Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41b - The Highwaywoman Special (Reprise)
(Originally aired 2017/09/30, this airing 2019/12/14 - listen here)
To give myself something resembling an end of year holiday, instead of a new interview, I’m reprising this show on highwaywoman songs and stories. It originally aired on September 30, 2017. I thought it might make a nice lead-in to next week’s show on Vikings. [Note: I rearranged the episodes after recording and the Viking show is two weeks after this one.]
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[First two verses of “The Highwayman” by Alfred J. Noyes, music by Phil Ochs, pronouns adjusted]
Outlaws have been a staple of popular stories as far back as recorded literature. Specific types of outlaw arise out of the society of the times. Laws restricting the hunting of game created poachers. The age of merchant ships crossing the seas spawned pirates. The concentration of cash in banks gave rise to bank robbers. And the establishment of regular coaching routes to carry passengers and commerce on fixed schedules were the temptation that gave rise to highwaymen.
In England, the great era of mythic highwaymen began around the 17th century and continued into the early 19th. The majority of real life highwaymen were male, of course. But a few highwaywomen made their way into song and story and the pages of history as well. Some examples in literature may have simply been an opportunity to turn gender tropes on their head, but throughout early modern history, there have been many women who found the economic temptations of male professions sufficient to trade skirts for trousers.
Not all depictions of literary highwaywomen were particularly feminist in spirit, though. The earliest known highwaywoman ballad, “The Female Highway Hector” from the 17th century, is more of a cautionary tale. After a long series of successful robberies against various stereotyped victims, she tries to rob a “real” highwayman and is defeated and sexually assaulted.
Here’s the beginning of the ballad. The original broadsheet suggests singing it to a tune called “The Rant” and I’ve used a tune with that name that is believed to be the one that was originally used.
The Female Highway Hector
You gallants of every station
Give ear to a frollicksome song
The like was ne’er seen in this nation
‘Twas done by a female so young.
She bought her a mare and a bridle
A saddle and pistols also
She resolved she would not be idle
So upon the pad she did go.
She clothed herself in great splendor
For breeches and sword she had on
Her body appear’d very slender
She show’d like a pretty young man.
And then like a padder so witty
She mounted with speed on her mare
She left all her friends in the city
And steered her course towards the Ware.
We’ll leave her story there, as the rest of the ballad is not edifying.
Real life highwaywomen--those for which we have solid evidence--were rarely romantic figures. But then, neither were most male highwaymen.
Legal records of prosecutions of women for this crime seem to have been rare, though not unheard of. Joan Bracey was hanged in Nottingham in the later 17th century for highway robbery, as was Ann Meders, hanged at Tyburn. Both met their ends at a relatively young age, not surprisingly. Both began their careers in partnership with male companions, as did Nan Hereford, who managed to carry on the profession for six years after her husband was hanged before meeting her own end.
Legend is more likely to view highwaymen--and women--as romantic figures. The early years of the profession corresponded with the political struggles in England between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads during the English Civil War and the dashing cavalier turned highwayman was a staple of popular culture.
Katherine Ferrers was a 17th century Englishwoman whom legend holds to have been the “Wicked Lady”, a notorious female highwayman. Katherine became an heiress at age six, during a period when her family was swept up in conflicts between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. Katherine’s family were Royalists and financial difficulties related to this state inspired them to marry Katherine off at age 14, after which most of her inherited property was sold off. She died at age 26, shortly after the return of King Charles II to the throne. For the last couple years of her life, her husband had been in prison for participating in an uprising. This much is fact.
Legend holds that--like a number of impoverished Royalists--she turned her hand to highway robbery to support herself during her husband’s imprisonment. Legend further holds that, after being shot during a robbery she died of her wounds, being discovered wearing men’s clothing. In this case, legend is unlikely to hold any truth. There are no mentions of Katherine’s supposed exploits in any of the sensational histories of famous highwaymen published in the 18th century. The first mention of her supposed exploits seems to be in the mid 19th century, but the image of a beautiful and daring woman taking to the highway has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers, and The Wicked Lady has been the subject of several novels and films, as well as inspiring ghost stories associated with her residence.
Within the context of this podcast, it must be admitted that--like most legends and ballads of cross-dressing women, the tales of female highwaymen from the 17th and 18th centuries remain steadfastly heterosexual. One notable exception is Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, a real woman living around 1600 who was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes and rumored to be sexually interested in both men and women. Contemporary records portrayed Moll Cutpurse as a thief, a fence, and a pimp but an early 18th century writer who produced a history of famous highwaymen, decided she also needed to be given a brief fictional career of highway robbery.
A much more cheerful (though still solidly heterosexual) story is told in a ballad titled “Sovay” or “The Female Highwayman” which was collected in the late 19th century, at a time when highwaymen had long since disappeared. This one is worth performing in full as it introduces a motif particularly popular in modern female highwayman fiction.
Sovay, or The Female Highwayman
Sovay, Sovay, all on a day,
She dressed herself in man's array,
With a sword and pistol all by her side,
To meet her true love
To meet her true love away did ride.
She met her true love all on the plain,
And when she saw him she bid him stand,
'Stand and deliver, kind sir,' she said,
Or else this moment
Or else this moment I’ll shoot you dead.'
Oh, when she'd robbed him of all his store,
She says, 'Kind sir, there is one thing more,
A diamond ring which I know you have,
Deliver that, your sweet life to save.'
'That diamond ring a token is,
That ring I’ll keep, my life I’ll lose;'
She being tender hearted just like a dove,
She rode away
She rode away from her own true love.
Next morning in the garden green,
O like true lovers they were seen;
He saw his watch hanging by her clothes,
Which made him flush
Which made him flush like a red rose.
'What makes you flush at so silly a thing,
I fain would have had your diamond ring,
‘And if you had given me the ring,’ she said,
I’d have pulled the trigger
I’d have pulled the trigger, I’d have shot you dead.’
In the oldest version of the ballad, Sovay only tells her love that demanding the ring was a test, but I rather like the stronger version that I performed. But remember this trope of stealing a love token, because it’s going to come up again.
The era of the rise of highwaymen was also an era when popular media was fascinated with gender disguises and the possibility of accidental homoerotic encounters with women disguised as men. Denise Walen’s extensive study of female cross-dressing in early modern drama doesn’t seem to include any examples where the disguised woman has a homoerotic encounter while acting as a highwayman, but it’s exactly the sort of plot one might find in that context.
Lesbian historical romance, on the other hand, has latched on to the motif of the cross-dressing female highwayman as an excellent way to combine swashbuckling, gender play, and the possibility of accidentally falling in love with a woman who was forbidden to you both by gender and profession.
Within this sub-genre, the motif of the stolen trinket that provides an excuse for further contact almost seems a requirement. In fact, we can lay out a formula for the standard lesbian highwaywoman romance: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate on the marriage market) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending.
Here are five stories about female highwaymen finding love and redemption in the arms of another woman.
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Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies (Bedazzled Ink, 2008)
I loved the solid historic grounding in Barbara Davies’ Rebeccah and the Highwayman. At the beginning of the 18th century, in the time of Queen Anne, Rebeccah Dutton has a series of encounters with the mysterious highwayman Blue-Eyed Nick, but the secret that “Nick” is actually a woman proves dangerous as both women are drawn together again and again.
The meaningful keepsake in this story is Rebeccah’s family signet ring, which she is allowed to keep in the initial encounter. They are reunited when Kate--in the guise of Blue-Eyed Nick--is wounded in the course of rescuing Rebeccah, who must then conceal the highwaywoman during her recovery. Kate has a brush with the gallows, but we know it will come off well--after all, this isn’t a Sarah Waters novel! I particularly liked the novel’s use of the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (who is conveniently Rebeccah’s distant cousin) to convey understandings and attitudes towards women’s romantic relationships at the time. The story is solidly written with only occasional historical info-dumps. Kate’s eventual change of profession was delightfully true to the times. Unlike several of the books discussed in this show, the erotic content draws the curtain after passionate kissing, though more is clearly implied. This is an excellent book for those who want both good writing and good history.
The Locket and the Flintlock by Rebecca S Buck (Bold Strokes Books, 2012)
Rebecca S. Buck’s The Locket and the Flintlock takes a Regency era setting and draws on the motifs of that genre as well as the standard highwayman tropes of a stolen sentimental keepsake (as one might guess from the title) and a highwaywoman with a tragic backstory, a heart of gold, and a drive for social and economic justice. A few days after her dead mother’s locket has been taken during a daring highway robbery, Lucia Foxe recognizes the thieves riding past from her bedroom window and sets out after them, bareback on her favorite mare, to retrieve the keepsake in the middle of the night. And there lies one of the major flaws of this work: almost all the characters do something important that breaks my willingness to believe in the story. But if you can overlook plot holes and inconsistencies, it’s a rollicking adventure with a lot of angsty self-examination and the level of steaminess one tends to expect from a Bold Strokes book.
