Today I'm hosting a guest blog from Edale Lane, who talks about the reserach behind her Italian Renaissance f/f superhero historic adventure Merchants of Milan.
One thing about historical fiction–the author must do her research! Fantasy you create, contemporary you live, but historical requires hours upon hours of research. I’d love to say I whisked off on a plane for Italy and toured all the historic sites, saw the artists’ masterpieces up close, but sadly that was not an option. Instead, I explored hundreds of websites souring for each detail I needed for a scene.
Merchants of Milan is set in 1502 shortly after Leonardo da Vinci left for France. Leonardo and his work was a focal point of this novel as the central character, Florentina de Bossi, grew up learning from him as her father served as his assistant. While Florentina and her father are fictional characters, it was common for Master Leonardo to have an assistant or two and several apprentices at any given time, and a minor character, Cesare da Sesto, was an actual student of his who was recorded to be one of the artists to paint replicas of the Last Supper. Unlike what I did in Heart of Sherwood incorporating a cast of historical figures into the story, most characters in Merchants of Milan are fictional, with the notable exceptions of political rulers and generals.
I knew I wanted Leonardo da Vinci to be central (although the reader never meets him in this book) and Milan needed to be at war. Therefore, my preliminary research was aimed at selecting the right year. I chose Milan, even though Florence boasted more art (and don’t worry, our characters will visit that great city before the series ends), because of its wealth and importance to trade. Italy, though not a unified country yet for a few hundred years, was where cities and towns grew first in Europe thrusting it out of the feudal Middle Ages and into the era of knowledge and advancement known as the Renaissance. It was the wealth of the merchant class that paid the artists and architects, financed voyages of exploration, and built great universities. While these powerful men (and a few women) were not technically nobility, in the Italian city-states they were regularly richer and more influential than the counts, barons, dukes, and so forth. Additionally the Italian city-states from time to time enjoyed a type of representative democracy not envisioned or allowed in other parts of Europe.
Researching Leonardo da Vinci was a labor of love. My mother introduced me to the great master at a young age and I have always admired him. Florentina, who watched and learned from Leonardo, kept some of his sketches and used ideas from his inventions to create her own arsenal. The flying machine was one of Leonardo’s unrealized passions; Florentina combined elements from his flying machine, his parachute, and the parasol to create her “wings.” She also took ideas from da Vinci’s early take on a Gatling gun to improvise a multi-fire crossbow. He was knowledgeable in the medical field as well so she learned about potions, chemicals, drugs, and first aid. History does not record that Leonardo had discovered the lost formula for Greek Fire, but it is highly probably that he did just on principle but did not write it down lest it fall into the wrong hands. The story also includes little-known facts about the Last Super and a peep into da Vinci’s character.
Researching the politics was not so enjoyable, but equally important to setting the stage. The ruling family of Milan, the Sforzas, had brought da Vinci to the city and commissioned great building and art projects. Milan flourished economically under their policies, but in 1500 Milan’s army was defeated by France, who was competing with Spain to gobble up the rich Italian city-states. The reins of power were passed to the French, and the Milanese were now expected to support French armies against Spain. Fortunately, none of the fighting actually reached the city of Milan and commerce continued unhindered.
The plot also hinged on historical research. At that time period in Italy wealthy merchants and bankers held the role that oligarchs do today, wielding their power in an almost mafia type style, and the vendetta was an important part of the culture. They did not have police forces as we do today; instead it was up to the family--traditionally a father, brother, or son–-to avenge a wrong done to one of its members. Florentina was an only child and a girl, so Don Benetto thought he acted with impunity when he dispatched her father. While women, particularly of the upper class, had more rights and power in Italy than most countries in Europe, they were still not expected or allowed to engage in most activities designated for men. Therefore, Florentina, an only child, found it necessary to create a disguise, a secret identity with which to carry out the family vendetta. Thus the Night Flyer was born!
How does a lesbian romance fit into the time period? Renaissance Italians of education and prominence prided themselves on being Humanists, enlightened individuals who took their cue from the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since Classical Greek society (and to a lesser but still notable extend the Romans) saw no problem at all with same-sex relationships–as long as a man had a wife to grant him legitimate offspring and she performed that duty acceptably–neither did the sophisticated Humanist. However, the Catholic Church did frown upon such relationships and society at large gossiped and may exclude people they found to be too unsatisfactory. Of course if one was rich or important enough, people looked the other way. Homosexuality and bisexuality were fairly common and accepted within the artist community; no one cared as long as their paintings or sculptures were first rate.
Setting the scene also required hours of research. I wanted to make sure every plant, every piece of furniture, meal, and article of clothing was correct for the time and place, along with geography and climate information. Fortunately, we have the internet! As for language usage, that was much easier to accomplish for Heart of Sherwood because it was set in England. I had no problem locating terms and expressions even for the 12th century, but Italy… that’s a whole different language. Therefore, I sprinkled in a few familiar Italian words and tried to steer clear of words and phrases that sound too modern. They would have had slang back then too, but that was harder to pin down. I selected “dribble” and “pinnacle” because the terms are old enough and they seemed to fit. As for profanity, all the colorfulisms of today were in full use during the 16th century.
Having earned a master’s degree in history, I am no stranger to research. It is my goal to make every aspect of the story as authentic as possible, enveloping the reader in the setting, educating as well as entertaining–even when giving a girl wings and teaching her to fly!
Blog Tour Promotion
Edale Lane has a new FF historical romance out, book one of the Night Flyer Trilogy: Merchants of Milan.
Three powerful merchants, two independent women in love, one masked vigilante.
Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives.
Merchants of Milan is the first book in Edale Lane’s Night Flyer Trilogy, a tale of power, passion, and payback in Renaissance Italy. If you like gadgets and gismos, rich historical background, three-dimensional characters, and fast-paced action with a slow-boil lesbian romance, then you are sure to love this series. Buy this one of a kind novel today and let the adventure begin!
Edale is giving away a $20 Amazon gift card with this tour. For a chance to win, enter via Rafflecopter: a Rafflecopter giveaway
In the next instant Maddie placed a caressing hand to her face, leaned in, and kissed her. Although she had been anticipating this very possibility for hours, it came on her as swift and unforeseen as a summer storm. The sensual heat of those urgent lips melded to hers ignited something deep within Florentina’s core that sprung to life for the very first time and exploded throughout her being, a sensation so phenomenal, so novel that she had no context in which to place it. Breathless, her mind went totally blank, and she simply savored the moment.
When Madelena withdrew she whispered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”
“Sorry?” Florentina’s heart sank and her head spun. How could she be sorry? “Why? I’m not.”
“You’re not?” Maybe Maddie was as uncertain as she, as overcome with raw emotion and not knowing how to express it. “It’s just that–and I have contemplated this–with me being your employer and all, I don’t want you to expect you must do something you aren’t comfortable with. I would never pressure you-”
It was Florentina’s turn to be impulsive. She silenced Maddie by repeating the gesture, tasting again those full, cherry lips that flooded her mind, body, and soul with sensations. When it broke, they gazed into each other’s eyes looking for confirmation. “I understand I am only a servant in your household.”
