This past weekend I tackled the emotionally draining process of going through all my notes and lists about potential reviewers for Mother of Souls and this morning I sent the initial list to my publisher.
It's not a simple process. There are a small number of people who get an advance copy -- though what that means in practice is that they get the Word file with my latest version. In the "real" publishing world, it's all about Advance Review Copies (ARCs) and the majority of serious reviewers won't review a book after the publication date. So for the most part, I don't get reviews of that sort.
The next group are people I've had positive interest from--people who have actively asked for a review copy or who've said yes when I offered one. There's actually a gratifying number of those this time. Their preferred format and e-mail get passed along to receive a copy at release. The third group are review sites that say, "Send us a copy and if one of our reviewers is interested, we might do a review." Those get scrutinized rather heavily to see if their existing reviews suggest a likelihood of success, because I don't like using up my review-request credit with my publisher on pure speculation. The fourth group are reviewers whose website says, "tell me about your book, and if I'm interested I'll let you know." Those get a query and then I pretty much forget about them because I don't think they've ever panned out. I mostly survive this process by burying myself in the geekery of spreadsheets.
The Alpennia books focus a lot on high magic: the Great Mysteries in the cathedral, or at the very least the ceremonies of formal guilds. But there have been a lot of references to smaller, more informal workings: the floodtide "sweetheart divination" that Antuniet adapts for her book-finding charm, everyday prayers for health that are embedded in little rituals, the small magics dismissed as "market-charms", bought and sold in the plaiz and of questionable efficacy. The more precarious one's life is, the more likely one is to place hope in those charms--to eke out one's resources with a bit of luck, to stave off disease when there's no money for a physician, to gain answers to which path to choose. Any time the marketplace is filled with people, they charm-wives gather to offer their wares. And Carnival is a prime opportunity...
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Chapter 13 - Luzie
“I’m freezing again," Luzie said. "If we aren’t going to dance, there’s less wind under the arches and we could have our fortunes told.” And the drifting smoke from the food-sellers would be less noticeable there. Luzie took Serafina by the hand and led her to the covered walk that bordered the plaiz, where they were besieged by market-women with trinkets and charms.
“Ribbons, Maisetra? Fine silks and laces?”
“A candle with a blessing from the Holy Mother, guaranteed to cure the cough.”
The woman who offered it turned away briefly to hawk and spit. It might have been only the smokey air, but Luzie made a note not to trust her cures.
“What would you buy? Combs for your hair, Maisetra?”
Luzie pushed past the more forward of the hawkers to the stretch where the charm-wives gathered. They were less inclined to besiege their customers, and instead waited for a need to be presented before they gathered around to argue the efficacy of their wares over those of their rivals.
Serafina gazed at each of them in fascination. What did she see? Luzie wondered. She leaned closely. “Can you tell which of them can work mysteries and which are frauds?”
“It’s not…” Serafina looked down, realizing that she had been staring. “It’s not quite like that. Some of the charms have power and some don’t. At least from what I can see. But some may only show it when used. And some of the women, I can see that they… Margerit would say they have the ear of the saints. You can see the echo of holiness following them. But that doesn’t mean that all their works have power. It’s complicated. They don’t always know what they’re doing, you see.”
Luzie didn’t see at all. She laughed at the thought. No, she didn’t see at all. “Who shall we ask to tell our fortunes?”
No sooner had the question left her lips than they were surrounded by offers. Luzie looked sidelong at Serafina, waiting for a sign.
“If you want the hope of truth, that one,” Serafina said, nodding at an older woman wrapped in red shawls, sitting behind a barrel that served as a table, back against the building wall.
They were all older women, of course, and a few old men. Who would trust a young charm-wife? And who would try to scrape a living peddling cures and market-charms if they still had the strength for more certain work?
The woman turned sharp eyes on the both of them, looking from face to face, but she didn’t rise.
“What do you care to ask, Maisetras?” She unwrapped a set of cards and began shifting them around in her hands with quick, jerky movements.
Luzie looked at Serafina who nodded at her to go first.
“There is a…an endeavor that I have begun.” Did she really want to know what her Tanfrit songs might become? Why had she chosen that question?
Before she could either offer more details or change her mind, the woman shuffled the cards one last time and laid out several on the barrelhead, keeping a fingertip of her left hand on each to keep the breeze from shifting them.
“Ah, they speak clearly,” the fortune-teller began, tucking away the remaining cards and pointing to those displayed in turn. “It is a long path you’ve set your feet on. You see here? But a dark stranger will help you to your heart’s desire.”