Daring and Decorum by Lawrence Hogue (Supposed Crimes, 2017)
Except for one issue, which I’ll get to in a moment, I loved Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum. Set in 18th century England, Elizabeth Collington longs for something beyond the life of a respectable vicar’s daughter. Then one day she encounters a highwayman who steals her mother’s necklace...and a kiss. The encounter stirs feelings that must be kept secret, and an even greater secret is that the highwayman is a woman. The book’s strength is its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times. Unlike many stories that plunge the women directly into a relationship, Daring and Decorum provides a realistic pacing for the relationship, though this may cause some readers to find it slow. I loved Hogue’s writing. He has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. The one thing that got the book off on the wrong foot for me was a mild sexual assault in the opening scene. Nothing more than groping, but I’m not fond of the message that women will, of course, get turned on by assault as long as it’s by the person who ends up being the love interest. It wasn’t enough to put me off the book entirely, but I think the story could have worked just as well with a different opening.
The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy
In The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy, Evelyn Thackeray is traveling to visit friends in advance of her upcoming marriage to a business associate of her widowed father when a band of highwaymen--and one highwaywoman--stops the coach she’s traveling in. Robbed of her money and a locket that Evelyn risked the anger of the highwaymen to try to keep, she’s now stranded penniless in a village. She offers to work at an inn in exchange for a room for the night...and then Bess, the highwaywoman, climbs through her window there, out of the darkness.
The story uses the standard collection of highwaywoman tropes: the soft-hearted thief, the keepsake stolen and then returned as an excuse to meet again, the sudden inexplicable attraction to an outlaw. And it tries to add in a layer of off-balance, constantly shifting loyalties and triple-crosses, but never quite sticks the landing in terms of believability. The plot consists of a non-stop sequence of chases, kidnappings, and escapes, punctuated by emotional confrontations and betrayals. I found it hard to sympathize with either Evelyn or Bess, and the question of how a highwaywoman successfully retires from a life of crime felt glossed over a bit too easily. But if non-stop action is your thing, check it out.
Behind the Mask by Kim Larabee (Alyson Books, 1989 out of print)
What is a single young woman in the Regency era to do if she must support a household? In Kim Larabee’s Behind the Mask, as an alternative to setting one’s cap for a handsome man with a title or a fortune, our hero Maddie Elverton turns to highway robbery. But her double life threatens to unravel when she encounters Allie Sifton, at first as a victim of her robbery, and then as a partner in her secret. There is a theft and return of jewelry, though not of the usual sentimental keepsake.
This story is largely a light-hearted romp, filled with exquisite writing, and leavened by a small amount of peril from the dogged pursuit by Lt. Bridgewater, who has set his sights on taking the highwayman in hand. Larabee is mistress of the language and conventions of the Regency romance, and turns the usual tropes of the genre on their head to bring Allie and Maddie together for their happily ever after. I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy, however unfortunately it is out of print.
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There are plenty of ideas left to tackle in the female highwayman genre. England isn’t the only possible setting and the field is wide open for a plot that starts out with something other than the theft of a sentimental keepsake.
I’ll take what may be unfair advantage to note that I included a brief highway robbery scene in my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer”, set in the late 17th century where the crime is planned to cover up the retrieval of sensitive state documents. There is, of course, also a damsel in distress to rescue. There’s a link to the free story in the show notes.
Whether your heroines meet over the theft of a sentimental locket or rob Roundheads in support of King Charles, whether they run off together to enjoy their life of crime or eventually settle down in the guise of lady companions, it’s hard to beat a highwaywoman for swashbuckling adventure!
[Final verse of “The Highwayman” by Noyes & Ochs]
The second book in O’Dell’s near-future Sherlockian thriller series takes the reader on a game of cat-and-mouse where our protagonist, Dr. Janet Watson, struggles in the midst of chaos and danger to continue trusting her colleague/housemate/friend--I would say “partner” except that word carries some erroneous implications when you’re talking about two queer women--Sara Holmes.
Janet’s progress to reclaim her career as a surgeon in the face of reliance on a high-tech prosthetic arm is derailed when disappears abruptly, and then leads Janet on a terrifying treasure-hunt of clues, contacts, and disguises deep into the heart of enemy territory on a rescue mission that requires her still-uncertain surgical skills.
I’ve grown very attached both to Watson and to the maddeningly unpredictable Holmes, whose background we learn more about in hints and the rare quiet moments of the story. There’s plenty of action and all-too-realistic violence, as well as a sketch of a fractured America that is terrifyingly believable these days.
If you like twisty, fast-paced thrillers that center queer women of color, then you may love this series as much as I do. (Probably best to start with the first book, A Study in Honor, though if you’re a quick study and comfortable with filling in backstory in your head, you could read this one first.)
My commentary on this article has been incorporated into a final paragraph, rather than being placed here in the introduction. Overall, I think Hitchcock makes a fascinating case for connecting various historical trends across the 18th century. But I think he has significant blind spots as well. I think that trends in age at first marriage and overall marriage rates cannot be separated from economic patterns that make it more or less possible for women (especially) to be economically viable outside the marriage economy. In earlier centuries, one major force in English employment patterns for unmarried people was the service economy. Were there significant changes from the 17th to the 18th century in domestic service (and agricultural service) patterns? He also takes for granted that women lost sexual negotiating power in the shift from the 17th to 18th century, but fails to explore the possible context for this significantly. So, overall, and interesting take on the complexities of social history, but one that may raise more questions than it answers.
Hitchcock, Tim. 2012. "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 823-832.
Hitchcock starts from a demographic observation and works to build a picture of the social and historic context that may have motivated that demographic fact.
Over the course of the 18th century, the age at first marriage dropped significantly, bastardy rates increased threefold, the proportion of marriages celebrated after the bride became pregnant increased to a third of the total, and the percentage of the population who never married dropped significantly. (Also, as a consequence of the combination of these, there was a rise in population.) Hitchcock posits that collectively these facts suggest an overall change in sexual behavior. To explore the nature of that change, he examines changes in social attitudes towards marriage and the family, the history of pornography and libertinism, and women’s and gender history.
This change in sexual behavior can be summed up as: an increase in penetrative, heterosexual sex, i.e., the sexual activity resulting in pregnancy. That simple observation is hard to refute, but an explanation is more difficult to identify.
One change over the long 18th century was the concept of “companionate marriage”, that is, the idea that marriage should be a partnership between two people who came together out of affection as well as economic necessity or family imperatives. Another developing concept during the same period was the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the idea that the purpose of both society and the family was production, whether of goods or of children.
These two shifts can be seen reflected in literature, both in novels and in pornography. The libertine novels of the period reflect a more individualized, interiorized experience of sexual desire, and the ability to separate desire from its social context. More sexual desire leads to more sex leads to more babies. (To oversimplify.)
This theory would appear to be in conflict with the findings of women’s and gender history, which views the same period as a time of shifting from a domestic economy to a factory-based one, resulting in a loss of female social power, with a consequent increasing repression of women. [Note: it seems naive to me to view an increased focus on (male) sexual pleasure and desire, combined with repression and loss of power by women, as having some sort of inherent conflict.]
As detailed in Laqueur’s work, another shift in process at the time was of the understandings of male and female bodies and their role in sex and reproduction, including a loss of the belief that female sexual pleasure was necessary for procreation. This resulted in a more sharp delineation between concepts of the sexes (the “two gender system”) and the belief that female sexual pleasure was unnecessary.
This, Hitchcock suggests, creates a clear dichotomy between “a liberationist narrative” (more sexually explicit literature, emphasis on sentiment) and a “repressive narrative” (increased gender policing and differentiation of the roles of the sexes). This apparent conflict, he suggests, can be resolved by tracing the physical culture of sexual practice.
Sex is not a single, simple behavior but a set of complex behaviors with multiple purposes, including masturbation, penetrative (heterosexual) sex, oral sex, and sodomy. Typical sexual behavior at the beginning of the 18th century (and here Hitchcock is talking about heterosexual behavior) included significant amounts of mutual masturbation, kissing and fondling, extended non-penetrative erotic play, and relatively little p-in-v sex, especially before marriage, but also within marriage. The boundaries around what “counted as sex” were fuzzy. Coitus interruptus was also practiced commonly as a birth control measure, as well as abortion if that failed.
Overall, this resulted in the observed relatively lower birth rate and low bastardy rate. The sexual economy actively worked to control and manage reproduction but did not strictly police non-reproductive activity. This system required women to have significant power to negotiate sexual activity. It also involved many types of sexual behavior that later generations came to associate with homosexuality (both male and female).
The latter half of the 18th century came to emphasize a phallocentric view of sex in which all non-penetrative activities were at best “foreplay”. Popular culture reflects an obsession with the penis and with a single purpose for it. This shift in focus--including a de-emphasis on non-procreative sexual activity--would have the effect of increasing pregnancy rates, and with pregnancy as a driver of marriage, it would lead to more common and earlier marriages among sexually active couples.
