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Saturday, December 23, 2017 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17d - Death did not them Depart - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/1/23 - listen here)

One of the themes that traces the lives of women who love women through history is the representation of their relationships as being equivalent to heterosexual marriage. For the most part we look for that evidence in their lives: in living arrangements, in the way their contemporaries referred to them, in the ceremonies they use to celebrate their partnership, in how they addressed and referred to each other. But another place to find the symbolism of marriage for female couples is in death.

Beliefs about the afterlife in many religions led to the symbolism of joint of family burials and memorials, representing the hope that those close ties would be replicated after death. Marriage in particular was represented by a formal vocabulary of symbolism in joint grave memorials, both by images of the deceased shown joined in some way, and by the organization and content of the text describing them.

When that same symbolic vocabulary is used to commemorate a same-sex pair, there is often backpedaling by the archaeologists and historians who describe the memorial to explain away the implied relationship. And it is true that the symbolism of marriage was often adopted to talk about intense platonic friendship--both in life and in death. But even if one accepts that the symbolism of marriage is just that--symbolism--it is still meaningful that it is applied. And it is even more significant, perhaps, that grave memorials, by their nature, represent the complicity of the surviving relatives or friends of the dead in creating that symbolism in physical form--often at significant trouble and expense. Therefore, joint same-sex memorials can be read as reflecting the knowledge, acceptance, and even celebration of same-sex relationships by others in a way that the recorded actions of the couple themselves do not.

As is often the case in the historic record, it is far more common to find examples of male same-sex grave memorials. Alan Bray’s detailed study The Friend was inspired by a study of joint grave memorials for male friends and he comments on the scarcity of female examples.

There are several reasons for this. Foremost is the greater social prominence given to men’s friendships. Society praised male bonds even when the men involved had wives and children, while women’s friendships were typically considered to be secondary to family bonds. Phenomena like the Romantic Friendship movement of the 19th century were notable specifically because they gave women a context for treating their friendships with women as primary in their lives.

But this means that when a married woman was memorialized, the default assumption was that it would be her husband and children who took pride of place in the commemoration of her life. This was also an expectation for men, but it was more acceptable for a man’s intense friendship to be memorialized even over family ties.

A second factor affecting the creation of enduring grave memorials is the typical economic disparity between men and women. An unmarried man who left instructions to commemorate a same-sex friendship at his death was also more likely to be able to leave sufficient funds to see that the memorial was created in a lasting form than a woman in a similar position would be.

And yet, as we’ll see in this brief tour of women’s same-sex joint memorials, all of those factors could be superceded to leave us a record of the special place women held in each others’ lives. I’ve arranged this chronologically but there are large gaps in time, and my sources are exclusively English in the post-classical period.

Athens, 4th c. BCE

The difficulties of interpreting memorial symbolism are discussed at great length by John G. Younger in his study of women’s grave memorials in a cemetary of the 4th century BC near Athens, Greece. After reviewing the arrangement and identification of female scuptural figures in the memorials, including the symbolic meaning of posture, dress, gestures, and accessories, Younger identifies several monuments that he believes commemorate the close personal realtionships between non-related women.

Three of the memorials are similar enough in style and arrangement that they may be from the same workshop and be a formalized representation of a female couple. In each, there is a woman standing on the left, with her left hand raised in a gesture indicating speech. The woman on the right is seated in a chair, and the whole is framed by a simple stylized house. An inscription names them: Hedeia daughter of Lysikles and Phanylla daughter of Aristoleides. Demetria and Pamphile. Kallistomakhe daughter of Diokles and Nausion daughter of Sosandros.

In another memorial statue, two young women embrace and one touches the chin of the other -- a gesture that later would become specifically associated with romantic interest, though it isn’t clear that it had that meaning at this early date.

Two grave reliefs from Thessaly in the 5th century BC use different suggestive symbolism. Both show two women facing each other. In one, a woman lefts up the left shoulder of her dress and holds out a ball of wool as the other woman reaches to receive it. The offering of gifts typically indicates a romantic scene when the participants are of opposite sexes. The second uses the more specific symbolism of flowers being offered as a gift, using a very stylized gesture with one hand raised and the other lowered. This “hands up and down gesture” is most commonly seen in Classical Greek art in scenes of male homoerotic courtship--a genre that is much more common and well studied. This parallel example between two women strongly suggests a similar interpretation.

