Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 190 - So You’re Writing a Sapphic Historical Romance: Questions to Consider - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/12/26 - listen here)
When I first got the idea that ended up becoming the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I envisioned putting together a simple sourcebook of background information for authors of lesbian historical fiction. How hard could it be, after all? It’s not like there was that much information available on lesbians in history. Silly me. I was so delightfully wrong. But as I began realizing the scope of the historic information available, and as I began thinking about the fuzzy edges of what a resource of that type should cover, I set aside the idea of a sourcebook and focused on a more granular approach to familiarize myself with the field.
That dream has never entirely left me. When I interview authors on this podcast, one of the questions I always ask is, “how did you approach researching how your characters would have understood and experienced their sexuality?” And time and again I get responses that focus on the difficulty of finding information and the need to extrapolate from modern experiences and to rely on imagination. I keep returning to that idea: just as there is a market for reference books that tell you about everyday life in historic settings like Jane Austen’s England, I think there’s a market for a reference book that tells you about the experience of women who loved women in historic settings. Not in all the academic ambiguity, but laid out in a practical way for authors who just want to get on with writing a story. And I think, just maybe, I’m ready to start working on it for certain times and places.
Any guide to writing sapphic characters needs to examine two different topics. What do we know about the specific experiences of women who loved women? And what was the range of experiences for all women in the chosen setting? So my outline falls into the following categories. For women’s experiences in general, we start with demographics and the sociology of family life. Then we look at the legal, religious, and economic context of people’s lives. Next we examine the range of women’s interpersonal relationships outside the family. This is followed by a gradual look at the norms of women’s physical relationships and displays of affection, starting from the very public, through more private contexts, and finally addressing the specific question of erotic behavior. Having broached the topic of erotic same-sex relationships, we look at the available social models for gender and sexuality, and how same-sex relations were viewed in popular culture. Finally, we step back a little to consider a slightly broader context in space and time.
What I’m discussing today is not the answers, but the questions. It may not be possible to answer all these questions for any given fictional setting. But thinking about them can get you started down useful pathways.
Demographics and Family Relations
Before we start thinking about the presence of same-sex love, consider simply the absence of heterosexual marriage. While it’s true that many women in history negotiated the complexities of both, in historical romance we tend to expect our protagonists to be free of other ties. So what proportion of women in our chosen culture were never married? What proportion were previously married but are now single, whether widowed or separated? What was the typical age at which women married? At what age would an unmarried status be seen to be outside the norm, or at least the ideal? What were cultural attitudes toward non-married women? Do we actually need to come up with extraordinary pleading for our heroines to be unmarried or is it something unremarkable?
To what extent do women feel able to make choices with regard to marriage? How much influence can they have over timing or the choice of a spouse? What are the reasons (other than lack of heterosexual desire) that a woman might put off or avoid marriage? How is the social context different for a widow as opposed to a never-married woman?
Looking at the lives of singlewomen as models for our characters goes beyond the simple question of marriage. Until very recently, a woman in a same-sex partnership would be treated by society as if she were single. So what were the circumstances in which a non-married woman might live outside the parental home? What were the plausible household arrangements? We often forget how the simple logistics of everyday life made living completely alone impractical. How common was it, and under what circumstances, for two or more non-married women to share a household? What circumstances might make that unremarkable?
For that matter, what were the typical or possible dynamics for relationships with her extended family? How did a non-married woman relate to her siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or more distant kin? What were the range of attitudes toward her?
Another very important question is how the answers to these questions differ based on family class and/or income. It’s popular to focus historic romance on the lives of the privileged, but might the story we’re telling work better in a middle class or working class setting? This question will come up time and again because differences in lives and attitudes by class or income can entirely change relationship dynamics.
Economics, Law, and Religion
The next set of considerations are related in that they are external forces that have both a strict, formal aspect, and a more variable practical aspect. These are economics, law, and religion.
What is the range of possible economic situations for a non-married woman? And how do these options affect her interpersonal relations? How do class and family wealth affect these options? Are certain economic possibilities closed to her due to class expectations? How does all this affect her possible living situations? This is one of several contexts where it’s important not to rely on popular culture to limit our expectations. I can think of lots of stories that started with a premise of “women couldn’t do X” – couldn’t work outside the home, couldn’t run a business, couldn’t have an independent income – when counterexamples can be found in history. Be aware of what is typical, but also of what is possible. Is your character being truly transgressive or only unconventional? Or can she do what the plot requires without even flouting convention? Conversely, we need to know what the constraints were. What ways of making a living would need careful justification as opposed to being ordinary? What options are so implausible you’ve used up your readers’ suspension of disbelief all on that one thing?
Narrowing the focus down to setting up a romance plot, what economic circumstances could enable or prevent two women from co-habiting? How do the economic possibilities shape our possible happily ever afters? This is a context where looking at the demographics of everyday life for all social classes can be an eye-opener. How did actual women make an independent household together and how did they come to that place?
The law is another context where we need to examine not only the letter but the practical application. And keep in mind that laws were not the same everywhere, or in all eras. Furthermore, application of the laws could change depending either on public mood or private whim.
The first question to ask is, were there any laws addressing women engaging in same-sex relations? The answer isn’t necessarily “yes”. But if so, what specific aspects of those relations was the law concerned with? When we look at historic cases when lesbian-like women ran afoul of the law, it’s rarely the case that the simple fact of being a lesbian was on trial. The law might concern itself with specific sex acts. Or with gender transgression.
Even when there were laws against certain acts, we need to know who was actually at risk of having those laws enforced against them. Was class a protection from either the suspicion or the accusation of those acts? Were women in certain professions either automatically suspect, or silently given a pass with regard to transgressions? If women got in trouble with respect to the law, were the authorities specifically looking for transgressions or did the matter only arise incidentally? Was homosexuality only brought in as an issue when there was some other complaint to begin with? What were the hypothetical and the actual penalties? Were legal penalties only enforced for very specific offences within the larger sphere of same-sex relations?
The legal questions are a major framework for how our heroines view their lives. For example, unusually in the European context, England never had laws addressing female homosexuality, very much in contrast to the legal position of male homosexuals, or the situation of women in some continental cultures. So a gay male historic romance set in England will involve some critical concerns that a sapphic romance in the same setting won’t deal with. Similarly, when you look at trials in France or Germany or other places in central Europe, the cases that were pursued and that involved the rare extreme punishments most often involved gender-crossing or penetrative sex using an instrument. Two women who presented as feminine and whose sexual activities did not mimic penetrative sex rarely seem to have been at serious risk under the law. So if we don’t want the fear of legal reprisals to be a part of our story, what are the ways that our characters could be functionally invisible to the law, within our chosen setting?
Religion is another context where it’s important to consider not simply what the official opinions were, but how they were applied in context, and how women’s same-sex relationships were interpreted within that context. (And remember that not all religions have had similar opinions about same-sex relations, and that attitudes have changed at times.)
How does our characters’ religion (whether their personal beliefs, or those of the culture they live in) view same-sex relationships? Do those attitudes focus on the sexual aspect or more broadly on romantic relationships? What is the range of attitudes our characters might have about how their lives fit into their religious beliefs?
Does the religion have formal positions on same-sex activity? Does it have informal positions? What aspects of same-sex relations are central to those positions? How do attitudes toward same-sex relations differ from those on similar opposite-sex relations? What is the range of opinions?
This is yet another context where it’s important not to look only at formal, learned positions, but on the interactions of everyday life. Even when the formal religious position is that homosexual relations are unacceptable, they may be viewed simply as a human weakness. Conversely, there have been eras in Christian culture when same-sex relations were considered one of the worst possible sins. At those same times, intensely romantic same-sex relationships could be treated as praiseworthy, as long as there was no suspicion of sexual activity. And individual people have regularly found their own philosophical accommodation between their romantic and sexual desires and the teachings of their religion. It’s rarely a clear black-and-white situation.
Emotional and Romantic Relationships in their Social Context
When plotting the problems and opportunities for your romantic couple, keep in mind how their experiences will differ from the courtship of a heterosexual couple. In many historic societies there is a presumption that male-female interactions will always carry a sexual overtone, but the same assumption is rarely made about same-sex interactions. It is usual for every society to have established patterns of intimate friendships – of close and enduring emotional bonds taken on by choice, rather than the chance of birth. These can provide fertile ground for how our characters might “try on” their romantic leanings.
Within our chosen society, what is the degree of mixing or separation of the genders in everyday life? In what context do women socialize in mixed-gender groups versus all-women groups? Is there any special meaning placed on a woman who primarily socializes only with women or is this typical?
Does the society have models for close emotional relationships between women who are not immediate family members? What is the range of possible relationships of this type? How are women expected to behave in them? What are their benefits and consequences? What is the vocabulary used to talk about them?
At what age, and in what context do women typically establish lasting emotional bonds with other women? How long are such bonds expected to endure? How are these bonds expressed? How are they described and characterized by others? What other models do people compare them to? What are the similarities and differences between relationships within the family and those with someone outside the family?
Just because a society has some established models for intimate same-sex bonds doesn’t mean those models are value-free. How are women’s intimate friendships viewed within the context of society? How are they viewed in comparison to marriage? How does class or income affect this? Are close friendships praised or viewed with suspicion? Are they expected to be fleeting or life-long? Are they expected to be exclusive or are women expected to have many close relationships?
What do people think about the erotic potential of close same-sex emotional relationships? Is it even considered a possibility? Is eroticism expected to be a normal part of intimate friendships? Or is it unimaginable—that is, to those not involved in them!
Whether erotic or not, how did women approach each other with regard to establishing a close relationship or increasing the intimacy of a relationship? Were there conventional rituals? Was there a vocabulary for the process? Were there rites of passage in establishing an enduring intimate friendship? How did women indicate the desire for an erotic relationship? How did they react to being solicited for an erotic relationship by another woman? Were there particular signals they might use?
In this section we’re presuming that the romance will involve some sort of romantic bond and not only a sexual relationship—which seems a reasonable presumption for writing historic romance—but we could ask some of the same questions about purely sexual relations. And not all romantic friendships had sex as a component or a goal. But in general, knowing how our target society feels about close friendships between women gives us a lot of useful information on what our characters will experience and what their options are.
Public Displays of Affection
You know that stage where you like someone and you want to give them a hug but suddenly you’re all self-conscious about how they’ll take it? Or you thought you were talking casually and you put your hand on their arm as you’re talking…and you realize that you’re feeling more than just the enthusiasm of making a point. Or you’re walking with your girlfriend in an unfamiliar place and you wonder how the people around you will interpret it if you two hold hands? How about if you hear someone address another person as “sweetheart” or “darling” or “beloved” and you’re trying to guess what their relationship is?
The societal norms of physical and verbal affection can vary enormously and shift subtly in meaning. What are the gestures and words that would be unremarkable between strangers who have just been introduced? Between casual friends? Between bosom buddies? What are the gestures and words that would unmistakably signal an intimate or erotic relationship? And who can use those in a general public setting without comment? And do any of these vary according to the apparent genders of the participants?
These questions are significant for three aspects of story development. Firstly, what is the “background noise” of affectionate interactions between women in our historic setting? What is the range of behavior that would be ordinary and unremarkable between two women with no erotic or romantic relationship? For that matter, what is the range of behavior that would be remarkable in its absence? Secondly, what are the subtle shifts in behavior that our characters can use to either initiate or recognize the developing intimacy in a relationship? Which of these would their society find unremarkable (and I use this word in the sense of “no one would think to comment on it”) and which might be considered significant to others? Thirdly, what are the behaviors that might be considered suspect or transgressive if done out in the public eye, regardless of who does them?