The shift in belief to the irrelevance of female orgasm in procreation plays a complementary role, and could play a part in women’s decreased negotiating power within sexual relationships. With men now being viewed as the sex with the stronger sex drive (where women had previously been viewed as the more “sexually uncontrolled” gender), women could only be “protected” from male sexual advances by constraining their public exposure.
None of this represents any sort of scientific proof of the causes of the demographic shift, but it shows how multiple apparently unrelated cultural changes can be shown to align. Not all people would be exposed to the same cultural changes, e.g., literary or medical texts. Can a broad-based change in sexual knowledge be traced during the 18th century?
Around 1700, sexual knowledge was transmitted primarily by individual word of mouth, with each generation controlling what the next learned. When control of reproduction was prioritized, so was the knowledge of non-procreative sexual practices. But with the rise of popular printed literature, including sexual literature, attitudes could be influenced widely by the dissemination of sexual ideas.
One genre that took root during the 18th century was anti-masturbation literature, establishing in the popular mind the myth that masturbation (especially by men) resulted in medical and psychiatric ills--a myth that persisted into the 20th century. A parallel role was played by popularly-oriented sex manuals aimed at married couples, such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece: or, the Secrets of Generation Displayed in All the Parts Thereof (1684). These works focused strongly on procreation as the goal of sex and promoted sexual behaviors that would lead to pregnancy.
Hitchcock finishes with what I consider to be an entirely too cursory assertion that these changes in sexual culture are also reflected in the 18th century histories of homosexuality. If there was, indeed, a sea change in heterosexual sex culture in the 18th century, it should also be reflected in homosexual sex culture.
In the case of lesbians, he asserts, this appears as a change from a culture dominated by cross-dressing to one focused on romantic friendship and a decline of a “butch-femme” dichotomy. Similarly, he asserts, male homosexual culture saw the rise of an emphasis on effeminate behavior and “molly culture”, along with the rise of popular homophobia. A phallocentric sex culture concerned with reproduction found sodomy and effeminacy uniquely threatening.
The problem I have with this last section of the article is that it oversimplifies the actual historic trends and ignores recurring cycles that undermine the desired conclusion. (I have a hard time taking seriously the assertion that English lesbian culture ca. 1700 was characterized by a cross-dressing butch-femme culture, even if one is using those labels to describe the “female husband” phenomenon. He even cites Donoghue 1993 as a source but hasn’t absorbed its complexity.) So overall, even though I think Hitchcock points out some interesting trends during the 18th century, I’m skeptical about the strength of his conclusions.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41a - On the Shelf for December 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/12/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2019.
Another year is winding down and one of the shows this month will be a year-end retrospective about f/f historical media I’ve consumed and enjoyed this year. But what about a review of some of the things the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has done in 2019?
Back in April, we reached our 100th show, which I celebrated with a bonus fiction episode of my Renaissance romantic short story “Where My Heart Goes.” Somewhere around June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast topped 100,000 downloads! It’s worth compulsively tracking statistics just to know things like that. On the average, these days each episode reaches 1000 downloads within three months of airing. Not quite the big time, but not too shabby.
In 2019 we branched out into movie discussions, with episodes about The Favourite and Wild Nights with Emily. I still plan to do an episode on Gentleman Jack at some point, although there are entire podcasts devoted to the show so I’m still thinking about what special angle I can bring to it. This year, I also became more comfortable with giving myself a break on occasion and doing re-runs of past shows. Putting out a show every week can push my limits at times. I may use the editorial “we” in this show, but it’s all just me: doing the research, writing the scripts, arranging for the interviews, editing the recordings, compiling the show notes.
We’ve completed our second year of audio short stories and I’m so proud of the authors who have entrusted their work to me. Going into next year, I’m hoping for submissions that will make the choices even more difficult to narrow down. We’ll be accepting certain types of historic fantasy as well as strict historicals and there are some very exciting things going on in that field currently.
I’ve been delighted to be able to feature some authors writing historic fantasy in the mainstream in my interviews and hope to continue cross-pollinating various reading communities that share a love of queer women and history.
And that brings me to an idea I’d like to plant in your minds. I don’t know how much of an overlap there is between my listenership and the World Science Fiction Society members that nominate and vote for the Hugo awards. But among the categories that are recognized by the Hugos is Fancast--for podcasts or videocasts that contribute to the science fiction and fantasy community. It feels a bit daring to suggest, but I think the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has enough SFF content that it makes sense for the show to be considered for nomination. So if you’re a nominating member of the World Science Fiction Society--which is to say, if you’re a supporting or attending member of either this year’s or next year’s Worldcon--I’d be grateful if you took a moment to consider whether you agree. Or, if you don’t agree yet, I’d appreciate if you listen to our next year’s offerings keeping that idea in mind. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.
But let’s get back to the 2020 fiction series. In just one month, submissions will be open. I’ll be buying five stories to produce for the show and I’d love for yours to be in the running. There’s a link to the full call for submissions in the show notes with details of what we’re looking for and how to submit. Remember that we’re paying professional rates--the same per-word rates that far more prestigious and competitive venues offer.
And speaking of more prestigious and competitive venues, I’d also like to call your attention to an entirely different fiction project that will be accepting submissions early in the New Year: Silk and Steel: An Adventure Anthology of Queer Ladies. Their elevator pitch is: “Princess and swordswoman, scholar and mecha pilot, warrior women and the courtly ladies who love them.” I have no personal connection with this project except as a Kickstarter supporter, but I think it will be of great interest to my listeners, whether you’re authors or enthusiastic readers of f/f romantic adventure. The anthology started as an invitational collection featuring authors like Ellen Kushner, Aliette de Bodard, Amal El-Mohtar, Arkady Martine, and a whole bunch of other talented and award-winning authors. When their kickstarter project blew through all the stretch goals to reach nine times their original target, one of the add-ons was an open submissions call to add a few more stories. Their submissions deadline is February 22, 2020 and I’ve put a link to their call for submissions in the show notes for those who want the details. This is going to be exciting.
Publications on the Blog
I almost need a breather from all that excitement! So let’s review what the blog has been covering in the way of lesbian-relevant historical research.
I started off November with Adrienne Rich’s classic essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” which asks the evergreen question, when people are trying to address gender issues whether in history or in the present day, why do they keep forgetting that women who love women exist?
Next was the somewhat less mind-blowing collection of articles Constructing Medieval Sexuality, which had a fair amount of queer content but almost all of it male-centered. Another work that gets cited a lot but which I found less interesting than I’d hoped was Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-Modern. It’s an interesting cross-disciplinary philosophical study, though.
December begins with several papers on Renaissance and Early Modern topics. First up is Valerie Traub’s “The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England” which is one of the papers that eventually grew into her book by the same title. Tim Hitchcock’s "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England" tries to make sense of a variety of shifts in demographics and sexual behavior in the 18th century, including attitudes toward same-sex sexuality. The same general era and topic is addressed by Randolph Trumbach’s "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences.” I confess that every time I read something by Trumbach I get really grumpy because he’s one of those male historians who blithely assumes that one needn’t actually study female same-sex history, one can simply assume that data and conclusions about men apply to them. And speaking of which, I finish up December with John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. It was interesting to revisit this work. I originally read it back in 1980 when it first came out and to some extent every work on the history of sexuality since then has been in conversation with it.
Not much book shopping for the blog. I pre-ordered a book that isn’t due out until next March on the topic of “Female Husbands” viewed through a transgender lens.
I don’t have an author guest lined up this month, though I’m in correspondence with several people and just recorded a show that will air in February. I confess that if there were one part of this podcast that I’d love to farm out to someone with better social skills than me, it would be querying and arranging for guests to interview. I love the chance to talk to all the fascinating and talented authors we feature, but I have problems with anxiety around the process of actually lining them up, and it doesn’t help that I can’t just pull a guest out of my hat when I’ve put it off too long. So instead of interviews, I’ll reprise the show on Highwaywomen, which makes a sort of nice companion to this month’s essay.
This is an essay by request from several friends on Twitter who asked me to do a show on lesbian Vikings. Well, as you’ll find out, the show turns out to be a lot of “we don’t really have any evidence for lesbians in early Norse culture, but here are some tropes and motifs you might find useful if you want to write about them anyway.” I’ll also have a book list of f/f historic fantasy with Viking themes.
I plan to finish the year, as mentioned at the top of the show, with a look back at some of my favorite f/f historical books, movies, and other media I’ve consumed this year.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And that brings us to this month’s recent, new, and forthcoming book list.
Catching up on an October book with a fairy tale re-telling: Cinderella and the Lady, self-published by K.T. Grant
The sudden death of Ellie’s father leaves her with an uncertain future. Her stepmother, Geraldine and step-sister Mina treat her like a servant. The seductive Countess Tremaine wants to save Ellie from her life of drudgery, but all for a price- her innocence. She feels all hope is lost until she meets a lady who makes all her wishes come true. Lady Kristina, the Duke of Perrault’s daughter has returned home after five years abroad. She’s expected to marry, but her attraction to women stops her from carrying out her parents’ wishes. One night she meets a shy servant girl and becomes obsessed. She’ll do whatever she can to gain the trust of this mysterious woman and claim her for her own. With the countess pressuring Ellie into accepting her unscrupulous offer, and her stepmother growing more unstable, she turns to Kristina for support. But then her whole world comes crashing down when she learns the truth behind Kristina’s identity and the lies Geraldine has kept from her. As Ellie falls victim to those dark forces set on ruining her, Kristina fights to save Ellie’s heart before she loses her forever.