Roman 1st century BCE

The symbolism in a Roman marble grave relief from the 1st century BC is even less ambiguous. The carving shows two women from the waist up, facing each other, and holding their right hands clasped together prominently. The inscription identifies them as Eleusis and Helena, both freedwomen formerly belonging to a woman named Fonteia. Here is is not simply their inclusion on the same memorial stone that suggests an even closer relationship. The act of joining right hands was a standard symbol in Roman art for a marriage relationship, taken from the act of joining right hands during the marriage ceremony. The gesture even had its own name: dextrarum iunctio. It is unmistakable that whoever designed this sculpture intended to portray the two women in a marriage-like relationship, perhaps even as a married couple. There are a few tantalizing references in Roman literature to marriages between women, although often in a context where it’s deprecated as a strange foreign practice in places like Egypt.

England 15th century

We jump now to England in the 15th century. One reason for the detailed information about this memorial is due to a change in materials. The fashion for marking graves with engraved brass plates, rather than carved stones, meant that the details of the inscription and artwork were far less likely to be worn away by the passage of years and feet--for many gravestones were set into the floor of the church. And when there is a strong motivation to look for alternate interpretations of a same-sex memorial, it helps to have the physical details be unambiguous.

In the parish church of Etchingham in East Sussex, there is a memorial brass that jointly commemorates two never-married women. One was Elizabeth Etchingham who died in 1452, most likely when in her mid-20s although the genealogical evidence is not certain. The church in question belonged to the Etchingham family so it’s unsurprising that this is where Elizabeth was buried. She was surrounded there by the graves of other family members.

But the other half of the brass plate commemorates the death of Agnes Oxenbridge who died almost 30 years later in her 50s. The Oxenbridge family lived nearby, perhaps 12 miles distant, but they had their own family church and even if we assume Agnes died in Etchingham, there is no reason why her body couldn’t have been taken the short distance to rest with her family. The joint burial and commemoration was deliberate. It was almost certainly done by Agnes’s express wish, but it was also only possible because of the cooperation and efforts of both families.

The layout of the design on the brass follows a format that is most often seen for a married couple, although sometimes also found for unmarried siblings. The two women stand facing each other with a block of text beneath them, divided into two portions by a vertical line in the middle. Elizabeth stands in the more important position on the left, perhaps because the memorial is in her family’s church and because her family was of higher social status. She is pictured smaller than Agnes, a typical way of indicating the difference in ages at death.  The two hold their hands before them clasped in prayer and Elizabeth looks slightly upward while Agnes’s gaze is directed slightly downward so that they appear to be looking at each other. Both women have uncovered heads--a certain sign that they were unmarried. But while Elizabeth’s hair flows unbound down to her hips, signifying her youth, Agnes’s hair is pinned up in a style more suitable for a mature woman.

The inscription is, of course, in Latin. The text under Elizabeth reads: “Here lies Elizabeth Etchingham, first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, who died the third day of December, in the year of our lord 1452.” The text under Agnes reads: “Here lies Agnes Oxenbridge, daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, who died the fourth day of August, in the year of our lord1480, may God be merciful to their souls, amen.”

That seems little enough evidence on the face of it from which to hang an interpretation that the two women enjoyed a close relationship. But the overall artistic symbolism is inescapably that used for a married couple. When this is combined with the simple fact of the joint memorial in a context where that would not otherwise be expected, it’s clear that there was some close and very enduring bond that the two women shared--and one that their families supported and commemorated.

Knowedge of the typical lives of young women of the English gentry in this era can suggest a possible story. If the estimation of Elizabeth’s age at death is correctly placed in her 20s, they would have been very close in age. At that time women of their class would normally leave their families in early adolescence to live in a different household where they would learn the adult skills of running a household. They would establish and expand social networks that would serve their families in later life, and not uncommonly they would be introduced to the young men that were their most likely marriage prospects. The friendships established among these cohorts of young women and men frequently lasted throughout their lives and shaped their prospects.

Most typically, a young woman would then move on to marriage, either directly from her service or after returning to her family for a while. If she didn’t marry, she would usually remain living with parents or siblings, contributing her labor to the maintenance of the extended household. Unlike some other medieval cultures, the convent was generally not the expected fate for unmarried women of the upper class.

