When Romancelandia became more generally aware that Georgia voter activist Stacey Abrams was also romance author Selena Montgomery, they took her and her cause to their heart big-time. Thus was born "Romancing the Runoff", a fund-raising project to support various organizations in the state of Georgia working on voter registration, turnout, and education. While putting together a fund-raising auction with all manner of fascinating book-related stuff, they raised nearly $100,000 in direct donations. The auction doubled that in its first 24 hours.
And other than my general support of voting activism and democracy, how does this relate to the Alpennia blog? As it happens, I've donated a research paper or story critique around the topic of sapphic historical romance. See this listing for details. (You need to set up an account to view it, I believe.) If you've ever wanted to bring the power of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to bear on the historical context of your choice, this is your opportunity.
I hadn't quite intended to take a vacation from the blog, but the stress of the US elections and their aftermath was more distracting than I'd anticipated and I gave myself a pass. And then, this past Sunday when I was planning to get the nose back on the grindstone...I ended up in the hospotal instead with a pulmonary embolism (i.e., blot clots in the lungs). I'm ok and following treatment, but it was, shall we say, disruptive to my schedule? But some down time in a hospital bed allowed me to get several more chapters written up (as well as a chance to read an entire novella on my phone while waiting for test results), so here we are.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities
Part II: Queer Relationships
This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.
Chapter 3 examines women whose relationships came under scrutiny of the law, while chapter 4 covers women who experienced their relationships within a religious context, flourishing, in part, because their associates chose not to question the nature of that relationship.
Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities
This chapter begins with the familiar slander lawsuit of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie against Dame Helen Cumming Gordon (examined in detail in Lillian Faderman’s Scotch Verdict). The essence of the trial was that a student at the school run by Woods and Pirie accused the two women of having a sexual relationship. As Dame Cumming Gordon spread word of the accusation, parents began pulling their daughters out of the school. To try to save their reputation and livelihood, the two teachers accused Cumming Gordon of slander while she counter-accused them of unnatural acts. The verdict (an oddity of Scottish law, “not proven”, which means neither guilty nor innocent) is not the most interesting part of the trial.
The trial records demonstrate that the judges (all upper class white men, of course) considered their first duty to protect the reputation and good name of British women in general from the suspicion of unnatural possibilities. It was important, not only to exclude the possibility that Woods and Pirie had done what they were accused of, but to protect the general female public from knowledge of those accusations, lest they give people ideas.
To admit the possibility that women—at least proper British women—could engage in same-sex erotics would make all women suspect. It’s the reverse side of sexual ignorance: not a disbelief in the possibility of lesbian relations, as such, but an imposed denial of those possibilities. Even in the closed-door context of the trial, the goal was suppression of the imagination.
In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed on occasion, and which they did not deny—could be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. This meant that it was also necessary to argue that a 16-year-old girl was either capable of imagining the sexual acts she described without having observed them, or had knowledge of them from some other source.
While the judges reviewed ideas of f/f sex prevalent in popular culture, they were able to exclude those possibilities in the present case on the basis of class, occupation, and nationality. The teachers were not tribades, prostitutes, or foreigners (who might be understood to engage in such practices), therefore they could be presumed innocent. If, one asserted, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?
The resolution of these conflicts came by blaming the accusing student of invention, using her biracial (Anglo-Indian) background as an excuse for her familiarity with deviant sexual practices. Thus the reputation of true British women was maintained.
The other legal case considered in this chapter—the Codrington divorce trial—also rests on the question of whether two well-bred women could share a bed with that act assumed to be completely innocent.
Feminist and activist Emily Faithful was a close friend of unhappily-married socialite Helen Codrington. The two had shared a household when Admiral Codrington was absent on military duties. On his return—at least according to his later testimony—he blamed the growing conflict in his marriage on Helen’s association with Emily, including Helen’s preference for sharing a bed with her in preference to her husband. Codrington banished Emily from the household and later claimed to have written the reasons for it in a sealed letter that he placed in the care of a relative.
Emily Faithful went on to join forces with other feminists and found the Victoria Press, among other projects. The Codringtons were posted to Malta, where Helen engaged in flirtations and perhaps more with some of the officers there.
The Codrington divorce trial was sparked by suspicions that Helen had committed adultery under her husband’s nose in Malta, while Helen countered with charges of neglect and emotional abuse. Emily Faithful was drawn into the conflict when Helen accused her husband of having tried to rape Emily during the period when Emily lived in their household, on an occasion when Helen and Emily were in bed together.
Emily first agreed with the charge, but later said she was uncertain and had been convinced of its truth by Helen. Emily’s feminist activities and not conventionally feminine appearance led to rumors of lesbian improprieties. Forced to testify at the trial and with the rumor of the “sealed letter” hanging over her, Emily retreated from the accusation of attempted rape, thus throwing the matter back into Helen’s hands as the one who raised the topic.
Thus, although the accusation in the trial was heterosexual adultery, it came to revolve around rumors of lesbianism. And the heart of those rumors was the question of whether two women sharing a bed could be assumed to be sexually involved or assumed to be sexually innocent.
Although the trial reveals little of the truth of their relationship, Emily’s writings, and especially her semi-biographical novel Changes Upon Changes, make it clear that she was romantically obsessed with Helen Codrington, while feeling betrayed by Helen’s volatility and instability.
After the trial, Helen disappeared from public view while Emily Faithful eventually redeemed her reputation away from the glare of London, and finished her life with a long-term female partner.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 184 – Interview with Jane Walsh
(Originally aired 2020/11/14 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jane Walsh Online
(Originally aired 2020/11/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2020.
What Did I Wake Up To?
Such is the timing of podcast recording that I have no idea how to introduce this show. And, of course, I’m showing my American focus here, but it’s what I’m immersed in. Am I giving a deep sigh of relief as we start the hard work of reclaiming the soul of our nation? Am I reeling with the same stunned shock I felt four years ago? Am I biting my fingernails to the bone still waiting for a resolution? Whichever it is, one of my small parts in the struggle is to keep putting out queer content.
The New Podcast Site
Setting all that aside as unknowable at this point, the big new thing for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is the move to our new independent site. All the existing content has been moved over, so it won’t be lost when TLT shuts down. Starting two episodes back, the new shows have been released real-time in parallel on both the TLT channel and the new LHMP channel. You should be able to subscribe directly through almost any popular podcatcher app. And I’d like to urge you to do that: subscribe. Especially if you were a subscriber to TLT previously and enjoyed the show.