I found two November titles--or rather I found one, and the publisher let me know about the other one, which is always appreciated. The latter is a French erotic romance set in 1st century Rome.
O Venus ! Morior ! (Ô Vénus ! Je meurs !) by an author whose pen name is “Le Jardin de Sappho” (Sappho’s Garden). The story is in French, but here’s my translation of the cover copy, with a little help from Google Translate.
Aula Tullia Pulchra is a young Roman patrician of twenty years old. It's been four years since her husband Marcus left her bed. But thanks to a papyrus scroll that her sister-in-law gave her, she will discover with delight the joys of solitary pleasure and lesbian love with two magnificent slave girls from distant Germany.
The other November offering is a bit more serious: a self-published trilogy by Vicky Jones and Claire Hackney set in the American South in the 1950s. The Shona Jackson Trilogy consists of: Shona, Meet Me at 10, and The Beach House. The three blurbs run pretty long, so I’m going to condense it a bit, which I don’t usually do.
Shona - Mississippi, 1956. Shona Jackson knows two things—how to repair car engines and that her dark childhood secret must stay buried. Being a woman working a man’s job as a mechanic brings notice in a small town. And attention is dangerous, especially when it comes from free-spirited Lucy, a new college student. Lucy’s attraction to Shona is complicated by her entanglement with Frank, a failing bar owner whose schemes to raise money may also raise questions about Shona’s past.
Meet Me At 10 - It’s 1958 and Shona Jackson is on the run again. She lands a mechanic’s job at a machinery plant, but racial tensions and a supervisor bent on exposing management abuse come to a head when the boss’s beautiful daughter, Chloe, comes home from college.
The Beach House - California, 1958. (I guess this is sort of a spoiler.) Shona and Chloe arrive at their beautiful new beach house intent on a peaceful existence after their harrowing time in Alabama. With her own garage and a home beside the Pacific Ocean, Shona feels content for the first time in her life. But when Chloe returns from the doctor’s office with news that will forever change their carefully-made plans, Shona is left reeling.
December brings us three books. The first involves a bit of gender disguise: Donning the Beard self-published by EA Kafkalas.
Orphaned Madeline is sent to live with her aunt and work for Lord Guillomot. When she is assigned to care for the lord's daughter, Gabrielle, she finds her best friend and the love of her life. When Gabrielle's life is threatened by her fiancé, Madeline poses as a new suitor and wins her true love's heart. What will happen when Gabrielle finds out that her new love is also her ladies' maid?
Another Victorian tale with a rather darker turn is The Little Wife: A gothic Victorian tale of grief, desire and revenge, self-published by Delphine Woods.
When Beatrice Brown’s husband is duty-bound to return to the ominous Dhuloch Castle, she has no choice but to leave her home and go with him. The journey to the Scottish Highlands is nerve-shattering for Beatrice, and life in such a desolate place is no better. All she wants is to go back to England, back to her old, boring life. As she struggles to cope with the isolation and her husband’s cruel nature, Beatrice finds comfort in the only friendly face, the castle’s mistress, Clementine Montgomery. Soon, the two embark on a passionate affair. With Beatrice’s desires and vibrancy reawakened, she begins to wonder what her husband is hiding. Why did he flee the castle all those years ago? Something evil lurks inside Dhuloch’s walls. It will not rest until it has blood. Will Beatrice have the strength to uncover the truth before the castle claims its next victim?
And we finish with The Wonderful by Saksia Sarginson from Flatiron Books, which is one of those books where I had to go on social media to get confirmation that it really does have a queer protagonist.
A sweeping and turbulent drama about the anxieties of postwar Britain, where one strong and inspirational young woman looks to find her place, no matter the cost. Sometimes, the truth lies in fiction It’s hard to be an American girl in 1957. Especially when your dad’s job means you have to move four thousand miles from home. Especially if you’d rather play baseball than wear a dress. Especially if you see your mom fraying a little more from anxiety each day. And especially if being five minutes older means you have to protect your fragile twin brother. Still, Hedy Delaney loves her family, and she’s trying to make the best of her new life on a U.S. airbase in England. After all, her dad’s a war hero, her mother’s a beauty, and her brother’s a brainiac who writes moving stories about space travel. Then one tragic day, the unforeseen occurs and all three are ripped away, leaving Hedy alone with countless questions. What really happened on the airbase? What went on behind military closed doors? What were the secrets that could never be told? And how could any of it have led to her family’s destruction? In her search for the truth, Hedy turns to a story her brother began months before he died. Deciding to finish what her brother started, Hedy begins to piece together what happened to her family. But whether she’s ready for what she’ll discover is another matter entirely. A sweeping and turbulent family drama, The Wonderful asks whether writing fiction can uncover fact, and if it’s ever better to let the truth remain hidden. Sometimes, it’s safer not to finish what you’ve started.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading since I recorded the last podcast? If I’m reading my notes correctly, I’ve been rather busy. A twisty time-travel epistolary romance “This is How You Lose the Time War” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics which we talked about on the podcast a while ago. Cat Sebastian’s A Little Light Mischief which has also had a lot of f/f historical buzz. And then I’ve been tearing through Stephanie Burgis’s Regency fantasy series Snowspelled, Spellswept, and Thornbound, in preparation for interviewing her about the upcoming addition to the series, Moontangled, which features a female romantic couple. That seems like a lot, but many of them were fairly short. I’ve also changed up my daily routine and instead of reading fiction at the gym, I’m now reading it on the train to work, which just might be making a different in reading speed. Who knows.
What books are you hoping that Santa will bring you as presents? Or are you the sort who says, “To heck with Santa, I’m just going to buy them for myself!”
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One of the creative aspects of organizing a large "dump" of journal articles into a sequence of presentation is identifying clusters of common themes. This article would fit in several places within the group of articles I'm currently processing. I'll be running an extended set of studies of the intersection of friendship and romance in March and April. (Yes, I currently have blogs drafted up through April. The theory is that I'll try to keep that far ahead so I have space to tackle some of the longer books in my stack.) But those mostly address the 18-19th century and I had another, smaller group that focus on ideas about an Early Modern "turning point" in how same-sex relations were viewed. As I note in the analysis below, either different authors are seeing entirely different turning points in different centuries, or we need to step back and look for a larger picture of multiple recurring "turning points" that operate more like a revolving door of attitudes toward sexuality. At some point, I need to start deveoping a timeline of all the various theories (and their evidence) for these shifts in attitude, because I've been getting the image of a constant sense of present change that somehow re-sets even as it turns.
Traub, Valerie. 2001. "The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England" in GLQ 7:2 245-263.
This article forms the core of Traub’s 2002 book by the same name, covered in entry #69. However summarizing this original article will provide a different angle and different details than I picked up from that previous entry.
Traub begins by examining the subject matter and composition of a ca. 1631 painting by Anthony Van Dyck showing a scene from the play Il Pastor Fido (the faithful shepherd) in which the shepherd Mirtillo, disguised as a shepherdess in order to gain access to Amaryllis, the woman he desires, is drawn into a “kissing war” among that woman’s female friends, to determine which of them is the best kisser. Judged by the woman herself. The painting depicts the moment of Mirtillo’s victory, which simultaneously can be viewed as the triumph of heteroerotic love and as an apparent depiction of homoerotic love. (This is a link to an image of the painting, although I can’t guarantee that the link will be permanently stable.)
The complex scene raises contradictory interpretations. Even if one accepts the central couple as a triumph of heterosexuality, it’s a victory that requires an earlier state of idyllic homoeroticism. And can Amaryllis’s giving the crown to Mirtillo truly be a heterosexual act if she believed this champion kisser to be a woman?
More to the point as a historian, scenes such as this contradict a position long claimed by historians that lesbianism was functionally invisible in Western Europe before the modern era. Traub offers brief quotes from The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1995) which attests to this belief.
What Traub concluded, and sets out to prove, is that early modern England saw a renaissance of representations of female-female desire in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a gradual increase over that period of depictions of women’s same-sex physical and emotional investments across a wide variety of textual genres. These representations existed within a context that considered women to have a stronger sex drive than men, and that considered same-sex desire to be a natural manifestation of that drive.
In addition to literary depictions of f/f love, this era saw medical manuals explore a new understanding of the function of the clitoris (and a consequent preoccupation with the motif of the overdeveloped clitoris being used to facilitate sex between women), travelogues with tales of female same-sex desire in the Near East and North Africa, and an influx of continental literature that treated homoerotic themes between women.