“Don’t say that!” Maddie replied firmly. “That is not how I view you. Please, Fiore. How can I explain?”
The earlier butterflies began to settle in Florentina’s stomach and the fog of trepidation evaporate. She could perceive that the beautiful wealthy widow did regard her with esteem, did have feelings for her. This was not a mere dalliance she realized. “I care for you also,” she spoke softly and stroked Maddie’s luxurious strands. “Do not think you press me to do something I have not wanted to do since the moment I first saw you.”
Relief engulfed Madelena’s expression, and she brushed her cheek to Florentina’s then nuzzled her neck with moist, eager lips. A euphoric sigh escaped Fiore’s mouth at the intimate touch and she pulled Maddie closer. When their lips found each other’s again she opened to the honey-sweet tongue that was impatient to delve into it. Without willing them to do so, she realized her fingers were wound in those silky red strands while her other hand slid down Madelena’s back as far as the bench would allow. She could perceive her heartbeat against her own heated breast. This is what she had dreamt of and it surpassed her expectations. All she wanted to do was touch, caress, explore, and please this singular woman. Even as she was rendered breathless from the physical passion, her heart was telling her head that what she felt was far more, endlessly deeper. It was a very dangerous cavern, a bottomless pit that could spell her doom; she was falling in love.
Madelena realized she was making a mistake. She had acquired a good tutor for her children and a new friend to share meaningful experiences with, but a romantic affair? Where could that possibly lead? What would her brother think or do when he found out, and she knew he would, eventually. Hadn’t she lived a well-disciplined life? Could she not control her desires for more than a few weeks?
As her mind was blaring at her all the reasons to say no, her heart had been pleading an opposing case. Yes, she had found a teacher and a friend, but in Florentina she had discovered abundantly more. She was interesting, witty, talented, intuitive, and compassionate. She opened whole new worlds to the widow whose entire education was meant only to prepare her to be a merchant’s wife. For the past six months she had felt lost, as if she had no place and no purpose. She had helped Alessandro with the bookkeeping and personal relations with customers, but she had also spent her nights alone speculating on what the future may hold for her. She still could not answer that question, but she had spoken honestly when she said that Fiore made her feel real and alive. Since growing closer to the dark-haired inventor’s daughter she had begun to experience so many things. And today–today had likely been the best day of her twenty-eight years on this earth! Then the emotion of sharing her story, it was just all too much to expect her to maintain self-control. But now that she had initiated this passionate encounter, what would she do next?
Presently, she drew back from those sultry lips trying to regain some restraint. “Have you ever been with a woman before?” she asked to fill the silence.
Florentina shook her head. “If you mean sexually, I am quite inexperienced with anyone, male or female. Years ago when Cesare told me he was attracted to men, I mentioned that I was more drawn to women. I didn’t think he’d ever say anything; it’s not like we talked about it much, but now,” she paused casting starry eyes at Maddie, “I’m glad he did.”
She smiled and stroked Florentina’s cheek. “So am I.”
“I know you have experience,” she noted. “So, what do we do next?”
What indeed! Madelena considered. “Take one step at a time. May I suggest we try to get some sleep and take a night to process it all? I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment.”
“You’re overwhelmed?” Fiore laughed. “I’m not certain my legs will carry me upstairs!”
Maddie hesitated to move, as the tug of an invisible cord was drawing her back to her newfound treasure. Neither was Florentina was moving away. One more kiss and you must move. Give both of us time to think. She touched her lips to Fiore’s and closed her eyes. What makes one kiss a sloppy flop and another a driving, sensuous pleasure? Is it one’s mental perception or a physical current that connects two individuals who are similarly charged? I can feel the energy pass between her and I unlike any other before.
“I shall see you in the morning.” She released Florentina and pushed herself to her feet with a sheer force of will. Florentina followed saying her good-nights and Madelena closed the bedroom door behind her as she left. Alone once more, she glanced around her empty chamber and wished her lover could have stayed all night.
Edale Lane is the penname used by Melodie Romeo for LGBTQ fiction novels. She is a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree in History from the University of West Florida.
Ms Romeo is a retired school teacher who currently travels the country as an over the road truck driver. Her first book, Vlad, a Novel, an historical thriller, was published in 2002. She has had short stories published in anthologies by Seventh Star Press, Charon Coin Press, Alban Lake Press, Less Than Three Press, and Past and Prologue Press.
Edale Lane’s first novel, Heart of Sherwood, is an historical retelling of the Robin Hood story supposing that the hooded outlaw had been a woman: https://www.pastandprologuepress.lpages.co/Sherwood1/
In addition to driving and writing, Melodie is also a musician who plays the French horn, composes, and has spent many years as a choral and instrumental director. She aspires to be a successful enough author to quit driving and devote herself to writing fulltime. Melodie resides in Utica, MS with her longtime partner, Johanna.
Some of her works can be found at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00WFFFEA4
In 2019 Melodie founded Past and Prologue Press. Please visit her website.
I've sold two stories to the fantasy audio fiction podcast PodCastle -- both in a planned four-part series based on queer re-imaginings of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi. The first story, "Hoywverch" is a classic "wooing and winning" story in which a woman plays a risky trick on her lover's suitor to win her hand. The second, "Hyddwen" draws on the tradition of a debt to the Otherworld and impossible tasks to win one's freedom. I've known for some time that the fourth story would be riffing off of Culhwch and Olwen, with another wooing and winning story (involving the child of the original couple and with the theme "sometimes the answer is polyamory"), but also drawing on motifs of transformation from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I've had it pretty solidly plotted out for a couple of years, but needed to get through the third story first.
All I knew about that third story was that it would be inspired by themes of the desired/lost child from the First and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogi (blending themes from Pryderi and Lleu), but I hadn't gotten much past the opening scene where Elin and Morfydd spend the night on top of a gorsedd and discover a mysterious child whom they adopt as their own. I knew the rest of the story would involve consequences of the child's origins, and the interference of some Otherworld figures from previous stories, but I didn't have the "queer hook" to inspire the throughline of the series.
This morning, on my drive in to work, I realized what the hook was and how it would make everything else fall into place. And in my coffeeshop writing session, I set up the Scrivener file for "Gwylan" with all the scenes and their summaries. Not entirely sure how I'm going to keep this down to 6000 words (which is the standard limit at PodCastle, which will of course be my market of choice) but it's a goal.
So what's the peculiar coincidence? Today PodCastle re-released "Hoywverch" as a Tales From The Vault episode. How's that for an Otherworldly seal of approval?
I'm not finished with my "foundational weighty tomes" project, but for the next few months I'm interspersing them with shorter articles on similar themes in order to catch my breath. This one starts a month of articles organized vaguely around the theme of Sappho.
Andreadis, Harriette. 1989. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15(1):34-60.
I should really do a podcast about Katherine Philips sometime, because she's a great example of how debates over how and whether to apply the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from examining the ways in which same-sex desire were expresed in different contexts. It does equal damage to her historic realities to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of wehther she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence and dismiss both the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.