Luzie glanced at Serafina again. They both grinned like schoolgirls. A dark stranger indeed. It didn’t take any mystical visions to suggest that.
“Beware the man who will betray you. He has less power than you think. Not enough to destroy your work, but enough to destroy your dreams. That is all the cards say.”
It was the sort of vague answer that anyone could give, but Luzie pulled a few coins out of her reticule and placed them in the woman’s hand. “Thank you. Serafina, what will you ask?”
Serafina nodded to the woman, almost like a little bow. “I ask nothing now, but if I have a question that needs a true answer, I will return, Mefro.”
Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
Given how foundational a work this is on the study of love between women in western culture, it’s a bit surprising that I’ve taken so long to include it here. Surpassing the Love of Men is an awkward work in several ways. On a trivial level, the density of information combined with a large number of chapters means I have the choice between dividing it up into 26 bite-size entries, or 6 unwieldy ones. At the time I’m writing this, my plan is to go for the smaller entries but post them more often than usual. (It occurs to me this book would have been a convenient Pride Month project, with a post every day, but I don’t feel like putting it off.)
On a philosophical level, Surpassing the Love of Men is awkward because, in the 35 years since it was published, a number of Faderman’s positions have been found to be historically inaccurate. As Faderman notes in her introduction, the book was inspired by her puzzlement over the contrast between the love expressed by poet Emily Dickinson to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert and the unselfconsciousness Dickinson apparently felt in expressing that love. Faderman notes that she had gone into her study of Dickinson convinced that here was a mid 19th century American lesbian waiting to be reclaimed for the team, but she couldn’t integrate that framing with Dickinson’s lack of guilt or anxiety around a same-sex relationship that had not had the benefit of the gay liberation movement.
That sounds a bit quaint and...perhaps even smug. How could anyone be comfortable in a non-normative life without the support of a political movement? When Faderman went looking for similar same-sex sentiments to the ones in DIckinson’s poetry and correspondence, she found the 19th century to be rife with them, not only in correspondence but in literary representations. She found that such sentiments were so common as to have a variety of conventional labels: Boston marriage, sentimental friends, the love of kindred spirits, or dating back to the 18th century, romantic friends. And now we come to the sentence that is at the heart of Faderman’s most important failing in this work:
“These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion.”
The problem is that this is not a true historical statement of attitudes towards women’s sexuality in pre-modern times, either by women or by society in general. I can only presume that Faderman’s focus on the 19th century led her to be less familiar with earlier data and to accept that century’s beliefs about the past as being accurate. And, in fairness, much of the work on the history of sexuality that would easily refute this understanding has been produced after the publication of this work. I’d love to know if Faderman has shifted on this position since then. (I’ll see if I can track anything down on this point. If I had the nerve, I might even try writing her!) But this means that in my presentation of this work, I may be adding pointers to contradictory evidence and opinions.
Faderman’s overall conclusions run something like this: Prior to around the 18th century, nobody cared what women did romantically or sexually together as long as they didn’t challenge masculine privilege, either by adopting masculine dress or by resisting the supremacy of heterosexuality. 18-19th century female “romantic friends” mostly did not have sex with each other because women didn’t have sex drives until the 20th century (except in prurient male imaginations). Because genital sex wasn’t involved, romantic friends felt no guilt or shame about devoting their lives to each other and expressing their love openly. But then the late 19th century sexologists invented homosexuality as a concept and included women’s romantic friendships as an example of the homosexual continuum. Now, retroactively, romantic friends were suspect, leading for example to Emily Dickinson’s niece omitting much of the romantic content in her papers when editing them for publication in th 1920s. Now it was no longer possible for two women to be unselfconsiously and innocently in love with each other, resulting in lesbian literature becoming riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing until the gay liberation movement of the 1960s made it ok again.
OK, so that came off sounding a bit snarky. And I don’t actually mean it to be. This was a groundbreaking and valuable work when it was written, and it’s still a valuable compendium of historic information on how romantic friendship was expressed. But I think it’s been amply demonstrated since then that the premise that romantic friendships were never sexual has been shown to be as incorrect as a presumption that they must always have been sexual.
The structure of the book is also awkward for my usual pattern of simply identifying entries in sequence by chapter numbers. There are three parts, each part has two sections, and each section has 3-5 chapters with numbering starting over from “chapter 1” for each section. So the individual entries will be identified with something like “II.B.3 [chapter title]. Here’s the overall structure above the chapter level:
Part I: The Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries
Part II: The Nineteenth Century
Part III: The Twentieth Century
Yes, it’s that time again when I’ve been binge-listening to the Podcastle audio fantasy fiction on my podcast feed and have decided to catch up with several months worth of reviews. As previously, my ability to remember what I thought of a story (or even what the story was about) fades the longer ago I listened to it.