It’s easy for details to fall through the cracks during a transition like this. I don’t want you scratching your head months from now thinking, “Huh, I wonder why the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast hasn’t released any new episodes for a while?” I don’t do this show for the money. (There isn’t any.) I don’t do it for the fame and glory. (Well, ok, maybe just a little bit for the fame and glory.) I do it to share my love of queer history and my love of sapphic historical fiction with all of you out there. And one of the few concrete metrics I have for knowing that I’ve succeeded is those podcast listener numbers.
So right now, if you’re listening to the TLT version of this episode, put the show on pause, go to your podcatcher’s search function and plug in “Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast”, or follow the link in the show notes that says “new podcast distribution links,” and add the new show to your feed. And if you’re already listening to the independent show, thank you! And tell a friend about us.
Just to remind you, in January we’ll be changing the schedule a little to two shows per month, plus the quarterly fiction episodes. The On the Shelf show will still be a magazine format with news of the field, new book listings, but now the interviews and book appreciation lists will be included in that show as well and the content may vary from month to month. The essay shows will be just as before, with discussions of people, topics, and themes from history, or sometimes more analytic pieces on the process of researching, envisioning, and writing queer historical fiction.
As always, if you have a topic or a guest you’d love to hear, or if you’d like to appear on the show either as an author or as a reader, or if you have or know about a book you think should be included in our new release listings, please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact the show. It’s one of the best ways you can let us know we’re providing content you enjoy.
I’m always looking for new ways to expand engagement with the Lesbian Historic Motif Project as a whole. We have our own Twitter feed now, and if you’re interested in becoming part of the LHMP / Alpennia community, contact us for an invitation to our Discord. I’m looking forward to doing some live events there, and we have a 200th episode birthday coming up in May that would be a great excuse.
And don’t forget about the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series, coming up in January. You still have lots of time to polish up a short story for consideration.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog started October with a bonus book that was a footnote in Betty Rizzo’s Companions Without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Rizzo mentioned two women frequenting lesbian bordellos in 18th century London, as mentioned in E.J. Burford’sWits, Wenchers and Wantons – London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century.
That sounded intriguing enough that I tracked down the book and winkled out all its references to female homosexuality. Then I spent another blog tracing down further historical information about the women who were mentioned in Burford. I have yet to find a solid historical reference for anything resembling a lesbian bordello in this material, but there was certainly a lot of gossip recorded about various women, both aristocrats and actresses, whose lovers included both men and women.
It’s an interesting exercise in trying to trace down the known facts behind what often turns out to be a game of historical telephone, where offhand comments get exaggerated or reinterpreted and turned into far more serious claims than the original evidence supports. But I was able to determine that if you want to explore rumors of which 18th century society women were said to have female lovers, the diaries and correspondence of Horace Walpole and Hester Thrale Piozzi are a good place to start.
The blog has moved on to Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 which is a collection of biographic sketches of couples who illustrate various types of homoerotic relationships in that period. This book may take up not only the rest of November but on into December, since I’m planning to spend some of my November writing time doing NaNoWriMo for the first time.
While putting together the research for the podcast on the Anandrine Sect, I ran across another of Jeffrey Merrick’s books on French homosexual history that I needed to get. This is a collection of articles: Homosexuality in French History and Culture, edited by Merrick and Michael Sibalis. So that, along with Burford’s book mentioned earlier were the book shopping for the blog in the last month.
This month’s author guest will be Jane Walsh, whose debut novel Her Lady to Love is out from Bold Strokes Books this month, adding to the popular field of sapphic regency romance.
For this month’s essay, I thought I’d return to my chronological tour through poetry by or about women who loved women. I’ve worked my way up to the 18th century at this point, which fits well with other material I’ve covered recently. I have another slot to fill this month, so let’s see what I come up with for a book appreciation show.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
That brings us to the new and recent f/f historicals. I have three October books to catch up on and five November releases.
We’ll start off with one where I confess the cover copy rubbed me the wrong way. I’m simply not fond of books that spend all their time promising you an unexpected surprise twist ending but don’t give you much of an idea of what you’ll experience along the way. The Sappho Romance by Jacquie Lyon and Sam Skyborne published by Dukebox claims to give us the true story behind the legend of Sappho in ancient Greece. The cover copy rambles a bit so I’m going to condense it a little.
Sappho, the ancient Greek poet and teacher of legend, known as the ‘Mortal Muse’, had a secret so well guarded that centuries of scrutiny and academic debate could not unearth it. Until now. You know the speculation and controversy surrounding her private life. Was she the quintessential lover of women? The devout wife of Kerkylas of Andros and mother to his ten children? The tragic suicide out of love for the ferryman Phaon? What if the real story were different... holding fragments of all these legends, yet hiding a splendid alternative twist?
The regency genre gives us two titles this month, one from our featured guest author Jane Walsh, titled Her Lady to Love published by Bold Strokes Books.
Country mouse Lady Honora Banfield arrives in London with one mission: to catch a husband. A perpetual wallflower, she’s going to do whatever it takes to win a proposal from London’s most eligible bachelor, including teaming up with the most popular (and least proper) woman in London. Miss Jacqueline Lockhart is having too much fun in her sixth season to ever consider settling down, even though she’s been unsuccessful at mingling with the upper echelons of London society. When Lady Honora agrees to exchange invitations to the most exclusive events in return for Jacqueline’s introductions to eligible gentlemen, neither expects their friendship to ignite passion. Nora and Jacquie begin an affair with the strict understanding that it will end once Nora is married, but as a proposal becomes more imminent, choosing between a conventional life without love, or certain ruination if they stay together, isn’t as simple as it seems.
The second regency seems to be part of a connected series, following up on one of last month’s books. This is The Enigmatic Steward, self-published by Stein Willard.
After losing her husband in an accident that left her with a noticeable injury, Lady Florence Hampton, the Viscountess of Clarence, was used to the looks of pity she received when she ventured out in public. However, it was the loneliness that her condition forced upon her that wounded her most. Surely, no man would want to be seen with a middle-aged, damaged woman on his arm. Chester Vaughn knew everything about hardship and violence, but nothing about love. As the Viscountess’ land steward, she protected her employer from the attentions of an unscrupulous, gold-digging neighbour whilst at the same time struggling to hide her own deep affection for the aloof woman.
The American Civil War and the wild west period that followed provide us with three titles this month. First up is The Coffield Chronicles - Hearts Under Siege: Book One, by T.L. Dickerson from Sapphire Books.