So we can easily imagine Elizabeth and Agnes meeting while both were placed out in the same household and forming a friendship of such depth and intensity that it was still the primary bond Agnes wanted to commemorate 30 years after death had parted them. Was that bond relevant to their unmarried state? There are any number of reasons a woman might not marry at that time, although only one in ten remained unmarried for the entirety of her life. But lack of opportunity wasn’t the only possibility. In one document giving the financial provisions for the daughters of a family at this time, there is an acknowledgement that a woman might “not be disposed to marry.” And so at least in the case of Agnes, we are allowed to imagine that she considered marriage to a man a less desirable alternative to remaining true to Elizabeth’s memory.

England 15th century

While the Etchinghams and Oxenbridges had the money for family churches and brass plaques, we can trace the desires of less well-off women to be buried together by the directions given in their wills. In 15th century London, a woman named Joan Isham who identified herself as a singlewoman--that is, someone never married--specified in her will that she be buried next to the grave of Margery Nicoll. From their names, we know they aren’t immediate family, but nothing else can be guessed about their possible relationship except that it was one that inspired Joan to spend eternity at Margery’s side.

A Crowded Grave in 1600

Bonds of passionate friendship between women might be commemorated in their grave inscriptions even when a man came between them. Mary Barber of Suffolk, England died on September 6, 1600, followed in death six years later by her beloved friend, the widow Ann Chitting, and closely thereafter by Mary’s husband Roger. It was Ann Chitting’s son Henry who arranged for their burial -- a joint arrangement of the three of them, with Mary lying between the bodies of her close friend and her husband.

The inscription that Henry commissioned declared that the two women “whose souls in heaven embrace” had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights” and so he chose to unite those two “whose bodies death would sever.”

In this case, it is clear that--however intense the relationship between the two women--both had nonetheless married. And yet that relationship was recognized as being so close that it was only right to unite them in death, and still so socially acceptable that their surviving family had no hesitation in doing so publicly.

England 18th century

Two graves among the many funeral monuments in Westminster Abbey in London commemorate pairs of unmarried women who shared a household and whose relationships were framed in terms of intense friendship that--while perhaps unusually prominent in their commemoration--fell well within what was not only accepable but expected for women of the 18th century.

The monument of Mary Kendall was commissioned by her cousin, Captain Charles Kendall, and is typically florid in its description of the deceased, shifting towards the end to celebrating the “close union and friendship in which she lived with the Lady Catharine Jones” that inspired her to request that she be buried next to the future gravesite of Lady Catharine so that they would never be separated. The full inscription reads:

 “This Monument was Erected by Capt. Charles Kendall
Mrs Mary Kendall
Daughter of Thomas Kendall Esq’r,
And of Mrs Mary Hallet, his Wife,
Of Killigarth, in Cornwall,
Was born at Westm’r Nov. 8 1677.
And dy’d at Epsome, March 4, 1709/10.
Having reach’d the full Term
Of her blessed Saviours Life:
And study’d to imitate
His spotless Example.
She had great Virtues,
And as great a desire of Concealing them:
Was of a Severe Life,
But of an Easy Conversation;
Courteous to All, yet strictly Sincere;
Humble without Meanness;
Beneficent, without Ostentation;
Devout, without Superstition.
These admirable Qualitys,
In which She was eqall’d by Few of her Sex,
Surpass’d by None.
Render’d Her every way worthy
Of that close Union & Friendship,
In which She liv’d, with
And, in testimony of which, She desir’d,
That even their Ashes, after Death,
Might not be divided:
And therefore, order’d her Selfe
Here to be interr’d,
Where, She knew, that Excellent Lady
Design’d one day, to rest,
Near the Grave of her Belov’d And Religious Mother,
Elizabeth Countess of Ranelagh.”

The said Catharine Jones was, indeed, buried there 30 years later. The immediate region of the chapel where these burials took place was something of a family mausoleum for the Earl of Ranelagh, with multiple members of the family buried there. The erection of the memorial by Mary Kendall’s brother and the location in an area in some sense “belonging” to Ranelagh, indicate that the “close union and friendship” between these two women was not merely recognized by their families but was considered to represent a bond between the two families. There is no indication in either woman’s memorial or in family records that either of them ever married.