422: Golden Chaos by M.K. Hutchins - A vaguely Nordic secondary-world village sits at the edge of a zone of chaos that has been known to provide treasure but also destroys randomly. The protagonist’s expectations of a profitable season and thus the ability to marry his betrothed are destroyed by his brother’s distractability. But in the chaos zone, his brother’s talent for deep focus may be an advantage. Detailed worldbuilding and a subtle and sympathetic portrayal of a non-neurotypical character, though I’m becoming a little uncomfortable with the growing popularity of a sort of “magical neuro-atypicality” trope.
423: The Gold Silkworm by Tony Pi - A tale or sorcerers and magical healers in a fantasy realm woven from Chinese threads. There was a lot of worldbuilding to integrate before the plot started to fall into place.
424: Betty And The Squelchy Saurus by Caroline M. Yoachim - What happens when the truce between children and the monsters under their beds is broken? The story might have been just the product of an overactive imagination...until we get the viewpoint of the monsters. A little bit on the precious side, but with enough threat of horror to cut that a bit. Not really my taste, though.
PodCastle 425: Flash Fiction Extravaganza! Transformations - A trio of short shorts around a theme
“Girl in Blue Dress (1881)” by Sunil Patel - An artist’s model raises questions of identity and individuality.
“Mirabilis” by Shannon Peavey - Alas, I don’t remember this one.
“Portrait of My Wife as a Boat” by Samantha Murray - Uh...I think this one was about a woman who turns into a boat?
426: Sweeter Than Lead by Benjamin C. Kinney - Prophecies keep the empire safe, but the seers pay a deep price, not least that they can never explain themselves. How much of the rules they follow is necessary, and how much tradition? And what are the temptations for one who grows addicted to seeing the future? The story left me a bit meh--plots about true prophecy have a limited number of places they can go.
427: Squalor And Sympathy by Matt Dovey - Part of a growing sub-sub-genre sitting at the intersection of steampunk and the supernatural. How will it warp an industrial society if machines can be run literally on the misery of the workers? I really liked the way the premise was developed without being over-explained. Some of the wrap-up of the plot felt clunky, though.
428: Madame Félidé Elopes by K. A. Teryna translated by Anatoly Belilovsky - I don’t remember this one at all. I may have accidentally marked it read.
429: Wolfy Things by Erin Roberts - A slow inexhorable reveal of the true nature of a wolf hunt. One of those lovely unreliable narrators where the reader/listener stays half a step ahead of the protagonist, though you’re never entirely certain exactly what is going on. If you don’t mind a bit of violence, this makes an excellent listen.
430: Thundergod In Therapy by Effie Seiberg - Another one I don’t remember at all.
PodCastle Miniature 89: Lapis Lazuli by Tania Fordwalker - The knight facing the dragon to rescue the princess learns a lesson about tall poppy syndrome. Well, he would have if he’d survived. Fortunatly, our protagonist is his lowly squire... A bit predictable in the plot, but the nature of the monster (and thus how to defeat it) is a clever twist.
431: La Héron by Charlotte Ashley - A delightfuly twisty tale of forbidden duels and dangerous wagers. A woman arrives in town for the Black Bouts of Caen and picks up a pugnacious nun as her second. But a host of swordsmen from Faerie have arrived for the sport as well and no one is quite what they seem. This started out intriguing, slowed down a bit for the blow-by-blow, then took a sharp turn sideways at the end. Overall I enjoyed it quite a bit.
432: The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing In The Nest by Kate Lechler - What did the story of Jane Eyre look like from the point of view of the mad woman in the attic? It’s hard to classify this entirely as fantasy unless one takes her hallucinations of witches and transformations as literal. But an incisive picture of what madness looks like from the other side.
PodCastle Miniature 90: How To Survive In Room 105 by T. Jane Berry - Yet one more entry in the category of “humorous hijinks in a grade school classroom full of kids with super powers.” This genre just isn’t for me, I’m afraid. The joke always gets stretched too thin.
433: Telling Stories by Sandra M. Odell - A rather surreal Western involving the courtship of a saguaro cactus and a gila monster, mediated by an older woman with stories to tell and hidden regrets. The moral message of “love is love” felt overly telegraphed, but the details of the world and the creatures in it is well drawn and delightful.