The year is 1862. The war between the states has been raging intensely for a year now. The country is in complete and utter turmoil, and brother is fighting brother to the death, dying for what each believed. It seems it’s all the townsfolk of New Albany, Indiana can speak of, and Melody Coffield is paying attention. Through a series of heartbreaks and sorrow, she settles on the decision to cut her hair and don men’s attire. Going under the alias of Melvin A. Coffield, she leaves her childhood home, the only home she had ever known, and enlists in the United States Army. Chewing tobacco and drinking liquor were ways of men, and she learns quickly how to behave like one. She would soon know the horrors of battle, and what was called the glory of war, through roads that led straight to Vicksburg, Mississippi. However, her biggest concern was making sure she was not detected by the others. Keeping her secret would not only be challenging, but trying as well. Will she remain in this solitude the rest of her life, never allowing anyone into her heart again? Or will she find love, once more, in a world that was intolerant and unaccepting of who she truly was?
Rivers of Eden, self-published by R.E. Levy gives us a story of conflicts and contrasts on the frontier.
Margaret Hatch is a good woman. She has a husband, a homestead, a baby, and always heeds her preacher. But when things in Eden begin to go awry she can't help but feel guilty. Guilty for that night five years ago. Guilty for kissing her best friend. Guilty for wanting more. Emma Johansson is not a good woman. She is loose, unmarried, and employed. Three things a woman should not be. She also happens to be in love with her best friend Margaret, a fact both of them have kept buried all of their lives. Now, the two women must reconcile their hidden history with the terror that has taken hold of Eden, a malevolent force keen to expose their truths to the world. Emma and Margaret must face what they unleashed five years ago before it takes both of them, and their secret, to the grave.
We’re offered a touch of fantasy with our wild west in Martha Moody by Susan Stinson from Small Beer Press. Unfortunately what we aren’t offered is any sort of clear indication of the plot. So if you’re up for a surprise, this might tempt you.
At once a love story and a lush comic masterpiece, Martha Moody is a speculative western which embraces the ordinary and gritty details ― as well as the magic ― of women's lives in the old west.
Another historic fantasy is the latest installment in Geonn Cannon’s Trafalgar & Boone series: Trafalgar & Boone at Magic's End (Trafalgar & Boone 6) from Supposed Crimes.
Trafalgar and Lady Dorothy Boone, still shattered by the consequences of their last mission, have decided to heed a warning from the future and put an end to the widespread use of magic. While Dorothy sits vigil for someone she loves, Trafalgar accepts the invitation from a fellow Society member to investigate an ancient queen's burial site. A simple mission quickly turns sour, and Dorothy finds herself racing to save not only her friend and partner, but the whole of London. While the Society is stronger than ever, Dorothy herself is alone without her closest allies and advisors. Faced with the choice of a horrible loss and a potentially catastrophic future, Dorothy makes a decision which could change the world forever... and cost her the very thing she hopes to save.
The last title is an anthology that got a lot of buzz on book twitter when the kickstarter was first announced: Silk and Steel edited by Janine A. Southard from Cantina Publishing. It isn’t strictly historic, but is likely to appeal to our listeners.
Princess and swordswoman, lawyer and motorcyclist, scholar and barbarian: there are many ways to be a heroine. In this anthology, seventeen authors find new ways to pair one weapon-wielding woman and one whose strengths lie in softer skills. “Which is more powerful, the warrior or the gentlewoman?” these stories ask. And the answer is inevitably, “Both, working together!” Herein, you’ll find duels and smugglers, dance battles and danger noodles, and even a new Swordspoint story!
Let’s just say that I was excited enough by the premise that I was inspired to try my luck at one the handful of open submissions slots. My story wasn’t selected, alas, but I think you’ll love the ones that were.
What Am I Reading?
My own reading is still picking up. I finished Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian-inspired historic fantasy, Girl, Serpent, Thorn and can highly recommend it, not only for the lovely queer ending. I’m working on an advance copy of Malina Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, in preparation for interviewing her in January. And I hope to get an advance copy of my December guest’s book as well.
Podcast Cross-Promotion: SweetBitter
I’ll close the show this month with a chance to cross-promote a new podcast that might be of interest to listeners: Sweetbitter is a podcast all about the poet Sappho and her work. And I was able to get some of the hosts on to talk it up.
[Transcript for the interview will be added later.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 182 – Give Us This Day by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/10/31 - listen here)
This month’s story is the second appearance of Jennifer Nestojko in our fiction series. She sold us a story in 2018 for the first year of the fiction series and now returns with our final story of 2020. There’s one more story that I bought this past January, but it will air as the first story of the 2021 season. I hope you’re all thinking about submitting stories in January for next year.
When I decided to buy “Give Us This Day” I knew exactly when I was going to schedule it, because having Halloween fall on a podcast day cried out for a ghost story. As it happens, I had two ghost stories to choose from, but this one set in medieval Brittany felt like it fit the day more closely.
Jennifer Nestojko is a writer and poet who lives in central California. She is a part time medievalist as well as a high school and college teacher. While writing a paper for fun on the undead in medieval literature she encountered this story about a revenant baker, and it has been lurking in her mind over the last few years asking to be told anew.
I should also note that Jennifer is a longtime friend of mine, though that didn’t give her any leg up in selling me a story. If you’ve read my novel Floodtide, you might notice that the book is dedicated to her.
I’m proud to be able to narrate this story about loss, a baker who doesn’t know when to quit, and the discovery of new possibilities in life.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
Give Us This Day
By Jennifer Nestojko
Narrated by Heather Rose Jones
A sudden pounding on the door woke Mari out of her daze. She stared for a moment at her hands; they had continued kneading the dough while her thoughts had wandered. The knocking came again, and her heart started its own pounding. Who could it be? The church had already tolled Matins and most good townsfolk were sleeping.
The door flew open and Mari grabbed her rolling pin in one hand, clumps of dough falling to the ground. Her husband strode in, going straight to the second table, the one where he had always worked until just two nights before, and began mixing ingredients. Mari’s rolling pin fell as she gaped in shock. His hands moved in practiced motions as he began to knead, but they were clumsy and she noted that they were caked with the dark clay that lay deeper beneath the soil.
He was a large man, her husband, and older than her by a good two decades. His greying hair was cut short, but it was unkempt, though the last time she had seen him it had been carefully combed; she had done the combing herself. His beard, which was black with greying streaks, had bits of dirt in it, and the sight of clumps falling into the dough brought her out of her shock. Per would never in his life have been so careless with his baking, but then they had laid him in his grave yesterday morning.
He took no notice of her as he went about his craft, and after a few moments of staring Mari went about her own work, not knowing what else to do. What if this was a demon that had taken possession of Per’s body? She had heard tell of a corpse that had accosted a woman at her prayers, but it was a demon inhabiting a dead man’s body and the woman’s prayers had turned the demon away – that and the cross she had hit him with. The bakery had no such heavy crosses, and the rolling pin seemed a poor weapon.