Also in Westminster Abbey is the tomb of Katharina Bovey who died in 1727 and whose laudatory memorial inscription concludes with the following words:

“This monument was erected With the utmost respect to her Memory and Justice to her Character, By her executrix Mrs Mary Pope Who lived with her near 40 years in perfect Friendship Never once interrupted Till her much lamented Death.”

Some scholars have connected Katharina Bovey to a fictional character appearing in the July 10, 1711 issue of the periodical The Spectator under the description “the Perverse widow”. This widow is beautiful, accomplished, scholarly and completely uninterested in men. This same personage received the dedication of volume II of The Ladies Library. Here is how the fictional widow is described:

“You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town, to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship; she is always accompanied by a Confident, who is witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a Barr to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.”

If one removes the misogyny and male expectations of access from this description, we have a woman who enjoys reading, has a particular close female friend who is viewed as a bar to her interest in a renewal of the married state, and who while pleasant enough to attract a train of admirers, really wishes that they would learn to take no for an answer.

The identification of this fictional character with Katharine Bovey is supported by the editors of modern editions of The Ladies Library. Bovey was widowed at age 22 in 1692, after which she lived in retirement near Gloucester, devoted to charitable and religious works, in the company of her friend Mrs Mary Pope of Twickham. Pulling all the evidence together, Bovey and Pope seem to have established an independent household together, indifferent to offers of marriage, for “nearly 40 years of perfect friendship”.

Who among us would not wish for such a glowing epitaph and the chance to live the life that inspired it?


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Thursday, December 21, 2017 - 07:00

I've attended several sessions of papers at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo that discussed the overtly sensual and erotic language included in male ecclesiastical correspondence, particularly of the medieval period. When discussing male clergy of, for example, 12-14th century France, one can triangulate on the relationship between texts that strike the modern ear as decidedly homoerotic and larger social discussions and concerns regarding sexual relations between men either in monasteries or among the clergy. Robert Mill's Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages discusses that larger context for men. But differences in how people viewed women's sexuality, in the greater opprobrium for male homosexuality, and in the political consequences of having "favorites" based on a sexual relationship, mean that there isn't the same larger context of discussion for understanding women's homoerotic correspondence. (Not that there was no larger context, but it isn't as extensively documented.) This can make it more difficult to examine letters like the one discussed in this article with an eye to determining whether they did express--or would have been considered to have expressed--a relationship that had romantic and erotic components, as opposed to using the language of romance simply as a form of literary expression.

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Full citation: 

Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community”

Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.

The convent in question was founded by Saint Radegund in 522 and was a novel type at that time, bringing together women from various families rather than being an establishment associated with a specific family. While secular noblewomen were defined by family and their lives used in service to their dynastic affiliations, monastic women were (incompletely) shifted from secular to monastic family, though secular ties could disrupt that ideal.

The reading and writing of texts was an essential component of engaging in that community, many of which texts directly address the definition and negotiation of virginity as a status. Literacy was an essential focus at the monastery of the Holy Cross--a required skill.  The institution became famous for its participation in literary culture of the time. Much of this celebrates a culture of female friendship parallel to that better documented among male ecclesiastics of the era. This literature of male monastic friendship could express excessive poetic sensuality because it was given license by the overt elevated purity of the context. Similarly, writing about the convent community celebrated the mutual affection and bonds of the nuns. The letter considered here represents a performance of female desire expressed through the medium of friendship and so allowed that emotional excess.

The writer positions herself as younger and subordinate, able to express desire and a wish to emulate the addressee only because the addressee herself has requested it. This permission makes the expression possible, rather than being presumptuous due to the difference in status. This negotiates the acceptability of the expression of desire, a return of attention once the writer knows she herself has been noticed.

The article discusses the literature of how women learn to be virgins, including the caution that the Biblical claim that religious virgins “become like men” should not be taken literally as license for cutting hair short, cross-dressing, or behaviors with a masculine engagement with the world. (Note, however, that this explicit admonishment suggests that some women did take the Biblical passage as license for cross-gender presentation.) Monastic women are enjoined to love each other in close community to better direct their souls to God. There is a regular theme that they are expected to form close familial-like bonds, sometimes cloaked in the language of mother-daughter or sisterhood, and that such pairs might share a cell and bed. But at the same time, they are admonished that “unchastity of the eyes” (mutual glances) leads to unchastity of the flesh. And nuns are expected to police each other’s behavior as well as their own. These concerns are then applied to “special friendships”, see e.g., the Rule of Donatus against walking hand in hand or using endearments.