Are there differences between the gestures and language of affection used within a family versus those used with outsiders? In what contexts and with what meaning are these extended to non-family members? Are there differences between displays of affection that are assumed to be purely conventional and those that are always assumed to carry personal meaning? Are there systematic differences in the norms of how a woman displays affection to an unrelated man as opposed to an unrelated woman? This particular question can be useful not only in the sense of what two women can “get away with”, but also if one character is using masculine-coded behavior to signal romantic interests as opposed to platonic interests.
What is the catalog of specific actions used in our setting? Keep in mind that certain gestures may have fallen out of use, or may have only arisen recently, or the assigned meaning may have changed over time. As a specific example of what I mean, in Europe from classical times well into the early modern era, there was a conventional gesture known as “chin chucking” in which one person gently holds the other person’s chin in one hand. This was strongly associated with erotic love. If you see two figures in historic art using this gesture, you can assume the two people are either getting it on or are about to. It faded in more recent centuries to being more a signal of power or age differentiated invasion of personal space. And today it has largely faded from the social repertoire entirely. So we need to consider not only how our characters might have used or interpreted the displays of affection that we are familiar with, but whether they had ones we don’t use.
That said, consider the following types of physical gestures and what meaning they have for our characters and in our setting: embracing, holding hands, touching the hand, arms, face, etc., kissing the cheek, kissing a hand, kissing the mouth, sitting in close contact, sitting or walking together with arms around the shoulders or waist, sitting on someone’s lap. Does our setting have special terminology for any of these gestures? How would they describe them?
Similarly for verbal endearments: what is the range of use that is considered ordinary or typical between people who aren’t married to each other? Are there terms that one would only expect married people to use or that would signal a marriage-like relationship? How do people address each other directly (either face to face or in correspondence) and how do they refer to the other person when speaking to a third party? Are there clear differences between conventional social language and language that indicates an intimate emotional relationship?
All of these details can give us a context for showing the development of a romantic relationship within the conventions of the setting. Which is our couple likely to do first: address each other by the first name or kiss? The answers can be surprising.
Private Displays of Affection & Bedroom Behavior
Every culture has degrees of privacy in how affection is displayed, regardless of whether that affection is romantic in nature, or is within an approved relationship. The previous considerations were about how our characters might act out in public: on the street, at a social event, while traveling. But it’s also useful to know the accepted range of affectionate behavior in more restricted settings, while still considering both actions that would be unremarkable between platonic friends and those that would be understood as signaling a more intimate relationship. How do people behave within the family home? At a small party limited to close friends? How do women behave when socializing with each other in private, whether in small groups or in pairs? And which of those behaviors might provide an opportunity either to make or to respond to a suggestion of an even more intimate encounter?
The specific possible behaviors and language are similar to those considered for the public sphere, but we might find them carrying a different meaning in different contexts. The length of a kiss, the language used for flirtatious teasing. Are there affectionate gestures that are acceptable and “neutral” in private that are not considered appropriate in public? Are there gestures or forms of address that are considered merely conventional in public that become more personal in private? For example, a man who kisses a female acquaintance in public as a neutral greeting might find the same action taken differently if the two are alone together. Would the dynamic be the same between women?
Before we even get into the question of erotic activities, what meaning is placed on others entering one’s private space within the home? How does our culture define and manage privacy? What are the spaces in which one might interact with strangers? With mere acquaintances as opposed to close friends? Are there spaces reserved for only those most intimate friends? As an example, the French salonnières of the 17th century would often preside over their gatherings from their bed, when the bedchamber was a more public location that it would become in later centuries. How does the domestic geography of privacy intersect with the domestic geography of erotic activity? How much privacy do people expect or get? As always, how is this affected by class and status? For the wealthy and privileged, what is the place of servants in one’s expectations of privacy? For the lower classes, in what contexts might one expect to have privacy at all?
Is it normal or common for women of equal status, who aren’t immediate family members, to help each other dress and undress? Or to be present when another woman is dressing or undressing? So many opportunities!
Is it normal or common for women friends to share a bed without this having an erotic implication? “There was only one bed” is a trope that doesn’t carry the same significance if there is an assumption that people will share beds as an ordinary thing. But conversely, in our target culture, does bed-sharing have a symbolic importance within intimate friendships? What is the range of interactions that people have in bed together other than sleeping? Is it a place for conversation? For reading? Is it normal or common for people who share a bed, but do not have a sexual relationship, to cuddle together?
For that matter, do people typically share a bedroom whether or not they share a bed? If our characters employ servants, would a servant typically sleep in the same room? What is the expectation for privacy in the bedroom? For comparison purposes, do heterosexual married couples of an equivalent class to our characters typically sleep in the same room and bed? Or is it common for them to have separate rooms? To what extent is sexual activity closely associated with bedtime and sleeping?
And that brings us to the consideration of sex. In considering the sex lives of our characters within their cultural setting, it’s important to keep in mind that women in same-sex romantic relationships exist within a continuum of erotic and sexual expression. This is true for the present day and it’s true within history. The point of having a special section to talk about sex is not to say that all sapphic historical romances should include activities that we would today classify as sex, but rather to explore how sex was understood within that historic setting and to consider how our characters would engage with it if sex is part of their relationship.
A key question that should not be overlooked is how our target culture defines and classifies “sexual activity.” It can be possible for our characters to engage in a variety of sensual and erotic activities without thinking of what they’re doing as “having sex” within the understanding of their times. This can have a big effect on how they think about their lives!
Cultures can give us clues to how they define sex by what types of activities they talk about in conjunction with the central case of heterosexual procreative sex. Some cultures may define “sex” exclusively as male-female activity, and while that can be maddening on a philosophical basis, it can mean that our female couple don’t consider that any rules or taboos on sex apply to them. Similarly, some cultures focus very specifically on penetration as defining “sex” regardless of the genders involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that activities not classified as “sex” have no social significance attached to them. For example, masturbation may be categorized as “not sex” but still have social stigma attached. The idea here is to shake up our modern assumptions about how people think about sex and see what we can discover about what our characters would think. Or at least what some of their contemporaries would think.
The worm in the apple here is that it’s extremely rare in Western culture before very recent times for women to write candidly about their own sexual knowledge and sexual experiences. Given the double standards around gender and sex, it has often been common for women to hedge this information about with metaphor, coded language, or simple omission. On top of that, women’s writing was often prevented, suppressed, self-censored, or erased after the fact. This can mean that for some eras and cultures, the only recorded information about women’s same-sex practices that have come down to us has been filtered through men. And in some eras it has specifically been filtered through a male pornographic gaze. So when we’re exploring the information about women’s sexual practices, it can be very useful to sort things out into “what men thought or fantasized about lesbian sex,” “what women were willing to admit in public about their sex lives,” and “what women recorded about their sex lives in records that weren’t intended to be public.” All of this still leaves vast gaps where we must muddle though as best we can.
So having covered basic kissing and embracing and cuddling in previous sections, and having delved into the philosophical question of “what counts as sex?” let’s move on to thinking about some specific sexual practices women enjoy together. Are there specific practices that are associated with female couples? Is there evidence in this culture for “tribadism”, that is rubbing the vulvas together? Is there evidence for performing manual stimulation? What about digital penetration?
Is there evidence for using a dildo for penetration? If so, do we know what it might have been made out of? Would it be held in the hand or attached to the body? If a dildo is used, would it be associated with particular types of gender expression? Is there any specific social meaning attached to using one? Are they also used for solitary stimulation?
Is there evidence for open-mouthed kissing or tongue-kissing? Is this considered to fall under the category of sex? Is there evidence for oral sex generally regardless of the genders involved? How about between women? Is any special social significance attached to oral sex?
How does the culture understand female orgasm? Is it generally expected to happen during sex regardless of the genders involved? Was sex between women expected to result in orgasm? How did popular culture view sex between women, assuming it acknowledged the existence of such a thing? What did people think about it compared to heterosexual sex? What sort of social meaning was placed on the idea of sex between women? Why did people think women might engage in it?
What was the vocabulary of sexual anatomy, acts, and accessories involved in sex between women? Were there words specific to lesbian sex? Were there different levels of politeness available in talking about lesbian sex? What sorts of euphemisms were used? To what extent was there a common, shared vocabulary, or to what extent do women seem to be putting together their own language, based on borrowings from heterosexual practice and individual invention?
How did women negotiate the initiation of a sexual relationship? Did the culture have specific customs or rituals that might be used in this context? Is it something that women felt able to talk directly about before an encounter? How did they talk about it after a sexual encounter? Does there seem to have been a shared progression of how a sexual relationship developed?
What is the degree of general awareness of erotic potential between women? How is that awareness communicated within the society? Does it show up in literature or popular culture? Is there a general awareness of specific women in the culture known (or believed) to be engaging in same-sex erotics? How are they viewed? What sort of popular culture representations (if any) of women’s same-sex erotics are in circulation within the culture? Who has access to them? Do pop culture depictions of sex between women vary depending on the class or status of the participants, or of the audience?
Cultural Understandings of Gender and Sexuality
Having focused in on the specifics of sexual activity, let’s step back to consider the context of how relations between women were understood in our target culture. This takes the phrase “same-sex” and looks individually at the “sex” part and the “same” part. How does the culture (and our characters) understand gender and understand sexuality? How do our characters categorize male and female? How does the culture understand and deal with people who don’t fit neatly into those two categories? Is gender considered to be innate or performative – that is, is it something you are or something you do? Are there categories other than gender that are relevant for romantic or sexual relationships? How do class or social status interact with gender?
How does the culture view the dynamics of romantic or sexual desire? Are there default expectations of who will desire whom? To what extent is desire prioritized as a basis for formal relationships? What about for informal ones? Are people thought to have an innate tendency to desire a particular type of person? Are certain objects of desire more acceptable than others? Does the culture have a theory that explains individual preferences in desire? Do different groups in the culture have different models or understandings of desire?
Looking at some of the possibilities more specifically, does the culture include understandings of same-sex or same-gender desire that consider it to be “normal” or at least ordinary? Is same-sex or same-gender desire viewed neutrally, or is it given a positive or negative judgement?
Is there a model of desire based on gender difference? If so, are there understandings that view same-sex desire as caused by variant gender identity? (For example, that desire for a woman is “inherently masculine” and implies some degree of masculine identity in the experiencer?) Does this relate to other cultural understandings of gender, or of gender-appropriate behavior?
Is there a model of desire based on similarity? That is, is there an assumption that people will be drawn to those most similar to them? If so, what does this mean for same-sex relationships? Does the model cover sexual relationships or are they treated differently from non-sexual relationships?
If the culture has both difference and similarity models for desire, how do they interact? Are they applied in different circumstances or coexist as equal alternatives? Are there differences in how couples are perceived based on whether they involve gender-similarity or gender-difference? To be more specific, does the culture view the equivalent of butch-femme couples differently from femme-femme couples?
Does the culture have concepts equivalent to transgender identity? Is there a perceived relationship or continuum between female homoeroticism and transmasculine identity? If so, are there characteristics that distinguish within this continuum? Do we have evidence for how people understood their own identities within this context?
Does the culture expect couples to experience symmetry of desire or is there an expectation that one member will experience a more active desire and the other will accept that desire? If this model exists, how does it play out in courtship and in erotic activity? Does the culture expect an active/passive contrast or does it expect both parties to actively pursue the relationship? Are female couples different in this regard than heterosexual couples? If there is an active-passive difference, are people viewed differently depending on which role they take?