Despite burying her husband, Mari had known she had to keep the making of bread going; it was why she had been up and working so soon after the funeral. The town needed its bread. She needed to eat. She took comfort in the practiced moves of kneading and shaping dough; after all, she came from a family of bakers. It was what had made the match to Per so fitting. After carefully laying aside the next loaf ready for firing, Mari reflected that she was grateful she had not gone giddy or fainted. After all, the bread Per was making could not be eaten. Mari shuddered to think of it.
The night passed in a silence punctuated by the sounds that came with baking. She and Per had spent many a night working peacefully in this way, though they had also spent many nights talking as they worked. He had been a relief as a husband, considerate of her and never unkind. If he had never been the love minstrels sang of, then he had also never been the tyrant some husbands could be.
This night was not peaceful; Mari wanted to speak to him, to ask what was happening or why he was there. She wanted him to turn to her, and she prayed that he would not. She herself had sewn his eyes shut, had prepared his body after his heart had failed him in the middle of the baking that had been his work, his life. The night of his death had seemed endless, filled with sorrow and worry; Mari reflected wryly to herself that it now seemed swift as a rushing stream compared to this one. She strained to see a glimmer of light through the window, hoping that the coming of dawn would send this corpse back to its grave.
Even though she was straining for the sound, the crowing of Katalin’s rooster made her jump. Per immediately dropped the loaves he was taking from the oven, yanked open the door, and shambled out into the now waning night.
Mari watched him go, then sank to the floor, holding her head in her floury hands. She did not know how long it was before she heard the sound of irregular footsteps, and then she felt warm arms about her. Katalin’s voice whispered soothingly at her, but Mari couldn’t process what she was saying. She kept seeing Per’s shambling figure working the dough with those dreadful clay-soiled hands. Grave dirt. She shuddered, her body shaking repeatedly.
“Drink this,” Katalin said, gently lifting Mari’s face and handing her a flask. The taste of the miller’s peach brandy startled her back to herself; the miller was not fond of subtler drink. Mari looked around, almost surprised to see that not much time had passed. She could smell her loaves baking, and there was no hint of burn yet.
“There, now,” said Katalin, smiling at her. “That always wakes me up of a morning. Da, now, he makes it strong for a reason.” She stood up, using the table’s sturdy edge to lift herself. Mari missed the warmth of her touch; it was Katalin who had comforted her after Per’s death and who had sat vigil with her that long night. “You don’t need to talk, if you like. I saw who left your door this morning.”
Mari stood slowly, brushing her hands against her apron as she got up. “And just what did you see?”
Katalin snorted. “It wasn’t young Paol, the minstrel.” She looked directly at Mari, and there was fear in her glance. “I saw Per, sure as I breathe now and he no longer does. Why is he walking?”
Mari looked at the ruined loaves on the floor, and the clods and smears of soil marring the countertop of Per’s workspace. She shook her head; none of this seemed real, but neither had the funeral of the previous morning.
“I think,” she said softly, “I think he doesn’t know when to stop working.”
“No,” said Katalin, “I don’t think he does, at that.” She sighed. “It is just like the man, too.”
Katalin helped Mari set the kitchen to rights, though Mari took the loaves from the oven when they were ready. She saw how much the miller’s daughter was leaning on her crutch, for the morning was damp and mist shrouded, but she said no word as Katalin swept and cleaned the tables. She felt protective at times of Katalin, though that wasn’t quite the correct feeling. Katalin was more than capable. Mari had found herself watching for her new friend more and more over the last three years, studying her movements, the way she held her head or limped across the floor. She was fascinated by her laugh, and Katalin was working hard this morning to laugh and make merry, trying to distract Mari from the night’s fears. The kitchen was ready well ahead of the time for the lord’s workers to come for their daily baking, as was the law, and Mari was ready to set up shop for the morning, selling what untainted loaves she had.
Of course Anna, the blacksmith’s wife, came in during her daily rounds. She looked carefully at each loaf, shifting her babe slightly and rocking her hips gently, soothing the child almost reflexively.
“Now who,” said Anna, “did the baking of these?”
“Why, I did, of course!” said Mari, indignantly. “Who else?”
“By your savior, you swear this is true,” she asked, giving Mari a hard look.
Mari gave her a hard look back. “On my faith and hope of heaven,” she replied, and Anna’s eyes softened. She nodded.
“That’s all right, then. I’ll take my daily bread,” she told her. “Late last night this little one was fussing – it is the time for new teeth – and who did I see but the baker walking right past my window. I could not sleep then, myself, even after the babe was soothed. I saw Per return, with flour mixed in with the clay on his hands.” She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Everyone knows the dead bring plague and disease when they walk; their sins infect all others.”
“I didn’t know Per had all that many sins on his head,” Mari said dryly. “He rarely left the bakery or shop.”
“Well,” Anna began, and then shrugged. “He was a good man, and a hard worker. He never did make time for much else; festivals saw him working double the time and never resting. Perhaps you are right, and it is not sin that brings him from the grave.” She put the bread into her basket, but lingered. Anna always liked a bit of gossip, and Per’s death had been the biggest news since fall. At least, it had been until last night. “Shall you keep on as bakester, then?” she asked.
Mari winced. “I haven’t,” she began, then her throat closed and no further words came. Her eyes pricked with tears.
“Shhh, shh,” said Anna soothingly. Her hips rocked a deeper rhythm, as if she were jiggling Mari instead of the infant. “I spoke too soon. You should stay, though. Get young Katalin to help you with the bread.”
Mari nodded, and was grateful when the woman went on her way. Still, she felt some amusement. Anna was fond of matchmaking, but with no youngsters mooning about at the moment, she seemed to be branching out.
Katalin came in to the shop from the kitchen door, leaned her crutch against the wall, and sat on the stool Per had made for her. “Anna is up to her old tricks, it seems,” she said, laughter in her eyes.
“At least she will pass the word that the bread is not diseased,” Mari told her.
“It’s not so bad an idea,” Katalin began after a townsman had stopped in. He, blessedly, had no questions about the dead and just wanted food for his table.
“What idea?” Mari asked, her thoughts elsewhere.
“Having me work with you,” she answered. “I grew up underfoot, what with me being neighbors and the miller’s daughter and all. Per taught me. Especially after my accident at the mill, he gave me something to do. He was rather like an uncle to me.”
“Me too,” said Mari, and then she reddened. “I mean, he was a good husband, but he was twenty years older, and, well…” She shrugged.
“He was always busy,” Katalin finished for her. “Don’t worry, Mari, I know. When Malo, the other baker, as you know, died Per was lonely, and Anna told him to marry a daughter of the guild – get him a wife and a bakester in one. Still, Per was set in his ways.”
“He was kind, always,” said Mari softly. “I enjoyed his company, especially when working. He seemed most alive, then.”