Correspondence would seem to evade concerns about physical interaction and gaze, but text itself is gazed on and written endearments may stand for caresses. The letter in question does not include such endearments and shifts from the personal (I) to collective (we) in its praise of the recipient. It offers praise in Old Testament imagery, using a metaphor of virgins receiving the Word into their wombs and bearing salvation. The letter uses recurring images of this metaphor. The writer protests her unworthiness to address the recipient as “sister”, using instead Lady (domina). Thus an otherwise suspect close relationship is re-framed in a distancing way (via differences of age or authority) while retaining an emotional closeness.

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Tuesday, December 19, 2017 - 13:38

It’s funny how some stories just demand to be written while others are content to noodle around in the back of your brain for a while. I actually have a handful of in-process short fiction at the moment that is waiting for me to decide that a specific story really needs to get finished. But “The Language of Roses” wasn’t quite as patient. It’s also a different length than I’ve ever written before, though goodness knows, when I’m not paying attention to length, any of my short stories has the potential to turn into a novella! We’ll see what my beta readers think about the length—whether it’s about right or a bit bloated.

Oh, and it’s finished enough to go out to the beta readers! I haven’t emailed around to ask who wants to read this one yet because the pre-holiday schedule has left me as dizzy as usual. But I’m about to have a week’s vacation, so I’ll have some breathing space (in between sessions of Settlers of Catan) to get things done.

“Roses” was inspired by several sources, but primarily by watching the live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and having the uneasy sense that someone whose initial modus operandi looks quite so similar to an emotionally abusive boyfriend is unlikely to reform quite that easily or permanently. The second primary source of inspiration was the question: what if the Beauty-character doesn’t fall in love with the beast, not because he’s a beast, but because she’s aromantic? What position does it put her in to be pressured to fall in love with someone to break a curse, when falling in love is against her deepest nature? And especially if the person doing the pressuring considers her love to be an entitlement? What if the Beauty-character agrees to pay her father’s forfeit (not knowing about the whole curse-breaking thing) simply because it saves her from the weight of social expectations? And what does a happily ever after look like for her?

As the story evolved in my head, I braided in several other fairy tale motifs to go with the additional central characters the story needed. I kept the vaguely 18th century French feel of the setting and played around a bit with the symbolic language of flowers to add more nuance than the traditional rose color symbolism. And, as I’ve blogged about before, it wasn’t until I was working on revisions that I found the voice(s) that make the prose come alive for me. We’ll see if it works for anyone else!

Don’t expect to see this story in print any time soon. Because it isn’t tied to the Alpennia series, and because novellas are a hard length to sell over the transom, I’m going to take the opportunity to try to pick up an agent for it. That’s likely to take some time, and then even more to actually sell the story if I do get an agent. But it seemed like a good opportunity to go through that exercise.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, December 18, 2017 - 07:00

I find some interesting parallels in the concept of grouping lesbians and virgins together in a category "not women" (that is, women not sexually available to men) with the practice in some circles of the publishing world of creating projects or access campaigns on a category encompassing women, non-binary, and sometimes including trans people of all identifications. The unifying factor in the publishing approach is to recognize the historic privileged access that cis men have been given to publishing opportunities and to try to include writers who have not had access to that privilege. But on a symbolic level, the structure of these projects tends to reinforce the default centrality of cis masculinity, even when carefully avoiding defining the focus as "not cis men". It can erase the individual identities gathered under the umbrella, not only by silently defining the category in terms of what it is not, but because once you've created a heterogeneous group of "non-cis-men", the inherent and inescapable binarism in our society will result in a tendency to interact with the resulting composite category as in some way female.

In a similar way, the idea of joining virgins and lesbians into a conceptual category by virtue of their shared non-participation in the heterosexual sexual economy creates (and has historically created) some illogical conclusions, as well as reinforcing the default centrality of heterosexuality. "If you aren't having sex with men (or we a particular man) you must be / might as well be a lesbian." "If you haven't had sex with a man, then you're functionally a virgin not matter what you do with women." (One runs into this within lesbian communities sometimes. I recall one joke about how, "Being a lesbian means never being sure whether you're on a date--and never being entirely sure whether you're still a virgin or not.")

