It's fascinating how the different communities we live in will shift and intersect in unexpected ways over time. Way back in the early '90s Kathleen Knowles and I worked at the same biotech company. I went off to grad school and then to a different biotech company, and she went in other professional directions as well. And then one day I went to a bookstore reading in San Francisco and found we'd come back on an intersection course as authors of lesbian fiction. Two Souls is the most recent book in a loose series beginning with Awake Unto Me, and A Spark of Heavenly Fire, set in turn of the century San Francisco and involving a social network of professional women. Two Souls brings the series up to the 1906 earthquake, which is a guarantee of drama for any historical San Francisco story!
Abigail Eliot is a brilliant naturalist whose entire life is dedicated to her work. When she meets an earnest doctor, Norah Stratton who’s new to San Francisco, they start an unlikely friendship. When the 1906 earthquake and fire strike, they’re both caught up in the event in very different ways. Will their tentative connection turn to a lasting love or will San Francisco’s great tragedy drive them apart?
One of the challenges in writing lesbian historical fiction set before the mid-20th century is to show women in the context of a like-minded community. How did they find and recognize each other? How did they come out to each other in a context when indiscretion could destroy lives? And how did that closed and secret aspect of their lives affect their personal relationships? One of the challenges and joys I've had in writing the Alpennia series--including the most recent book, Mother of Souls--is to create networks of this sort that are as realistic and believable as the rest of the historic setting.
The Great November Book Release Re-Boot is a blog series talking about November 2016 releases that may have been overshadowed by unfortunate political events.
I've listened to Lauren Beukes talk about her books on a number of podcasts. This collection--Slipping--looks like an excellent introduction to the range of her writing.
A Punk Lolita fighter-pilot rescues Tokyo from a marauding art installation. Corporate recruits harvest poisonous plants on an inhospitable planet. An inquisitive adolescent ghost disrupts the life of a young architect. Product loyalty is addictive when the brand appears under one’s skin. Award-winning Cape Town author and journalist Lauren Beukes (Zoo City, Moxyland, Broken Monsters) spares no targets in this edgy and satiric retrospective collection. In her fiction and nonfiction, ranging from Johannesburg across the galaxy, Beukes is a fierce, captivating presence throughout the literary landscape.
The Great November Book Release Re-Boot is a blog series talking about November 2016 releases that may have been overshadowed by unfortunate political events. And I'm at a loss to come up with a clever way to tie in a reference to Mother of Souls on this one. Look: I wrote this fabulous book and more people should know about it and read it and tell their friends about how fabulous it is. That's all I've got this time.
Back when my first novel was just barely out on the shelves, Tami Veldura interviewed me for the newsletter she sends out to her fans and readers. It meant a lot to me to have someone treat me like a real author at that point. I'm delighted to return the favor by featuring Tami's book Learning to Want as part of the Great November Book Release Re-Boot. It's an erotic story of dominance and submission in a science-fictional setting.
Khoram is an enforcer, a bodyguard, but his boss has just betrayed him. Now he's stranded on a desert planet he's never heard of, chained to the only other human around.
Atash grew up in the cracks of Dulia's complex social structure, where dominance and submission are a man's worth. He's struggled for years on a lower caste but Khoram could be his ticket to a better life if they can find common ground.
Atash wants to teach Khoram the art of submitting by choice and maybe make a name for himself along the way. Khoram, however, isn't here to play Atash's political games. He's going to escape, if his former employer doesn't see him killed first.
I really appreciate the way networks of independent and small-press authors support each other in carving out niches in the publishing market. In many ways, they're reminiscent of the networks of connections and support built by the women of the Alpennia novels to carve out a place in a society that sees them as lesser creatures. Mother of Souls features networks of all kinds: of blood, of desire, of aspiration, of common purpose.
The Great November Book Release Re-Boot is a blog series talking about November 2016 releases that may have been overshadowed by unfortunate political events.
This is the only non-fiction post in the Great November Book Release Re-Boot: a biography of Barbara Grier, one of the founders of Naiad Press and a long-time lesbian activist. Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier by historian Joanne Passett chronicles her complex and jam-packed life.