As much of this proliferation of material was due to the rise of printing technology, it is impossible to compare its availability quantitatively, as there was a similar expanded proliferation of content in many other fields. And some material was clearly a continuation of themes present in medieval literature, as with the endless variations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. But whatever the contributing causes, by the 16-17th centuries there was a wealth of material.
Traub uses the term “renaissance” very deliberately as much of the material has roots in classical antecedents which were essential to the understanding of the material. These antecedents came in two major flavors: medical and satirical treatments of the motif of the tribade, the sexually aggressive woman who played “a man’s part” in sex (and increasingly was assumed to have deviant anatomy to accomplish this), and the classical philosophical tradition of amicitia (friendship, amity) which was traditionally celebrated as idealized friendships between men, but now extended to, or claimed by, women as well. Much of this renaissance of representation was produced by men, but in this era we also see women producing their own depictions of homoerotic love.
As a central example of how female-female love was depicted, Traub looks at several variants of the Iphis and Ianthe story, including Arthur Golding’s 1567 verse translation into English, and John Lyly’s retelling of the motifs in Gallathea, which contrasts with the source material in featuring two cross-dressing girls who fall in love with each other. One of the themes in these I&I retellings is the lament of the girls for the “impossibility” of their love. Yet the dramatic depictions again and again rely on recognizing such love as possible and even prevailing.
How was same-sex female desire made understandable? And what strategies were used to contain it and convince the consuming public that it was impossible? Were those strategies successful?
The image of “women having sex together” depends greatly on how sex is defined. The 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the recognition of its analogy to the penis with regard to sexual pleasure, created new images and mythology about women’s same-sex activities. Whereas the figure of the “tribade” had previously incorporated beliefs about phallic importance via the use of an artificial penis, now a new image was created of the woman with an enlarged clitoris who was capable of using it for penetrative sex.
In English, this image was first made explicit in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia: or, A Description of the Body of Man (1615). The central theme of such works was that an enlarged clitoris either caused, or was caused by (or both), the rubbing of women’s bodies together for sexual purposes. (Or, in the “was caused by” version, sometimes initially by rubbing against clothing.) Causation was a confused and contradictory aspect of this motif. Borrowing from humoral theory and beliefs about the penis, clitoral size was asserted to correlate with the quantity of sexual desire (but, again, causation could go both ways).
Under this theory, any woman possessed the basic original equipment necessary to become a tribade, as well as the inclination to excess sexual desire (as a feature of women in general). This contrasts with later theories that same-sex desire represented a deviation of gender, an internal “masculinity”.
[Note: Traub identifies this as a “later” attitude, but Classical writers also theorized that a woman’s desire for women was due to an “innate masculine nature”. The two models have played tag across the ages. Traub also fails to make the connection between the “macro-clitoris” theory and how interest in anatomy spread awareness--if not understanding--of the variations in human anatomy, plus the fascination during this same era with the image of the “hermaphrodite” in its probably-intersex-inspired form.]
But if the image of the tribade as a male-coded, sexually voracious woman was expanded in the early modern era from an “Other” to being something that any woman had the potential to become, similarly the popularity of the image of sensuality between “normal” feminine bodies also universalized women’s same-sex potential.
“Fem-fem” love is typically depicted as arising in the context of intimate friendships, often beginning in adolescence when the participants were assumed to be “chaste and innocent”. These images and descriptions occur within a social context when physical affection between friends is expected and when the sharing of beds was common. But rather than framing such features of women’s intimate friendships as being entirely non-erotic, literature regularly draws explicit parallels between same-sex affections and the heterosexual bonds and interactions that the work frames as the ultimate goal of the narrative. Shakespeare uses this dynamic regularly with pairs such as Hermia and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Rosalind and Celia (As You Like It).
This dynamic--under the complex and heavily loaded term “amity”--was depicted as existing side-by-side (although not always amicably) with the heterosexual marriage plots of the works precisely in order to negate the serious potential of same-sex love and to overwrite it with the work’s heterosexual resolution. It is a general pattern in comedic works of the early modern period that anxieties are raised explicitly only to be resolved. Fem-fem couples in this literature become significant when they challenge the patriarchal and marital imperative of society, when they threaten to become exclusive, at which point they must be dismantled. Traub notes that female homoerotic pairs feature only in courtship plots rather than history plays or tragedies. [Note: but see Walen’s Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama for a more detailed and nuanced look at the medium that somewhat contradicts this.]
Thus, although “tribades” transgressed gender norms, “fem-fem” couples were not viewed as disruptive to the social structure unless they went beyond using the language of marriage to trying to appropriate the social function of marriage. In fictional texts such as Iphis and Ianthe and Gallathea, this risk was nullified by magical sex transformation. But in real life there was no such safe resolution for expressions like the Maitland Quarto Manuscript poem XLIV (1586) in which a woman (or at least a female voice) expresses the desire for marriage to another woman, even if it required such a bodily change. The Maitland poet does not lament the “impossibility” of her love, as Iphis does, but only the impossibility of marriage between two female bodies.
In tracing not only the instances where female homoerotic bonds become “significant”, but changes in the ways in which those bonds are represented over time, Traub argues that the “innocence” of fem-fem love began to be challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to increasing circulation of literature about the sexual possibilities between women. She says, “These behaviors, represented as unexceptional until the mid-seventeenth century, begin to be construed as immoral, irrational, a threat to other women.”
[Note: What is missing from Traub’s analysis here is that popular opinion has regularly cycled through periods of considering women’s same-sex romantic bonds to be “innocent” to being “suspicious” to being “deviant”. The shift Traub identifies in the mid-17th century obviously did not preclude later periods that represented passionate friendships as socially acceptable and "innocent".]
It is this conflation of the image of the tribade and “innocent” fem-fem love that creates the possibility of a modern erotic identity of “lesbian” that incorporated a wide variety of micro-identities. Although 16th century representations of female homoeroticism don’t provide clear and direct antecedents for modern lesbian identities, they can expand our understanding of the multiple roots for that identity.
[Note: Interestingly, Trumbach makes a very similar argument about there having been a point when multiple, previously unrelated threads of women’s homoerotic experience coalesce to form an identifiable “sexual orientation”, but he places that event two centuries later (Trumbach 1991). Is this a case of different historians staking out different “turning points” based on their own specific focus of interest? Or are we seeing what Traub later (Traub 2011) refers to as “cycles of salience” when she notes that she revised her own thinking on the course of lesbian-relevant history.]
Sometimes I stumble into reading a book that isn’t in my usual target zone at all. I’ve read some short fiction by El-Mohtar that I rather enjoyed, but “epistolary time-travel secret agent romance” isn’t something that would necessarily pique my interest until you insert the word “lesbian” into that phrase. Reading the book set me ruminating on questions of what even is gender in a post-human society, but that’s a different discussion.
I love books that make you reconstruct the setting, premises, and backstory from breadcrumbs dropped along the way, and this book goes all in on that technique. There are two sides (at least), with two worldviews (perhaps), and the same goal: to alter branching possible pasts in order to create the future in which they “win” the ability to assert their paradigm over reality. The two are supposedly differentiated by method--perhaps by philosophy--but that’s hard to see clearly in the midst of the casual death and destruction their agents leave in their wake. (In fact, it was sometimes difficult to differentiate the two characters even by voice.)
That casual death and destruction is no worse than the ordinary death and destruction of unaltered history (if there is such a thing), but initially I found it impossible to sympathize with the protagonists because of their indifference to the lives they were deliberately meddling with. That remained a theme for me throughout the story: we’re enticed to fall in love with these two opposing agents as they fall in love with each other, but it was hard for me to see them as other than monsters, playing at intellectual games out of boredom and loneliness as they criss-crossed time in their seemingly ageless existence.
And yet, I really enjoyed reading this book. I loved the challenge of visualizing the underlying conceptual structure. I loved deciphering the puzzle of how it would all end. The reader is given enough clues to get a sense that the puzzle is there, but not enough realistic detail to be able to work it out in advance--which is a good thing because doing so would have bogged down an otherwise fast-moving story. I loved that sense of just barely holding a slippery tangle of images in my mind long enough to feel that it stuck the landing.
It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. And it wasn’t as mind-blowing as the social media buzz made it out to be. But it was a fascinating read.
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Now on to the non-review philosophical discussion.
As I said in the review, the aspect of the book that tipped me over into buying (and then actually reading) Time War was the word “lesbian” in the elevator pitch. Note that this word is not in the official book summary. In fact, there are no gender signifiers at all in the official book summary. Once again, the publisher is relying on the whisper network to draw in those readers looking for queer stories while not committing to the book's queerness in the official publicity materials. That whisper network took up the flag with enthusiasm, promoting the book very clearly as a lesbian romance. (Almost with too much enthusiasm--I feel that Time War was hyped far more on the basis of its likeable and popular authors than on the book's actual content.)
And yet...I came out of the book asking myself what work the word "lesbian" was performing in describing the story concept. To have a lesbian romance, in the usual understanding of the phrase, one must have women.