Of course, in certain segments of pre-modern society, there was official sanction for removing yourself from the heterosexual economy via virginity (religious or secular), whereas there was no such official (or even recognized) way to do it via lesbianism. This combined category of "not women", while identifying contexts that provided cover for lesbian identity, potentially erases genuine preferred virginity. And at the same time, it can erase genuine preferred lesbianism by implying that sex between women is a product of removal of access to (or by) men.

These thoughts aren't really directly relevant to the article covered here, but it sparked some ruminations that have been kicking around in my head for a while.

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Full citation: 

Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Jankowski, Theordora A. 2011. “’Virgins’ and ‘Not-women’: Dissident Gender Positions”

Jankowski begins with lesbian imagery in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House [note: a 17th century work exploring family history that includes tropes of predatory lesbians in convents] and its challenge to the patriarchal sexual system. There is a consideration of the problems and consequences of naming historical periods and cultures. The convent as a site of sexual dissidence encompasses not only the imagined lesbian activity but the virgin’s removal from the mainstream sexual economy entirely. There, women are sovereign. She uses this as an introduction to the concept of nuns in different places and times and the place of virgin women in the medieval social hierarchy. That place was disrupted by protestantism which viewed virginity as unnatural and perverse. Jankowski considers the “virgin pleasures” in Lyly’s play Gallathea in which two cross-dressing virgins fall in love with each other and enjoy off-stage “pleasures” that do no result in a revelation of gender, that is, ones that by definition cannot involve genital activity. The play frames their desire as having “no cause” (i.e., no penis) but undermines this assertion by showing and approving of the love itself. In this, like nuns, they remove themselves from the category of “woman” to “not-woman” (i.e., virgin). The virgin/not-woman category aligns consistently with opportunities for female same-sex eroticism. The pre-modern “virgin” category has resonances with some feminist theories on the importance of opting out of the heterosexual social economy as the only pure response to patriarchy.

Saturday, December 16, 2017 - 09:23

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17c - Book Appreciation with T.T. Thomas

(Originally aired 2017/12/16 - listen here)

This week our author guest for this month, T.T. Thomas, talks about some books and authors she particularly enjoys. We also chat about the challenges that authors of lesbian historical fiction face in enticing readers within the lesfic community and the misconceptions many readers hae about the stories that can be told.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 14:00

The down side of deciding to blog all the articles in a collection like this is that sometimes there simply isn't anything useful to the project at all. Sorry. This is pretty much just a completist placeholder.

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Full citation: 

Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Freccero, Carla. 2011. “The Queer Time of the Lesbian Premodern”

This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 11:47

I've updated the call for short story submissions for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to include detailed information on how to submit and submission format. Remember that submissions will only be accepted during the month of January 2018. I'm looking forward to seeing what people send me!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 10:00

Last week I posted my "what have I published in 2017" list. This week is my "what else have I written" list. It's based pretty much entirely on my blog for logistical reasons. I'm writing this about the same time of year as I posted last year's version, so the survey is roughly comparable, except that in 2016 I looked at only the calendar year up to Dec 8, and this year I'm covering everything since that date. So the 2017 stats are, while more accurate for a year's work, are inflated relative to 2016. In 2016 I posted 333 separate blog entries; So far as of Dec 6 I’ve posted 245, so even with the rest of December I'm definitely achieving my New Year's Resolution to slack off a little.

This is, once again, an excercise in reminding myself how productive I've been overall, even when my fiction publications don't reflect it. I've clumped things slightly differently, but I'll give the comparables. In summary, here's what I've blogged:


  • On the writing proceess (not including promotion or minor posts): 16 (compare 41 last year)
  • Background information on Alpennia: 8 (not counted separately last year)
  • Guest/Host Blogs: 4 (if you count my columns at the Queer Sci Fi website, 4 last year)
  • Miscellaneous non-writing: 4 (17 last year)
  • "Book Release Re-Book" posts promoting books from November 2016: 29 (n/a last year)


  • Event/Convention Reports: 2 events for a total of 25 posts (4 last year, but I think I wasn't counting individual posts)
  • Historic Research (especially including the LaForge Diaries): 20 (3 last year)

Lesbian Historic Motif Project

  • Publications covered: 27, for a total of 39 posts (27 last year)
  • Podcasts: 26 (5 last year)


  • Books and Stories: 29 (23 last year)
  • Graphic Novels: 0, that is, I read a bunch for the Hugo voting, but didn't blog them (5 last years)
  • Audio Fiction: 1, but I'm now reviewing Podcastle stories at the Short SFF Reviews site (7 last year, including some multi-item posts)
  • Movies: 6 (12 last years including 5 in my lesbian movies series)
  • Live Performance: 2 since I failed to blog the Cal Shakes performances this year (6 last year)

So here's the long version with links, perhaps not organized exactly as above.


