire for her and to escape him, she runs away and disguises herself as a man.
And, in taking on the disguise, Yde acquires the abilities and mannerisms of a young nobleman. In various adventures, Yde gains a reputation as a valiant knight. She is the sole survivor of a company of the German army in battle with Spanish troops. She successfully defends herself against a band of robbers, assaulting them with coarse language that is in direct contrast with the text continuing to identify her as a beautiful damsel. And when she arrives at Rome to find the King of Rome under siege, she defeats his enemies, resulting in being offered the hand of his daughter Olive in marriage.
Yde offers some protest, largely centered on her own apparent lower social status (although remember that she’s actually a king’s daughter herself), but eventually she capitulates with only a lingering anxiety about how she will successfully perform as a husband. Olive is at first persuaded to wait to consummate the marriage, but eventually Yde confesses her true sex. Olive is willing to go along with the masquerade with various degrees of acceptance or enthusiasm depending on the version of the story you’re reading. I’ll leave the two of them suspended at this point in the story, with the valiant knight Yde being rewarded with the hand of the princess who loves her...because the stories go in various peculiar directions after that. Some day I’ll come back and do an entire episode about Yde and Olive.
Given the context and motivations of Yde's cross-dressing, and the prowess she brings to male-coded activities, it is clear that the presumed relationship between sex and gender is decoupled for most of the story. Unlike in Ovid’s story of Iphis or the story of Silence, which I’ll get to in a moment, Yde is not raised in a male role. It isn't until she is of marriageable age and the specter of incest emerges that this behavioral transformation occurs. Before that, Yde is described in conventional terms for female beauty, but with an emphasis on aspects of her youth (for example, slim hips and barely-developed breasts) that will help enable her male disguise.
One interesting feature of the conventions of medieval romance that adds a twist to stories like this is that the physical ideal of the noble (male) hero is framed in fairly androgynous terms. The ideal heroic knight is young, fair-faced, beardless, tall, slender, and well-shaped in the limbs. Thus, although characters like Yde are given masculine prowess and bravery when they put on armor, there is no need for them to change their physical appearance to be consistent with the ideal knight.
After Yde changes clothing, now her entire psychology, behavior, and abilities shift toward the masculine. Clothing makes her a man. She also follows the standard masculine quest motif: exile from the land of her birth, apprenticeship in martial accomplishments, a rise to prominence, and success in courtship. Yde is automatically brave and skilled in battle--perhaps due to her noble (rather than male) birth--but simultaneously she performs some female-coded behaviors such as mercy (but again, perhaps these acts are coded as noble rather than female). Given the structure of the story, it cannot escape attributing to Yde physical prowess, but this is balanced by continually reminding the reader of her underlying sex by means of feminine reference (calling her demoiselle, pucelle, and other grammatically female descriptions).
This literary depiction perhaps glosses over the physical difficulties of someone raised as a woman who takes up masculine physical activities. But we can compare this with the real-life biographies of women in the early modern period who passed as men in physically demanding roles and were not considered suspect based on their ability to perform them.
The Romance of Silence
In contrast, the romance of Silence--that’s her name, “Silence”--depicts a character identified as female at birth but raised in a masculine social role of a count’s son, skilled in arms and the courtly arts of a knight. But rather than taking for granted a woman’s ability to perform these things simply by virtue of putting on the right uniform for it, one of the major themes of this story is the competing forces of nature and nurture in shaping a person. This is, in fact, played out by personifying Nature and Nurture as speaking characters in the story who show up and hold debates in Silence’s presence at crucial points in the narrative.
Here we have Nature taking delight at Silence’s birth in how she has created the most beautiful girl that ever lived.