Barbara Grier—feminist, activist, publisher, and archivist—was many things to different people. Perhaps most well known as one of the founders of Naiad Press, Barbara’s unapologetic drive to make sure that lesbians everywhere had access to books with stories that reflected their lives in positive ways was legendary. Barbara changed the lives of thousands of women in her lifetime.
For the first time, historian Joanne Passet uncovers the controversial and often polarizing life of this firebrand editor and publisher with new and never before published letters, interviews, and other personal material from Grier’s own papers. Passet takes readers behind the scenes of The Ladder, offering a rare window onto the isolated and bereft lives lesbians experienced before the feminist movement and during the earliest days of gay political organizing. Through extensive letters between Grier and her friend novelist Jane Rule, Passet offers a virtual diary of this dramatic and repressive era. Passet also looks at Grier’s infamous “theft” of The Ladder’s mailing list, which in turn allowed her to launch and promote Naiad Press, the groundbreaking women’s publishing company she founded with partner Donna McBride in 1973. Naiad went on to become one of the leaders in gay and lesbian book publishing and for years helped sustain lesbian and feminist bookstores—and readers—across the country.
Back when I started reading lesbian fiction in the 1980s, Naiad Press was one of the few companies publishing it, possibly the only one exclusively focusing on lesbian stories. Bella Books is something of a loosely-connected heir to Naiad, having picked up their inventory and continuing to publish many of their authors when the Naiad proprietors wanted to retire. That history was one of the reasons that Bella was at the top of my list when I was ready to submit Daughter of Mystery to publishers. As it happened, I didn't need to work further down the list. My most recent novel, Mother of Souls carries the heritage of a pubishing line that first and foremost supports the right of fictional women to love other fictional women, without apology or flinching.
The Great November Book Release Re-Boot is a blog series talking about November 2016 releases that may have been overshadowed by unfortunate political events.
One of the protections that my Alpennian ladies have for their personal lives is the willingness of Rotenek society to look the other way. To enter enthusiastically into the belief that “nice women don’t do that sort of thing” and therefore that two women who are well-born and respectable could be the closest of romantic friends without ever stepping across the line into forbidden desires.
This attitude is grounded in the contradictory attitudes of the times. The people who celebrated and praised women’s devoted romantic friendships were able to reconcile that with their moral beliefs because they considered that love to be elevated and non-sexual. It wasn’t that they didn’t think women might be sexual with each other, but female homoeroticism was strictly Othered in their minds. It was a thing that foreigners might do, or lower class people, but not People Like Us. And it was that admission that lesbian sexuality could exist that served to place limits on romantic friendship and keep it from entirely subverting heteronormativity. Two women who rejected the pressure to marry men in favor of being devoted to each other risked the possibility of being accused of unnatural desires if their relationship were seen to threaten social norms.
Margerit and Barbara’s relationship may seem “safe” but it treads a tightrope. Despite Margerit’s various expensive projects, she’s still an unmarried heiress. And Barbara is still an unmarried member of the titled nobility. Both states can be viewed as depriving some hypothetical man of what he considers his right to take advantage of those open positions for a spouse. There are men who are not above hinting at the consequences of gossip in order to convince one or the other to choose a more traditional life path.
At the same time, women who aren’t protected by society’s willingness to be oblivious walk an even more dangerous tightrope. And the divide of class can be wider than any commonality of desire. One of the things I wanted to do in Floodtide was to explore this contradiction. Even Roz (our narrator) has been blinded by the assumption that maisetras and mesneras “don’t do things like that.” But when she does see the light, she knows how little it means to her own life.
(from Floodtide, chapter not yet determined)
When I figured it out, my stomach knotted up as tight as a cramp. I knew the maisetra and the baroness were friends who loved each other, but I’d never thought about them being in love. Not like me and Nan. I never imagined them doing the things we had done. Maybe it should have made me feel glad to think the maisetra and I were alike that way, but instead I was frightened. It was one of those dangerous secrets Tavit had warned me about. The kind you didn’t want to know and you didn’t want people to know you knew. I thought about how the maisetra had hired me, even knowing why I’d lost my last place. Maybe that had been a part of it—thinking that we were just a little bit alike--but it wouldn’t go any further than that.