What is the vocabulary for women with same-sex desires? Is there a range of terminology that covers everything from platonic friendship to sexual partners? What sorts of nuance can be expressed with different words? Does the culture have explicit words that only apply to same-sex desire, as well as more euphemistic expressions? Are there cultural differences in who these words are applied to or who uses them?
Is there a belief or perception that certain physiological, behavioral, or sartorial traits are signs of lesbian desire? Are certain habits or actions perceived as communicating same-sex interest? Are they used deliberately to communicate interest or identity?
Women Loving Women in Popular Culture
That question merges seamlessly into the question of representations in popular culture, which we’ve touched on in several categories already. But it makes sense to gather some of the topics together.
What is the range of representations of women’s close emotional relationships in popular culture? How do those representations vary with class? How does access to those representations vary with class or other demographics? What sort of models do women encounter in their culture that help them put their own feelings and experiences into context?
More specifically, what is the range of representations in popular culture of romantic relationships between women, that is, relationships expressed using the same language and symbolism that would be used for a heterosexual couple? Similarly, what is the range of representations of erotic activity between women in popular culture? Who has access to those representations? What purposes do they have?
What are the boundaries between positive and negative depictions of all these categories? What types of relationships are depicted as praiseworthy and which as bad examples? Is there a social purpose to pop culture representations of female couples? Are they intended to shape behavior? To satirize? To entertain? To express the author’s experience?
Outside of fictional representations, were there women who had a reputation of being in romantic or sexual relationships with women? How was this reputation communicated? What language was used? And how were these women viewed?
General Historical Trends
No era or culture is an island. In every generation, there will be older people who remember when Things Were Different. Change around gender and sexuality may happen gradually or rapidly enough to create a generational clash. It can help to understand what attitudes or practices around gender and sexuality have changed leading up to the setting for our characters. What lingering ideas will they be exposed to? What stories about the goings on of the previous generation will they hear about? In what direction are things changing?
If one looks at only the last century or so, it can be easy to assume that attitudes around sexuality and gender have always evolved in the same direction, from more repressed to more open and accepting, but that’s far from the case. It seems like every couple of centuries attitudes revolve in a cycle. And those older attitudes will definitely affect our characters’ lives and experiences. For that matter, with hindsight, we can know how the culture will change after the period of our story. How will those changes affect their happy ending?
In addition to the larger context of time, consider the larger context of space. Cultures aren’t isolated from one another. What do our characters know about same-sex relationships in the countries they might visit? Or the ones that visitors come from? Might our characters be more or less comfortable if they traveled abroad? Might there be hazards in another land due to different laws and customs? Or might there be more freedom away from one’s own culture? Might our characters “get ideas” about the possibilities available to them from the people or popular culture of other places? What does our target culture think about their neighbors with respect to same-sex relationships? What do their neighbors think about them? Are those cultural beliefs true or are they embedded in stereotypes?
I realize that this discussion may feel daunting! Do you really have to know the answers to all these questions before embarking on a sapphic historical romance? Absolutely not! As I pointed out at the beginning, for many cultures, a lot of the answers are unknowable. But there are more answers out there than you may think. And sometimes it helps to know what the questions are.
I want to read all manner of historical romances that are deeply rooted in the settings they’re depicting. I want to read about relationships that are both positive and true to their times—stories that have happy endings that work for the culture they’re set in. I want to read stories that aren’t modern characters in fancy dress. And I will do my best to continue providing authors with help finding the information they need to write them.
When browsing through the history of women who love women, there are certain confluences of time, place, and people that cry out to be mined for their fictional potential. Get enough women of the right sort together in the same place, and you have a great setting for your own invented characters, who can borrow bits and pieces of real lives and inherit their historicity. The Paris of Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Colette, Vita Sackville-West, Radclyffe Hall, Liane de Pougy, and all the rest is just such a place and time. Invent yourself a devil-may-care heiress. Have her fall in love with a decadent aristocrat. Plunge them into the world of Parisian theater, salons, and cafes filled with outrageous women. Have them come out of the lost generation to find themselves again.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing
Part IV – Modernist Refashionings
In this part we see the emergence of a “modern lesbian” identity, as illustrated by four biographies. [Note: I find it curious that Vicinus refers to them as “case studies” rather than biographies, but perhaps because she bases the discussion more on themes in their work than their lives?] Chapter 7 focuses on the Anglo-American expatriate community in early 20th century Paris, who created an alternate parallel society of women who loved women. Chapter 8 focuses on women who accepted, to some degree, the psychological models of ‘inversion” but argued – not always coherently – for their acceptance and inclusion in society.
Chapter 7: “Familiar Misquotation” – Sapphic Cross-dressing
Themes in this chapter include the deliberate use of cross-dressing and performance to establish and signal identity within the Parisian community centered around Natalie Clifford Barney. Also featured are two of Barney’s lovers, Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks. For these women, cross-dressing was a claiming of gender instability, a “misquotation” of gender for artiastic effect.
In contrast to the “mannish” stylings of an earlier generation that had plausible deniability with respect to sexuality, the Paris set used fashion to establish a variety of transgressive identities: the androgynous gamine, the rake, the aristocratic dandy. All represented the ability of self-definition and a performative display rather than a reflection of the self.
Natalie Barney had the advantages of being a railroad heiress and having a flamboyant mother who disregarded convention. She was aware of her preference for women from an early age. She rejected the sexologists’ theories of the lesbian as “abnormal” and “masculine”. Though the delighted in theatrical presentation, she embraced a feminine style. Her circle engaged with the “decadent” French literature of the later 19th century, featuring lesbians and enjoying a revival of Sappho as a lesbian icon.
While existing in parallel with women who were marginalized for their sexuality, the Paris circle simply disdained to care what others thought. It helped that many of them were wealthy and were not dependent on social approval, but there was also something of a critical mass effect sufficient to shrug off the opinions of others.
The loved theatricals and in turn were treated as a spectacle by the French press. This chapter is rife with references to the many artists, writers, and celebrities that made up Barney’s community, held together by ties of ties of love and friendship. (Barney was notorious for keeping her ex-lovers as friends, which was a good thing since she went through so many of them.) Together they created a new and positive lesbian mythology to counter the growing medicalization of sexuality.
Barney’s salon became the center of a vibrant ongoing community that continued in some form from 1909 to 1968(!) interrupted only by an exile during WWII. Through it, she supported an entire generation of intellectuals, outliving her transgressive beginnings to become an establishment.
One of Barney’s more famous lovers, Renée Vivien, takes up most of the rest of the chapter. Like Barney, she inherited wealth, kicked free of family ties, and settled in Paris. In personal style, she took the androgynous path and adopted the stylings of the decadent poets for her métier. She lived and loved very intensely, full of extremes. She saw lesbianism as the most natural state for women and expressed this position in her art. Having rejected bourgeois conventions and the ideals of family, it’s little surprise that neither she nor Barney established long-lasting partnerships. The discussion delves into some of the prominent themes in her writing.
The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of another of Barney’s lovers, the artist Romaine Brookes, who came into the Paris circle when both of them were in middle age. The themes of her work and personal style feature isolation and suffering, perhaps reflecting her childhood experiences, though like the others she emerged into adulthood with money and free of family attachments, despite a brief marriage.
This chapter spends a lot of time analyzing the themes in the three women’s artistic and literary output, as well as cataloging many of the personal connections that formed within their social circle.
(Originally aired 2020/12/19 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Diana Pinguicha Online
I'm going to confess that Vicinus's Intimate Friends is becoming a bit of a slog. (Did you notice I failed to get a blog up last week?) The material is becoming more and more literary critisicm and less biography. And there's a fair amount of psychological analysis that feels at odds with the historic context of the subjects. Or maybe I'm just going through a reading slump. Two more chapters. And then maybe I'll throw out my plans for the next publication and hunt through my shelves for something I can get excited about.
In the mean time, I'm having a lot of fun with the fulfillment of the auction item I donated to Romancing the Runoff. Per the winner's request, I'm putting together a historic guide to writing f/f relationships in the Regency era. Eventually I'd like to do a number of focused guides of this sort (and friends are convincing me to save them for publication and not just give them away on the blog, on the theory that people won't value them unless they pay for them).
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 6: Passion…Immense and Unrestrained
This chapter looks at examples of intense, perhaps even destructive desrie that didn’t fit neatly into the available 19th century models for female love. So how did these women depict and understand their desires? One method was to displace the desire through taking on roles or working it out through fictional depictions. Some women understood their desire for a dominant position as a type of masculinity, as with the two women considered in this chapter: Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).
Linton came to terms with her inner conflicts over desire for women via a masculine identity, played out in her fiction and in idolizing “masculine” virtues such as intellect and self-control. Lee was suspicious of male power in society and looked to a non-mateiral feminine ideal of virtue and leadership. Both writers focused on characters driven by irrational feelings, while valorizing self-discipline and intellect. And both had difficulty dealing with their desire for women, which was expressed in destructive ways in their own personal lives.
Linton’s life story suggests a trans-masculine identity (though Vicinus doesn’t fasten on this), but she went beyond rejecting conventional femininity in her own identity to despising it in others. Her books tended to contrast two female types: one feminine but treacherous, the other boyish and virtuous.
These attitudes carried over into her journalism, which features anti-feminist positions while embodying many of the goals of feminism in her own life. Similarly, she disparaged “gender inversion” as a concept, while embodying it. She creates strong lesbian-like characters in her novels then turns them into villains, while depicting her own desire for women through transparently self-insertion male characters, including the protagonist of a fictionalize autobiography that traced her own relationship with a much younger woman (who left her to marry).
Vernon Lee emerged from a somewhat chaotic childhood abroad to be acclaimed as an author at a fairly young age. Though her unconventional personality and habits (including wearing mannish tailored suits and having unfemininely outspoken opinions) initially inspired fascination among the Pre-Rafaelite set, her work was considered too edgy for literary success.
Lee’s fiction featured women whose same-sex desire played out in turbulent plots in which they ended up becoming saviors of weak, degraded men. She envisioned a new type of womanly virtue that lay in rejecting marriage and sexual desire to serve others. Although Lee’s heroines were depicted as “sexless” it was in a form that included an idealized same-sex desire. A generation later, her characters would have fit well with the image of the “new woman”.
Lee’s own life included a couple of extended intimate friendships. The first with a fellow writer ended with the latter’s marriage. Another with a woman she idolized for her physicality and beauty foundered on a mis-match of personality, with Lee’s intellectualism at odds with the other woman’s desire for someone in need of emotional support. Lee’s fiction expanded into horror, often involving the consequences of obsessive love.
Both Linton and Lee lived during the emergence of sexological theories of homosexuality. These theories sorted out the women involved in same-sex relationships into the “true invert” (masculine-presenting and emotionally disordered) and “normal” women who accepted their love but were not necessarily driven to same-sex relations. Rather than this pathologized image of the “masculine invert”, Linton and Lee worked with an images of female masculinity that aligned more with an androgynous boy. In the remainder of the chapter, Vicinus explores this image in their work, especially as it interacted with the figure of a distant or unavailable mother.
(Originally aired 2020/12/12 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Diana Pinguicha Online
(Originally aired 2020/12/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2020.
For those who thought that 2020 would never end…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still the rest of the month to go. But there are reasons for hope. Three Covid-19 vaccines are in the approval process and if we can all hold on, keep practicing good anti-transmission hygiene, and push off trying to pretend we’re back to normal for a while longer, we can get through this together. If there’s any lesson the pandemic should have given us, it’s how inextricably intertwined our lives are, both on a global level and on a local one. Every action, every decision we make affects people we will never meet. And the essential framework of civilization relies on us being willing to shape our individual actions, not only for our own personal immediate satisfaction, but for the benefit of all those other threads in the fabric of our society.