Then Nature says, "I would be sorry if anything were lacking." Then with her thumb she forms the space between the two eyes beautifully, and quickly makes the whole face, and traces a well-turned visage and colors it most beautifully. Nature says, "This will be my girl!" The more she applies color to the face, the more the girl's beauty will be enhanced, and the color on her cheeks deepened. She designs the mouth, makes the opening small, and forms the lips to match, places the teeth well and forms the chin--you will never see a more beautiful face. And then she makes a long white neck, and forms the curve of the shoulders along with it. And she makes the arms very straight, the hands small, the fingers long, the bosom well-turned, slender sides; neither serf nor freeman ever saw better. And she makes the hips rounded, the thighs soft and shapely. Nature makes the legs straight, and feet and toes in proportion. Why should I go on like this? You'll probably think it's all a dream. But never, in truth lived a more beautiful creature in this world, nor was anything more lovely ever born.
But the king has passed a decree saying that women aren’t allowed to inherit, so Silence’s parents conceal her sex and raise her as a son. Nature isn’t very happy about this and lets the reader know it.
When Nature realized that they had tricked and deceived her by turning her work into the opposite of what she had turned out, you can imagine how disturbed she was and how much she wanted revenge upon them for changing her daughter into a son, and how much she despised their plan. Oh yes! You can be sure of that right now! "They have insulted me," said Nature, "by acting as if the work of Nurture were superior to mine! By God, by God! We'll see about that!”
But Silence is taken off and raised in isolation, given the schooling necessary for her future. The original text plays with gender regularly in the references, sometimes calling Silence “she” sometimes “he” depending on context. And as the original text is in French, there are other linguistic markers of gender that are brought into play. It should also be noted that the ways in which this medieval text tackles the issue of gender identity is rather different than what’s considered polite in modern society, where phrases like “the he’s a she beneath the clothes” could be considered offensive. But note also that although Silence spends much of the story choosing to move through the world as a man, in the end she chooses to return to living as a woman.
When the child was old enough to understand he was a girl, his father sat down to reason with him and explain the circumstances which had led them to conceal his identity this way. "If, dear son, King Evan knew what we are doing with you, your share of our earthly possessions would be very small indeed. For the king, dear son, disinherited all the women of England on account of the death of two counts in a battle they fought over twin heiresses they had married. Dear sweet precious son, we are not doing this for ourselves, but for you. Now, son, you know the whole situation. As you cherish honor, you will continue to conceal yourself from everyone." And he replied very sweetly, briefly, as befits a well-bred child, "Don't worry the least little bit. So help me God, I will do it. I will conceal myself from everyone."
In order to build up his endurance and teach him to ride, the seneschal took him through woods and streams, which were plentiful in the countryside. He took him out often in the scorching heat, in order to make a man of him. He was so used to men's usage and had so rejected women's ways that little was lacking for him to be a man. Whatever one could see was certainly male! But there's more to this than meets the eye--the he's a she beneath the clothes. ... And by the time he was in his twelfth year, none was his master any more. When they practiced wrestling, jousting or skirmishing, he alone made all his peers tremble.
So here, in contrast to Yde, we see the belief that masculine virtues and abilities are something that must be taught, but yet that a female body is still able to excel at. Silence’s adventures begin when she has the encounter in the woods with Nature and Nurture resulting in something of a crisis of identity. Nature berates her for abandoning all the gifts of beauty and grace she had been given and urges her to return to life as a woman. Nurture plays up the consequences of the misogynistic world Silence has been born into arguing to go on living as a man. And now the personification of Reason comes along with the persuasive argument.
“Believe what I say, friend Silence, and forbear! Fortify your heart, for if Nature, who is now pressing you so hard, takes it from you, believe me, you will never train for knighthood afterwards. You will lose your horse and chariot. Do not think the king will go back on his word and acknowledge you as rightful heir, when he finds out your true nature. Reason stayed with him for so long and admonished him so severely that Silence understood very well he had listened to bad advice ever to think of doing away with his good old ways to take up female habits. Then he began to consider the pastimes of a woman's chamber--which he had often heard about--and weighed in his heart of hearts all female customs against his current way of life, and saw, in short, that a man's life was much better than that of a woman. "Indeed," he said, "it would be too bad to step down when I'm on top. If I'm on top, why should I step down? Now I am honored and valiant. No I'm not, upon my word-I'm a disgrace if I want to be one of the women. I was trying to make life easy for myself, but I have a mouth too hard for kisses, and arms too rough for embraces. One could easily make a fool of me in any game played under the covers, for I'm a young man, not a girl. I don't want to lose my high position; I don't want to exchange it for a lesser, and I don't want to prove my father a liar. I would rather have God strike me dead! Whatever Nature may do, I will never betray the secret!"