“Except for last night,” Katalin responded impishly.
Mari surprised herself by laughing in response, but Katalin did that to her. She then felt a chill. The day was passing. Would the night bring her husband back to the bakery?
Alan, the blacksmith, stopped by before Mari closed up the shop. He was a big man, but gentle. There was concern in his eyes when he looked at her.
“I wanted to tell you,” he began, looking about to make sure no one was lingering, “that my lad, Jon, you know – the eldest - and I went to the grave. We had the sexton come and help, and we dug Per’s casket up.” He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath before continuing. “His shoes, the ones he went to the grave with, they had been clean?”
“Of course,” replied Mari. “I cleaned them myself. I laid out all his things proper.”
“Yes,” Alan said. “I thought as much. Mari, girl – they were caked in mud. His shirt was all over mud and flour, as were his hands. He walked last night – that he did.”
Mari stood still. The morning’s fog had burned away with the bright springtime sun, and she was half convinced that last night had been a strange dream. She was still partly sure that this last few days were some strange sort of dream, like one that court poets would write and later wandering storytellers would recount, where the dreamer toured hell or the dead visited their loved or despised ones. Looking at Alan, she knew that she was awake and not dreaming and that night would come again all too soon.
“Not to worry,” the blacksmith said, correctly reading her fear. “I have arranged that some of the village men, those stout of heart and limb, will barricade his way should Per walk this night. Jon will be with us as well. Get you your rest, if you can.”
Mari could not rest that afternoon. She lay on her bed, but stared blankly at the cross on the wall of her room, running the beads of her rosary through her fingers. Was there a special prayer to keep the dead from walking? She would never have thought to have need of one. She remembered the thump, thump of a dead man’s hands kneading dough, and her heart beat faster in fear. Then she realized she was actually hearing thumps coming up the stairs, and for a moment her blood turned ice, but then a familiar voice called out, “It is only me, Mari.” Katalin. She rarely climbed stairs, but she had her own careful method of getting up them when needed, She came into the room, leaning on her crutch. Mari drank in the sight of her, with her soft brown hair slightly mussed, as always, and a slight flush in her cheeks.
“I figured you wouldn’t be sleeping,” Katalin said. “Shall I keep you company?”
“Please?” Mari asked, and Katalin propped her crutch against the wall and limped over to the bed, lying down beside Mari, slipping her strong hand into Mari’s own. Mari held her hand tightly, letting the tears come. Katalin put an arm about her and began smoothing Mari’s hair, and the tenderness of her touch brought the much needed sleep she had been courting.
Katalin quietly came with her to the bakery when it was time to prepare the bread, leaving no room for argument. Mari would not have argued; she dreaded the coming night and had no wish to be alone. They worked together companionably, but anxiously, starting at any sound. Mari had carefully prepared a space for Per, should he return, so that he would need touch nothing that she and Katalin would be using. She remembered tales of dead men and curses and plague and prayed that the men at the barricade would come to no harm.
The mist had been curling around the buildings when they had opened up the bakery; it lay still and silent on the trees and hedges, on the sleeping homes of the townsfolk, but through the silent fog came shouts and strange noises. Mari froze, staring at the dough in her bowl, more frightened than the night before. The door flew open, and she jumped, letting out a small shriek. Katalin, on her stool, exclaimed, “Anna, what is the matter?”
Anna closed the door, her face white. “Per is throwing rocks at Alan and Jon and the others. My Enora has the children down with my mother for safety. I thought I’d warn you.”
Someone yelped in the darkness. Anna moved quickly from the door and went to a corner, picking up a large baking paddle. Katalin passed something in a small gold box to Mari.
“Take this,” she said. “I got it from Father Brendan this afternoon, with his blessing.”
Mari took a quick look; it was a piece of communion bread. Mari knew that bread; she baked it every week specially for the church. “Consecrated?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Katalin, and then the door swung open again. Per came in, head swinging from side to side. He was agitated, knocking bowls off counters, moving to his table, slamming flour down and spilling water. He was much clumsier than he had been the night before. Mari could see that his eyes were still sewn shut; how he navigated the road here much less the kitchen was beyond her ken. One of the good bread bowls hit the floor and cracked. Water hit the side of the oven and sizzled as it steamed.
Katalin lunged off her stool and hit Per with her crutch as Anna hit him on the head with the baking paddle. There was a soft sound, like hitting a feather mattress, and then both crutch and paddle broke. Per swung his arms about clumsily; Anna dodged his blows, running back to her corner. One flailing fist caught Katalin in the chest; she fell back to the ground. Mari wanted to run to her, to see how she fared, but she couldn’t.
The dead man turned back to his work, trying to turn water and flour into dough as he had for so many nights before.
“Per,” Mari cried, walking up to him. He stilled for a moment, calmed, it seemed, by her voice. He turned to her, his sewn-up eyes gruesome, his mouth open. “Your work is done now. We can carry on for you.” Per turned back to the table. “Per,” she repeated. “You have earned your rest. In God’s name, rest.” He turned to her again, his clay-stained hands reaching for her, but Mari stepped closer and brought out the communion bread and reached up to lay it on his tongue. His forehead was cold as she sketched the sign of the cross in the dirt there. His eyelids ripped open, tearing her careful stitches, and for one moment he looked at her. Tears ran down his face, making small tracks. He nodded once, turned, and left, shambling into the night.
Mari stood, watching him go, knowing somehow that he was returning to his grave. She whispered a small prayer for his soul, tracing his way down the street in her mind. When she was certain that he was gone, she then went to where Katalin had fallen. Katalin was sitting up, looking a bit dazed, but unhurt. Mari threw her arms about her friend and Katalin relaxed into her embrace.
Anna was leaning against a wall, and she straightened slowly. “Well,” she said. “That’s a thing.” She caught her breath, moving her hand down to her ribs. “I think I strained something there, but that was quick thinking, the both of you.” She looked down at the two on the floor. “I did say you’d make good partners. Think on it.” She limped toward the door. “That was my Jon, I reckon, earlier – I know that yelp from when he was younger. I should check on the rest of the menfolk. They always need looking after.”
Mari lifted her head from Katalin’s shoulder. “Thank you, for your aid tonight. You are a brave woman.”
Anna shrugged. “I think that poor man will rest now. And now so can we. Peace to you and to your home.”
Mari watched her disappear into the night and then turned back to Katalin. “Are you hurt? He didn’t injure you did he?”
Katalin shook her head, and then took Mari’s face in her hands. She leaned in and then kissed her, softly at first, and then more deeply. Mari found herself kissing her back, holding her closely, feeling that this was what she’d been watching for these past three years.