434: The Ghost Years by Nghi Vo - Set amidst a war between China and Viet Nam in some alternate and lightly fantastic timeline, the story is primarily about memory and storytelling and how people exist only so far as we create them in our stories. Atmospheric and melancholy.
You may have noticed that a lot of my so-called “random” Thursday blogs have been about Alpennia. This is, perhaps, not entirely surprising, given that the clock is ticking down to release day. A couple days ago I turned in the editorial revisions and now I’m turning to compiling lists of reviewers while waiting for the copyedits to come in. So I’ve been thinking a lot about forthcoming Alpennia stories (while not forgetting that I plan to do the Skinsinger collection in 2017).
As the scope of the Alpennia stories continues to expand, and as events start moving into place for the big events of the last couple of novels, I’m running into a unusual frustration: there are stories I want to tell in Alpennia that can’t be told through the viewpoints of queer women. Huh. It’s sort of the flip side of one of the forces that pushed me toward publishing with Bella. I knew that I was planning a lot more stories about queer women than I had any confidence a general publisher would support. But publishing with Bella means that my novels are locked in to centering on women who love women.
I had a bit of an epiphany about this the other week: think how radical it is to be telling an extended epic-level fantasy series that’s about the regular world (rather than a single-sex secondary world) and yet where everything is experienced and filtered through the lives of queer women. Especially when those women do not hold a central or decisive position in the power structures of that world. Yes, it distorts things a bit. Yes, it means that there are things we’ll see intimately and things we’ll experience only tangentially that are very different from how those choices would be made with straight (and/or male) protagonists. And isn’t that just a bit mind-blowing all by itself?
But there are still stories I want to tell—need to tell, for completeness’ sake—that need other voices. Fortunately, that’s what short fiction is for. And the overall story arc is coming up on the points where those pieces fit in.
The next book I’ll be working on is Floodtide, and there’s a story—something in the line of a character sketch—about Celeste that I want to put out before it’s published. And then, right on the heels of Floodtide, comes an episode that prompts Jeanne to reminisce about her first girlfriend. Mistress of Shadows currently looks like it’s going to center on three viewpoints (Barbara, Serafina, and Zobaydah) and take place largely outside of Alpennia. But while it’s going on, back at home, I want to tell a story that happens around Iulien Fulpi’s long-delayed coming-out ball (not the one she has in Chalanz, the promised one in Rotenek). And while Barbara is in Paris, I want to tell a story about Margerit’s complicated crisis of faith and how it resolves. And then there’s a story about Anna Monterrez that doesn’t really fit well anywhere else but falls around the end of Mistress of Shadows and involves events that would be hard to tell from any viewpoint than hers. I think people have asked for something about Akezze as well and there are some possibilities in her future that might grow into a separate story.
These are all short, self-contained episodes, none of them novel length. I’ve been thinking a bit about how I want to handle them (other than continuing in my tradition of self-pubbing them as freebies). Slapping the files up on the website is all very well, but it doesn’t give me a good sense whether anyone is reading them. I’ve been thinking of something more like an opt-in “fan club” newsletter that would include access to the short fiction as an incentive for signing up. I blog so much that it can be hard to identify reasons for someone to sign up for a separate newsletter, but I’m assured by other authors that it’s a useful tool. So maybe, possibly, something worth considering.
I have this image, in the weeks following the transformation of Sara’s attic, of Sara’s life splitting into a dual image: the magical, comfortable, secret life she shares with Becky “after hours”, and the continuance of the ostensibly miserable, down-trodden life she lives “downstairs”. The physical conditions of her labor remain identical, but it’s as if her spirit now floats above it all, knowing that a magical world is waiting for her, close at hand.
And people notice her floating spirit. Miss Amelia is moved to remark on how she no longer looks like she’s starving, drawing a rebuke from her domineering sister. This foreshadows Amelia’s more extreme challenge to Miss Minchin later, though it must be said that Amelia’s sympathy for Sara never rises to the level of action. Miss Minchin herself sees Sara’s new lighter spirit as an intensification of her “defiance”, though it no longer stems from a deliberate choice to rise above her circumstances, but simply spills over.
The Magician (as the unknown benefactor is called), having crammed the attic room to overflowing with little luxuries, ornaments, and accessories, turns his hand to the more practical question of clothing. (One can’t exactly say that the initial focus on food and heat was “impratical”, but certainly a lot of the continuing additions are more to feed the sould than the body.) This finally breaks the secret open, to some extent, because while food and heat and books can be consumed in secret, the new dress and shoes and warm coat and whatnot could hardly be concealed from the school management even if they hadn’t been delivered to the front door addressed to “the little girl in the righthand attic.”