These thoughts may undermine our sympathies for Silence a trifle, since she seems to have bought into the idea that women live a lesser life and are less perfect beings. But although modern retellings of female knights aren’t always so blatant about it, there’s often a strong streak of “not like the other girls” to the martial heroines. We haven’t entirely risen above the idea that women’s lives in history are simply less interesting and less virtuous than masculine lives, and therefore that historical lesbian fiction requires at least one woman to play a masculine role to make the story worth telling.
In any event, having decided to keep to her masculine role, Silence goes out into the world to have adventures. She becomes both a minstrel and a knight, fights valiantly for the king of France, then arrives in the royal court of England--before the king whose proclamation about women inheriting started this whole thing--and wins great fame there as well. Her plans only start to fall apart when the queen falls in lust with her and makes sexual advances. They kiss: the queen passionately and Silence trying to maintain a chaste response. The reason Silence gives for rejecting the advances is that it would be treachery against the king, though it is also noted that Silence wasn’t interested in responding due to her “nature”. That is, her erotic responses are heterosexual regardless of her outward appearance. The rest of the story goes into some unfortunate tropes about the spurned queen wanting revenge. Unlike the story of Yde and Olive, there is no self-aware same-sex desire here, only something that comes uncomfortably close to transgender panic. Another topic that might be worth examining on its own in a future show.
Somewhere between the depictions of women putting on armor as women and women in male disguise are the various Amazon characters in medieval and Renaissance chivalric literature. The role of the Amazon is a woman whose nature is to take up arms and participate in battle, not in male disguise, but fulfilling a role that those around her often assume to be exclusively male. Because of this assumption, it’s a regular motif for a woman to fall in love with an Amazon believing her to be a man. What makes the story more interesting is those times in which the romantic desire survives knowledge of the Amazon’s sex. Given the conventions of the literature, we are assured that this desire is vain and futile in the end.
In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso we find the story of the Amazon Bradamant (and her convenient twin brother Ricciardetto). Ricciardetto is accosted and mistaken for his sister for, as he notes, “we two are so alike (for we were born on the same day) that who is which, our parents cannot say.” This resemblance is enhanced by Bradamant having had her hair cut short as part of treatment for a head wound. The man who accosted Ricciardetto asks him to expand on this.
And thus he did: "My sister, not long since,
Was riding through these woods, unhelmeted:
And, overtaken by some Saracens,
By one of them was wounded in the head.
A passing hermit, using his good sense,
Observing how extensively she bled,
Cut off her golden hair; then on she rode,
Close-cropped as any man, about the wood.
"Thus wandering, she reached a shady fount.
Her wound had weakened her, so she drew rein,
And when she had descended from her mount
She pulled her helmet off and on the green
Young grass soon fell asleep. I'll now recount
The most delightful tale that's ever been:
Out hunting with her friends that very day,
Fair Fiordispina chanced to pass that way.
"She saw my sister as she rested there,
In armour fully clad, save for her face;
A sword was at her side, where women wear
A distaff; as she views the manly grace
Of one she takes to be a cavalier,
Her heart is vanquished, and to join the chase
She first invites her, then contrives ere long
To separate her from the merry throng.
"My sister understood the maid believed
She was a man, and it was evident
Such burning love could never be relieved
By her. 'Better' (so ran her argument)
'This damsel should at once be undeceived
Than she should think me so indifferent.