Maybe current events seem an odd topic for a history podcast, but history is full of lessons, if we only take the time to pay attention and to look for the parallels. For example, if you look at the historic parallels, it’s easy to see that the current reactionary agenda against transgender people is closely parallel in its rhetoric and methods to campaigns in the past against homosexual people. And any cis lesbian or bisexual woman who thinks that the anti-trans forces won’t return to a more general persecution of queer people in the fullness of time, is as blinkered as the Republican establishment in Georgia who is suddenly shocked—shocked, I say!—to find that the anti-rational, violence-inciting mob that they have tacitly supported all this time is now willing to turn on them.
History will warn and teach us about these things if we’re willing to pay attention and look for the connections. But history also teaches us happier and more positive things: like the myriad of varieties of relationships and identities that people have forged for themselves across time and space. Studying how people lived, and thought, and felt in the past has a usefulness beyond entertainment. Sometimes we will find lives with a deep personal resonance—lives that speak to us on an individual basis and provide models for our own path. The series of books I’ve been blogging in the last several months are a good example of that, as they survey the lives of women who loved women in many different ways across a wide span of time.
Publications on the Blog
Originally I’d planned for the blog to get through at least one book a month in the current thematic series, which meant posting at least two chapters a week. Instead I ended up slacking off a little because the world is on fire and I was feeling overwhelmed. So November and most of December is all taken up with Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends, a selection of biographies of relationships between women in the “long” 19th century, illustrating a wide variety of dynamics those relationships could involve. At the end of December, rather than starting the first chapter of Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, I think I’ll keep things tidy for the year-end by finding a shorter article to summarize.
And I have no new books purchased or otherwise acquired for the blog this month, though I have one ordered and on its way. So: a slow month all around.
This month’s author guest will be Diana Pinguicha whose debut novel A Miracle of Roses has just come out. I loved this story, not only for the unusual medieval setting—I’m very much a medieval history geek at heart—but for the connections it makes between the social forces that warp the lives of adolescent girls in every society. So often girls are taught that everything they do, everything they are is wrong. It takes strength and courage to stand up to those forces and say, “No, there’s nothing wrong with who I am, and I will honor that.” I had a great discussion with Diana about those themes, so I hope you enjoy it too.
Back when the Lesbian Historic Motif Project was just a twinkle in my eye and a small collection of books on my shelf, the vision I had for it was to be a sourcebook of information organized for authors to use in developing characters and stories.
As I encountered the ever-expanding amount of research available on the topic, I set that idea aside in favor of a more granular review and presentation of individual publications. But I’m all too aware that my original target audience—authors—may still find it difficult to pick through the hundreds of blog entries to find the resources most relevant to their own projects. So I’m circling around again to the idea of providing another layer of synthesis—focused articles that look at specific historic contexts and discuss the range of experiences and understandings of women who loved women in that time and place.
For this month’s essay, I’d already planned to take a step in that direction and talk about how that sort of information might be organized and presented. What questions should a historic snapshot answer? What topics should be considered? What practical information would authors find useful? And what are the misperceptions I see most commonly in sapphic historical fiction?
Those plans got an additional boost when I decided to participate in the fundraiser Romancing the Runoff, raising money to support voter organizations for the Georgia Senate run-off. What could I donate to the auction that people might consider valuable enough to bid on? And my answer was: a personalized sapphic history consultation on the historic setting of your choice. I confess I agonized a bit over the chance that the winning bidder would choose a setting I haven’t yet covered in my research! But fortunately the winner picked the English Regency. So in laying out the outline of what my consultation package will include, I also wrote up the basis for this month’s podcast essay, which will be a discussion of topics and questions that will help prepare an author to write well-grounded historical characters.
2021 Fiction Series
Since it’s December, we’re rushing toward the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series. Submissions will be open during the month of January, so you have plenty of time to get a story all polished up. I feel like I haven’t been cheerleading for the fiction series enough this year, and that makes me worry about submission numbers. I’ll be making a big push to get the word out and you can help as well. There aren’t a lot of markets for specialized genres of lesbian short fiction, and even fewer that pay market rates. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to explore the historical field. We’re looking for stories of up to 5000 words, with pre-20th century settings, focused on characters who fit into the category of women who love women. We accept stories with some fantasy elements as long as they’re rooted in a specific real time and place. Check out the full call for submissions linked in the show notes.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
December is a thin month for new books this year. I only have three titles to talk about this month, all of them from mainstream presses, and all with fantasy elements. It’s only a temporary drought – I already have 7 titles for January and expect to find more.
The first two books are both from SFF publisher Tor.com, which is establishing quite the reputation for diversity of representation. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is based on an actual historic labor action…then adds a bit of magic.
Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line. For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.
Loosely following on from a previous novella in the same setting, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2) by Nghi Vo follows the nonbinary story-collecting monk Chih, in an encounter with a tiger and the woman she loves. I really enjoyed the first story in this series and look forward to reading this one.
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history. Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
The third book is by this month’s author guest, A Miracle of Roses by Diana Pinguicha from Entangled Publishing.
With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies. There's a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic--her curse--has turned her meal into a bouquet. She's on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain. If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers...into food. Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse--if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss. As the King of Portugal's betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death? With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She'd sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel's destruction.
What Am I Reading?
What have I been reading lately? I read Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune while sitting on an emergency room gurney the week before Thanksgiving, which made a lovely distraction. The other two books I’ve read have been in preparation for interviews: Diana Pinguicha’s A Miracle of Roses and Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, for which I received an advance review copy. That would be a good book count for the month even outside of quarantimes!
As a reminder, if you’re listening to this show through the TLT podcast channel, make sure to subscribe to the new independent show through your favorite podcast app because TLT is going away in January. For those who have already switched, thank you! And we’d love it if you drop a review into your podcast site to let other people know how great the show is.
Also remember that starting in January, we’ll be combining the interviews and book appreciation segments into the On the Shelf show. With the special topic episode, that takes us down to two shows a month, plus the quarterly fiction episodes. The same content as before, just in a slightly different arrangement. And a smidge less burnout on the part of your host. I hope you’ll be continuing the adventure with us as we move into this new phase of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project!
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Some article I read -- I no longer remember which one, but it isn't important -- tried to claim that pre-20th century female couples inevitably involved an age difference and therefore followed the classical model of an older mentor and a younger "beloved". It seems to me that this is a case of finding what you're looking for, because even when a couple are very close in age--for example, fellow students at a boarding school--it may happen that one is seen as the older, more experienced figure and the other as the follower. Further, when certain behaviors are coded as "motherly" then acts of caretaking can appear to code as an age-differentiated relationship regardless of actual years.
Female couples have looked to a wide range of types of relationships as models for how they viewed or talked about their bond. To some extent this is inevitable if society has not offered you a neutral "default" understanding of the dynamics of a same-sex couple. I get a bit uneasy when an author points to an age-differentiated female couple and starts talking about "mother-daughter" dynamics because it invokes some pernicious stereotypes about homosexuality that aren't raised in the context of even greater age gaps in m/f relationships.
And yet, the language of mothers and daughters was a thing that some female couples used. Perhaps in some cases it was a way of creating an acceptable context for their feelings. But using the language and symbols of the mother-daughter bond (or of a sister bond) is a very different thing than actual incestuous relationships, and I feel this isn't always emphasized when the topic is raised.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love
In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]
It was common for women with homoerotic desires to have at least one crush on an older woman in their past. And couples that began with a noticeable age difference might grow into a more equal partnership as the younger member gained maturity. [Note: And let us not forget that m/f marriages in this era often involved a significant age difference. The middle-aged man who married a young woman inevitably carried a paternalistic air.]
Chapter 5 looks at three women who played a “daughter” role in their relationship, whether looking to a mentor in adoration, or playing the part of wild and rebellious teenager. But this chapter also looks at actual mother-daughter relations, and the challenges of creating independent identities.
In this chapter, the partners long to merge. While the similar relationships in Chapter 6 deal with the down side of merging (loss of identity) or the after-effects of an absence of mothering earlier in life.
One common trait the “daughters” in these examples have is rejecting conventional feminine norms, though not all in the same way.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
The examples in this chapter are all of a single, younger woman in a relationship with an older married woman where the latter is framed as a mother figure in contrast to the “child”, looking for an unconditionally wise and understanding partner.
Because the marriage prevented the formation of an independent f/f couple, the relationship was often expressed by attempts to claim a right to the beloved’s attention and love. But these attempts could be negative: fights, jealousy, flirtations with a third party, or illness. The unattainability of the mother figure only stimulated the intensity of the passion. But that doesn’t mean the resulting relationships were unhealthy or a passing phase. Inevitably, to be successful, these relationships needed t evolve and accommodate the participants.
Gerldine Jewsbury suffered an absence of mother figures in her youth and seemed destined for a spinster life, keeping house for various male relatives. In search of something more, she came into contact with Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle and found a place for herself within the fractures in their marriage.
Although there doesn’t seem to have been an erotic component to their relationship, Jane served as surrogate mother and practical mentor for the enthusiastic Geraldine, and in turn received the admiration and love not present in her marriage, while being able to use that marriage to set clear boundaries with Geraldine. Jane played the rationalist while Geraldine used the language of romantic friendship, with all its enthusiasms, and wrote novels that bordered on the scandalous. But as Jane found her aspirations eclipsed by her husband’s fame, she became more dependent on Geraldine’s support and understanding, and the power dynamics in their relationship shifted.
Novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) attracted admiration from both men and women, and managed the passion of her “spiritual daughters” by preaching selfless duty. Edith Simcox, one of those admirers, was a social activist and journalist. She left a diary full of her passionate, unrequited feelings for Eliot, and her attraction to women in general. Eliot was not technically married, as her male lover was married to someone else, but the relationship functioned similarly for the purpose of setting boundaries for Eliot’s admirers. Eliot was not comfortable being cast into the role of mother figure, but did not offer equal friendship as an alternative.
Composer Ethel Smyth chose a mannish presentation and had a series of crushes on older upper-class women – as detailed in her 9-volume memoirs. She presents her attraction to women as an “emotional experiment” and left open the possibility of attraction to men. There is a recurring theme of relationships with surrogate mother figures – a context in which she could explore her erotic and emotional needs. Her first love, for the wife of her composition teacher, was reciprocated and set a pattern for the future. They role-played that Lisl was Ethel’s “real mother”, or that they were famous operatic couples. But Ethel flirted outside the relationship regularly, and after seven years of Ethel living in the composer’s household, she moved on to begin her professional career. She also moved on to fall in love with other women, including a complex triangle with Lisl’s sister Julia and Julia’s husband, Harry Brewster, which resulted in a breach with Lisl.
By framing her love for women in mother-daughter symbolism, Ethel was able to distinguish it from adultery, and somewhat more awkwardly, from however f/f love might be understood. Ethel’s relationship with her actual mother was somewhat strained and unsupportive.
Ethel next fixed her interest on Mary Benson (see previous chapter) who provided the type of accepting, nurturing love she wanted, but was unhappy at sharing Benson with too many other followers.
Ethel’s identity was tied up in music and composition – the thing that she felt distinguished her from “ordinary women” – and what she needed most in a relationship was someone who would admire and support that ambition. When she encountered Harry Brewster again, who could provide that support, she entered into an extended friendship with him, though she rejected his romantic advances until after Julia’s death. She declined to marry him and continued having sexual relationship with women as well.
Her next and very long-term relationship was with Lady Mary Ponsonby, who was more tolerant of Ethel’s flirtations than previous women had been.