There are many types of romantic adventures in the wide world, even within the confines of contemporary realism. Lorelie Brown's Take Me Home plays out an adventure that start with what must be a fantasy for many contemporary lesbians. No, not that sort of fantasy. The fantasy of figuring out just how thoroughly one can blow the minds of disapproving relatives in a single go.
"Thanksgiving arrives in one week and one day. Feeling hemmed in by parental expectations? Are they disappointed by your sapphic proclivities? I can help! The only pay I want is the holiday meal!"
I didn’t know what I was looking for until I saw her Craigslist ad.
I love my family. I’m lucky to have them—well, most of them. But my aunt? I’m so tired of her giving my mom crap because I happen to be a lesbian. So one pink-haired tattoo artist pretending to be my girlfriend will annoy my Christian fundamentalist aunt right back and make my Thanksgiving perfect.
Only . . . Brooke turns out to be cuter and more complicated than I expected. And before you can say “yorkiepoo,” we kiss . . . and abduct a dog together. I want to keep them both—but Brooke isn’t the kind to be kept. Lucky for me, I’m the kind to chase what I want.
How times change! The characters in Mother of Souls are usually more concerned with flying under the radar--and essential component of happiness for a queer woman in the early 19th century. And Antuniet Chazillen wasn't specifically intending to shock Rotenek society in general, and her cousin Barbara in particular, when she embarked upon her new Great Work of alchemy. Margerit Sovitre wasn't intending to shock the dozzures of Rotenek University when she opened her women's college. Luzie Valorin never meant to shock anyone at the debut of her opera on the life of the philosopher Tanfrit. And yet somehow they all turned the world upside down.
This book comes out of an era when “claiming historic figures for the team” was a major preoccupation of gay and lesbian historical studies. (And at that time it was very often narrowly “gay and lesbian” without additional letters of the alphabet.)
Aldrich, Robert & Garry Wotherspoon eds. 2001. Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-15982-2
An encyclopedia of “people significant in the history of homosexuality."
This book carefully identifies the listings as “people significant in the history of homosexuality” thereby neatly sidestepping the question of personal identification or behavior. It is clear from the choices, however, that the intent is to focus on persons known or believed to have had homoerotic inclinations, although persons significant in cultural debates around the topic (such as Saint Paul and SIgmund Freud) are also included. The geographic scope is restricted to the Western world with the recognition that the concept of homosexuality around which the work is organized is linked specifically to that cultural context. There is a brief apology for failing at gender parity with the excuse that the focus on “famous” people will follow the disparity in historic recognition between the sexes.
A brief survey of the entries under “A” will give a sense of the coverage: out of 31 entries, 7 are women and 24 men; 7 are from the classical era (all men), 10 from the 20th century, and the remaining 14 covering the entire remaining scope of history.
While the individual entries are informative and nuanced in discussing the historic context and evidence, and provide a brief selection of references for further reading, the immense temporal and cultural scope of the work means that only a relatively small number of people are covered. I see this book as something of a “showpiece”--a proof of existence and exercise in presentation. It might be useful as a introductory text in an entry-level queer history course. It seems less useful as a general reference work for investigating random historic individuals one might want additional information on. In general, if a figure is included in this work, a reader with only mild familiarity with the history of homosexuality will generally know about that person’s relevance already. Conversely, if a reader is trying to track down information on lesser-known figures, those figures probably won’t be included. (It would also be nice if there were a cross-index of all the possible forms of people’s names, given the problems of alphabetizing and standardizing the names of non-modern people.)
In sum: a text for browsing but not particularly useful as a reference work, though that last evaluation must be understood in the context of the massive improvements in research resources made possible by the internet. This would have been more valuable as a reference at the time it was published (and even more valuable if it had been published a decade earlier).