The English poet Katherine Philips, writing in the mid-17th century achieved a significant reputation during her own lifetime, one of the earliest English female poets to do so. Despite a bourgeois background, her personal charm and talents brought her entry into court and literary circles. Her reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. Her significant body of poetry written for friends and associates was published only after her death, though later re-edited with additional non-poetic material including translations of plays and correspondence. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era. In addition to the evidence of the passionate poems dedicated to her female friends, the evidence of her correspondence, especially with her close friend Sir Charles Cotterell, traces the intensely emotional connections she had with a series of women--connections that were explicitly set in conflict with the marriages of those friends, and contrasted with Philips’ decidedly tepid relationship with her husband.
Since the 18th century, her importance has been trivialized or overlooked and is worth a close examination. The core of her work is her emotional focus on other women and the passionate feelings for them that inspired her poetry. In this, she was creative in manipulating both the conventions of heterosexual love poetry, and that of platonic male friendship (with homoerotic overtones) in ways that can only be read as same-sex love between women.
In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. She framed her emotions in the context of neo-Platonism and although she drew on the conventions of the précieux tradition of the French court, she did not indulge in its exaggerated imagery. After the Restoration, her poetry had moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it.
Several women feature prominently in Philips’ poems. The first was Mary Aubrey, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.
Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.
Philips’ personal life must be considered when interpreting her literary output. The daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, at 16 she married the much older James Philips (54). Although the marriage was amicable, the two had many differences. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. She was a royalist, he was a parliamentarian. (This worked to both their advantages, protecting her during the interregnum, and giving him an advocate after the Restoration.) Separation from her husband (and children) never provoked the anguish that Phlips expressed when separated from her romantic female friends. Her relations with him were described as “duty.”
Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing one on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” A third focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.
Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. [Note: Andreadis suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queeress=death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.]
The public poetry that Philips wrote later in her life retained the forms of her friendship poems while lacking much of their passion and are not counted among the foundation of her genius. The combination of her life story and the content of her poetry makes it clear that it would be wrong to classify her poetry as anything other than homoerotic. She was also conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature, as evidenced by her philosophical correspondence with various men on the topic of the nature and limits of friendship. Their answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.
These responses failed to daunt Philips and her dedication to the topic drew comparisons with the classical poet Sappho, not only for the subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. Interestingly, her contemporaries often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, “solid...and manly.”
This comparison to Sappho was shared with contemporary Aphra Behn, and both were referenced by other woman writers of the time as being an inspiration and model.
The phrase “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to Philips’ work was coined in 1905 in an introduction to a new edition of her work. The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity. There is little direct evidence regarding erotic relations between women in 17th century England, but plentiful literary evidence of what people imagined was possible (see, for example, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Delariviere Manley’s “new Cabal” in The New Atalantis).
One might consider the shift noted by several historians in the later half of the 17th century for male same-sex erotics from an accepted (if not approved) facet of a variety of social institutions, to an increasingly isolated “sub-culture” with the development of molly houses and similar phenomena. The suggestion these historians make is that, before this shift, homosexuality was unacknowledged in import, but not unusual. [Note: but beware of assuming direct parallels between male and female culture.] Regardless of how such relationships were understood by the participants and their society, it is clear that women’s erotic same-sex relationships existed. (Andreadis discusses this in the context of various approaches to modern theories of sexuality and identity.) Philips’ texts can certainly be identified as “lesbian” regardless of one’s position on her own identity.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43b - Interview with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/02/08 - listen here)
Links to Stephanie Burgis Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
The contracts are all signed, so here's the 2020 fiction series for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast! The order of appearance isn't set yet, so this is alphabetically by author.
Jennifer Nestojko's story is perfect for a Halloween tale, and I'm flipping a coin between Caitlin Flavell's and Catherine Lundoff's for the February story. One of the stories will be scheduled for January 2021 since I'll need to line it up before the next Call for Submissions is finished. I have a lead on a narrator for the Morrison story, but I'm looking for someone to narrate Ferreira's work--which requires a solid comfort level with Yiddish vocabulary and names. If you think that might be you, contact me and we can arrange a voice audition. (This is a paying gig.)
Thank you to all the authors who trusted me with their submissions. I'm really excited about this year's fiction series, which fulfills my goal of expanding to include historic fantasy.
I think I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve read from Stephanie Burgis, though I haven’t real any of her middle grade series. When preparing to recording an interview with her for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast on the occasion of the release of Moontangled, I read the entire series leading up to it. Herewith are some briefer-than-usual reviews of the component parts.
Usually I copy my blog reviews in their entirety over to Goodreads, Amazon, and iBooks, but to avoid awkward repetition, this time I’ll do a general background review that only lives on the blog and then individual “likes” on each book for the commercial sites.
The series posits an alternate history in which 1) magic exists, and 2) during the Roman invasion of Britain, Boudicca was able to successfully repel the occupation, teamed up with her magic-wielding second husband, establishing a model in which women fulfill their natural role in government as the practical, hard-headed sex (selected to join the ruling Boudiccate), supported by their magical husbands who are better suited to the more emotional realm of sorcery.
In the only alt-historical aspect that I had to work to get past, this has made little disruption to the basic outlines and flavor of society in succeeding centuries such that we arrive in the early 19th century with a culture that is recognizably “Regency”, softened by Angland’s international affiliations being due to extensive trade rather than colonial conquest. Probably best not to poke at the questions too sharply (especially for someone like me who did much the same thing in my own alt-Regency series).
The central through-line of the series revolves around Cassandra Harwood, born to a prominent political family but far more interested in learning magic than strategy. Because, of course, it’s not the case that women can’t do magic, only that they don’t. Just as it’s not the case that men can’t be practical and logical, only that they aren’t asked to be. Cassandra--and her brother who similarly bucks gender expectations by declining to learn magic--begins the process of upending the structure of her world by winning the right to study formal magic. And then the consequences start arriving.
Oh, and there are elves and fairies and supernatural creatures with whom the human residents of Angland have very tenuous peace treaties...
In the aftermath of a calamitous magical mistake, Cassandra Harwood is trying to put her life back together in the middle of an unnatural snowstorm as the treaties with the fair folk are fraying dangerously. I very much liked how the initial social conflict (“Argh, my family are trying to throw me together with a man I’m trying to avoid!”) isn’t at all what it seems and we’re led through several different understandings of their back-story as the main conflict progresses. The world-building is intense without taking over the plot and the conflicts never feel manufactured. Charming and intriguing.
A prequel best read after you’d been introduced to the Harwood Spellbook series. The (future) sister-in-law of the central character of Snowspelled is a strong-willed woman who goes after what (and whom) she wants and brings about a satisfying conclusion by refusing to abandon the dreams of any of the people she loves. I particularly enjoyed the casual ethnic diversity of the characters.
Cassandra Harwood has established her girls’ school for magic but the accreditation board arrives with a magical curse in their wake. A bit of light mystery, more details of the engagements between human and supernatural characters in Burgis’s alt-historical Angland, and a quiet set-up for my favorite characters in the series to get their own story. I really enjoy how this series solves plot conflicts with good will and the building of bridges.