The chapter then turns to a psychoanalysis of the motivations underlying (some) “mother-daughter” romantic friendships, including the tangled relations around Mary Benson’s actual daughters when both mother and daughter were involved with (or attracted to) the same woman, in one case, Ethel Smyth.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 186 - Poetry about Love between Women from the 18th Century - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/11/28- listen here)
In the podcast on 17th century poetry, I pulled together almost all the verses I could find in English or English translation that spoke of love between women. For the 18th century, there was far more material, and I need to pick and choose a bit more. The major reason for that expansion is that women’s writing was being preserved in larger quantities and in a wider variety of genres. But there is also a rise of popular themes that lend themselves to expressions of same-sex sentiment.
The 17th century poems sorted themselves out into some identifiable themes: The Pangs of Love, Men Jealous of Women’s Love for Each Other, Men Appropriating Lesbian Imagery, Satire and Vituperation, and The Triumph of Love. The 18th century material continues the larger themes but with some shifts and expansions.
One category that I’ve skipped over is translations or reworkings of classical material, such as the poetry of Sappho, or mythic tales like Iphis and Ianthe. In general, I’ve covered those in episodes examining their specific topics.
Poems of Romantic Friendship
Right off the bat, it’s clear that we need a new category: poems of romantic friendship. In the 17th century, we see the beginnings of this theme in the works of Katherine Philips and other poets working in the neo-Platonic tradition. The 18th century friendship poems are very similar, in focusing on a spiritual love that promises a union of souls, but not necessarily of bodies. The “pangs of love” may be expressed in this context, but first let’s hear some verses where those shadows don’t fall.
Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, began her poetic career in the Restoration era of the late 17th century, although the work I use here dates to 1713. Her work has something of a proto-feminist flavor, often commenting on the difficulties women encountered in the male-dominated literary establishment. Her works sometimes reference that of other female poets such as Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn and, like the work of Philips, she emphasizes the equality of men and women on a spiritual level. Finch was a maid of honor in the royal household and a companion of Sarah Churchill—whom you might remember from the episode on Queen Anne—and of Anne Killigrew, another poet whose work in the late 17th century included some poems suggestive of romantic feelings for women.
Anne Finch’s friendship poems are tender and passionate, but were written within the context of an amicable and loving marriage. Her husband was a significant supporter of her poetic career. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons romantic friendship was so openly acceptable was that it was not seen as inherently incompatible with loving relationships with, and marriage to, men. We mustn’t interpret these poems as indicating an “orientation” in the modern sense, but as operating within an understanding that souls were what loved, and that the gender of souls could be immaterial. Practical considerations meant that the ways that love was expressed differed depending on the object of affection, and that women were perhaps more free to make public expression of the passionate feelings they had for their female friends specifically because there was no inherent expectation of a sexual component.
Like many of her contemporaries, Anne Finch used poetic noms de plume in her work, for herself as well as for those her poems were addressed to. Finch was “Ardelia” as in the following work “Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia” from 1713, written in the form of a dialogue. “Ephelia,” the other voice in this poem, may be the as-yet-unindentified author from the same social circle of several poems also on themes of female friendship. In the poem, the alternation between Ardelia and Ephelia is identified with tags, but I’ll distinguish them by voice.
Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (1713)
(Included in Donoghue, Castle, Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
What Friendship is, Ardelia shew.
‘Tis to love as I love You.
This Account, so short (tho’ kind),
Suits not my enquiring Mind.
Therefore farther now repeat:
What is Friendship when compleat?
‘Tis to share all Joy and Grief;
‘Tis to lend all due Relief
From the Tongue, the Heart, the Hand;
‘Tis to mortgage House and Land;
[Be]For a Friend be sold a Slave;
‘Tis to die upon a Grave,
If a Friend therein do lie.
This indeed, tho’ carry’d high;
This tho’ more than e’er was done
Underneath the rolling Sun,
This has all be said before.
Can Ardelia say no more?
Words indeed no more can shew;
But ‘tis to love, as I love you.
Mary Chudleigh was part of the same intellectual circle as Mary Astell and Lady Mary Whortley Montagu who get frequent mention in blog entries about the 18th century. Chudleigh’s work, both poetry and essays, focused on feminist themes. The negative attitudes toward marriage expressed in her work suggest her own may have been less than happy. The poems touching on female friendship invoke the image of an idyllic rustic retreat, a popular theme continuing over from the neo-Platonic pastoral motifs of the later 17th century.
I have to confess from my own reading of Chudleigh’s work that her writing doesn’t strike the ear as among the most eloquent of today’s poets. One of the poems that I didn’t use includes the couplet “No, though lov’d darling of my heart, We’ll never, never, never part” and it’s easy to image the author thinking, “Hmm, We’ll never dum-da-dum-da part. Oh, I’ll fix it in revisions!”
The poem I’ve chosen, “To Lerinda” from 1703, is a fairly typical expression of the themes of platonic love and friendship.
Mary Chudleigh “To Lerinda” (1703)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from Poetry Nook)
Cease, Dear Lerinda , cease admiring
Why Crouds and Noise I disapprove;
What e'er I see abroad is tiring;
O let us to some Cell remove;
Where all alone our selves enjoying,
Enrich'd with Innocence and Peace,
On noblest Themes our Thoughts employing,
Let us our inward Joys increase:
And still the happy Taste pursuing,
Raise our Love and Friendship higher,
And thus the sacred Flames renewing,
In Extasies of Bliss expire.
Similar idealized sentiments appear in the romantic friendship poems of Elizabeth Singer Rowe. Much of her poetry was religious in nature and this may account for the motif that the greatest joy of friendship is a spiritual reunion after death as in this verse “To Cleone” published in a posthumous volume in 1739.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe “To Cleone” (1739)
(Included in Donoghue.)
From the bright realms, and happy fields above,
The seats of pleasure, and immortal love
Where joys no more on airy chance depend,
All health to thee from those gay climes I send!
For thee my tender passion is the same,
Nor death itself has quench’d the noble flame;
For charms like thine forever fix the mind,
And with eternal obligations bind.
And when kind fate shall my Cleonae free
From the dull fetters of mortality.
I’ll meet thy parting soul and guide my fair
In triumph thro’ the lightsome fields of air;
‘Til thou shalt gain the blissful seats and bowers,
And shining plains deck’d with unfading flow’rs.
There nobler heights our friendship shall improve,
For flames, like ours, bright spirits feel above,
And tune their golden harps to the soft notes of love.
The sacred subject swells each heav’nly breast,
And in their looks its transports are expressed.
How do we define the dividing line between close friendships and a more particular exclusive relationship—or at least the desire for one? One hint may come when jealousy, or feelings of abandonment, define the nature of a bond by its absence. I explore that theme a bit more in a later group of poems, but here in Elizabeth Thomas’s “To Clemena” we see the rise and fall of emotions, thinking that an intimate friend may have transferred affections to another.
Thomas was another member of the literary circle that included Mary Astell, Lady Mary Whortley Montague, and Mary Chudleigh. Reading through the biographies of these women, one gets a sense of how interconnected English literary lives were at the time. No one was writing in a vacuum, and the sharing of themes and motifs is part of the way their work is a constant ongoing conversation.
In this poem from 1722, Thomas addresses an absent friend, framing her doubts as an imagined conversation with a gossiping meddler.
Elizabeth Thomas “To Clemena” (1722)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Clemena, if you are indeed
The Friend you have professed,
Your Kindness now exert with speed,
And give me back my Rest.
Late in our gloomy Shade I sat,
Retired from all domestic Care,
And tho’ as calm as was th’ air,
Yet soon disturb’d like that.
For while I grasp’d my precious Store,
And read your last kind Letters o’er,
The gay Melinda pass’d along,
And cried, Oh where is Friendship gone!
What makes Eliza look so down,
When fair Clemena’s come to town?
Indeed, methinks she’s much your friend,
So near, and neither come nor send.
Nay, prithee do not turn away,
‘Ere you have heard what I can say.
Alas, I much lament your Case,
For haughty Gallia takes your Place;
Her Clemena gives her heart,
And leaves you not the smallest part.
Judge with what Grief I was possessed,
How love and Anger tore my breast;
Is this, said I, her kind Return,
For all my tender Cares?
Did I for this my Life despise,
And venture it for hers?
Did I for this such Frowns endure,
Such Hatred to myself procure?
And can she with her Vows expence,
Now make this cruel Recompence?
But when this Storm was somewhat laid,
I fancied that I was betray’d;
For looking round the Nymph was gone,
And mock’d from far my piteous Moan;
‘Twas then, you came into my mind,
So nobly faithful, and so kind;
That I can hardly think it true,
But wait to be resolv’d by you.
Setting Marriage and Women’s Bonds in Conflict
In the 17th century, there seemed to be an entire genre of men’s poems complaining about how the close friendships of women were shutting them out and making the women unavailable for heterosexual relations. John Hoadly’s poem “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” is perhaps a remnant of that tradition lingering in the 18th century. But, in general, male criticism of women’s relationships seems to have moved more into the harshly satirical. There is, perhaps, a sense that the greater public prominence of female friendships has placed them farther from reproach, even on the occasions when they make the women disinclined for marriage.
Hoadly was better known as a playwright (though making his living as a clergyman) with his work leaning toward pastorals and farce. Many of his plays were written in verse form. Also showing the satirical bent of his talent, he wrote the verses that accompanied Hogarth’s famous engravings of “A Rake’s Progress.”
In this poem, he first appears to praise the close friendship of two women, then shifts into suggesting that such friendships inherently become rivalries solved by both turning to men for love.
John Hoadly “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” (1730)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
HAIL, beauteous pair, whom Friendship binds
In softest, yet in strongest ties,
Soft as the temper of your minds,
Strong as the lustre of your eyes!
So Venus' doves in couples fly,
And friendly steer their equal course;
Whose feathers Cupid's shafts supply,
And wing them with resistless force.
Thus as you move Love's tender flame,
Like that of Friendship, paler burns;
Both our divided passion claim,
And friends and rivals prove by turns.
Then ease yourselves and bless mankind,
Friendship so curst no more pursue:
In wedlock's rosy bow'r you'll find
The joys of Love and Friendship too.
But women were becoming more forthright about rejecting the idea that marriage was a universal goal, or even a necessary evil. The anonymous poem “Cloe to Artimesa” published in 1720 is quite blunt on the subject. Note that the reference here to “the sex” means “the opposite sex”, that is, men.
Anonymous “Cloe to Artimesa” (1720)
(Included in Castle, Donoghue, Loughlin.)
While vulgar souls their vulgar love pursue,
And in the common way themselves undo;
Impairing health and fame, and risking life,
To be a mistress or--what’s worse--a wife;
We, whom a nicer taste has raised above
The dangerous follies of such slavish love,
Despise the sex, and in ourselves we find
Pleasures for their gross senses too refined,
Let brutish men, made by our weakness vain,
Boast of the easy conquest they obtain;
Let the poor loving wretch do all she can,
And all won’t please th’ ungrateful tyrant, Man;
We’ll scorn the monster and his mistress too,
And show the world what women ought to do.
Not all women were quite so forthright in their opinions. But marriage was sometimes framed as being in direct rivalry with female friendships. We may recall Katherine Philips offering similar sentiments.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe recounts a series of hazards to the intimate friendship she longs for in “To Aspasia” from 1751—a poem addressed to the woman she hopes will prove truer than those who came before her.