I suppose I'm cheating a little by including Naomi Novik's League of Dragons in this series, because technically the hardback was released in June. But the mass market paperback was a November book, so that's my excuse. And it isn't that Novok's Hugo-finalist series needs any extra publicity boost from me, but it's an opportunity to tell an amusing story about the power of the knowledgable independent bookseller. Back when the first book in the Temeraire series had been out for a little while, I wandered into my local SFF bookstore, The Other Change of Hobbit (now, alas, out of business) and while I was browsing the relatively new releases I idly remarked to Tom Whitmore that I was trying to remember the title of a new book that various friends thought I might like. He instantly handed me a copy of His Majesty's Dragon and I recognized it as the title people had been recommending. That was the extent of the clue: "a new book my friends thought I might like" and Tom's familiarity with my reading habits as a long-time customer. That's what we lose when we lose face-to-face independent booksellers. (P.S. They were all correct about me liking the book.) League of Dragons is the final volume in the Temeraire series.
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia has been roundly thwarted. But even as Capt. William Laurence and the dragon Temeraire pursue the retreating enemy through an unforgiving winter, Napoleon is raising a new force, and he’ll soon have enough men and dragons to resume the offensive. While the emperor regroups, the allies have an opportunity to strike first and defeat him once and for all—if internal struggles and petty squabbles don’t tear them apart.
Aware of his weakened position, Napoleon has promised the dragons of every country—and the ferals, loyal only to themselves—vast new rights and powers if they fight under his banner. It is an offer eagerly embraced from Asia to Africa—and even by England, whose dragons have long rankled at their disrespectful treatment.
But Laurence and his faithful dragon soon discover that the wily Napoleon has one more gambit at the ready—one that that may win him the war, and the world.
This blog series is all about recommending books, or at least featuring them (when I don't know enough about the specific work to recommend it). The fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores is not the only handicap that non-bestsellers face. While the rise of electronic self-publishing and small specialty presses has meant greater access of marginalized authors to publication, it has created a vast array of books that will never have shelf space in a physical bookstore. Other than the lost Other Change of Hobbit, and Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland, I have only once seen any of the Alpennia books on a physical bookstore shelf. (Though I have reports of sightings from readers.) This makes reader recommendations an invaluable resource. I am massively grateful to those readers who have enjoyed my books, including the most recent Mother of Souls, and who have shared that love with others.
This is it, the inventory of the book haul! The final count is either 20 or 22. (I also bought two of Candace Robb's backlist as e-books while chatting with her, but I'm not sure if that counts.) As usual, the books fall in certain themes, based not only on longstanding interests, but on current research topics.
For the Lesbian Historic Motif Project
Traub, Valerie. 2016. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812223897 - A more general book than the previous works of hers that I’ve covered for the LHMP, but I hope to find something new and interesting. Traub is one of a group of historians doing some very interesting work on this history of sexuality in the early modern period.
Williams, Craig A. 2010. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195388749 - Most general works on homoeroticism in the classical Roman period consist of 99% discussion of men and half a page on women. This book follows that pattern, but since it was second-hand at the Powell's booth and cheap, I figured I might as well include it in the project for the sake of completeness. After all, one of the purposes of the LHMP is to advise readers on which reference works it's worth their time to track down and which not to bother with.
Hallett, Judith P. & Marilyn B Skinner (eds). 1997. Roman Sexualities. Princeton University Press . ISBN 978-0691011783 - This is likely to be similar to the preceding in terms of amount of relevant material -- perhaps less so since it covers all sexualities not just homosexual ones. The same reason and disclaimer applies.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2005. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. Routledge. ISBN 978-1138860896- For LHMP. A brief skim in the index and contents indicated that the relevant contents are already covered in the LHMP from more immdiate sources. But since this seems to be a commonly available book, it's worth reviewing as reader advice.
Staples, Kate Kelsey. 2011. Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages. BRILL. ISBN 978-9004203112 - I picked this up as being of interest for the LHMP in the economic angle of “what circumstances might provide a woman with the resources to live outside a heteronormative paradigm?” While this is an angle that had only a tangential relationship to sexuality in history, it's very relevant to people writing historical fiction who want to give their characters plausibly independent lives.
Eisenbichler, Konrad. 2012. The Sword and the Pen: Women, Politics, and Poetry in Sixteenth-Century Siena. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 978-0268027766 - Eisenbicher wrote the article on the poetry Laudomia Forteguerri wrote for Duchess Margaret of Parma that inspired my short historical romance story “Where My Heart Goes”. I’m interested in more of Laudomia’s background. Who knows? Some day I might want to expand that story a little.