Juliana Banks and Caroline Fennell have been secretly engaged for...well, for the last couple books, but there’s one major obstacle to their love. No, not the fact that they’re both women, but the fact that in order to have a successful career as part of the ruling Boudiccate of Angland, Caroline must marry a magician. And until the establishment of the Thornfell (Women’s) College of Magic, only men were magicians. Now that Juliana is a star pupil at Thornfell, why has Caroline grown cold and distant? This is an engaging romance of miscommunication and mistaken self-sacrifice, complicated by a meddling wood-fairy who has her own agenda. A fun and heartwarming romance that pushes all my Regency fantasy buttons.
Well, there it is: my final thoughts on Foucault. I'm glad I read it, but not sure I've taken away much of value except renewed skepticism.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8
With this third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality it’s time to sum up my impressions. And mostly I’m just confused why the big take-away that has made a mark in the study of sexuality is the whole thing about “pre-modern people didn’t have a concept of sexuality, they focused on acts not identities.” Because that’s not the theme I take away from this work at all. Oh, to be sure, in the first volume Foucault argues strongly against the pre-modern existence of “sexualities” in the sense of “personal identities that correlate with a particular sexual experience”. But I’m not sure he demonstrates that non-existence unless we’re defining “sexual identities” as only and specifically the set of identities considered standard today. I see evidence and arguments for identities throughout Foucault’s arguments, they just aren’t identities narrowly defined by the gender (or sex) of one’s partners, or by engaging in particular types of sex acts. I’ll agree that to understand sex in the past it’s necessary to break free of assuming that modern sexual identities are fixed, unversal, and exclusive. But I don’t see the evidence that it’s necessary to discard the concept of sexual identities entirely and to view all experience in terms of isolated acts and random expressions of personal taste.
The second take-away I get from reading Foucault (and which I suspected I was going to get before reading) is that any pretensions this work has to presenting some sort of philosophical truth are fatally undermined by the functionally exclusive focus on elite male experiences. Further, by the lack of any genuine self-awareness that this exclusive focus might be a problem. There are places where Foucault appears to acknowledge the narrowness of the population he's studying, but no acknowledgement that this negates any claim that he has to identifying a "truth" about sexuality in general.
In the first volume of this work, Foucault makes a strong point about how the supposed age of Victorian prudery was actually an era of obsessive, excessive focus on sex. He points out that “sexual repression” as a concept is actually a question of enforced control over who is allowed to talk about sex and how they’re allowed to talk about it. It’s unclear that he took these questions to heart and considered what topics he engaged in an obsessive, excessive focus on. How he was part of the social apparatus controlling whose voices on sexual topics were amplified and whose were suppressed.
At any rate, I have paid this part of my dues. But if reading The History of Sexuality changes any aspect of how I discuss sexuality research in the future, I suspect it will be that I drift away from using “Foucaultian” as a shorthand for “social-constructionism”. Because viewing sexuality as shaped by social constructs is a more expansive topic than the position he puts forth, and it embraces possibilities he argues against. And I don’t think that social-constructionism is necessarily in conflict with an understanding that some aspects of sexual desire are innate. But that’s a topic for another day.
Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures
This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.
Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.
Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]
As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.
There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.
The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]
Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.
[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]
These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.
Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self
[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]
The book shifts to a consideration of a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.
Part 3: Self and Others
The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.
On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.
Part 4: The Body
This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.
Part 5: The Wife
This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.
Part 6: Boys
In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.
[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]
The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.
It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.
Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.
Yesterday I read through all the story submissions, winnowed them down to a short-list, then made the hard choice of which five to buy. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I sent out responses to everyone, drew up and set the contracts for the five stories selected, and by this morning had most of the contracts signed and returned. SInce I'm still waiting on one, I won't post the titles and authors yet, but I thought you might be interested in some trends in what types of submissions I've been getting over the last three years.
I still haven't matched the total number of submissions from the first year (24), but this year's 19 were more gratifying than last year's worrisome 10. To the extent that there's a pattern in when they arrive, I see a small bump around the end of the first week, and then things really take off in the last week of the month. Between a quarter to a half of all submissions come in on the very last day. So I guess deadlines are a way of life for many people!
In terms of length (given that I have a cap of 5000 words), a fairly consistent 40-50% of submissions fall within the 4000-5000 word range. But shorter lengths are also well represented. This year was unusual in having only a single story come in under 2000 words, whereas in other years 25-40% have been in that range.
The 19th century has consistently been the single most popular century for settings, and taken together the 17-19th centuries dominate with 50-80% of submissions. Earlier settings sometimes come in odd clusters: in 2018 I had three in the 15th century, this year I had three in the 13th.
In terms of geography, Europe is a heavy hitter with 40-80% of the stories, but I've consistently received stories set in several Asian cultures. North America is used as a setting less commonly than one might expect. Of course, receiving stories set in a diversity of cultures doesn't mean they'll all make the final line-up, but it's a necessary condition for that.
This was the first year that I opened up to including certain types of fantastic elements in submissions and (depending on quite how you define fantastic) maybe a third of the submissions included something of the sort (which roughly matches the proportion in acceptances).
I'd be curious to know how the submitters heard about the Call, but it isn't a type of data I collected (and I'm not sure I'd want to collect it because it feels intrusive). In addition to getting the CfS listed in several of the commonly-used aggregators (like Submisions Grinder), and promoting it heavily on Twitter and Facebook (as well as on my own blog and podcast), I know that people were passing it along on their own sites and lists. I suspect the biggest problem for the 2019 series was that I didn't plug away enough, for long enough, in enough places. This year I'll make a point of starting the push in mid-year again.
Now I just need to choose which story will appear at the end of the month and get recording!
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43a - On the Shelf for February 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/02/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2020.
I sometimes wonder if my listeners would like more bits of personal information along with the book and history news. I keep trying to guess what might interest you. Which authors would you like to hear interviewed? What special book themes would you be interested in exploring? What historical eras or questions have caught your interest? Let me know.
It’s been two months since my most recent novel, Floodtide, came out and I’m still in the nail-biting period waiting to see how it was received or whether it’s already dropped out of sight. I’ve been filling in the waiting by writing a short story set in Restoration England--in London during the reign of Charles II and just after the Great Fire--featuring a courtesan and an actress and a bit of sword play. As I’m recording this, I just sent it off on submission to the anthology that inspired me to write it, though I expect the competition to be awfully tough. My back-up plan is that it’s tied in with a series of romances I’ve been doing a bunch of deep-background research for, and maybe this will start me working on that in earnest. Not that I’m done with the Alpennia series! That one still has three books to go, but it might be fun to play in some other sandboxes along the way.
Since you’re probably a podcast fan if you’re listening to this, you might want to check out the new podcast my publisher, Bella Books is putting out. It sounds like it’s going to be book news and chats with authors and that sort of thing. The title is “What’s New at Bella” and it’s available on all the standard podcatchers. Check out the link in the show notes.
LHMP Fiction Series
By the time you’re listening to this, the submissions period for the podcast’s 2020 fiction series will be closed--just barely--but I won’t yet have chosen and contracted for the stories I’ll be publishing. (And, of course, I certainly won’t have managed that at the date when I’m recording this!) That means the first story to air, at the end of February, won’t be pre-announced until it comes out. But if you want advance knowledge, you can check the master index for the podcast at the Alpenia.com website. It’ll go up there as soon as I know what it is.