The poem is a bit of an extensive catalog of disrupted friendships, including an explanation of how she won’t recount one story as a favor to the sister of the faithless one. Listen for the reference to losing a friend to “Hymen,” which refers to the god of marriage and not the anatomical feature! Note also the reference in the first verse to pursuing friendship in “Dian’s Grove,” that is, among the followers of the goddess Diana who rejected marriage.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe “To Aspasia” (1751)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Wisdom, Aspasia, by thy gentle muse,
Warns me to shun the dang’rous paths of Love,
And rather those of sober Friendship choose,
With cheerful Liberty in Dian’s Grove.
Yet, led by Fancy through deceitful ground,
Oft have I friendship sought, but sought in vain;
Unfaithful friends with myrtle wreaths I crown’d,
Unpleasing subjects of my plaintive strain.
In youthful innocence, a school-day friend
First gained my sister-vows; unhappy maid!
How did I wipe thy tears, thy griefs attend,
And how was all my tenderness repaid!
No sooner Grandeur, Love, and Fortune smiled,
Than base Ingratitude thy heart betrays,
That friend forgot, who all thy woes beguiled,
Lost in the sun-shine of thy prosperous days.
Save me, kind Heav’n, from smiling Fortune’s power!
And may my wishes never meet success,
If e’er I can forget one single hour,
The friend who gave me comfort in distress.
Yet Friendship’s influence I again implored,
To heal the wounds by Disappointment made;
Friendship my soul to balmy peace restored,
And sent a gentle virgin to my aid.
Soft, modest, pensive, melancholy Fair,
She seem’d to Love and pining Grief a prey;
I saw her fading cheek, and feared Despair
Fed on her heart and stole her life away.
But ah! how chang’d my friend how vain my fears!
Not death, but Hymen stole her from my heart;
Another love dispell’d her sighs and tears,
And Fame was left the secret to impart.
Not twice the changing moon her course had run,
Since first the pleasing youth was seen and loved,
The Fair in secret haste he woo’d and won,
No friend consulted, for no friend approved.
Suspense not long my anxious bosom pain’d,
My friend arrived, I clasp’d her to my breast,
I wept, I smiled, alternate passions reign’d,
Till she the sad unwelcome tale confess’d.
Lost to her brother, country, and to me,
A stranger wafts her to a foreign shore,
She travels mountains and defies the sea,
Nor thinks of Albion or of Stella more.
Sure nature in her weakest softest mould,
Form’d my unhappy heart, false friendship’s prey!
Another story yet remains untold,
Which fond compassion bids me not display;
The lovely sister of a faithless friend,
Weeping entreats me spare of the recent tale;
Her sighs I hear, her wishes I attend,
And o’er her sister’s failings draw the veil.
This my success in search of Friendship’s grove,
Where liberty and peace I hoped to find,
And soften’d thus with grief, deceitful Love,
In friendship’s borrow’d garb attack’d my mind.
No passion raging like the roaring main,
But calm and gentle as a summer sea,
Meek Modesty and Virtue in his train,
What Friendship ought, true Love appeared to be.
But soon was chang’d, alas! the pleasing scene,
Soon threat’ning Storms my timid heart alarm’d;
And Love no more appear’d with brow serene,
But cloth’d in terrors, and with dangers arm’d.
From these enchanted bow’rs my steps I turn.
And seek from Prudence, safety and repose;
Her rigid lessons I resolve to learn,
And gain that bliss which self-approof bestows.
Thus, dear Aspasia, my unhappy fate,
My heart’s first darling schemes all blasted, see;
Yet now my bosom glows with hope elate,
Fair Friendship’s blessings still to find with thee.
By thee conducted to the realms of Peace,
No more in plaintive strains the muse shall sing.
Henceforth with hymns of praise, and grateful bliss,
The groves shall echo, and the valleys ring.
Erotic and Sensual Friendship Poems
Not all poems of romantic friendship focused only on the spiritual. The following three poems blend this theme with expressions of more sensual and erotic joys deriving from those relationships—or at least sought from them.
Pauline de Simiane was a French poet, the granddaughter of the famous courtier and correspondent Madame de Sévigné, whose letters she edited for publication. As the two poems of hers that I’ve included were originally in French, the translations are not metrical. The first, “Madrigal” encodes the homoerotic meaning in a complex set of mythological allusions to the goddess Diana and associated figures.
Diana, of course, was not only famously chaste and disdainful of men, but was the center of a number of stories featuring homoerotic relations between women (as discussed in my episode on Diana and Callisto). So when the poet addresses a female subject, who has kissed her sweetly, and calls her Diana, there is a weight of implication evoked. “Don’t treat me like Apollo” she says. Diana and Apollo were, of course siblings. So she’s begging, don’t kiss me chastely as one would a sibling, but passionately as one would a lover.
“I’d be happy with Endymion’s fate” the poem concludes, referencing the myth of Endymion, which was originally attached to the moon goddess Selene whose lover he was. Among many variants, the central motif of his myth is that he was cursed or blessed to sleep eternally in order to preserve his life and beauty. As Selene and Diana were both associated with the moon, Diana was sometimes substituted as Endymion’s lover, despite her generally anti-male attitude. Putting all this together, de Simiane is addressing a woman and asking, “Why do you kiss me like a sister, with such sweet kisses? Why do you treat me like a sibling when I want you to treat me like a lover.”
I’ve included the original French in the transcript of this show.
Pauline de Simiane “Madrigal” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
Vous me baisez comme une soeur:
Ces baisers sont pleins de douceur;
Mais souffrez que je les condamne.
Je ne suis qu’un mortel, ô nouvelle Diane,
Pourquoi me traitez-vous ainsi qu’un Apollon?
Je serai trop heureux du sort d’Endimion.
You kiss me like a sister,
Kisses filled with sweetness;
Yet you must allow me to condemn them,
For I’m only mortal, my Diane;
Why treat me like Apollo great?
I’d be so happy with Endymion’s fate.
The second poem from Pauline de Simiane is in the form of a letter to someone addressed in the poem as Corinne (possibly a pseudonym) and in the poems title as “Madame la Marquise de S—“. Both this and the previous poem are dated 1715. The title of this verse indicates it accompanied a gift of tobacco and the poem makes a number of connections with “gratifying the senses”. The poet is self-deprecatingly suggesting that she would not have been asked to satisfy the Marquise’s more important longings—despite certain rumors to that effect. The final lines begging the recipient to “trace for me with your hand all of your pleasures” seems superficially to be asking for a letter in return, but raises other images as well.
Pauline de Simiane “Letter to Madame la Marquise de S--, On Sending Her Tobacco” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
I’ve not forgotten you chose me
To gratify one of the senses
That’s generally said to be
Immaterial to life’s pleasures
Thus, despite the rumors spread abroad,
If you truly had the longing
To satisfy them one and all,
I think that in this fancy
Your heart, without a pause
Would not have chosen for the task
A pitiful friend like me;
But you have need of modest size;
In you, only the sense of smell is unfulfilled.
And yet do you imagine that my eyes
Away from you suffer any less?
Still, I cannot bear to see you penitent,
And will relieve your pain. As reward
For my tobacco and my care,
All I ask, my lovable Corinne,
Is that your hand sometimes choose
To trace for me with tenderness
All of your pleasures, all your fine times.
If tobacco seems an unusual gift of affection, the following poem by Mary Matilda Betham catalogs some much more conventional gifts, before settling on a gift of a kiss. Betham was a diarist, writer, and miniature painter in the late 18th and early 19th century. She wrote a biographical dictionary of famous women as well as four books of her poetry. Betham supported herself with her painting and writing and did not marry. I don’t know whether there are any guesses as to whom this “Valentine” poem was written in 1797.
Mary Matilda Betham “A Valentine” (1797)
(Included in Castle.)
What shall I send my sweet today,
When all the woods attune in love?
And I would show the lark and dove,
That I can love as well as they.
I’ll send a locket full of hair--
But no, for it might chance to lie
Too near her heart, and I should die
Of love’s sweet envy to be there.
A violet is sweet to give--
Ah stay! She’d touch it with her lips,
And after such complete eclipse,
How could my soul consent to live?
I’ll send a kiss for that would be
The quickest sent, the lightest borne,
And well I know tomorrow morn
She’ll send it back again to me.
Go, happy winds; ah, do not stay,
Enamoured of my ladies cheek,
But hasten home and I’ll bespeak
Your services another day!
The Pangs of Love
For this next set of verses I retain my poetic category of “the pangs of love” with two rather different takes on love gone awry.
Anna Seward was a well-known and prolific poet who spent all her life in the relatively rural area of the Peak District, far from the literary circles of London. She was a friend of the “Ladies of Llangollen” and wrote poems referencing them and their home. Seward rejected marriage, both abstractly and in the form of specific offers. Her romantic relationships were all with women, though her commitment to caring for her father limited how she carried them out. Very notably, she fell in love with a younger woman named Honora Sneyd who lived in their household for a while before marrying and thereby breaking Seward’s heart.
The following two poems mark the early adoration and the later hurt. First “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” written around 1780.
Anna Seward “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” ( c. 1780)
(Included in Castle, Faderman. This text taken from Poetry Nook)
I write, HONORA, on the sparkling sand!--
The envious waves forbid the trace to stay:
HONORA'S name again adorns the strand!
Again the waters bear their prize away!
So Nature wrote her charms upon thy face,
The cheek's light bloom, the lip's envermeil'd dye,
And every gay, and every witching grace,
That Youth's warm hours, and Beauty's stores supply.
But Time's stern tide; with cold Oblivion's wave,
Shall soon dissolve each fair, each fading charm;
E'en Nature's self, so powerful, cannot save
Her own rich gifts from this o'erwhelming harm.
Love and the Muse can boast superior power,
Indelible the letters they shall frame;
They yield to no inevitable hour,
But will on lasting tablets write thy name.
This following poem, titled simply “To Honora Sneyd,” is only one of many “break-up poems” Seward wrote about what she considered Sneyd’s betrayal. Some people dwell a bit too long.
(Included in Donoghue. This text from Poetry Nook)
Honora, should that cruel time arrive
When 'gainst my truth thou should'st my errors poise,
Scorning remembrance of our vanished joys;
When for the love-warm looks in which I live,
But cold respect must greet me, that shall give
No tender glance, no kind regretful sighs;
When thou shalt pass me with averted eyes,
Feigning thou see'st me not, to sting, and grieve,
And sicken my sad heart, I could not bear
Such dire eclipse of thy soul-cheering rays;
I could not learn my struggling heart to tear
From thy loved form, that through my memory strays;
Nor in the pale horizon of Despair
Endure the wintry and the darkened days.
Now we turn to a somewhat more light-hearted and borderline scandalous expression of the pangs of love. The verse has a rather complicated provenance, so forgive me for going into a bit of detail.
In the 18th century, feuds between the fans of prominent opera singers were a thing. They’d show up to cheer on their favorite or heckle her rival. The theater managers considered these rivalries great for ticket sales and did nothing to discourage them. The rivalries between the stars themselves might go beyond jockeying for the best roles and even go as far as fisticuffs. One such rivalry was between the up and coming Faustina Bordoni and the established star Francesca Cuzzoni who came to blows during a performance in 1727—a fight that was quickly satirized in broadsides and even in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728.
The following poem purports to be a letter from Faustina Bordoni to one of her supporters. It can validly be doubted whether Bordoni herself wrote it, particularly given that it seems designed to cast aspersions on her reputation.
The original gives the speaker’s name as “F—” in one place, but I’ve supplied the full name as Faustina from the attribution. Elsewhere, the name of the lady to whom the letter is supposedly addressed is left a blank and there seems to be no good theory as to who might be indicated. I wanted to fill it in with something for the sake of the metrical flow but the meter in that line is a bit of a mess and seems to call for a single unstressed syllable, so I’ve read “Joy to the fair [blank]” as “Joy to the fair one” and we’ll leave it at that.