Women's History (General)
Andrea, Bernadette. 2017. The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1487501259 - 16-17th c. Islamic women who found themselves--for whatever reason--in England and Scotland. I don't have any specific research interest this would address, but it looked fascinating from the point of view of multi-cultural history.
Sciacca, Christine. 2017. Illuminating Women in the Medieval World. J. Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 978-1606065266 - A collection of art works focusing on women’s lives with commentary on what they depict. I love this sort of “medieval picture book” for inspiration both on women’s lives and on material culture.
History of Magic
Klaassen, Frank. 2013. The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Penn State University Press. ISBN 978-0271056272 - The author compares two genres of learned magic: the acceptable “image magic” based on faithful recopyings of diagrams and whatnot, and the less acceptable ritual magic, which was more subject to experimentation and change, and could go into forbidden fields such as necromancy.
Flint, Valerie I. J. 1994. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton University Press . ISBN 978-0691001104 - How early Christianity sorted out what they were going to incorporate and what they were going to reject as forbidden and magic. My interest in many of these books is for deep-background on how attitudes towards magic might have evolved differently in the alternate timeline in which Alpennia exists.
Hughes, Jonathan. 2012. The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England: Plantagenet Kings and the Serach for the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury Academic . ISBN 978-1441181831 - It’s hard to quit the alchemy habit. I may very well need to write another book focusing on alchemy just to make use of all the research materials I've gathered!
Textiles and Clothing
Kapustka, Mateusz & Warren T. Woodfin (eds). 2015. Clothing the Sacred: Medieval Textiles as Fabric, Form, and Metaphor. Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH. ISBN 978-3942810203 - A collection of papers covering eastern European topics. A few interesting mentions of surviving garments. I dithered on this one a bit, especially because I've let the Surviving Garments Database languish in a broken state for too long.
Brandenburgh, Chrystel R. 2017. Clothes Make the Man: Early Medieval Textiles from the Netherlands. Leiden University Press. ISBN 9789087282608 - Lots of delicious artifacts, lovingly described, including excellent descriptions of a number of surviving garments. There's a whole series on archaological clothing/accessories from the Netherlands (one on shoes, one on purses) that is a good reminder of how much we miss when we study historic costume purely from English and French sources.
Netherton, Robin & Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds.) 2017. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 13. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1783272150 - This year's volume of the journal isn't actually available yet so I won't have a chance to check out the contents until it arrives on my doorstep later.
Denholm-Young, N. 1964. Handwriting in England and Wales. University of Wales Press. (no ISBN)- In the course of my research career, I've made (or collected) a significant number of photocopies of long out-of-print books. I made myself an “ethical pledge” that any time I encountered a physical copy of a book I'd photocopied and made use of, I would buy it. (Though I guess I'd make an exception for really really expensive antiques.) This is a guide to paleography that has been particularly useful to my historic re-enactment because it includes a selection of Welsh documents.
Stephenson, David. 2016. Medieval Powys: Kingdom, Principality and Lordships, 1132-1293. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1783271405 - While I no longer jump at every Welsh historical title I come across, this one looked interesting enough to pick up. And one of these days I will be writing some lesbian historical fiction set in medieval Wales...
Morgan, Derec Lloyd. 2002. Cronica Walliae. University of Wales Press. ISBN 9780708316382 - An edition of Humphrey Llwyd’s 1559 chronicle of Welsh history as best he understood it at the time and one of several English language histories of Wales produced in the 16th century that were based in part on the Brut y Tywysogion. Interesting largely as a "period piece" illustrating what the people of the 16th century believed about their history.
General Research Material for Writing Projects
Fincham, Garrick. 2004. Durobrivae: A Roman Town between Fen and Upland. The History Press . ISBN 978-0752433370 - A town in the general region where my languishing Romano-British historic romance is set. I’ll go back and completely re-write it some day, and I keep picking up research materials to that end.
Bonfil, Robert. 1994. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520073500 - As with some of the other books I picked up, I don't have a specific research purpose for this, but I've been keeping in mind how easy it is to overlook even very significant minority groups in history if I haven't added them to my "research compost heap" before the ideas start percolating.