Here you have two far-future cultures that are overtly post-human. It is implied that the protagonists were generated and raised extra-biologically. It’s clearly stated that they routinely modify their bodies not simply outside the limits of the human form, but perhaps outside the limits of biological plausibility. And having been enticed to read the book by calling it a lesbian romance, I’m left wondering “what even is gender in this context?”
What does it mean to be female or male or other within these cultures such that it is meaningful to apply categories of sexual orientation? Even if one chose to stick to outmoded biological definitions of gender (which I don’t), what does it mean to categorize entities with these properties as women? And if one comes at gender from a performative angle, where is the in-story evidence for what it is about their gender performance that places them in the category of women? If gender is a cultural construct, what does being a woman mean within the cultures of the Garden and the Agency? If gender is an expression of selfhood, how do these characters conceuptualize themselves such that this is how they understand their identities?
I don’t mean these questions to imply gender essentialism of any type. But I came out the other end of the book feeling like we only knew the two protagonists were women (and thus that their romance could be classified as lesbian) because we had been told so by authorial fiat. Because the authors chose to use feminine pronouns for the characters. And not because we were given any sense of what that identity means to the characters within the context of their lives.
It would have been a fascinating experiment to publish multiple versions of the text with a variety of arbitrary pronoun assignments and see how readers’ perceptions of the story changed. Of course, any change in perception would be entirely about how the readers understand gender, rather than how the characters do. Which is what would make it fascinating. Because I read the story through the framework of how I understand gender (which, I will confess, is often a confused jumble) and came out of it feeling that character gender was irrelevant to the story. But if gender is irrelevant, than in what sense is the protagonists' relationship "lesbian"? Except, again, by authorial fiat?
These are genuine questions for me, not some sort of accusation or challenge. All too often, science fiction stories that appear to challenge gender paradigms do so by reacting against the current status quo, rather than by envisioning something truly revolutionary. Time War feels to me like it takes a genuinely revolutionary approach to post-human gender, but in doing so feels like it makes the very assignment/assumption of character gender irrelevant.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40e - “The Mermaid” by Kathleen Jowitt - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/11/30 - listen here)
Some queer stories in history are about discovering or realizing your desires within the context of your ordinary life. But often they are about crossing boundaries, whether geographic or behavioral, whether the boundary is set up inside your mind or created by social performance. And once you’ve crossed that line, the world looks entirely different: there are new possibilities, new opportunities, and--yes--new hazards. But after that, your world never again looks the same.
Kathleen Jowitt’s story “The Mermaid” is about just such a crossing--about what you leave behind and what you find when you arrive.
Kathleen is a writer and trade union officer. Her first novel, Speak Its Name, was the first ever self-published book to be shortlisted for the prestigious Betty Trask Award. She lives in Cambridge, works in London, and writes on the train in between. She blogs at kathleenjowitt.com and can be found on Twitter at @KathleenJowitt.
“The Mermaid” is set on the Isle of Wight in the mid 18th century. For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Isle of Wight lies just off the southern coast of England, along the Channel between England and France. Its history has always been tied to the sea.
This is a story that cries out for a native voice in the narration, but I wasn’t able to locate a person who would be just right for it and I will be doing the narration myself.
This is the fourth and final story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 2019 fiction series. If you’ve felt inspired by these stories to try your own hand at historical short stories with queer female characters, remember that we’ll be open for submissions for the 2020 series in January and this time, in addition to strictly historic stories, we’re interested in stories with certain types of fantastic elements as well. See the link in the show notes for the full Call for Submissions, as well as links to our featured author’s social media.
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by Kathleen Jowitt
They call it a treacherous coast, and I suppose it is that: all rocks and swift water, and a wind you can't understand. They call us a treacherous people, and that isn't fair. There's talk of smugglers and wreckers all along this side of the island, but for the most part we are honest farmers and fishers.
That night in November nobody had any need of treachery. The tide was racing around the Ledge and the fog was thick enough that none would have seen any light shone from the shore, and the first that I, at least, knew of the wreck was when Jake Timmins' little boy John pounded at our door.
'My dad says you must fetch your dad, Alice Attrill, and your brothers, and tell them to come down the cove! There's a ship in trouble and men drowning!' He did not wait for me to tell him that I would or no, but was racing off towards Squibb's farm before I could shout for my father or George or Stephen.
Dad was sick in bed, but George and Steve were quick enough to come down the chine with me – for I went too – bearing a coil of rope and a few other things we thought might be useful.
There were a couple of men down on the beach besides Jake Timmins, but it was clear that had we brought an army with us they could have been of no help to those poor souls. The waves came down on the dark rocks belching great clouds of spray, and the noise of them drowned the screams – for surely those men must have been screaming.
We could see little enough in the fog, only the shape of the foundering ship lurching and grinding on the rocks, and, when the cloud lightened a little, the awful sight of men leaping into the water to drown. We yelled and waved and shone our lights so they could see where help was, and the men cast out ropes towards them, but each time the ropes fell short and they had to haul them back; so that I was kept busy coiling them, which was no easy task when they were stiff and heavy with brine.
And then Jake Timmins yelled, 'There's a man there! See – on a spar!' I ran forward once more with a rope, and Jake took it from me and flung it out, and it uncoiled neatly as its own weight carried it over the breakers. The figure on that fragment of wood stretched out a hand, but missed; Jake drew the rope back again, but less despondently, for it had not fallen so far short this time. He tried again, and his effort was rewarded. One hand and then the other caught the line, and Jake drew her to shore hand over hand.
Yes, her. For this was a woman that we had dragged out of the sea, as was plain from her streaming long hair, and her skirts, which clung close around her legs.
'Why!' Steve exclaimed, 'it's a mermaid!' and then seemed to feel that his joke was out of place, since he fell silent.
The poor thing looked to be exhausted, and for a little while she could only lie on the shingle and gasp.
'Alice,' George said, 'you must take her home and get her warm and put to bed, or she won't last an hour.'
I started to ask if she could not be taken to the Timmins' cottage, which was closer, and at the foot of the cliff rather than the head of the chine, but then I remembered that a landslip had covered the path some weeks before, and while Jake and John might have contrived to scramble over it, this creature would find it harder than the steep but well-trodden path to my home.
'Come,' I said to her, 'do you think you can stand?'
She took my hand, and hers was as cold as the sea itself, and she let herself lean up against me and she let me place her arm across my shoulder, and put mine about her waist, to support her. But she was shivering, and, I thought, weeping.
'You're safe,' I told her. 'I'll take you to my mother, and she'll find you some dry clothes to put on, and something hot to eat to warm you.'
'Th-thank you,' she said, and even through her shivering I could make out a foreign accent.
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It was slow going, for she was tired, and hampered by her wet skirts, and the path was dark, and more than once she slipped and I feared she'd take us both down the cliff again. But we persevered, and when I saw the dark edge of the cliff top I was glad, and when I made out a light in the field beyond I was gladder still, for that was the farmhouse, and my mother, who knew what to expect, would have a hot fire and hot soup ready.
She was a little surprised to find herself entertaining a fine lady – for what I had not seen in the dark, and what became clear now, was that the wet clothes that were coming off were exquisite and costly, and the hands that were full of splinters from clinging to that spar were soft – but my mother was equal to the occasion, and one woman looks much like another when she's wet and unclothed, and our guest seemed grateful enough to be rubbed vigorously with our plain towels and dressed in my dress – well, it was my Sunday best, so well she might be. And by the time George and Steve came home, with two men they'd managed to save, and news of many they hadn't, we'd shown her to my bed, and she seemed grateful for that, too.
We knew that she ought to have had a bed to herself, but we were short of them as it was, and I think it was as well that I went in to share with her, and put my arms about her to warm her. Because for all the fire and the soup and the dry clothes, she was still chilled through. She clung to me, and I lay awake listening to her breathing, pondering the strange chance that had brought her here to me.
'She was in the water a long time, our mermaid,' George said the next day, when I told him that she was ill, her skin burning to the touch, and muttering to herself in what I thought might have been French.
We took care of her as best we could, and between seeing to her, and the two sailors, and going down to the cove to retrieve our belongings and do what might be done for the poor drowned men, not to mention the usual farm work, we had plenty to be doing, and were hard put to it stopping Dad from making himself ill again.
The two men my brothers had brought home were, though shaken, sound enough to be on their way within a few days, and, with some money from the vicar, went off to the mainland to try to find a new ship in Portsmouth or Southampton. But our mermaid was still weak and, so we thought, raving. I moved to a pallet on the floor after that first night, thinking it unhealthy for both of us to share a bed while she was ill. And every day I was in and out, bringing her food and changing her bedding.
Once she sat bolt upright and said something to me in French, her eyes bright and wild.
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I don't understand you.'
She said, in English, 'Don't let him come here.'
'We won't,' I promised, knowing nothing of what she was talking about. 'Now, can you take a little broth?'
She ate it obediently and then, settling down on the pillows, said quite calmly, 'You have been very kind to me.'
'I hope we'd do the same for anyone,' I said.