Since the fiction episodes come out when there’s a fifth Saturday in the month, consider how unusual it is for one to air in February. February only has the potential for a fifth Saturday in a leap year, and then only when the first and last days of the month are on Saturday. In fact, with a little help from Quora.com, I can tell you that February 29 should only fall on a Saturday every 28 years (with a few minor adjustments). The last time it happened was in 1992, the previous time in 1964, and the next time it will happen is 2048. So if I’m still podcasting when I’m 90 years old, then you can expect another surprise story like this time.
Publications on the Blog
The blog has been covering a mixed bag of topics. January started out with a couple of survey articles on the history of lesbian history. Leila Rupp kicked off “Thinking about Lesbian History” as a general topic, and Martha Vicinus followed with “The History of Lesbian History” which is a thorough and introspective survey of the development of the field of study.
After that I finally tackled Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality which was just as annoying and frustrating as I expected it to be. Perhaps because I expected it to be that, but in part I just felt like “what’s the big deal here?” But read the blog for my ranting in detail.
As a palate cleanser, I worked through a series of articles with poetry as a theme. First Hariette Andreadis’s “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips,” discussing a 17th century English poet with strong themes of love between women, who I have totally worked into the backstory of my 17th century romance series. Next up, Susan Gubar on “Sapphistries” looking at how various poets have used and reinterpreted the image of Sappho and her work across the centuries. And then an article focused on Sappho the historic person, “Sappho and Her Social Context” by Judith Hallett who has done some fascinating work on sexuality in the classical world.
Time for the book shopping segment! While putting together last month’s essay on Iphis and Ianthe, I impulsively went out online and bought a secondhand copy of the collection Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture. As it happened, the article on 17th and 18th century dramatic productions of the story wasn’t directly useful for the podcast I was putting together, but the collection has several other useful articles that will go in the to-do list. I won’t count as “shopping” the couple of medieval and Renaissance translations of Iphis and Ianthe that I downloaded from various sites for putting the show together. I’m so glad I’m doing this kind of research in an era when so many historic texts have been made available online.
Other than that moment of weakness, I’m still trying to hold off on too much book shopping because it only means I have something new and shiny that I want to work into the current schedule. But I did pick up a back-up hardcover copy of a beloved book that I already own in paperback: Emma Donogue’s Passions Between Women. I spotted it...well, there’s a bit of a story and it might be fun to tell so you get a better picture of my relationship with books.
I don’t think of myself as someone who is a memorably extreme buyer of research books, but either I’m wrong, or Michael Hackenberg, the proprietor of Hackenberg Booksellers, is just that good. Hackenberg really is just that good, but I suspect that I’m a more memorable book buyer than I think. You have to be good to thrive as a seller of academic and antiquarian books in today’s market, and Hackenberg has an index-card-memory of what all his customers’ specialties and interests are. When I first got to know him, he was located in downtown Berkeley and I was in grad school. Back then, I specialized in texts on Celtic language and linguistics, with Welsh history on the side. He’s the one who stuck a copy of Seebohm’s The Tribal System in Ancient Wales in front of my face and then waited patiently for me to decide I really did want to spend $300 on it on a grad student’s budget. That was in the dealer’s room of the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, which is where I most often run into him these days. Which is a bit odd, given that we’re both located in the San Francisco Bay Area! The first time I saw him there, he recognized me straight off among the thousands of medievalists passing through and remembered exactly what my interests were. He’s caught up when my academic focus shifted over to textile history, though he’s still catching up with more recent shifts.
Periodically I’ll get an email from him saying, “Hey I thought you might be interested in this.” My most common response is, “Have it already.” My second most common is, “Nah, not quite my thing.” But when he hits my sweet spot, my wallet comes out pretty quickly. So this time, it was Margaret Spufford’s The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. He thought I might be interested because of the textile and clothing angle, but I immediately thought of my current writing interests in Restoration England. No, I’m not abandoning Alpennia, but I just finished a 17th century short story that ties in with a series of romances I want to write, so my book-buying reflexes are attuned in that direction. This specific book may be of fairly marginal usefulness to my writing unless I decide to create a character specifically based on the subject, but it delves into the lives of ordinary people, which can be a hard topic to find good sources on.
There’s an additional bit of trivia about this book because it came from the library of Professor Jan de Vries (not the Dutch linguist who died in 1964, but the American historian of economic history at UC Berkeley) and has an inscription from the author to him on the flyleaf. I don’t tend to make a fuss about inscriptions or signatures unless it’s an author I have a personal relationship with. But it’s still interesting to have that bit of direct connection in the book.
But how does this relate to book shopping for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, you ask? I’m getting to that. One of these days, I need to spend a day browsing through the shelves at Hackenberg’s store because I always find things that I had no idea I wanted (or sometimes, no idea they existed) until I see them. But I was on my lunch hour from work this time, so the only other book I spotted and picked up was a hardbound copy of Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 which I count as one of a couple of foundational books in my journey through lesbian history. I already had a copy, of course--the paperback copy I picked up back in 1993 when it first came out! But paperback copies of books I use this often and this enthusiastically are often the worse for the wear, and like Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (another of my foundational books), I thought it worth buying a second, more durable copy.
So those were my book-buying adventures for the month, not counting a rather self-indulgent session at Moe’s Books in Berkeley picking up deep-background research materials for my fiction.
This month’s author guest will be Stephanie Burgis, who is coming out with a brand new book in one of my favorite genres: Regency fantasy romance. Like some other recent f/f historicals, this is part of a series romance where the earlier books had male-female romances. But unlike most others, the promise of a female couple was right there in the very beginning, so I’m excited that we’ve finally gotten to the right point in the series for them to get their featured story.
For this month’s essay, I picked a topic that has been nibbling at my attention for a while: the question of how and when masculine presentation started to be considered a lesbian signifier in Western culture, though I touch on Islamicate culture as well. This is a different topic than the question of gender disguise or transgender presentation and its intersection with relationships perceived as being between two women. In this essay, I’m going to look at how masculine-coded presentation--“mannishness”, if you will--has been used to indicate or interpreted as being associated with female desire for women. It’s a topic that could have whole books written on it and I’m only going to skim the surface, but some of the answers may be surprising.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned? I have a list of nine books, catching up with a few from December and January and including one February book that I’ll defer until next month because I haven’t been able to verify that it has f/f content.
Also, remember that I’ve added a Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Patreon feature where I offer mini-reviews of books mentioned on the show, based on previews. Because the previews may not be available until the book is released, I’ve just posted the January books. If you’re interested and you’re a LHMP Patreon member, look for the mini-reviews toward the end of the month.
First up we have a December book, The Traveler - Book One: The Hunted by Kim Pritikel from Sapphire books.
1977: In the era between flower power and the yuppie, Sonia Lucas is a young wife and mother, just starting out in life. Without warning, a strange presence and dark force enters her life, clouds building …. 1917: …. and a storm brewing as the world reeled from the horrific events of World War I just before it was ravaged by a Spanish flu epidemic that would kill millions. Sephora Lloyd is a 16 year old girl lost in the responsibilities of an adult world helping to support herself and her mother. A beautiful young nun-in-training enters her life, bringing love and hope with her. That is, until a force bigger than either of them threatens everything Sephora holds dear.