Writing - This doesn’t include all entries, just substantial essays

  • Bad Advice for Authors - I talk about why some of the advice aimed at authors at big publishers really isn't feasible for indie authors
  • What am I Writing in 2017? - A brief survey of in-progress projects. It's always educational to compare it to what I actually did.
  • Like Many Other Girls - In which I examine the trope of "not like the other girls" in the context of Alpennia and discuss who it does and doesn't fit.
  • Orphans Don’t have All the Fun - Like many authors of adventures, I have an unfortunate tendency to orphan my protagonists. I'm working on that.
  • Writing a Long Game - Some of the special concerns and frustrations of writing an extended series when you know that some of your readers' current frustrations will be answered later, but you can't really say so.
  • Revealing and Concealing - There's one particular event in Mother of Souls that some readers wish I'd shown more directly Here's where I talk about why I didn't
  • The Limits of Magic - If my characters can truly work miracles, where's the challenge?
  • Challenging Expected Narratives - In Mother of Souls, Luzie and Serafina argued over Tanfrit's romantic arc in the opera. Their argument is part of a larger genre conversation.
  • Every Flood Begins with a Trickle - Talking about starting seriously on the writing of Floodtide and some of the things I want to do in the story.
  • Shall We Dance? Showing Attraction without Overt Erotics - Inspired by a reader question, what are some of the ways I show characters experiencing attraction to each other without framing it as erotic response?
  • Shifting Writing Gears - The logistics of juggling multiple writing projects in different stages.
  • A Questionable Phrase - I talk about why the phrase "does not disappoint" always makes me wince, and why I've tried to eliminate it from my vocabulary.
  • Taking Dictation - A reader question about how dictation and transcription fit into my writing process.
  • The Uncanny Valley of Fictional Representation - Sometimes I feel more included by a book that shows a diverse world than by one that comes closer to my own identities but feels more like it excludes me.
  • Musings on New Promo Activity - One of my goals for the year was to add some automation to my online authorial presence. It had some benefits I hadn't anticipated.
  • From a Certain Point of View - What are the strengths and advantages of different approaches to point of view? And how did that affect my POV choices in "The Language of Roses"?
  • Podcast Interview: Creating Character (at The Lesbian Talkshow) - I talk with Sheena about how I go about creating distinctive characters, and especially how I develop and change those characters across the Alpennia series.

About Alpennia - Essays that are more specifically about the worldbuilding in the Alpennia series

  • How Many Lesbians are there in Alpennia? - It may sometimes feel like Alpennia is jam-packed with queer women. I do a breakdown of how that's not particularly true. 
  • The Geography of Alpennia - A response to a reader request that I talk more about the internal and external geography of the Alpennia series.
  • Speaking in Alpennian - Given that I'm a linguist and have done some deep thinking about the Alpennian language, I don't use much actual Alpennian vocabulary in the books. Here I talk about why, but also talk about how I show my characters existing in a different linguistic environment from the readers.
  • Addressing the Class Divide - I've talked previously about how class and intimacy relationships are reflected in how Alpennians talk to and about each other. Here I ponder the complications that ensue when my first-person protagonist is in the lowest ranks of society.
  • Class and Sexuality in Rotenek - It may sometimes feel that my Alpennian protagonsts get too much of a pass from society on their sexuality. But things aren't always as they seem. Here I discuss how class intersects with sexuality in terms of social reception.
  • Floodtide: Stepping into the Unknown - A brief discussion of the point in the writing of Floodtide when the story moves past the timeline of Mother of Souls and strikes out into new territory.
  • Can Devout Alpennians Enjoy the Pleasures of the Flesh? - A reader question about how my characters reconcile their sexuality with the moral tenor of the times.