Miss Minchin is nothing if not practical. Instantaneously, at this tangible sign that there is someone out there in the world know cares about Sara’s welfare, she returns Sara to the status of full human being, dismissing her chores and instructing her to return to the classroom as a student. (Though not moving her out of the attic!)
And for Sara, this more practical, tangible gift spurs her to go beyond simply accepting the Magic and to communicate back to the Magician to express her thanks. After all, someone must come and go in the attic to bring new things and take away the used dishes. So she leaves a letter to be found by that mysterious agent. And--in one of those almost-too-convenient twists that keeps the suspense of her identity for the Grand Reveal--she signs it with her assigned identity, “The Little Girl in the Attic.”
Whether anything would have come from this communication on its own, we can only speculate. Because before any answer might come in response, she is once more visited by the Indian Gentleman’s monkey, escaped over the roof late at night. Too late to be returned at once, so she makes the monkey comfortable for the night and resolves to return it the next day. The day when, purely coincidentally, Mr. Carmichael will happen to return from his vain quest in Moscow...
I confess that I get a thrill out of planting bits of information in a current novel that also serve the purpose of setting up events for a future story. It's one of the reasons I've made my peace with having things plotted out in advance in a fair amount of detail. If I don't know the general who, what, where, when for the overall series arc, how can I know what seeds I need to be planting now? When I knew I wanted to write Floodtide, and realized that it would weave into the events of Mother of Souls, I had some careful planning to do. I knew I wanted to bring in all the "teenagers": Brandel, Iulien, Celeste, and Anna. But I wanted/needed to keep the story centered on a queer female character, and to the best of my current knowledge none of them fill that bill. (Well, I have an idea about one of them but...still incubating.) I also wanted to tell Floodtide through the point of view of someone who wasn't "special". Not just an ordinary girl, but a working class one, and one who wouldn't have any special magical talents. I wanted her to be a catalyst and a nexus for the interaction of the other characters, but in a more ordinary way. And that was how Rozild came into my life.
You get two glimpses and one offhand reference to Roz in Mother of Souls. Not enough to know she has a story of her own to tell (unless you have an inside line from the author). And, of course, those glimpses serve an entirely different purpose within the current novel: to shine light on some of the social dynamics and anxieties around sexuality for those who don't have the privilege to be given a pass as "eccentric", and to serve as a challenge of empathy to some of our main characters.
Jeanne de Cherdillac has received a rather odd note from her dressmaker, begging a few moments of her time for a favor...
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Chapter Twelve - Jeanne
Several days later, Jeanne’s thoughts returned to the note from Mefro Dominique and she sent a reply. Several more days passed before she found the time to travel down to the neighborhood near the Nikuleplaiz where the dressmaker’s shop stood. There had been just enough of a delicate hint to pique her curiosity. A favor, Dominique had said, and so not some new fabrics to be shown only to special patrons, or any of the other imaginable reasons Dominique might have to contact her.
At the chime of the bell on the door, Dominique herself came out from the back rooms to greet her and invite her into the side parlor that served both for fittings and as a workroom. Two girls scrambled to their feet at their entrance. She recognized the dressmaker’s daughter, of course, but the other girl was new. She was nothing much to look at, with mousy brown hair pulled tightly back under a linen cap, a whey-faced complexion, a long thin nose and sturdy arms that spoke of hard work, but her eyes were bright and curious before she remembered to look down.
Dominique gave them brief instructions. “Celeste, go to the front and see to anyone who comes. You may leave your work here. Rozild, do you think you can see about fetching some tea for our guest?”
Jeanne saw a flash of panic in the girl’s eyes before she nodded and slipped through the rear door to the private rooms. “A new apprentice?” she asked. Dominique certainly had the custom to support one, but usually the extra work was hired out.
“No, Mesnera, not an apprentice, though if I dared take her on, that would be a better choice.”
Dared? Well, who knew what these arrangements required. Every trade had its rules. Jeanne made a shrewd guess. “Is it possible that the favor you want has something to do with the girl who is not your apprentice?”
Dominique nodded with a glance toward the back rooms, and so Jeanne held her tongue until—after a lengthy wait—the girl returned with a tea tray that would not have passed muster in any respectable household.
“Thank you, Rozild,” the dressmaker said in dismissal. “Take your sewing upstairs until we’re done here.”