She thought of her husband with a pang and pulled back, gasping, “Is this - is this right?” She did not want to walk with dead feet through her own streets after her death.
Katalin seemed to understand. “Yes,” she said soothingly. “Per is at rest. This harms him not one bit.”
“How do you know?” Mari protested. “Perhaps this will set him to walking again.”
“Tell me true, Mari – would this set Per to walking? Was he burning in his passion for you?”
Mari’s lips twitched. “Well, no. I believe he will rest now.”
Katalin stroked her hair. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.” Her eyes were soft, vulnerable. “Anna did say we made a good pair.”
“She was talking about the bakery,” Mari protested.
Katalin looked mischievous. “That as well, I suspect, but Anna is a hopeless matchmaker.”
Mari stared at her. Had Anna meant that? She was a respectable matron, mother of five, town gossip. Did she think Mari would want to be kissing Katalin like this? Mari found herself leaning in, initiating the kiss this time. That wandering storyteller would never have added this onto her strange dream poem, she was sure of that.
“Wait,” she said, ending the kiss, her worries asserting themselves once more. “If this is wrong, will I be walking from my grave some day, pelting the town with stones?
“Mari, dear heart,” said Katalin gravely, her face serious. “You just gave the holy sacrament to the dead, blessing him back to his grave. You have sent him onward to his new home. Can you so soon fall into darkness?”
Mari stared at her. It seemed she didn’t need a court poet or a wandering storyteller; she had a poet with her. “I just did what was needed.”
“With love,” Katalin said. “As this is love. And needed.” She kissed her softly, gently on the forehead, on her lips.
They held each other for a long moment, Mari feeling a sense of wonder. She let go of Katalin finally, got up and took one of the new loaves, one that had been finished before the upheavals of the night. She knelt before Katalin, broke the bread with her hands, and gave Katalin a piece, quietly taking a piece for herself. They each ate their morsel, this small act a promise and prayer. Mari then gently helped Katalin to her feet, Katalin leaning against her.
“This may require an adjustment for you,” Katalin began somberly, in a different tone from her serious one before. There was laughter lurking beneath her seeming sternness.
Mari thought about what adjustments would need to be made. It was not unheard of that two women, one a widow and one a cripple, would share bed and board. No one need worry about anything else, especially if Anna acted as protector. “I think I can become used to more of your company,” she said lightly.
Katalin laughed, limping heavily. “Will you mind moving the bedroom to the ground floor, though?”
The fourth story in our 2020 fiction series
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jennifer Nestojko Online
I wrote something for Ace Awareness Week and my publisher hosted it on their blog. This is highly relevant to some non-Alpennia-novel writing projects I'm currently poking at.
As I emphasized repeatedly in my podcast about Charlotte Cushman, the community of women discussed in this chapter deserved to have an entire historical mini-series created around them. There are so many personalities, so much drama, you could easily fill several seasons of tv. If you're writing sapphic historical fiction in the Victorian era you need to know about this milieu, if only so you are aware of the range of possible lives for those willing to do the work of slipping through the blind spots of society. I've read entirely too many stories where a female protagonist is isolated in her experiences because of the author's mistaken impression that the public myths of the Victorian era were the universal everyday reality.
There are also too many stories where women place an enormous load of guilt and shame on romantic and sensual interactions between women that--in actual fact--were part of everyday life at the time. You're a nice 19th century girl, you "kissed a girl and you liked it"? Congratulations, you're enjoying an experience that a plurality of your contemporaries consider a normal part of your emotional life. You visit your friend and spend the night cuddling and kissing in the same bed? Of course, you do. That's what best friends do. You fantasize about being able to set up a household and spend the rest of your lives together? Well, naturally. For most it will only be a fantasy, but those who achieve it will be admired and envied. And if you do, you refer to your arrangement as a marriage, and to your partner as your spouse or "other half" and no one blinks an eye. What you don't do is expect or demand legal recognition for that relationship, or rub people's faces in the full range of what you might be doing in your shared bed. And if you're active in male-dominated spaces, you can expect to be the subject of rude jokes or sly innuendo (whether or not your relationship is sexual).
I want to see more historical fiction that is aware of and uses these understandings as the framework for f/f relationships. It not only opens up a lot more possibilities, but it counters the myth that any historical era that wasn't as open and public about same-sex relationships as our present time was necessarily devoid of happy endings.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 2: The Rome Community
The community of independent women in Rome and their wider connections in England and the USA are a fascinating subject that would seriously disrupt many people's image of the possibilities for western women in the later 19th century. But one of the things that made their lives possible--lives that involved relatively open same-sex romantic and sexual pairings, the free pursuit of artistic and literary professions, and an intellectual community that recognized their talents--was the sepration from the scrutiny and expectations of "regular" society. Not that there weren't women pursing those same things back in England and the USA, but they spent more of their energy struggling for space and against legal systems that hampered them.
The freedom of an expatriate community wasn't available to everyone. Even though part of the attraction of Italy was the relatively lower cost of living, one still had to have some means of living as well as the means to travel. (One also needed the ability to leave one's home situation, and a freedom from the bonds of family responsibility, whether self-imposed or externally imposed.) Charlotte Cushman was a successful actress with a very keen financial sense. Harriet Hosmer had a supportive family and a wealthy patron. Edmonia Lewis depended on the fundraising of a community in Boston who recognized her talent and wanted to give her the opportunity to succeed as a sculptor. Some members of the community moved in and out as companions and lovers of someone willing to support them. The community wasn't all "big names" but there were many, many women who were prominent intellectuals in their own day, even if they're more obscure today. (I only know about Emily Faithful because of Emma Donoghue's novel The Sealed Letter.) They deserve to be better known, and not only for the lesbian history embedded in their stories.
While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.
It has been something of a long tradition for women (and men too) living non-normative lives to go abroad, outside the constraints of the society they were divergent from. (Note: There likely was also an aspect of disregard for the mores of the place they moved to, which puts a slightly uglier colonialist shadow over the practice.)
The private correspondence of these women make it clear that the public face of non-sexual romantic friendship was deliberately created and maintained in contradiction to their private lives. Rumors and gossip often told the truth, but there was public deniability. This deliberate concealment indicates that they did not view their loves as innocent in the eyes of the world, even when they took advantage of the forms and language of romantic friendship. Disapproval was coded in gendered terms against “mannish women”, or in terms of lost opportunities if a woman shunned marriage in favor of a female friend.
Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was the usual end goal of a Grand Tour on the continent, as well as being a destination for artistic study and practice, due to the classical and baroque art available as models. Socially, the Anglophone community in Rome didn’t mix significantly with the Italian upper classes, but formed an independent cultural milieu. The rollcall of famous names is long.