Better a woman I should prove, and kind,
Than seem a man for love so disinclined.'
Now if Bradamant had returned her love, the story might have taken an entirely different direction. But not feeling the same emotion in return, she figures it’s better to straighten things out promptly.
“Alone with her, where no one could surprise
Them in that leafy, solitary nook,
Her anguished soul reflected in her eyes,
The damsel then began to show with look
And words and gestures and with ardent sighs
Her passion for my sister, whom she took
To be a man; she pales, then, blushing red,
She steals a kiss, so greatly she's misled.
"And this was right, for base it were and weak,
And worthy of a statue, not a man,
When such a lovely maid her love should speak,
So sweet and melting in her languid pain,
To sit inertly by, as mild and meek
As a young owl by day; so she began
To tell the maid she was a woman, not
A manly cavalier as she had thought;
This revelation does not have the desired effect. As the poem notes, “no spark of love is quenched.” And Fiordespina reflects,
"That face on this account is no less fair;
That glance, that grace of manner are the same.
The damsel's heart does not return from where
It sunned itself in the beloved beam
Of those entrancing eyes; seeing her wear
That manly armour which has earned such fame,
Her longing may be yet fulfilled, she thinks,
Then sighs and into deepest sorrow sinks.
Fiordespina, then does what any sensible lovelorn maiden would do: she promptly invites the object of her desire to her house, gives her fresh clothes to wear, and takes her to her bed. Well, maybe that’s not the sensible thing to do after all.
"They lay together in the selfsame bed,
But not the same repose; for while one sleeps,
The other groans and, still uncomforted,
With longing is on fire, the more she weeps;
And if she slumbers, by her dreams she's led
To Fancy's realm, where promises Love keeps,
Where Fate's decrees fond lovers do not vex,
And where her Bradamante has changed sex.
"As when a sick man with a raging thirst,
If he should fall asleep, will toss and turn
And, with his lips as fevered as at first,
Will dream of drinking deep at beck or burn,
So in her dreams, when grief has done its worst,
Her longings gain the boon for which they yearn;
But on awaking, with her hand she gropes,
And finds once more that vain are all her hopes.
"The day arrived when more reluctant yet
Fair Fiordispina from her couch arose,
For Bradamante said, with feigned regret,
She must depart (from this impasse she knows
There is no other exit than retreat).
The damsel offers her before she goes
A Spanish horse, with trappings all of gold,
A surcoat also, broidered gay and bold.
The motif of an Amazon inspiring a woman’s desire that outlasts the revelation of her sex also appears in Spencer’s Faerie Queen, regarding the Amazon Britomart and the lady Amoret. Now, Britomart in theory has a boyfriend, Artegal, and she is the embodiment of honor and chastity. On the tournament field, everyone takes her for a male knight. Her chivalry and prowess is unparalleled. But after the tournament when it’s time to take off armor...
And eke that straunger knight emongst the rest;
Was for like need enforst to disaray:
Tho whenas vailed was her loftie crest,
Her golden locks, that were in tramels gay
Vpbounden, did them selues adowne display,
And reached vnto her heeles; like sunny beames,
That in a cloud their light did long time stay,
Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleames,
And through the persant aire shoote forth their azure streames.
She also dofte her heauy haberieon,
Which the faire feature of her limbs did hyde,
And her well plighted frock, which she did won
To tucke about her short, when she did ryde,
She low let fall, that flowd from her lanck syde
Downe to her foot, with carelesse modestee.
Then of them all she plainly was espyde,
To be a woman wight, vnwist to bee,
The fairest woman wight, that euer eye did see.
Many many verses later, Britomart--her identity concealed--finds herself in the position of jousting for the honor and liberty of the lady Amoret. It’s one of these rather anti-feminist situations where the victor gets the lady and the most the lady can hope for is the least awful result. But fortunately for her, Britomart is victorious!