She waited until the footsteps had faded overhead before continuing. “Rozild was in service until recently. Not a parlor maid,” she said with a rueful smile and a nod toward the tea tray. “Laundry and mending at one of the houses near the Plaiz Nof. She helped out with the sewing when the Maisetra and her daughters all needed new gowns at once. That’s how I met her. She’s a good girl: quiet and well-mannered. There’s not an ounce of vice in her.”
“And yet,” Jeanne observed dryly, “she is no longer in service.”
There were several possibilities. She wasn’t particularly pretty and she looked scarcely more than fifteen, but men didn’t always care about that, and no one would ask whether she’d been willing or not.
“Is she with child?” Jeanne felt an inward shiver. Such a fine line between respectability and shame. A girl like Rozild couldn’t bluff her way through with tales of alchemy. But why had Dominique come to her? There were charities for fallen girls.
“No, it’s nothing like that. Mesnera de Cherdillac, it’s not my business to make judgments of my betters, so I hope you will forgive me if I speak of things that are not spoken of. Rozild was accused of a…a particular friendship with one of the other housemaids, if you understand my meaning. She has no hope of being given a character.” Dominique’s hesitation seemed born, not of reticence, but of uncertainty over the right words. Her gaze was direct and without accusation. “I hoped that you might know of an employer who would overlook that particular sin.”
“Ah,” Jeanne sighed.
Babayan, Kathryn. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0
This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.
Babayan, Kathryn. 2008. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran”
This article strikes me as solidly hitting the target purpose of the collection: to examine the dynamics of same-sex relationships in the Islamicate world within the social, political, and religious dynamics of that time and place, without presupposing categories or labels that developed in Western culture. What this means is that there is a great deal of information presented that is tangential to the specific text being analyzed, and therefore this summary can only scratch the surface of that context.
Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis.
The most salient topics are Isfahani pratices involving sworn friendships established through a ritual of sisterhood or companionsip (khwahar khwandagi) which framed female love and friendship in religious or mystic language. The text reminisces on the love the widow had for a female companion (yar) from her past. Women’s first-person records of their experiences in the pre-modern Islamicate world are rare and largely preserved as artistic expressions, such as this poem.
The widow of Mirza Khalil [no personal name is given for her, but in Arabic naming practices it isn’t uncommon for both women and men to be identified through their relationships] was obviously educated, and was from an elite family serving the last Safavi king. This status was what enabled her to fulfil a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an expensive and dangerous undertaking at the time. Her impetus to undertake the pilgrimage is expressed as sorrow and loneliness after her husband’s death, but in keeping with Sufi poetics, the longing to unite with an absent beloved is conflated with the longing to unite with God.
As the widow describes her feeling of loss, she raises another, earlier and secret loss and forced separation: from a female companion. Babayan interprets this as having been an illicit relationship and therefore contributing to a sense of guilt that contributed to her quest and that there is a poetic/mystical tradition implying one purpose of the pilgrimage is to “cure” her of this love for an absent woman. And though there are three strands of loss and longing (God, husband, and female friend), once she sets out on the pilgrimage, references to her husband disappear.
A great deal of the text is travellogue and encounters with other pilgrims and with those providing hospitality along the way. The liminal space of the pilgrimage frees the widow from the usual strictures on cross-gender socializing.
And then, while on the road to Damascus, she makes a detour to her birthplace Urdubad where her female beloved now lives. She writes, “Together in Isfahan, we had been companions. In spirit we ate each other’s sorrow. She was a relative better than any sister, kinder than any of my other relatives.” But then, for unspecified reasons, they were separated and her beloved returned to Urdubad. The separation seemed like a century, but now, “Until at last, the end of the night of torturous separation turned into the morning of spiritual union. After a century, I saw the face of that friend and I ghrew the baggage into her house. The remedy for the incurable pain of separation, o dear one, was patience and endurance.”
To understand possible reasons for that separation, Babayan turns to literature discussing and critiquing the custom of siqahyi khwahar khwandagi, a vow of sisterhood exchanged between two women. This critique occurred in the context of a conservative turn in the interpretation of religious attitudes towards virtue and modesty, addressing issues such as the consumption of wine, modesty of both men’s and women’s clothing, and the mingling of the sexes at social events such as weddings. Sufi social institutions, coffee houses, and taverns were forcibly closed. In this context, a satirical polemic written by Aqa Jamal focused on Isfahani urban women’s culture and on five elite women in particular. The satire concludes with an examination of passionate female friendships, even touching on sexual desire between women. References to sworn bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood exist outside this polemical literature, and examples of the vows that were used are recorded. The language invokes siqqah--elsewhere used to designate a temporary marriage--creating a partnership both in this world and the next, but situated within a religious framework. A woman would swear, “I take you as a sister before God” pledging devotion to God and invoking God, the angels, and the prophets as witnesses.