She laughed a little bitterly at that, and I wondered why. She was four or five years older than me, I thought, with dark hair and dark eyes, and would have been pretty before she became so thin. 'I can't repay you,' she said. 'I have nothing. You must let me work.'
Now I was the one who laughed. 'Forgive me,' I said, 'but you don't look as if you have worked much in your life.'
She smiled, and said, 'I can sew.' She held out her hand to me as if to prove the point. I took it in my own, holding it like some precious treasure. She said, 'Find me some work to do, and I'll show you.'
'Well,' I said, charmed, but still suspicious of her sudden recovery, 'perhaps tomorrow.' Letting go of her hand, I turned to leave and then a thought struck me. 'Who are you? What's your name?'
She laughed. 'My name? Of course. You don't know my name.'
'We've been calling you the mermaid,' I told her, hoping she'd take it as a compliment.
'Who?' Her voice was urgent. 'Who has been calling me that? Who knows that I am here?'
'The family,' I said, 'and the Timmins, and the Squibbs, and the vicar...'
'Oh,' she said, dismayed. 'Many people, then.' She was silent for a little while, and then said, 'My name is Marie.'
She shook her head, smiling, and all of a sudden I had to catch my breath.
* * *
She had told the truth: she could indeed sew, once she had adjusted her dainty little stitches to suit the coarser work that we needed. As she grew stronger she began to come with me around the house, and then the farm, and I taught her how to cook and clean and churn, and in return she taught me my letters and my numbers, and some words of French, which I thought charming. She was not skilled, but she was willing, and she was quick, and it was a pleasure to me to have her company as I went about my work.
'Is she going to stay?' Dad asked one day in January.
I held my breath. I had no wish to send her on her way.
My mother raised her eyebrows and said, 'Well, she shows no signs of leaving.'
'She doesn't belong here,' Dad said. 'It isn't natural, a lady like her...'
'She doesn't belong anywhere, so far as I can see. But until she remembers where she does belong she's welcome to stay here, so long as she earns her keep.'
And nothing more was said.
My brothers regarded her as a sort of prize or good luck charm; they would not have dreamed of approaching her with any sort of lewdness, and she seemed to look upon them as her own brothers. When Bessy got married and moved over Totland way, my parents decided, without really talking about it, that there was no need to replace her so long as Marie was staying.
And she stayed, through the ploughing, through the sowing, through the spring gales. There was some little difficulty about her being a Papist, but she squared it with the vicar somehow, and came to church with the rest of us. She ate her meals with the rest of us; she shared my bed (for she was still a lady, and could not be expected to take Bessy's); altogether she seemed to be prepared to stay with us for the rest of her life.
I taxed her with it one day: 'Marie, do you intend to remain here forever?'
'Do you wish that I should go?' She said it with a smile, and a dimple in her cheek.
'No,' I said, keen above all things that she should not misunderstand me, 'not I! But you must have such marvellous things to go back to that I can't understand why you stay.'
She looked grave. 'What I have to go back to...? I would travel all around the globe to keep away from it.' And she would not say anything more.
* * *
I began to understand a little when a Frenchman came to the door. It was the wheat harvest, and all the men were out in the fields, and Marie had gone with my mother to take them their dinner, and so I was all alone in the house. When I saw the stranger at the door, I made sure that I could lay my hands upon the rolling pin, but it was not me that he was after.
'Mademoiselle,' he said to me, 'last year there was a ship wrecked on the rocks below this place. The Alphonsine.'
I agreed that this was the case.
'Many of those on board were lost,' he said. 'But not all.'
'No,' I said. 'Four men were saved. My brothers helped.' Some instinct told me not to mention any women who might have been there.
'And I hear that two of those men stayed here for a little while.'
'Yes,' I said. 'The other two went to the Timmins', down by the sea.'
'Ah!' This seemed to be news to him. 'And do you know of anybody else?'
'Anybody else?' I echoed. 'There were bodies washed up on the shore for weeks afterwards.'
He pursed his lips. 'Might one of them have been... a woman?'
'Poor souls,' I said, 'it was difficult to tell.'
I offered him refreshment before I sent him off to the Timmins'. On the way out of the door he passed Marie. Perhaps it was not so surprising that he did not recognise her, with her sun-browned face, and her plain dress, and the basket on her arm. I thought him a fool, all the same.
* * *
She recognised him, and when he had gone she drew me aside to ask me what the man had said.
'You know him, then?' Having known all along that she was hiding things from me, I was not pleased that she now went about to find things out from me.
'His name is Jourdain. He is my fiancé's... I don't know the English! His steward, his foreman, the man he trusts!'
'The man that I am meant to be married to. In France, I have a large fortune. I would give it all up to be rid of him!' There were tears in her eyes, half angry, half afraid, and I checked an urge to reach out and wipe them from her face.
Instead, I said, 'Marie, how can I keep your secrets when I don't know them?'
She bit her lip. 'Very well,' she said. 'Come inside, and I'll tell you.'
We sat in the kitchen, the flagstones cool under our feet, and she explained that the Alphonsine had been meant to take her along the French coast to marry the man at his estate, but the ship had been blown off course before finding itself lost in the fog, and at last caught on the rocks in the rushing tide.
'I thought it was Providence,' she said. 'All year I had been praying that I might die. Now I could. And then –'
'Then there was a plank of wood, and I couldn't bring myself to let go of it. Then you pulled me from the water. But you didn't know who I was, and nobody had told you, and I thought perhaps...'
'Perhaps you could stay forever,' I put in.
'I would. Alice, I would stay with you.'
'Then stay,' I said.
She said, urgently, 'He's going to come back for me. He wants my money, and he can't have it unless he marries me. I leapt into the water to escape him once. I would do it again.'
'Marie,' I said, 'don't talk like that. It's a sin.' But she was crying and shaking, and so I put my arms around her and stroked her hair, the way I used to with the twins, once upon a time. And I kissed the top of her head, and she clung on to me and she turned her face upwards, so now I was kissing her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her lips, and she was kissing me...
And suddenly I understood several things – about old Tabitha and Nell in Brighstone; about why I had never been as keen on Harry Martin as my mother thought I should be; about why I could not bear the thought of Marie leaving, or leaping into the water, or being taken away by some man who thought he had the right to her. 'Hush, my love,' I said. 'Hush. We'll make it work. We'll hide you.'
'I'll think of something to tell them,' I said.
'But Timmins will tell him that you pulled me out of the water, and then they'll come back for me.'
'Then you'll have to go,' I said, though it broke my heart.
She looked hurt, and I couldn't help kissing her again. 'You are right,' she said, 'but how can I? How can I leave you?'
'By promising me that you'll come back,' I said.
'I promise,' she said.
She said it over and over again, that night, and the next night, and all the time that we had left together.
* * *
The next Thursday, I watched from my bedroom window as she walked down the lane, dressed once more in her French finery, and with a little case held in her hand. I watched as Daniel the carter helped her up to sit next to him, and I watched as they drove away and disappeared between the high hedges. And though I knew I let her go to keep her safe, I wept as I watched.
* * *
I did not think that she would come back. I thought that she would repent of our strange, wondrous, harvest time. I wept in my lonely bed, and in the daytime I affected to show that I did not care.
Jourdain returned, and he brought his master with him, but my father said – which was quite true – that a Frenchwoman called Marie had stayed with us, but that she had gone away very suddenly after the harvest. He thought she had gone to the mainland; perhaps she had been trying to get back to France. Everyone in the village agreed that this was what had happened – because it was quite true. So they got little of use out of any of us, and eventually they went off to look in Portsmouth and Southampton, and what became of them there I don't know.
But one night in November – it was, I remember, a calm, moonlit night, I heard a rattling of little pebbles against my windowpane, and I tiptoed downstairs and unlatched the door.
And there she stood. Not in her fine gown and dainty shoes – she'd sold them, she said, to pay her fare – but in the honest plain dress I'd come to know her and to love her in, and with a sweetness on her face that told me that she'd been longing for me as I had for her.
We didn't speak. We simply held out our hands, and took one another in a silent, joyful, embrace, and kissed, there on the doorstep.
My mermaid had come home.
~ * * * ~
There's a certain type of book structure that always makes me wonder if the work has its origins in the author's doctoral thesis. (I mean, in the specific subject matter and organization, not simply in the themes.) I have no idea whether that's the case for Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, but it has the earmarks that raise that suspicion: a group of highly focused discussions of specific works, people, or events, tied together by--and featuring a conclusion referencing--an overall theme that operates at a tangent to the objective content of the material. These are books aimed at playing with ideas more than they're aimed at presenting and interpreting historic data.
And...I mean...that's fine? It's very much an important part of the theory side of "doing history." Historians dive into the wrestling pit of theory and come out with new ideas and approaches for how to work past the superficial meanings of historic data to identify underlying themes, forces, and motivations. This is important. But for me, as an amateur (but I like to think, sophisticated) consumer of historic research, I find this type of book frustrating. Especially when the shadow it casts over other, more data-driven, publications is large enough to lead me to expect something different.