Women sculptors were particularly attracted to Rome. Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd and her friend, journalist Francis Power Cobbe. Americans Louisa Lander and Edmonia Lewis, who--as a biracial black and Native American woman--found professional opportunities impossible to come by at home. And especially Harriet Hosmer.
Cushman’s fame on the stage made the home she shared with partner Matilda Hays a social nexus. Her large circle of female friends included many romantic couples, with a certain amount of regular “musical chairs” going on among them. Cushman’s circle also attracted some men of ambiguous sexual orientation.
Cushman had an extensive overlapping series of female lovers. She may have arrived in Rome with Matilda Hays, but Hays, impatient with the role of wife, began a flirtation with Hosmer, then stormed back to London. Cushman was then courting sculptor Emma Stebbins and the two maintained a partnership until Cushman‘s death, though not without challenges, especially from fan-girl Emma Crow. Her passionate relationship with Crow was eventually disguised by marrying Crow to Cushman‘s nephew and adopted son, while continuing as lovers. It was complicated. (I did an entire podcast on Cushman.)
Harriet Hosmer formed another nucleus in the Rome circle. She was famous for her boyish presentation and refusal to conform to feminine roles. Cushman took her as a protégé, but Hosmer always seems to have been wary of getting entangled with Cushman romantically. Cushman arranged for Hosmer to have the patronage of Wayman Crow, father of Emma (well before Cushman and Emma Crow were a thing). Though Hosmer enjoyed flirtations early in her career, it was a while before she settled into a long-term partnership with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a widow with a history of passionate friendships with women. It was a somewhat loose and open partnership, which may account for its longevity and relative lack of drama.
The “meat” of the chapters in this book are detailed biographical sketches of specific couples or women. This leaves me with the dilemma of whether to skim lightly over the details of their lives, or to dig deeply. For my own survival, I’m going to have to go with the first approach. I’ll summarize the introductory material in each chapter, which situates the biographies in the larger discussion, then mention just the essentials about the couples themselves.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage
In examining the performance or perception of female couples as including one with a more "masculine" air, there's a strong sense of societal expectations being imposed. If people expected one of the two to "be the man" then whether or not the couple themselves sorted out into masculine-feminine polarities, those roles might be assigned externally (as in the case of Ponsonby and Butler). The roles might also emerge from the economic or social roles within the relationship. If one woman were perceived as a more public figure, as a bread-winner, as a professional, then there would be pressure on the other to be the "helpmeet", the supportive wife. When both women had professional lives (as we'll see in the next chapter with Cushman and Stebbins), the desire to have "a wife" (as defined by gendered roles) could cause friction.
But this assignment of gendered roles within the relationship was not universal at any timepoint, and its prevalence varied in different eras. Although romantic friends might engage in masculine nicknames for each other, or see professional or creative activities as being "masculine" and therefore affecting their interpersonal relationships, I think it's a mistake to interpret those as necessarily mapping to an internal transgender identity. People work to make sense of their identities and experiences with the concepts and language their society offers them.
Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling
The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.
In addition to the couples discussed in detail in chapters 1 and 2, the introduction to this section also mentions Vernon Lee & Mary Robinson, Elma Stewart and George Elliot, Anna Seward and Elizabeth Cornwallis, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (writing together as Michael Field).
Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage
This chapter begins with Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby who eloped in the late 18th century and, after some difficulties, established a household together in the north of Wales. They helped create the ideal of rural retirement for female couples and skirted the moral disapproval shown to the more overtly sexualized homoerotic relationships of the French court.
The framework of romantic friendship was already well-established at the time Butler and Ponsonby got together. It had its own rituals of expression and recognition. These included a courtship involving gifts, letters, and intimate conversation. A shared love of writing and books was common. The two women might thrill in covert meetings and communications. These interactions then moved to plans for a future together, whether on a practical level or only in fantasies.
The use of nicknames--especially androgynous or masculine ones--was popular. If the two were able to establish themselves as a couple, they might refer to each other as spouses, or with endearments normally indicating marriage. If a clear masculine/feminine contrast in presentation was not something a couple chose, they might choose to dress in an exaggeratedly identical fashion, and this was taken as a symbol of their couplehood.
Long-term fidelity was an ideal, and often there was an effort made to conceal tensions and jealousies within the relationship to maintain this image.
The second part of the chapter comprises detailed biographies. The first is Ponsonby and Butler, showing how they became a byword and icon of female romantic couplehood. The next biography is that of 19th century French artist Rosa Bonheur, who fell in love when she was hired to paint a portrait of Natalie Micas. Natalie’s parents became Bonheur’s patrons, and on his deathbed Monsieur Micas gave them his blessing as a couple. The final biography in this chapter is Anne Lister, with her sequence of courtships finally settling down with Ann Walker.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 181 (also 51d) - The Anandrine Sect - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/10/24 - listen here)
The Anandrine Sect
Among the more curious myths of sapphic history—and I say “myth”, but let’s keep an open mind while reviewing the evidence—is the late 18th century French Anandrine Sect. I don’t have the resources to trace the earliest appearance of the term “Anandrine” to know whether the word predated this particular context. “Anandrine” is a neo-Greek compound from “an” meaning “without” and “andros” meaning a male person. Thus, Anandrine, “without men”. This is, of course, an annoyingly male-centric way of thinking about sex between women, though it fits with the attitudes of the times. But before we enter the temple of the Anandrine Sect, we need to put together the background to its entrance on the stage.
French politics of the 18th century used sexuality and gender stereotypes as tools for representing and attacking political opponents or targeted populations. While homosexual activity featured in these debates, this was not an era of sharp divisions in sexual preference. Those accused of sexual irregularities were typically depicted as being generally libertine. Homosexuality might be a part—but only a part—of politically-charged innuendo. At the same time, for both men and women, we see a recognition that some people might have a clear preference for sexual partners of a particular gender, and that this might be taken as indicating some more general aspect of their personality or character.
Sexual libertinism was ascribed to the aristocracy, as well as to the demi-monde of performing artists and sex workers. These groups were set in opposition to the rising influence of middle class thinkers and influences. Sexual continence and marital fidelity were being claimed as signs, not only of personal morality, but as essential attributes of particular social classes, and as essential for the strength and stability of the state.
From the point when lesbian tastes were first being recognized and discussed in public as an identifiable concept—certainly at least by the 16th century--every western European culture seemed to associate female homosexuality with its political rivals. In the later 18th century and even more so as the century turned, English and German discussions depicted it as a decadent French practice, while French texts framed it as quintessentially English.