Another side of the social context are explicit legal prohbitions on homosexual practices, with sex between women identified with the word musahiqa.
Aqa Jamal’s satire describes some of the details of rituals of sworn sisterhood. A woman would propose by sending a trusted intermediary with a small wax doll designated as a “little bride” (aruschak) and either acceptance or rejection would be indicated by how the doll was decorated when it was returned. If accepted, vows would be declared at a shrine and celebrations might include dancing and sherbet drinking. Although these descriptions occur in the context of condemnation, there is no reason to think they do not represent actual customs.
Returning to our widow, her language--both in speaking of her spiritual experiences and her relationship with her female companion--fit within the context of Sufi mysticism and Isfahani social structures, at a time when those practices were coming under fire by more conservative religious forces. And when she is again reunited with that friend (for whom she had expressed longing), suddenly she becomes aloof, distant, and ill. “O kind friend, o old companion: you did not deny me your sweet sould. I was so nurtured by you, as though fallen from the heavens. But my fortune did not comply. I was exhausted. The whole time I was suffering. I was afflicted with fever and torment. Not for a moment was I able to be her partner in [a work translated as “conversation/soul/sex”]. I did not become physically intimate with that good-natured one.” And then after leaving Urdubad, the widow once again takes up the symptoms and language of a lover pining for the absent one.
Babayan digresses for several pages on how the Ka`ba ischaracterized in Persian poetry as a female figure and specifically as a bride, but the widow’s descriptions when she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage avoid this gendered approach. Performing the ceremonies of the pilgrimage, she feels washed clean and relieved of her sins. But on leaving Mecca to return to Isfahan, the melancholy of longing returns.
Overall, this is a difficult and abstract text, and Babayan has done a heroic job of providing sufficient historic, cultural, and religious context to support her interpretation of the widow’s relationship with her sworn sister and the forces that might have driven them apart (and tainted the enjoyment of that relationship for the widow).
What if Persephone had been an eager bride...and Hades was a woman?
That's the basic premise of this mythic re-telling of the "abduction" of Persephone as a same-sex romance. Persephone flees Olympus to escape Zeus's tyranny and sexual advances (and starting with a major grudge against him for having raped her childhood crush, one of Demeter's nymphs, and turned her into a bush). A passing encounter with the aloof, brooding, and therefore enticing Hades, Queen of Death at Persephone's Olympian coming-out makes her fixate on Hades as her best refuge.
The premise of this story was intriguing and enticing--as enticing as that first encounter with Hades. But the story didn't live up to my hopes for it. The overall plot was meandering and episodic, like a series of isolated D&D encounters with various persons, places, and creatures of the underworld. (In fact, it made me wonder whether it had originally been written as a serial without a fixed outline.) All of the adversaries, difficulties, and crises seem to be overcome too easily (though with a fair amount of angst in the build-up) with nothing more than earnest goodwill, empathy, and a bit of belated clear communication. The final climax, when Zeus has forced Demeter into blackmailing Persephone into returning from the underworld, is so quickly and easily resolved (with un-foreshadowed powers) that it felt like a cheat.
Persephone's romantic desire for Hades never quite escapes the sense of being a schoolgirl crush, with large quantities of gushing devotion, sighing, and longing glances that remain unconsummated for the majority of the story for no clearly articulated reason, other than to draw out what is meant to be the erotic tension. The problem is, while I kept getting told (over and over, at repetitive length) about how much Persephone loved Hades (and, eventually, how much Hades loved her back), I never really felt it.
I encountered this story in audio format through the podcast The Way of the Buffalo. It's hard to tell how much the format affected my reception of the story. The narrator tended to emphasize the "breathless, gushy" tone of the text, which may have fixed that aspect more firmly in my mind. On the other hand, I suspect if I'd been reading, I would have done a lot of skimming from around the halfway point.
I really wanted to like this story a lot more than I did.
I've created a permanent page for an index of episodes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. This month's episode is about the legal consequences of a same-sex marriage in Restoration England.
The movement for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been big news for the last decade. While official sanction of same-sex marriage is hard to find in historic cultures, there were a number of ways for people to slip through the cracks. For women who wanted to marry each other, the easiest way--not to say that it was an easy choice--was for one of them to live as a man.
When we look at historic examples of “female husbands”, as this phenomenon was called, we can’t always know whether the so-called husband was using the disguise purely as a legal strategy or whether they had a transgender identity. It’s rare to get enough of a glimpse into their thoughts to be able to distinguish these. In the case of the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, both of them appear to have considered themselves to be women, but other interpretations are possible.