January books start with Merchants of Milan: Book One of the Night Flyer Trilogy by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.
Three powerful merchants, two independent women in love, one masked vigilante. Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives. Merchants of Milan is the first book in Edale Lane’s Night Flyer Trilogy, a tale of power, passion, and payback in Renaissance Italy.
Next is a Western, Pioneer Hearts, self-published by Becky Harris.
All Belle wanted was to be left alone, but life doesn't always give you what you want surviving on the harsh frontier. It was supposed to be a simple trip into town. Once a year. Get supplies. Ignore the jeers and jibes from townsfolk who didn't want to understand her. Ignore how everything reminded her of Suzanne. She wasn't expecting Jeane. A damsel in distress out on the prairie? A broken down wagon and three men who meant no good closing in on her? Belle knew frontier life could be harsh, and sometimes that meant dealing with rabid animals. Only now she's stuck with Jeane. And the more time they spend together traveling back to her homestead, the more she can't get this woman out of her mind. The more she starts hoping, against all reason and hope, that maybe she can find something like what she had with Suzanne. Two women, alone together on the frontier where they can truly be themselves, learning to love again.
Now we get to the February books, most of which are from mainstream sources.
Belle Revolte by Linsey Miler from Sourcebooks Fire is a YA historic fantasy set in an alternate French Revolution.
Emilie des Marais is more at home holding scalpels than embroidery needles and is desperate to escape her noble roots to serve her country as a physician. But society dictates a noble lady cannot perform such gruesome work. Annette Boucher, overlooked and overworked by her family, wants more from life than her humble beginnings and is desperate to be trained in magic. So when a strange noble girl offers Annette the chance of a lifetime, she accepts. Emilie and Annette swap lives―Annette attends finishing school as a noble lady to be trained in the ways of divination, while Emilie enrolls to be a physician's assistant, using her natural magical talent to save lives. But when their nation instigates a terrible war, Emilie and Annette come together to help the rebellion unearth the truth before it's too late.
Another fantasy alternate history is Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland from Harper Collins. This is the sequel to her post-Civil War zombie story Dread Nation. I hadn’t mentioned the first book on the podcast because I could’t tell if there was queer content, but this one seems more solid on that point.
After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodemus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880s America. What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears—as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her. But she won’t be in it alone. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by—and that Jane needs her too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not. Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive—even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.
Next up is the Regency fantasy Moontangled by this month’s author guest Stephanie Burgis, from Five Fathoms Press.
For just one moonlit, memorable night, Thornfell College of Magic has flung open its doors, inviting guests from around the nation to a ball intended to introduce the first-ever class of women magicians to society...but one magician and one invited guest have far more pressing goals of their own for the night. Quietly brilliant Juliana Banks is determined to win back the affections of her secret fiancée - rising politician Caroline Fennell, who has become inexplicably distant ever since the events of Thornbound. Juliana may be shy, impractical and bookish, but she's never lacked for courage. If she needs to use magic to get her stubborn fiancée to pay her attention...well, then, as the top student in her class, she is more than ready to take on that challenge! Unbeknownst to Juliana, though, Caroline has been wracked by political and emotional turmoil in their time apart. Tonight, she's come to nobly save her fiancée from the oncoming fallout by cutting off their secret betrothal for good - and no one has ever accused Caroline Fennell of being easy to distract from any goal. Their path to mutual happiness may seem tangled beyond repair...but when they enter the fae-ruled woods that border Thornfell College, these two determined women will find all of their plans upended in a night of unexpected and magical possibilities.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave from Little, Brown and Company is a rather different-looking story.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves. Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil. As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence. Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
And I’m going to finish this month’s listings with the 6th book in a series that didn’t show up on my radar earlier. End of War in Thermopylae in the Thermopylae Bound series by Belinda Harrison from Gee Be Publications. This is an ancient Greek historic fantasy with gods and monsters. There is definitely an f/f romance in the first book but it isn’t entirely clear to me whether that aspect carries throughout the series. I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt, but it looks to me like you’d be best off starting at the beginning.
Before Ava sent Ares to the cage, he promised her the Persians would return to Greek shores and in the autumn of 480BC, nine winters after Ava’s return to Trachis, his words ring true. The yellow caps are sailing to the west, intent on claiming victory. But they are not the only returning enemy. Ava’s greatest foe has also found his way back to Thermopylae and means to take revenge for what she denied him of. Ava will have to call on more than just her willpower and the god of the forge if she is to be victorious again; the consequences dire should she fail. As their final showdown looms, hearts will be broken and old stories proven once and for all. This is the Battle of Thermopylae. This is life and death. This is love and war. This is the end of war in Thermopylae.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading since the last update? I zipped through an advance review copy of Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis, which I loved. I read a rather unexpected queer historical set in the Neolithic era, Between Boat and Shore by Rhiannon Grant. Because I desperately want more f/f historicals from Alyssa Cole, I made do by reading her contemporary romance novella Once Ghosted Twice Shy. I’m still reading A Jewel Bright Sea by Claire O’Dell, which has some queer characters in the background. I should explain why it’s taking me so long to finish. I’m reading different books on different platforms, and I have A Jewel Bright Sea on iBooks on my phone, but for some reason my reading progress isn’t syncing with my iPad, so I’m reading at times when I don’t have the iPad available which makes it very stop-and-start. Usually I save phone reading for non-fiction that I don’t plan to get immersed in. I think that’s everything, though it feels like I’ve read more. Just to shake things up this month, I’m planning to read an actual physical copy of a novel! Stay tuned for this exciting development.
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I'll save my overall summing up for after the third and final volume of this work next week. In the mean time, enjoy my parenthetical comments and notes.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8
This work was not meant to be a history of sexual behavior and practices but of the concept of “sexuality”: how people understand the experience of sex. Foucault asserts that such a study could not be undertaken until he had invented the theoretical tools necessary to perform it. [Note: clearly we are supposed to gasp and marvel at his genius.] He encountered problems at the point of structuring the modes in which individuals recognize themselves as sexual subjects--as desiring beings. He needed a historic genealogy of conceptions of desire. This, in turn, required an entire study of the development of a “hermeneutics of the self.” A history of truth, as it were. Thus, he detours into the realms of philosophy, noting that although he is studying history, he is not “doing history.”
Foucault starts off with the classical problematization of the “arts of existence” and especially sexual behaviors, looking at texts of philosophers and physicians, and later theologians, regarding prescriptions for the practice of the self. [Note: as Foucault points out later at the end of the book this analysis is all about didactic, prescriptive texts for how people should live. Not so much about trying to identify how people did live.]
What are the points that were problematized, especially in the transition from paganism to Christianity? 1) The meaning of the sex act (sin or pleasure?), 2) The definition of legitimate partners, 3) The meaning placed on abstinence.
But these don’t have the clear ruptures in the pagan/Christian transition that first glance would suggest. Christian philosophy drew heavily on pre-Christian principles. Four themes are noted: 1) Fear of sexual weakness, 2) Ideals of conduct, 3) How stigmatized behavior is imagined, using the stereotype of male homosexuals as “feminized” as an example, 4) The model of abstention--rejecting temptation--as a virtue or strength. Foucault sees continuity of thought between paganism and Christianity on these points.