Guest Blogs - both as host and guest

Miscellaneous Content - In any classification system, there's always an "everything else" category.

  • 2016: A Poem
  • Herding Invisible Cats - My adventures in renewed cat ownership.
  • Standardization of LHMP content tags and addition of brief descriptions to the tags [multiple blogs, so I'm not linking individually, just noting it as a major writing project]
  • The 2017 Tomato Blog - I never did a taste test and review this year. It was a meh year for the tomatoes and I think some of the varieties I planted never did produce. I've diagnosed part of the problem as under-watering and need to revise my automated irrigation system next year.

LaForge Civil War Diaries and Correspondence - An ongoing project to put my great-great grandfather's Civil War diaries and correspondence on the web, with annotations and commentary. Never fear, I will get back to working on this.

Note: the preceding are revisions and annotations of transcripts I had posted on the web prior to starting this blog series. The content between January-April 1864 was blogged in 2016. The rest here was put on the web for the first time as part of this blogging project.

Lesbian Historic Motif Project - I took a slight hiatus from posting new publications during the period when the content was being moved to That was when I worked on all the tag annotations and standardization. It cut down a little on the total number of publications I would otherwise have covered. You may notice that I've done several thematic groupings: encyclopedias and who's-whos, Sappho, Spain.

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Last year, this was a brand new category of "things I do." This year, on the 1-year anniversary of the show, I expanded from monthly to weekly. In 2018, I'll be expanding the type of content by adding the publication of original fiction. I'm almost afraid of what will come in 2019!

Reviews: Books/Fiction - SFF - I swear it's utter coincidence that all the author surnames are in the first half of the alphabet!

Reviews: Books/Fiction - Lesbian (generally I've classified a book here if I read it specifically for the lesbian characters, even if it also fits under SFF).

Reviews: Live Performance

Reviews: Movies - I watched a lot more movies than this. This isn't even the ones I liked, necessarily. Just the ones where I got inspired to review before the moment passed.

Review-Like-Objects: Misc

The Great November Book Release Re-Boot - This was a project I used as an excuse to re-promote Mother of Souls. Every day in May, I blogged about a book released 6 months previously that I thought my readers might be interested in. Note: I've read very few of these books, so while I was picky about what I included, inclusion is not necessarily advocacy.

Travel Posts - Not quite "con reports" in this case. The Helsinki/Worldcon posts are a combination of con report and travelogue. The Kalamazoo posts are my usual live-blogging of the sessions I attended.


Kalamazoo Posts

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Mother of SoulsHyddwen
Monday, December 11, 2017 - 07:00

I can tell where my deepest loyalties lie within the post-modernist/historicist divide when I encounter articles like this one. At heart, although I think that a passionate involvement with one's subject of study can be a good thing, when monitored carefully, I'm suspicious of that passionate involvement being considered part of the subject of study. The author here discusses a hypothetical modern reader's interpretation of a hypothetical medieval person's hypothetical erotic interactions with the act of writing...and at that point I consider the topic to be an exercise in poetics, not in history. But that's just my take, of course.

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Full citation: 

Farina, Lara. 2011. “Lesbian History and Erotic Reading” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Farina, Lara. 2011. “Lesbian History and Erotic Reading”

Farina considers the tension between being a “passionate reader” of a text and being aroused by the act of reading, particularly for gay and lesbian readers whose lives are already hypersexualized by society. But she argues for the need for “erotic reading” in lesbian history. She discusses the concept of erotic reading especially as a counter to “received” non-erotic understandings of texts, for example, comparing erotic reading to “wonder” or “startlement” which are derided by literalist forces in historic studies. “Erotic” interaction with texts includes not just the act of reading but the act of writing--the tools and materials, such as manipulating a “phallic” pen. Another example would be devotional texts that encourage the reader to meditate on sensory experiences. Or texts that dwell on the experience or contemplation of love/desire.

Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 11:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17b - Interview with T. T. Thomas - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/09 - listen here)

Back around a year ago, there was a discussion on a facebook group about what authors could do to raise the profile of lesbian historical fiction and to encourage more people to try the genre. That discussion was part of what inspired me to add author interviews to the podcast. And T.T. Thomas was one of the brainstormers, so naturally I asked her if she'd be interested in participating. This month she tells us about her historic passions, her interests. and her projects.


(There is no transcript available for this episode at this time.)

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