There are a number of allusions that may be useful to know. The claim “ladies unpracticed in the art of love a living Aretin in me may prove” is a reference to the “Dialogues” of Renaissance author Pietro Aretino which included discussions of sex between women. The classical pseudonyms Chloe and Thalestris may have been understood by contemporaries as specific women in Bordoni’s circle. Thalestris was the name of an Amazon of legend. And the reference toward the end of the poem to Durastanti is to an earlier star soprano who had been supplanted by Bordoni’s rival Cuzzoni.
Faustina Bordoni (nominally) “An Epistle from Signora F—to a Lady” (1727)
(Included in Loughlin.)
Condemn not, Madame, as I write in haste,
My thoughts confused, or any word misplaced.
Of cens’ring tongues I scorn the little spite,
In wild disorder, as I love, I write.
In haste I write to ease your tortured mind,
Spite of your jealousy, I still am kind.
Unspotted as the sun, my love shall rise,
And soon dispel the fears that cloud your eyes
Let others for dear scandal search the town,
Or with superior fancy choose a gown;
Others their heads with learned volumes fill,
Or boast of deeper science at quadrille;
In the gay dance let other nymphs excel;
Faustina’s glory lies in loving well.
Of pleasure all the various modes I know,
In different degrees, it’s ebb and flow.
Ladies unpracticed in the art of love,
A living Aretin in me may prove.
Propitious Venus, Grant me power to give
Joy to the fair --, ‘tis for her I live.
Cease then to let your jealous fancy rove,
Nor give me such a cruel proof of love.
Am I in fault that crowds obsequious bend,
And rival beauties for my love contend?
That fierce Thalestris has attacked my heart?
Or gentle Chloe cast a milder dart?
To fierce Thalestris I disdain to yield,
And gentle Chloe ne’er shall gain the field,
In vain she breathes her passion in my ear,
For when you speak I nothing else can hear;
In vain with transport to my feet she flew,
All joys are tasteless, but what come through you.
Before your fatal face I chanced to see,
No Cynic ever laughed at love like me.
Inconstant as the wind, free as the air,
I ranged from man to man, from fair to fair.
I roved about like the industrious bee,
First sucked the honey, then forsook the tree.
In Venus’ combats I have spent the day,
Swiss-like I fought on any side for pay.
But now I love and your bewitching face
Has well avenged the cause of human race.
Do justice to yourself, review your charms,
Nor fear to see me in another’s arms.
Have you not beauty equal to your youth?
Look in your glass, and then suspect my truth.
No passion tramontane in you I’ve found,
By love and gratitude I’m doubly bound.
You first of all the British fair declared,
I sung unrivaled, e’er my voice you heard.
By sympathy you felt each charm, each grace,
And loved my person ere you saw my face.
Nor was I coy, or difficult to move,
When you revealed the story of your love.
With such pathetic mirth you played your part,
You found an easy conquest of my heart.
I felt a thrilling joy, till then unknown,
And loved with ardour equal to your own.
Witness the transports of that happy day,
When melting in each other’s arms we lay.
With velvet kiss your humid lips I pressed.
And rode triumphant on your panting breast.
Thus rode Saint George, thus fearless thrust his dart
Up to the head in the fell dragon’s heart.
In ecstasy you cried, “What joys are these?
Not Durastanti’s self so well could please.
This is no sleepy husband’s feeble mite,
The tasteless tribute of an ill-spent night.
Such were our joys, Oh could they always last!
But greatest pleasures are the soonest past.
Oh, did my power and will in concert move!
And were my strength but equal to my love!
Th’incredulous philosopher should see
Perpetual motion verified in me.
Satire and Vituperation
As I mentioned earlier, if mildly teasing digs at female couples for making themselves unavailable to men show up less often in the 18th century, the more vicious attacks on specific women, either for a lesbian reputation, or using accusations of lesbianism as a weapon, are on the rise. These were often published anonymously, although in some cases the authorship is obvious and undisputed.
The anonymously penned “The Adulteress,” published in 1773, is something of a broad-brush attack on the sexual morals of women in general. Some have identified it as a very loose re-working of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which is a similar misogynistic catalog of women’s supposed vices. I’ve included here only two brief excerpts: part of the preface, which compares the decadent present to the solid virtues of the era of Queen Bess (that is, Elizabeth I), and then the section discussing homosexuality. There are a couple of disguised personal names—a common technique for dodging libel. Since the specific names only matter to those who know the ins and outs of 18th century British politics, I’ve filled them in to fit the meter, though in one case I believe I’ve identified the correct person.
Anonymous “The Adulteress” (1773)
(Excerpts included in Castle, McCormick. Text (excerpts) from: Rictor Norton (ed.), "The Macaroni Club: The Adulteress, 1773", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 11 June 2005.)
How better were the Matrons of QUEEN BESS,
Who suited all their manners to their dress;
Who breakfasted on beef, and drank stout ale,
Rough as their Lords, as honest and as hale!
Our Sons had then red cheeks and sturdy back,
Not melted by Cornelys' and Almack's:
Earth never then had known a Coxcomb race;
Then Macaronies were not Man's disgrace;
The Sun did never condescend to smile
On tiny things like J----y and C--l-le;
Earth's common fruits in Markets were expos'd,
Unknown forestalling, Commons uninclos'd:
But when ELIZA to the Stars withdrew,
Genius and Chastity attended too.
With JAMES and CHARLES rank Lechery came in,
And Virtue then gave place at Court to Sin:
New modes of Lust e'en CHARLES himself devis'd,
And ROCHESTER both nurs'd them, and chastis'd:
Then did the Court chaste Marriage-rites profane,
And purer Virtue breath'd in Drury-lane.
# # #
Women and Men, in these unnat'ral Times,
Are guilty equal of unnat'ral crimes:
Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:
And if they don't relinquish such a Crime,
I'll give their Names to be the scoff of Time.
But here, Sweet Girls, my indignation fires,
When Man with Man into the shade retires;
And when that Justice damns them and their crimes,
The noble Monsters of these monstrous Times
Repair to Majesty, and piteous plead
A Wretch's cause – whom Virtue deem'd to bleed.
Can beauteous VIRTUE shew her heav'nly face?
When Jones is pardon'd – ***'s held in Place!
Hear me, sweet sheeny Virtue – hear my pray'r,
Make Love and Modesty thy constant care!
Diana, cull a wreath of Roses fair,
And place the posy in the Poet's hair:
I feel throughout this meretricious strain,
A hallow'd Virtue trill from vein to vein.
When Fashion suffers Turpitudes to grow,
Honour and Truth both cordially allow,
That even Bawdy is a Virtue now.
While “The Adulteress” takes aim at entire swathes of society, and as much at effeminate men as at “Tommies”, William King penned a much more pointed satire in revenge at a specific woman. The Duchess of Newburgh, he claimed, owed him several thousand pounds, but he lost a lawsuit to try to obtain the funds. Frustrated with more formal methods, King wrote a very long, convoluted satirical poem, densely packed with obscure references to contemporary figures and their scandals, which featured the Duchess in the form of a promiscuous pansexual witch named Myra. If the initial version in 1732 were not enough, William King published an expanded version four years later and reprinted it again in 1754.
From a historical point of view, the poem is valuable in demonstrating that the term “lesbian” was used in English in a sexual sense at least as early as 1732. Though one shouldn’t put too much reliance on the poem as evidence of cultural practice, it depicts a lesbian cultural tradition that envisions women who had a distinct and stable sexual orientation toward women.
The problem with trying to include even a sample from this poem in the podcast is that any brief excerpt is incoherent, while any extensive passage is going to include material that is not merely homophobic but also packed with slurs involving racial and religious groups, just for a start. So I will leave you with the knowledge of its existence and a serious content warning if you choose to look into it.
William King “The Toast” (1732)
(Excerpts included in Loughlin, McCormick, Rictor Norton)
(Poem not included in the podcast.)
For Love of a Dildo
One rather curious genre of poetry that appears in the 18th century—perhaps in parallel with the greater openness of sexual satires in general—are works about dildoes. It is difficult to determine the genuine place of dildoes in female same-sex erotics in this or other historic eras, largely because the records that obsess over the use of an artificial phallus may be treating it more as a symbol than a reality. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” The use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. So to some extent, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives.
This anxiety rarely stands alone, but is typically accompanied by an accusation that if men were doing their proper job as lovers, then women wouldn’t look elsewhere. In both the 17th and 18th centuries, satirical works combine accusations of male effeminacy and rampant sodomy with the vision of women consequently turning to each other, or to dildoes, or both as a consequence.
The anonymous epic poem “The Sappho-an,” published in 1735, is an extended exploration of this theme. Following the naming conventions of the day, the title should be read as “the Sappho club” or “the Sappho circle.” The appearance of the name “Mira” in the text suggests a connection to William King’s poem “The Toast,” raising the possibility that King was the author of this poem as well.
The poem contains extensive descriptions of sexual encounters and techniques between women but is clearly intended as a satirical attack, either on lesbian sex in general or on a specific woman whose connection to the poem is no longer obvious to us.
The general plot of the poem is thus. The Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo. There is an underlying message that all of these delights are less satisfactory than sex with men, were that only available.
Anonymous “The Sappho-an” (1735)
(Included in Castle. Text from Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Sappho-An, c.1735 or 1749," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 26 August 2017.)
[The poem begins with this warning to contemporaries, before moving on to the classical setting:]
(Opening of Canto I)
SWAINS of Britannia’s happy, gladsome isle,
Who wait submissive on the fair-one’s smile;
And all the soothing arts of lovers try
In hopes to make the cruel Nymph comply;
Know, whilst you idle thus away your time,
Women in secret joys consume their prime;
Some fav’rite maid, or handy young coquette,
Steals the rich prize you vainly strive to get;
Of them be cautious; but the artful prude
Watch most, for she will thoughtless girls delude;
At break of Day when you have often mourn’d
Your tender billet-doux, unread, return’d,
And thought some happier rival in the place
When you expected the long-wish’d embrace;
Your lovely nymph, in private, quench’d her flame
With some experienc’d, well-known, crafty dame,
Who knew the softest way to reach her heart,
And proudly vy’d with nature in her art.
(Much later in the poem, Sappho arrives to save the day.)
“CEASE, cease she cries, your needless search suspend,
“Well vers’d in love, let me the conflict end;
“A curious artist that thro’ nature pry’d,
“Has ev’ry wish our hearts could form supply’d;
“He gives us man without the plague of males,
“Which will untired remain when nature fails;
“The conscious blush must rise whene’er I think
“What arts we use when drooping standards sink;
“In vain the lily hand with genial fire
“Strives with fresh heat the mortals to inspire;
“When round their limbs robust we gently twine,
“And fondly hope to make the centers join;
“Repugnant to our joys, the Ruler, dead,
“Hangs like a fading flow’r its livid head;
“Nor can our heaving breasts new strength excite,
“The darting tongue no longer can invite;
“When we to rushing joy go boldly on,
“Supine and indolent they tumble down;
“Baulk’d in our bliss, we to reproaches fly,
“And noise and tumult for kind signs supply;
“No more we clasp him in our tender arms,
“No more his colder breast our bosom warms;
“Who then such frail felicity wou’d trust,
“Or value those imperfect efforts most;
“When solid joys are always at command,
“And court the pressure of your eager hand?
“For this the burnish’d iv’ry rears its head,
“Waiting for coral of a lovely red;
“Or if too rude the polish’d engine seems,
“The velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes;
“Its shape compleat, nor can ye aught despise,
“For to your choice they shall adapt the size.