Robb, Candace The Service of the Dead - A new murder mystery series set in medieval York by the author of the Owen Archer mysteries and the Margaret Kerr trilogy. Robb gave an entertaining talk on being a medievalist writing genre fiction as part of a panel on that topic. And I'm tickled to death by a personal connection: back when Daughter of Mystery had first come out, I had a copy in my backpack when I ended up sitting next to Robb in the audience at a Kalamazoo panel. I worked up my gumption and asked if she'd be willing to accept it as a gift--which she did, despite an understandable deer-in-the-headlights reaction. I forgot all about it (figuring that the important thing was that I'd managed to get up the nerve) until she popped up on my Twitter feed much later to say how much she enjoyed my book. I bought a hard copy of The Service of the Dead specifically so I could ask her to sign it, though I'll need to pick it (and the second book in the series) in e-book as well since that's the only way I read anymore. We bumped into each other in one of the building lobbies Saturday in a small group that ended up talking about pen names. When she mentioned regretting publishing her first two novels under a pen name, I whipped out my phone and bought them before she'd finished talking. So that's the "maybe two more" books in the tally.
And that's my Kalamazoo book haul for the year. There was an informal pool taking place on my facebook page as to the final number. I'll have to go back and report.
Session 537 - Female Friendship in Medieval Literature II
Models of Female Friendship in the Lives of Saints - Andrea Boffa, York College, CUNY
A young widow escapes to the Poor Clares to avoid a second marriage, taking the name Clara, is retrieved by her family, then is allowed to enter a Dominican convent. Her new sisters were annoyed by her excessive humility, but some liked her enough to accompany her when she later established a new Dominican house. But this paper begins with a specific incident when she was participated in a group of female friends. A man is afflicted by a sudden and disgusting illness, and is cared for by a group of female friends. They are joined by the young woman who would later become Clara. This episode was used to illustrate her piety and humility, but the episode itself suggests that her activities were more to bond with the pious women and become part of their circle.
Clara is part of a proliferation of female saints in the 13-14th centuries in northern Italy, many of whom were “lay saints” never joining an order, or like Clara, who had experience in the world before entering a convent. Hagiographers grappled with how to present an independent, worldly woman as worthy of veneration. But for historians, these vitae provide useful evidence of the everyday lives of ordinary women. Female friendships are a notable theme within the texts, though in many variants.
Margaret ran away as a teenager to live with her lover, with whom she had a son. When her lover was murdered, she was rejected by her family and taken in by a woman and her daughter. When Margaret wanted to take a Franciscan habit and was rejected, her female friends helped her establish herself as a midwife. Although she attempts to live a relatively solitary devotional life, her days are continually interrupted by women of the community who wish to interact with her socially.
Another woman, unhappily married, became sanctified by living as a recluse in a tower provided by her family. But during her unhappy marriage, she was supported by friendship with her sister-in-law. During an episode when the devil tempted her by showing her false images of her family being dead, she rejects all as illusions. The illusions are in increasing order of importance and closeness, moving from family, to children, to the Virgin Mary, but ending with her dear female friend, thus demonstrating the supreme emotional importance to her of this relationship.
A woman (Clare of Rimini?) was accused of undermining male authority via her support of and influence over female friends. She increasingly gathered a circle of like-minded women who eventually established a women’s community when a neighbor offered to sell her his house for the purpose.
The hagiographers who wrote of these women and their lives may not have intended to focus on the importance of female friendship in their lives, but the theme shows through. Furthermore, their vitae support the acceptance that women living holy but non-regulated lives as part of a community of lay women could be considered to be models of a holy life just as much as those within a convent.
Love and Friendship in the Twelfth Century - Stella Wang, Harvard Univ.
Looks at female friendship themes in three French texts: the romances of Le Fresne and Guildeluëc and Guilliadun and Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship. The common theme is that friendships between women transcend the conventions of courtly love. That the exclusive heterosexual love motif that pits women as rivals is here undermined by the supportive bonds the women make.
In Le Fresne, two women become pregnant at the same time, when the first to give birth has twins, the other woman slanders her with the trope that twins must have had different fathers. So when the second women herself has twins, she vows to murder one of the girls to save her reputation, but the girl is instead taken away into anonymity. These two sisters later find themselves attached to the same man leading to reconciliation with the mother because of the bond of friendship between the sisters. (I think I may have lost the thread and this may not be entirely accurate, but I’m bringing in recollections of the tale from previous sources.)