If for no other reason, this is part of why I would never be interested in pursuing history as an academic subject. (Leaving aside the fact that I've already done the PhD thing, so I know that I'm already doing the "fun parts" of an academic history degree in this blog.) On the one side, I'm more interested in trying to understand past lives "from the inside", even if that understanding is flawed, than to think about history through a modern methodological lens. Even though that "from the inside" approach can only be made possibly by the apparatus of academic methodology. And from the other side, I'm completely comfortable with the goal of that understanding being the manipulation of historic data for highly subjective modern consumer purposes. (I.e., the production of historical fiction.) Books like Dinshaw's fall between those two purposes. And--in the context of the purpose of this blog--isn't a book I would recommend to the casual reader seeking to understand queer lives in history. The non-casual reader, sure. But if you're non-casual, you probably aren't coming to me for advice on useful sources.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Coda: Use of the Past
This final section starts with the inspiration for the book’s title in a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. Dinshaw explores the imagery of sodomitical rape in this movie and other films. There is an association of the concept of “medieval” as an out-of-context reference alongside imagery of male aggressive sexuality, contrasted at the same time with male bonding. The same preoccupations, Dinshaw asserts, run through Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1.
The rest of the conclusion both critiques and celebrates Foucault’s work with its contras between identities and acts, and how acts tend to be prosecuted only when they disturb the social order. But since I’ll be covering Foucault’s work separately, I think I’ll leave the details for that entry.
For some reason that has not yet become entirely clear to me, Margery Kempe--a medieval English widow who experienced a religious calling outside of formal religious institutions and is well-known primarily for the memoir written under her name--has become a popular topic among queer studies scholars. While she transgressed a number of social, cultural, and religious norms, within the field of queer studies, she seems to function more as a second- or third-hand metaphor for more centrally "queer" themes. (It's possible that this is simply part of my difficulty in grasping exactly what the central themes of "queer studies" are.) In any event, this chapter is all about Margery Kempe and is hard to fit into the central scope of my Project. Which is not at all to say that she isn't fascinating as a subject.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Chapter 3: Margery Kempe
When Kempe was required to defend herself against charge that included Lollardy, one of the questions thrown at her by the Mayor of Leicester was that she “went in white clothes ... to lure away our wives from us and lead them off with you.” What did that mean? Why did accusations of heresy and sexual deviance get associated with white clothing? Why would wearing white signal that she had intentions of leading women away from their homes? And what was she leading them away for?
Kempe held that she dressed in white because Christ asked her to, but in her memoirs she treated the act as something of a bargaining point. She would wear white if Christ offered her protection in return. She was aware that the color signaled a type of purity (virginity) that she was not technically worthy of, and that others would criticize her for this, so she needed something in return. The garments regularly stood out as unusual and drew down criticism.
The wearing of white clothing may have been associated in England with specific foreign sects that were considered heretical and accused of deviant sexual practices. [Note: Dinshaw doesn’t name the sects specifically.] From accusations of heresy, it was a small step to Lollardy at that time. Thus her clothing may have drawn accusations of Lollady “by contagion” as it were, even though her actions and beliefs were clearly in contradiction with Lollard principles.
Kempe’s status as a widow who adopted the signifier of virginity provokes a discussion of attitudes toward sexual experience and sexual continence. It can be seen as a type of transvestism to use clothing to cross or blur categories in this way.
At this point, I’m going to skim over the long discussion of Kempe’s behavior under questioning. One of Dinshaw’s points here is that Kempe’s habit of answering back and challenging her questioners raises issues of authority and truth. If two people can charge each other with sexual deviance, who has the right to make such a charge?
On multiple occasions, Kempe was accused of “leading women astray.” But what exactly was she being charged with? The language hints at, but does not outright name, same-sex acts.
There is a long analysis of Kempe’s habit of public crying and lamentation over Christ’s passion and how this was considered disruptive. We then move on to a modern work of fiction that uses Kempe as a touchstone in a queer (male) narrative. And then the discussion goes sideways into debates over modern arts and research grants and the uses of accusations over whether particular projects are absurd and unworthy.
One of the minor themes in this chapter of Dinshaw is the tantalizing window that a detailed legal record can provide of what must certainly have been a more widespread phenomenon. John/Eleanor Rykener is a popular example of gender disruption and category challenge in medieval England, but as Dinshaw points out (in the book--I haven't had space to discuss it all here), there is tangential evidence for that probably "more widespread" context. In addition, there may be a basis for believing that Rykener (or someone with a highly similar story) is reflected in one of Chaucer's characters in Canterbury Tales. In this chapter, one of the primary reasons for discussing Rykener is how their testimony ties in with the Lollard accusation of sexual impropriety among the religious establishment. Does that testimony, indeed, support the claim that sexual indiscretions of all types were rampant in the church? Or is it an example of someone using the popular image of those indiscretions as a distraction from their own sexual transgressions?
Chapter 2: John/Eleanor, Dame Alys, The Pardoner and Foucault
The chapter begins with a summary of the legal records concerning John/Eleanor Rykener who was arrested for prostitution and who confessed to having sex with men as a woman, and with women as a man. [Note: The primary publication concerning this historic record is Karras & Boyd 1996] Of particular relevance to Dinshaw’s theme, Rykener specified having sex with both clerics and nuns. (There is no explicit mention of being paid to have sex with women, as there is when having sex with men.) The court records date to two months prior to the posting of the Lollards’ “Conclusions” (their manifesto of principles) and the Rykener case reads as if designed to illustrate their claims about sexual corruption in the church.
Rykener’s story also has echoes in Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale,” involving themes of casual prostitution among London’s working class in the late 14th century. But Rykener holds an unusual position in the English legal record, which is generally devoid of accusations of men for prostitution. Prostitution was understood to be an inherently and essentially female crime.
Although originally arrested for suspicion of prostitution (due to female dress and appearance), the investigation shifted to being for sodomy. And yet Rykerer’s entry into the trade involves feminization not only with regard to sexual activity but in occupation (embroiderer).
Using this jumping off point, Dinshaw uses this chapter to explore the questions Rykener’s interrogation raises, comparing this with Chaucer’s queer character of the Pardoner, and with Foucault’s essay on “the life of infamous men.”
Rykener’s crime is described in the text as “vitium...nephandum” (unmentionable vice) which traditionally alludes to sodomy. Yet there are regular references back to “the aforementioned vice”, highlighting it as unspeakable and yet referenced by previous utterance. The interrogatoin involves many layers of “translation”: an English proceeding recorded in Latin, possibly rendered into the formulaic language of confessional manuals. Our ability to retrieve Rykener's own voice is questionable. [Note: I have been shifting to a practice of using they/them pronouns when discussing individuals whose lives crossed gender lines. However this approach has it's own hazards, especially in flattening the data about how their gender was performed and perceived. The transcript of the trial evidence shifts between male and female pronouns for Rykener in ways that reflect both the speaker's attitude and the interpretive layer of the clerk.]
The emphasis on clerical offenses might come from the concerns of the questioners, or from Rykener’s focus in answering, or from the clerk’s own focus in recording the procedings. Rykener appears to cooperate eagerly, but may have shaped their testimony out of fear of the legal penalty for sodomy. (Technically, the death penalty was called for, but very rarely implemented.)
Rykener presents a category crisis. Despite the initial emphasis on male/male sodomy, the emerging details blur categories of gender and sex acts. Rykener’s description of their own actions strictly follows a heterosexual framing: female with men and male with women, dodging the strict definition of sodomy entirely.
Sodomy isn’t the only queer element present. Why would Rykener choose prostitution as a woman (or even embroidery as a woman) over the more profitable options available to even the poorest of men? Practicality and logic suggest this was not simply an economic strategy. Did Rykener’s male clients all believe themselves to be having sex with a woman? Or did they desire sex with someone falling between categories? Women taught Rykener how to be read as a woman and how to play on gender expectations. To what purpose?
Laws that expected a clear gender binary had no way to address the situation. Despite the detailed interrogation, no formal charges were recorded against Rykener--which doesn’t preclude more informal hazards now that their story was out.
Dinshaw compares Rykener’s categorical indeterminacy with the way Chaucer’s Pardoner is presented (and mocked, in-text) as anomalously masculine (with hints that he might be a eunuch). [There follows a great deal of analysis of Chaucer’s use of language and imagery in general.]
The chapter ends with Foucault’s essay “The Life of Infamous Men” on the context and problems of doing history on persons whose lives emerge only from (often antagonistic) texts. [Note: Foucault seems to be playing on both the derogatory sense of “infamous” and a literal sense of “not famous,” that is, men for whom we don’t have multiple textual sources due to the obscurity of their lives.]
Foucault was struck by the power that such ordinary “real existences” have in contrast to the more mythologized lives of the famous. Although his essay is not specifically commenting on queer history, Foucault’s observation is powerful in the context of trying to document and understand queer lives. Texts such as Rykener’s can create affective relations across time that stand apart from any objective unknowable “truth” of their lives.