With that her glistring helmet she vnlaced;
Which doft, her golden lockes, that were vp bound
Still in a knot, vnto her heeles downe traced,
And like a silken veile in compasse round
About her backe and all her bodie wound;
Like as the shining skie in summers night,
What time the dayes with scorching heat abound,
Is creasted all with lines of firie light,
That it prodigious seemes in common peoples sight.
Such when those Knights and Ladies all about
Beheld her, all were with amazement smit,
And euery one gan grow in secret dout
Of this and that, according to each wit:
Some thought that some enchantment faygned it;
Some, that Bellona in that warlike wise
To them appear'd, with shield and armour fit;
Some, that it was a maske of strange disguise:
So diuersely each one did sundrie doubts deuise.
But that young Knight, which through her gentle deed
Was to that goodly fellowship restor'd,
Ten thousand thankes did yeeld her for her meed,
And doubly ouercommen, her ador'd:
So did they all their former strife accord;
And eke fayre Amoret now freed from feare,
More franke affection did to her afford,
And to her bed, which she was wont forbeare,
Now freely drew, and found right safe assurance theare.
Where all that night they of their loues did treat,
And hard aduentures twixt themselues alone,
That each the other gan with passion great,
And griefull pittie priuately bemone.
The morow next so soone as Titan shone,
They both vprose, and to their waies them dight:
Long wandred they, yet neuer met with none,
That to their willes could them direct aright,
Or to them tydings tell, that mote their harts delight.
Once again, we get a rather ambiguously erotic scene in which the damsel shares her bed with her adored Amazon warrior. The text plays with the relative transgressions of Amoret flirting with a strange man versus flirting with a woman. The “frank affections” and the passions they bemoan with each other are passed off as platonic and the shared sympathy of two women who are, in theory, both trying to find their missing boyfriends.
Amadis of Gaule
One feature of these Amazon tales is that there is no condemnation for the women who fall in love with them. It is considered right and proper that chivalric prowess should earn the reward of love. This is addressed directly in a similar incident in the French romance of Amadis of Gaule and its later Spanish elaborations. Here the cross-dressing female knight assures the lady who loves her that she wishes she could properly return that love and that the lady is clearly worthy of being so loved. It was only the limitations of the medieval imagination that settled for their mutual declarations being framed as platonic. But we, as authors, are not so limited. And in these true--and literary--stories of female knights, we can find inspiration for imagining a different ending to the tale.
One of the members of the Queer Sci Fi facebook group had a clever idea of trying to match up group members who wrote similar type of fiction for cross-promotion, on the premise that our readerships might enjoy each others’ work. I wasn’t so sure about the process because I have rather marginal interests relative to the group as a whole (which is somewhat dominated by people writing m/m, sci-fi, and works with an erotic focus). But I ended up matched with the delightful Elin Gregory whose work would be an absolutely perfect mirror for mine except that she focuses on male characters.
Elin is a museum curator in Cardiff, Wales (you can hear my heart going pitty-pat, can’t you?) and writes historical fiction set across the scope of European history, but including some works focusing on Wales. She blogs at elingregory.wordpress.com which also has information on her publications.
The site includes two free stories and a free excerpt from one of her novels, which I’ll be reviewing briefly below. Her novels include:
The two complete free stories are both very short and more in the way of character studies. Elin’s prose style and descriptions are exquisite and she has a solid sense of place and time. The excerpts of her work that I’ve read include sensual and homoerotic elements but no explicit sex.
“The Wanderer”, inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same title, is an evocative and haunting description of a man seeking his past. Has he found it? Or is the thing he seeks lost beyond recall?
“Frost on the Thorn” is an unexpected seasonal tale set in Roman Gaul where Quintus, on the verge of taking up a post in far Britannia, hears a tale of a wondrous thorn tree from the British slave he acquired to teach him the language.
If you enjoy the sort of historic fiction I write, and like reading about male protagonists just as much as female ones, I think you’d enjoy Elin Gregory’s work.