Foucault notes in passing that this is a history of an ethics for men, in which women are merely props, or to be trained into their roles. [Note: I’d give him more credit for this recognition if he hadn’t then entirely ignored this point.]
This reflection brings Foucault to focus on “four great domains of relations” that were problematized in the absence of explicit prohibitions: men’s relations with the body (dietetics), with the wife (economics), with boys (erotics), and with truth. These are the domains in which the presence of sex caused anxiety and discussion. He offers a discussion of the definition of “morality” as a set of rules for behavior that operates within a system of self-reflection.
Part I: The Moral Problematization of Pleasures
Foucault asserts that because the Greeks didn’t have a single word covering the broad concept of “sexuality” that they didn’t have it as a concept. [Note: Like many discussions of historic sexuality, Foucault takes a fairly strong Sapir-Whorf approach: if you don't have language for a thing, you obviously can't think seriously about it.] He sees four different realms in Greek thought relating to sexuality: 1) dietetics (concern with the body), 2) economics (concern with marriage), 3) erotics (concern with the love of boys*), and 4) philosophy (concern with truth).
* Note: Foucault regularly discusses the topic of Greek age-differentiated erotic relationships using the word “boys”. It isn’t clear whether this is a matter of translation, or whether he is oblivious to distinguishing various categories of pre-adult males, or whether he intends to evoke the negative modern associations of pederasty. I rather incline towards “oblivious” since that seems to be the case in a number of other aspects of his writing. From here on in, I’m going to substitute the word “youths” (which he sometimes also uses) to try to keep the framing on the more typical age range of those involved.
There is a discussion of the Greek concept of aphrodisia--the arts, etc. that provide sexual pleasure--and relates it to other types of sensual pleasure. The sexual experience is treated as “gendered” as an essential characteristic. Sexual participants are categorized as actors and objects, not by gender, with the “actor” being quintessentially masculine and all objects being “feminine” to some degree. [Note: Foucault doesn’t seem to recognize the inherent contradiction in these two positions. It seems to me that if you consider all sexual objects as “feminized” then you are categorizing participants by gender. It's just that you're assigning gender as an aspect of the sexual role, rather than assigning a sexual role as an aspect of gender.] Sexual desire/pleasure is treated as a force in relation to “appetite”.
Pleasure is problematized in terms of its “proper” enjoyment. But what does this mean? “Need” is considered an appropriate basis for judging something as proper. If you desire something that is necessary for life/health, then enjoying it is “proper.” The burden is then placed on evaluating the right time and context for that enjoyment. “Context” includes paying attention to aligning with status differences. The ideal of masculinity includes the concept of “mastery” over the self. One should be in charge of one’s desires and experiences, not be driven and controlled by them. This mastery was equated with freedom (in the semantic framework of free-slave). Thus, moderation of desires was virile/virtuous because it showed control and mastery. Immoderation and indulgence was “feminine” and therefore deprecated.
Part II: Dietetics
The approach to morality of the Greeks, i.e., that self-control was moral superiority, meant that they accepted/celebrated relations between men and youths while also having an ethics of abstention. Similarly, a man was understood to seek pleasure outside of marriage while also valuing being faithful to one’s wife. [Note: this is, of course, focusing only on the male point of view.] Sexual pleasure was not considered “evil” but the relationship of sex and health was a subject of concern.
These concepts are examined via a metaphor of the place of dietary pleasure in the “ethical life.” Food, like sex, was one of a variety of fields of experience where necessity was balanced with moderation and pleasure. Similarly for sleep, exercise, etc. In all cases, excess could have negative effects even when the practice itself was essential to life and health. [Note: This basic concept--of a wide variety of aspects of life being part of “diet”--continued in the medieval period as “health manuals” included discussions of clothing, activities including sex and sleep, personal hygiene, etc.]
Sexual activity had its essential place, but that place was shaped and modified for optimal health and benefits. Even with respect to procreation, the “diet” of sex (i.e., the amount, context, nature) was considered important for the outcome. Sexual activity was complexly constructed and there was significant anxiety about the side-effects it could have on health in general. [Note: To toss in just the tiniest bit of lesbian-relevant content, this same concept--that the nature, frequency, and context of sex was part of one’s overall health--when it appears in Arabic health manuals, is inclusive of sex between women as potentially beneficial/necessary to the women in the right circumstances and to people with specific attributes. Also, since I’m pausing to comment, another thing that Foucault doesn’t specifically point out, is that the imperative of procreation means that, to the extent that same-sex desire unbalances one away from procreation, it represents an undesirable “excess”. But at the same time, the imperative of procreation means that m/f sex always has the justification of potential “need” to procreate, whereas same-sex activity, lacking that justification, inspires more abstract philosophical considerations.]
Self-control in sex was also positive in all circumstances because the expenditure of “life force” as a consequence of sex was harmful to procreation if it was unnecessarily wasted.
Part III: Economics
[Note: the word “economics” here is being used in the original Greek sense of “things pertaining to the house/household” and not in the modern sense of “systems of value and trade.”]
How, then, could sexual relations between husband and wife be “problematic”? Compared to some other cultures, Greece envisioned an ideal of specialized female purpose: mistresses for pleasure, concubines for daily care of the person, wives to bear legitimate children and keep the house. But this recognition of multiple female social roles was also far removed from Christian monogamous ideals.
Women’s virtue was in confining themselves to their prescribed role, while men’s virtue was in exercising freedom. Adultery was defined by the woman’s status (because she “belonged” to another man) and not by the man’s marital status. Yet men did have sexual obligations to their wives: to have sex with them on a regular basis, and to leave behind some of the sexual excesses of youth.
The aphorism quoted above about mistresses/concubines/wives did not mean that sex with a wife was not pleasure, but rather that there was one function that only a wife could provide (legitimate children) in addition to any erotic pleasure involved. A wife must restrict sex to her husband because she was under his control, but a husband could restrict sex to his wife as an exercise of self-control. For her it was obligation, for him, optional virtue.
There is a discussion that elaborates on the roles of husband and wife, and how a husband is expected to “train” his wife into her role. There is a discussion of Plato’s directives for moderation of one’s life, which were more rigid and narrow than actual common practice at the time.
Part IV: Erotics
This section is not about “erotics” in general, but about adult men’s sexual pleasure involving youths. Greeks did not view desire for the same or opposite sex as exclusive or as categorically different experiences. The pursuit of moderate, self-controlled pleasure was independent of the object of that pleasure. “Loose morals” involved excessive desire for either or both objects, self-control was abstention from both. Greeks both were bisexual (in practice, by modern definitions) and had no concept of bisexuality as a distinct orientation.
To the extent that the love of youths was sometimes considered more “elevated” than the love of women, it was because males were considered more noble and worthy of love than females. At the same time, individuals might be recognized as having a preferred taste for males or females, as one might have individual preferences in other appetites.