Aelred’s text on friendship notes that love can exist without friendship, but friendship can’t exist without love, and that love can proceed from nature, duty, reason, or affection, or a combination of these.
G&G also focuses on the consequences of two women whose friendship is challenged by their romantic attachment to the same man: one as wife, one as mistress. The wife finds that she so loves and admires the mistress (who is struck down by grief at finding her lover married) that she determines to set her husband free and take the veil so the lovers can have each other. (Note that the introduction to the tale notes that it was originally named after the male lead, but was renamed after the female characters because it turned out to be their story.)
These romantic triangles subvert the expectation of women as inherent rivals.
Aelred further comments on spiritual friendship that “carnal friendship” is considered normal among the young and should be tolerated if not dishonorable in hopes that it will evolve into a more spiritual friendship that will in turn naturally lead the experiencer to a love and affection for God.
Sisters, Eroticism, and the Red Cat: Homosocial Female Bonds in Troubadour Poetry - Leslie Anderson, Tulane Univ.
Troubadour poetry is known for its overt and sometimes explicit descriptions of sexuality, often focusing on women as the source of both pleasure and (romantic/erotic) pain. The poem in question involves what the speaker humorously characterizes as “a kinky threesome” and plans to explore the relationship between the two women in the episode, not just their relationship to the man.
Little detail is provided in the poem directly about the two women, other than their names, but much can be read between the lines. What was clearly originally a context of homosocial female bonding becomes “queer” by the introduction of the man.
The narrator, traveling through France in pilgrim’s garb. He fakes being a foreigner who can’t speak the local language when encountering two local women. The women at first are pleased that he “can’t tell our secrets” but then test him with their “red cat” (a whip) to make sure he’s truly not able to understand/speak their language.
The narrator puts up with being stripped naked and whipped in order to have a chance to have sex with both women. The narrator ends telling of his success and how he later wrote a letter to the two ladies (clearly indicating his language facility) thanking them and asking them to kill the cat. But what is overlooked in this male perception of triumph is that the episode was clearly driven by the women’s desire for the encounter.
There is a discussion of differences between male homosocial bonding and female homosocial bonding in this era, where male bonds require rejection of homosexual potential, while female bonds allow for the possibility. Expanded to an erotic triangle, two men with a woman can only be rivals, but two women with a man can be collaborators, accepting an erotic relationship with each other in order to create a relationship with the man.
There is a discussion of Adrienne Rich’s The Lesbian Continuum and other theoretical considerations of the range of female homoerotic experience that can overlay and intersect with superficially heterosexual scenarios.
The two women in the poem deliberately seek out sexual relations with a stranger while their husbands are absent, but they share the desire and the action as partners and conspirators with each other, demonstrating autonomy and sexual experience to which their male lover is incidental. The exact nature of their relationship cannot be determined (despite one passing reference between them as “sisters”) other than as partners in sexual adventures. The “red cat” is referred to as “theirs” in common, both are familiar with it, both know where it is. Their actions are all done in tandem with the narrator left in the position of passive acted-on object. Whether this can be considered to represent a homoerotic partnership between the women, or simply an attack on the primacy of male agency with regard to erotic relations (and thus indirectly an attack on heteronormativity and patriarchy), it is clear that the homosocial bond between them undermines the characterization of the episode as merely a tale of male sexual adventure.
Just for those who have been paying attention to the session numbering: There were 574 numbered sessions in this year’s Congress, not counting a variety of gatherings, workshops, and displays that were not part of the numbered system. Just think of all the sessions I couldn't attend because they conflicted with those I chose!
The themes in the sessions I attend each year emerge from the intersection of my immediate and long-term interests with the fashions in topics and the ebb and flow of particular subjects. This year those intersections included the history of magic, especially including magic and mysticism in the Islamic world; feminist topics and women’s friendships/communities; dress and textiles; and the application of historical research to the writing of historically-based genre fiction.
There will be one more post in this year’s Kalamazoo series: the book intake post. I may have time to post it while hanging out at the airport later.