…SHE said, and with a more majestic Mien
Produc’d at once the wonderful Machine.
Not more the Greeks rejoic’d when Ilium’s Fate,
Which on its stol’n Palladium did await,
The sly Ulysses cautiously drew out
And charm’d the wond’ring chiefs and vulgar rout.
…WITH rapture all beheld it, and applause
In Io’s loud, the silent image draws.
Immediate trial is the next demand,
The trial claims a gently trembling hand;
Kind Sappho soon administers her aid,
And drives the dart into the yielding maid.
Fond of the scheme they strive t’improve its use,
And each will the most pleasing method chuse.
The poem continues on at some length and ends by suggesting that the use of such implements damages the health and those who use it will end in regret.
Another poem “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” published in 1722 has similar underlying themes, if fewer classical allusions. It personifies the dildo as a foreign lover, bringing new sexual practices to England (and spreading them throughout the world). You may be amused that when Monsieur Thing first arrives in London, he finds lodgings at a “toy shop” in Covent Garden. There is a series of anecdotes describing various categories of women using the device, though only one anecdote involves a female couple. I’ve only included this excerpt from the poem. The reference to “two cows playing in a field” suggests that the author was familiar with same-sex mounting behavior in domestic animals.
Anonymous “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” (1722)
(Included in Castle, McCormick.)
Clear as Monsieur was, and free to range
Hs tour he took towards the Great Exchange;
Ingratiated himself into the favor
Of milliners, by’s complaisant behavior;
He pitch’d his tent between two partners
Indeed he took them not for to be whores
But like two cows a playing in a field,
While the one rid, the other seemed to yield;
This was itself complete encouragement,
To show what they’d be at, and their intent
Fully explain’d what it was that they meant.
One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.
The Triumph of Love
But now it’s time to turn away from bawdy satire to conclude our poetic tour with the triumph of love. Many of the poems in the romantic friendship genre might easily fit here. I’ve chosen a work by one member of perhaps the most famous female couple in 18th century England: Sarah Ponsonby, the junior member of the Ladies of Llangollen. The poem, dated 1789, is simply titled “Song”. Although the poem contrasts “vulgar eros” with “love,” the sense of being overpowered by desire is reminiscent of Sappho’s work.
Sarah Ponsonby “Song” (1789)
(Included in Donoghue.)
By vulgar Eros long misled,
I call’d thee tyrant, mighty Love!
With idle fear my fancy fled
Nor e’en thy pleasures wish to prove.
Condemn’d at length to wear thy chains,
Trembling I felt and ow’d thy might;
But soon I found my fears were vain,
Soon hugged my chain and found it light.
A tour through various poems of the 18th century that touch of different aspects of love between women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
There's an entire book on the Benson family that I should probably add to the blog to-do list at some point. She seems like a fascinating person, though the interpersonal relations within the Benson family are not exactly a pinnacle of functionality. Still, to think that someone who came into a marriage so disadvantaged in terms of social power (I mean, her husband arranged to train her up to be his future wife when she was only 11 years old!) was able to come to a no-fucks-to-give point where she renegotiated the entire basis of their marriage and relationship. That's quite a story.
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 4 “The Gift of Love” – Religion and Lesbian Love
One approach to acceptance of same-sex desire was to view all love as a gift of God and therefore acceptable. This chapter looks at two examples of f/f love embedded in religious structures. Lesbians had far from a unified attitude toward religion, aligning themselves more often based on class or family attitudes, sometimes embracing them, sometimes rejecting.
The use of passionate and erotic language to express spiritual experiences provided an acceptable context for using similar language about a same-sex beloved. In some cases, women might embrace such feelings as non-erotic, while in other cases the spiritual nature of their feelings excused the erotic.
The first focus of this chapter is Mary Benson, the dissatisfied wife of a successful Anglican clergyman, who found fulfilment in a series of relationships with women.
The Benson family is extensively documented through their correspondence, diaries, and books. Not only Mary, but her two daughters and three of her sons had a preference for their own sex. In Mary’s case, she had experienced several crushes on women before marrying Reverend Benson, who had identified Mary as a prospective wife when she was 11.
Mary did not love him, appears to have disliked marital relations, and found her life being micro-managed. After 12 years and six children, she had a breakdown, and while convalescing at a spa in Germany, fell in love with a fellow female boarder, finding in that relationship the self-confidence and self-love lacking in her marriage. She returned to the marriage with boundaries around her emotional and erotic life that thereafter excluded her husband.
With this new arrangement, Mary supported Reverend Benson in his career advancement and found her own religious vocation as a spiritual “mother” to other women, that combine both religious and erotic love. The taboo against divorce, particularly for the clergy, gave them both a motivation to find accommodation.
Mary saw carnal desire as a weakness – something to strive to master – but not only in the context of same-sex relations. In defining the boundaries of carnal versus spiritual love, kissing, embracing, and sleeping together fell on the “spiritual” side.
The second focal couple in this chapter is Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and Katharine’s mother helped raise her Edith and her sister, with Katharine taking over guardianship at her mother’s death when the two sisters were in their teens. Katherine’s shift from “elder sister” to mother figure to lover with respect to Edith may strike the modern sensibility as problematic, but the relationship was mutual and devoted and confirmed to be erotic.
Together they developed their literary talents and chose to write under a single name. “Michael Field’s” work was acclaimed, but when their authorship was revealed, public opinion turned fickle, considering their work “unwomanly”. That, combined with changes in poetic tastes and with Edith’s health problems decreased their literary output.
Having always had a free-spirited and eclectic approach to religion, the reasons why they converted to Catholicism are convoluted. But one consequence was a turning to themes of sacrifice, but in different directions that made their prior mode of collaboration more difficult. Cooper found her new religious vocation in conflict with her poetic muse, while Bradley embraced the near-pagan ritual and symbolism in her work.
While they continued to promote the image of perfect unity, conflict crept into the nature of that unity. Cooper began to lose interest in the sexual aspect of their relationship and agonized over how to frame it in her confessions. Bradley struggled with the apparent involuntary renunciation of her erotic life. Bradley’s poems from this era express a sense of loss.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 185 - Sapphic Historical Fantasy in Asian Settings - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/11/21 - listen here)
So…not so funny story. Last Sunday morning I was setting up my equipment to record this podcast, went to make my first cup of coffee of the day, and instead found myself phoning for an ambulance when I couldn’t catch my breath. One pulmonary embolism and three days in the hospital later I’m back on track and getting this recorded. Just a reminder that we never know what’s coming around the bend at us. I hope for all of you that you can listen to what your bodies tell you and that you have the resources to act on those messages and get the care you need. I’m fine for now, but I confess it was a bit scary there for a little while.
In searching out upcoming sapphic books to include in the On the Shelf show, I often notice interesting patterns and themes. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of historical fantasies set across Asia, either using historic cultures or fantastic versions of them. And it’s particularly exciting that these books are being written by authors with roots in the cultures they’re writing about.
What’s curious is the difficulty I have finding purely historical f/f stories in Asian settings, at least ones focusing on local characters, and especially own voices stories with those settings. I’m deeply curious what the underlying reasons for that are—other than the sad fact that f/f historical fiction is an impossible way to make a living as a writer. I’d love to put together a discussion on the topic, though it’s always tricky to ask a question like that. “Why aren’t you writing this thing that you aren’t writing?” How can you answer that? Every author is “not writing” many more themes than they do tackle.
But in pondering the question, and in celebration of some really exciting books, both already published and upcoming in the next half year, I wanted to do a short focus on some historical fantasies by authors from various Asian cultures who have stories revolving around queer women, or in some cases characters who will resonate with readers looking for queer women. This list is going to be roughly chronological by publication date.
First up is The True Queen by Zen Cho, who was a guest on the podcast to talk about this book. The True Queen is a loose sequel to Cho’s earlier novel Sorcerer to the Crown and continues to tie together a fantastic Regency-era England with dragons and magical ties to Faerie, including connections with magical figures in the region of Janda Baik in Malaysia. Here’s the description.
When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.
One of the allies that Muna makes in England is a young woman studying magic at the academy who becomes very close to her indeed. Like pretty much all the books I’ll be talking about today, the romance is not central to the plot but at the same time is very central to the ultimate decisions the characters make. In both this and in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho tackles the complex and painful ways in which colonialism underpins the glittering fantasy of the Regency era, while the alternate history setting enables her to rearrange those themes in triumphant ways.
One of the few books I’ve succeeded in reading during this summer’s long quarantine is Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian historic fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Taking up characters and themes from Persian legend and tradition, we get a story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, and finding one’s way to trust and redemption.
There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story. As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming...human or demon. Princess or monster.
On the romantic side, Soraya deals with the temptations and heartbreaks of loving both women and men…well, it would be giving things away to note that those labels aren’t always the most pertinent ones! I very much enjoyed how same-sex attraction was normalized within the historic setting and was not, itself, a source of conflict.
When I first wrote the script for this show, I noted that I had the next book on my iPad but hadn’t read it yet. Well, thanks to the aforementioned adventures, I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo off my phone while waiting for test results in the emergency room. This is the start of a cycle of books connected by the motif of a cleric whose vocation is to collect stories. Here’s the cover copy.
A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.
The sapphic aspects of The Empress of Salt and Fortune are fairly subtle and backgrounded. I wasn’t aware it fit my remit until I spotted the second book in the series, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain which is coming out next month in December 2020.
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
We’ve heard the story about “the tiger or the lady” but how about a story where the tiger and the lady are in love? Both books are novellas and can be read independently, so if you’re looking for something bitesize to tackle, give them a try.
I have been hoping for quite some time for one of my favorite sff authors, Aliette de Bodard, to write something with the right characteristics to feature on the podcast. Her impressive Dominion of the Fallen series is very queer but feels a bit too removed from our world’s history for the show. And her Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace isn’t really set in our world. But in February 2021 she’s coming out with yet another Vietnamese-rooted fantasy that feels right for the podcast: Fireheart Tiger. Here’s the cover copy:
Fire burns bright and has a long memory…. Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions. Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
Many of the books featured in this show are set in a land clearly based on a historic culture in Asia, but removed from reality just enough to give room for play. A mythic version of India is the setting for Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, scheduled to come out in June 2021. Here’s the description:
Exiled by her despotic brother when he claimed their father’s kingdom, Malini spends her days trapped in the Hirana: an ancient, cliffside temple that was once the source of the magical deathless waters, but is now little more than a decaying ruin. A servant in the regent’s household, Priya makes the treacherous climb to the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to play the role of a drudge so long as it keeps anyone from discovering her ties to the temple and the dark secret of her past. One is a vengeful princess seeking to steal a throne. The other is a powerful priestess seeking to find her family. Their destinies—and their hearts—will become irrevocably tangled. And together, they will set an empire ablaze.
I always try to be careful and precise about character identities, when the information is available. It would be misrepresentative to say there is sapphic representation in Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, coming out in July 2021. There is a character described in the cover copy as a girl who takes on her brother’s identity and who is involved at some point with a female character, but the information I can find from the author indicates that the protagonist is intended to be male-identified. So put this in the category of books that I think will appeal to fans of the podcast, but where the story cannot necessarily be described as sapphic. Here’s the cover copy:
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness. In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother's identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother's abandoned greatness.
Why are we getting so many fascinating historic fantasies set across the face of Asia? Why do so many of them feature queer characters? And where are the similar own-voices stories being set in the historic past? It’s hard to analyze a trend when you’re in the middle of it, so maybe we should just relax and enjoy the books!
A tour through some sapphic historic fantasy in various Asian cultures by authors with roots in those cultures.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online