“Tolerance” is the wrong word for this. The love of youths was freely accepted (except in specific circumstances) and was integrated in a variety of social institutions and structures. At the same time, there were aspects of desire for youths that were viewed differently. The object of desire should be worthy of love--not “too easy” or too self-involved or effeminate. “Catamites” were scorned as not being truly worthy of a man’s love. [Note: The existence of a categorical distinction between youths, who accepted the love of a man, and "catamites," who evidently enjoyed/desired the role of passive partner for its own sake, sounds an awful lot like a "sexual identity/orientation" and some more recent studies of Classical attitudes discuss it in this context.]
Given all this, why were there special anxieties around the love of youths? Why have an entire cultural preoccupation around how such a love should be pursued? Foucault claims that the number of texts specifically addressing men’s love of youths are few and primarily from the Socratic/Platonic tradition, though Plato quotes speeches attributed to other philosophers with other viewpoints. Here are the relevant points:
1. The concerns of these texts focused on age-differentiated relationships, not those of age-mates at any age (either the love between youths or the love between adult men). Age-mate relationships were also common, but not problematized in the same way.
2. This anxiety was not solely related to its pedagogical aspects, although an older, experienced lover was expected to guide and support a younger one. There was a larger ritualization of such relationships around courtship behavior (of both parties), reticence (especially on the part of the youth), and consummation.
3. In contrast to the spatially-segregated spaces of male-female relations, male-male relations took place in a common, public space. The male-male relation was also “free” in the sense that the erastes (adult) had no legal or social authority over the eromenos (youth). Any deviation from this assumption of freedom was considered to reduce pleasure. (E.g., if the youth were under some sort of pressure or obligation to return the man’s interest.) The problematicization of male-female marriage was precisely because of the constraint/control the man had over the woman. Self-control was in how he exercised that power.
4. Timing/limits were another source of concern. How old was too old for a youth? How young was too young for the youth to have shown the virtues that should drive attraction? The Stoics were criticized for keeping their young lovers until the age of 28. In general, the first appearance of a youth’s beard was considered the sign that he was “aging out” of being an eromenos. Adolescent male bodies were not considered beautiful by analogy to female bodies, but as their own thing. Only later was a connection made between adolescent male bodies and female bodies. These questions of appropriate age created an anxiety around the inevitable point of loss of desire/desirability, at precisely the time that the boy achieved the (desirable) state of manhood. At that point, eros/love was expected to be left behind and shift into philia/love, which was expected to be constant and life-long.
5. Concerns about youths represented the essence of concerns about eros while not being specific to youths. In marriage, other concerns dominated the ideals of right behavior, but in male-male relationships, eros was the primary concern. Self-control was not for the benefit of the self alone, but focused on the other’s benefit. This tension revolves around masculine ideals of honor and shame (for both erastes and eromenos. These qualities were recognized to differ in different regional cultures. A youth’s honor/shame could affect his future social prospects similarly to how a woman’s honor/shame could affect her marriage prospects--though not universally in either case.
For a youth, the period of his peak desirability was also the period of the peak fragility of his honor, such that he must constantly guard himself. [Note: Although Foucault doesn’t make the connection, the considerations discussed here with regard to a youth’s behavior in the erotic relationship are highly parallel to the double-bind that women felt in cultures where marriage was courtship-driven rather than arranged. One must be desirable, encourage the attention of appropriate partners, but never behave in ways that made one appear too eager for the relationship, and never be “too easy to get.”]
Various qualities and behaviors are discussed that contribute to honor. The youth’s responsibility was to thread the needle wisely. Despite much talk of the youth’s decision when to “grant favors”, there is almost no discussion of the physical details of what "favors" are meant. Here, the principle of self-mastery was somewhat at odds with the position in the relationship. A youth should allow a lover’s enjoyment, but not in a way that showed passivity, and especially not showing a desire for a passive role.
The polarization of dominance in sexual relations (i.e., actor-object) manifested differently with different social categories of sexual partners. Only in the case of age-differentiated male-male relations did this polarization have internal conflicts. That is, in age-mate same-sex relationships the partners were expected to have equal status. In male-female relationships the woman was expected to be in the object role and therefore it did not shame her to take it. But for a free man to accept the “object” role in a polar sexual relationship was unmanly. So the youth (required to be the object due to age/experience) was in an unstable position, as he must eventually become dominant to be a man. Thus, the hedging around of the relationship with anxieties and rituals to allow this eventual transition. Youths could not/must not be treated “like women” sexually, because they must be allowed to become men. The youth was expected not to take pleasure in the sexual act itself, but to allow the act out of admiration and respect for his lover.
This is, of course, a philosophical ideal that emerges from the texts, not necessarily a standard for everyday experience.
Part V: True Love
This section addresses how the use of pleasure relates to the pursuit of truth, as examined in the context of the nature of “true love.” The shift from Greek to Christian approaches to the nature of truth, love, and pleasure was accompanied by a shift in focus from a purely masculine context to a male/female context--Foucault says one “dominated by femininity.” He returns to the questions of “right actions” in the context of set-piece speeches on love and the proper relations of male same-sex lovers. He also returns to the question of how the asymmetric and transitory male-male relationships generated unease and even disgust about its superficial goals. [Note: Foucault seems to betray an underlying unease himself with regard to male-male love here.]
The “searching for your other half” speech that Plato attributes to Aristophanes appears to answer the question of “can it be appropriate for a youth to take pleasure in being an eromenos?" in the affirmative. If a male is a “lost half” of a male-male paired being, then to take pleasure in “reunion” is natural and manly, not feminizing. For such a youth, this is true consent and the relationship is not asymmetrical after all.
This changes the question of the nature of true love to “who and under what conditions can we love such that the love is honorable for both parties?” Must one purge love of the physical dimension in order to purify it--as Socrates seems to advocate? This leads to the elevation of philia over eros.
We now descend into a discussion of the ways in which different characters in Plato present their arguments. The focus shifts from the behavior of the beloved to the nature of the lover and what they love. One should love the ideal, the soul, of the beloved, and not the superficialities of appearance and behavior. The love of bodies is inferior to the love of souls. That is, the love of bodies is not bad, only lesser. [Note: it can be difficult to attribute specific opinions to specific philosophers here as the texts are second and third hand reports placed into the mouths of functionally fictional characters.]
If eros is a relation to the truth, and not to a specific beloved, then the asymmetry inherent in the lover-beloved relation is left behind. Love (philia) may remain if both achieve this love of truth.
Foucault reminds us here that he is focusing on Greek prescriptive discourse--how they talked about the “art of living” and the relation of pleasure to self-control and austerity. He reiterates that it is a misconception that the Greeks “tolerated” sexual freedom, rather that sexual freedom was the context for demonstrating moderation.
There are connections between ancient Greek philosophy and later Christian thought, but the focus of why sexual self-control was desirable shifted. Pleasure was no longer self-indulgent and a sign of lack of control, but was immoral and evil. Greek self-control became Christian divine imperatives. Christian thought re-centered anxieties about pleasure and austerity around women. Then later, from women to the body, as manifested in assigned connections between sex, health, and the control of children’s bodies.
[Note: this last seems intended to close the loop back to the preoccupations of 19-20th century society discussed in volume 1.]