Arabella Hunt was a beautiful and talented musician at the licentious and scandalous court of King Charles II of England. She was a singer and lute player, performing for royalty and in operas. Poets wrote odes to the beauty of her voice. She inherited a house in Buckinghamshire around the age of 17 when her father died. This start on economic independence may have been part of the motivation for her deciding to marry a year or two later. In 1680, Arabella married James Howard in London, with her mother and two friends in attendance as witnesses. Arabella and her husband moved in with her mother in London and to all appearances lived in wedded bliss for the next six months.
The thing was: James Howard was actually a woman named Amy Poulter and she was already married--to a man named Arthur Poulter. And that’s when life gets interesting.
Because when Arabella’s marriage had problems and she wanted an annulment, she didn’t bring suit on the basis that the marriage was invalid because her husband was really a woman. Rather, she complained that her husband was a bigamist. To further complicate the issue, Arthur Poulter had died about a month before the annulment suit was brought. So although Amy was married to Arthur at the time she married Arabella, she was a widow by the time Arabella demanded an annulment. It’s possible that Arthur’s death was a precipitating event in what followed. Particularly given that Amy seems to have been strongly invested in receiving the financial benefits of being his widow.
In the legal testimony that followed, each woman told the story that put herself in the best light. And yet we needn’t assume that this means that their marriage was not originally inspired by love and devotion. Lawsuits always bring out the worst in people, divorce in particular. And the modern media did not invent the concept of “spin”.
Arabella’s spin focused on maintaining her sincere position that she had married someone she understood to be a man, and that the marriage should be annulled because that man (that is, James Howard) had already been married at the time--never mind that James was already married as a woman to a man. To support this argument, Arabella testified that Amy had “a double gender”, that is, she was a hermaphrodite with anatomy that could be understood as either male or female. And that therefore she was capable of entering into a marriage with either a man or a woman and have that marriage be valid. Thus her bigamy--once married to a man and once married to a woman--was a legal basis for annulment.
As I discussed in the last episode, the idea of hermaphroditism was one of the ways that medieval and renaissance society dealt with the idea of same-sex desire and cross-gender behavior. They believed that a person might have an ambiguous physiology and that this would lead to behavior that partook of both masculine and feminine identities. Arabella’s claim that Amy was a hermaphrodite protected Arabella from accusations that she had knowingly entered into and enjoyed a marriage with a woman.
Amy’s version of the story was that, yes, she was married to Arthur Poulter at the time of her marriage to Arabella. And yes, she occasionally cross-dressed and had courted Arabella both in women’s and men’s clothing. But, she maintained that both the courtship and the marriage had been a frolicsome prank. It had never been meant in earnest. Oh, how that must have stung for Arabella if theirs had truly been a love match! Amy agreed to the annulment, but only on the basis that it had never been a real marriage in the first place. This has a certain resonance with some of the issues brought up when same-sex marriage was just coming to be accepted in some states and not in others in the United States, and where a woman who wanted to get out of a same-sex marriage might move to a state where that marriage had never been legal, and then make claims on that basis.
Now, Amy also demanded a physical examination to prove that she was unambiguously a woman. This was an important legal point for her, because if she were determined to be “more man than woman”, as Arabella’s suit claimed, then her original marriage to Arthur Poulter would be declared retroactively invalid and she’d lose her widow’s inheritance from him.
The medical examination concluded Amy was indeed a woman, and that therefore the marriage to Arabella was invalid but did not constitute bigamy.
One might think that this outcome would have been far more mortifying for Arabella than for Amy, but as it happened, Amy Poulter died five weeks after the annulment was finalized, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest she may have taken her own life as a result of the outcome of the case. Arabella lived for another two decades, enjoying her brilliant musical career. But she never married again and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence connecting her romantically with any other person during the remainder of her life.
What are we to think from this? Was their marriage indeed a prank that went too far? Was it a desperate strategy between two women who saw the masquerade as their only hope for happiness together? Was the break-up due to Arabella suddenly discovering--after six months of sharing a bed!--that her spouse was a woman? Or was it due to discovering that her beloved wife had a husband on the side--something that came to light in the aftermath of that husband’s death?
What might have happened if Amy hadn’t already been married? Might the two of them have enjoyed a discrete and blissful marriage until death did them part? How many other couples might have married in similar circumstances, and lived happily until their deaths, and we never knew because their secret was never uncovered. The answers to that question could inspire any number of interesting stories.
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