As we’ve noted, Sapphic relations were also attributed to specific social classes—always as a negative judgment—aristocrats, artists, and actresses. These groups were the “other” for the rising bourgeois movements that challenged their influence and prominence. In France, some familiar names raised in this context included Queen Marie-Antoinette and her close companions the princess de Lamballe and the duchess de Polignac, but many others as well. The lists are long. At the center of the artistic side in France was the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt, of whom more later. One of the more unusual figures assigned to the sapphic camp was the transgender Chevalier d’Eon. (I can’t really get into that topic without an entire show.) Women who had genuine political power were a popular target for rumors of lesbianism, regardless of the solid evidence available.
One feature of this era is that women were not simply rumored to engage in lesbian relations as individuals, but increasingly they were depicted as being part of clubs, associations, or simply private social circles organized around a shared sexual preference. And, in turn, woman-centered societies attracted sexual innuendo as a means of critiquing and denigrating women who dared not to subjugate their lives to men.
The Culture of Pamphlets and Societies
It was not only female organizations that provoked social and political anxiety. The 18th century was a time when people at all levels and of all types were coming together in affiliation groups to further their common interests, whether it was the male political clubs in the coffee houses, the literary salons, professional academies, commercial associations, or fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons. Marginalized political interests came together in secret clubs and these were often the foundation of revolutionary movements, about which more in a moment.
Similarity of interest and purpose was a common organizing force. For women’s organizations to be part of this rise of affiliation groups, women needed to view being female as an identity, as something separate from and perhaps more important than their class, national, political, and occupational affiliations. In an odd way, this understanding was enhanced by two philosophical shifts that might otherwise be viewed as anti-progressive. One was the growing prominence of the “two-sex” model of gender. There had long been parallel attitudes toward the nature of gender: the one-sex model in which women were a variant (and deficient) type of man, and the two-sex model, in which men and women belonged to distinct categories. The second and related movement was the rise of the “separate spheres” philosophy in which society was divided into those activities, interests, and experiences belonging to men and those belonging to women.
Taken together, these philosophies depicted men and women as functionally separate species with entirely separate natures and interests. This created a conceptual space in which women might find common cause across social barriers. It led to exploration of feminist thought and even ideas of female separatism. Separatism, in turn, raised the question of lesbian practice as a natural consequence of women-only societies.
From another angle, the sensational literature of political and erotic pamphlets that focused pointedly on sapphic themes must have spread the imagery of lesbian relations far more effectively than the earlier references in medical manuals had. Whether the veritable explosion of references to sex between women in printed literature was accompanied by an increase in the actual practice is difficult to guess. But the idea was there for the taking.
The evocation of female same-sex relations as the organizing principle for secret societies stands in for a general concern with the influence of women in politics, and especially a concern with the subversive power of female alliances, as well as the anarchic and disruptive power of women who were not under male control. Female power destabilized the hierarchies of the state in the same way that secret societies did. How much more so, when the two ideas came together?
Of all the secret societies that were popular in the 18th century, one of the most prominent and enduring was the Order of Freemasons, and consequently it provoked some of the strongest reactions from critics. It wasn’t the secret exclusivity that bothered those in power so much as the group’s leveling ideals--in theory seeing members from all classes and ranks of society as equals. And while Freemasonry was, in general, an exclusively male province, France took the lead in the 1770s in expanding those leveling ideals by authorizing female masonic lodges. These “lodges of adoption” were not independent and sovereign from male authority, but some seem to have embraced sororal solidarity as a unifying principle. In some cases, these female lodges featured ceremonies and rhetoric that may be what is being satirized in descriptions of Anandrine rites. One female Freemason lodge titled its leader the “Queen of the Amazons”. Though the actual female-centered social organizations never entirely excluded men, they raised the image of women forming self-authorizing communities independent of male authority.
Mademoiselle de Raucourt
But before we move on to the Anandrine Sect itself, we need an introduction to a key player, the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt. Françoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte, known by her stage name Françoise de Raucourt, or Mademoiselle de Raucourt, followed the family trade of acting from an early age. By the early 1770s, she became famous playing roles with the Comèdie Française, though her career was slightly disrupted by her profligate habits, when she spent several years in prison for debt. She won the patronage of Queen Marie-Antoinette in the late ‘70s, which was not entirely a benefit when the Revolution broke out. As a result of her Royalist connections, she was absent from the stage until the early ‘90s, spending some of that time in prison, after which she regained official favor and continued a patchy stage career until her death in 1815.
De Raucourt was notorious for her female lovers during the height of her popularity in the 1770s. In her later years she may have settled down to a long-time relationship with a fellow prisoner under the Revolution, Henriette Simonnet de Ponty. De Raucourt’s public fame, her confirmed preference for female lovers, and her association with Marie-Antoinette were likely what made her an ideal mouthpiece in fictional depictions of the Anandrine sect.
The Lodge of Lesbos
Social concern about secret societies, a rising interest in images of lesbian sex, and a general anxiety about women coming together in radical organizations. These are the background to a 1775 entry in the underground journal Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique: “They say there exists a society known as the Lodge of Lesbos, but whose meetings are even more mysterious than those of the Freemasons have ever been, with initiations into all the secrets that Juvenal described so frankly and openly in his Sixth Satire.” The entry goes on to identify the leader of this lodge as the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt.
Even given the gossipy nature of this publication, note that the attribution is “they say”, triangulated with the name of a prominent actress known for her lesbian relations. This information predates the earliest reference (at least the earliest one mentioned in my sources) to the Anandrine Sect, though the parallels between the two are very close, down to the connection with de Raucourt.
The Anandrine Sect as Lesbian Separatist Commune
The Anandrine Sect itself is first introduced—as far as I can find—in the pornographic work L’espion Anglais (The English Spy) written in 1778. This is a collection of salacious anecdotes, one of which involves an adolescent country girl who, having inclinations toward sex with women, is sent off to Paris to be initiated into an Anandrine sect. Her sponsor describes the group thus:
“A tribade,” she told me, “is a young virgin who, not having had any relations with men, and convinced of the excellence of her sex, finds in it true pleasure, pure pleasure, dedicates herself wholly to it, and renounces the other sex, as perfidious as it is seductive. Or, it is a woman of any age who, having fulfilled the wish of nature and country for the propagation of the human race, gets over her mistake, detests, abjures crude pleasures, and devotes herself to training pupils for the goddess.”
She tells the young woman, “You already seem worthy to me to be initiated into our mysteries. I hope that this night will confirm the good opinion that I’ve formed of you, and that we’ll lead an innocent and voluptuous life together for a long time. You won’t lack anything. I’m going to have dresses, finery, hats made for you, buy you diamonds, jewels. … I’ll show you the beauties of Paris one after another. I’ll take you frequently to the theater in my box seats, to balls, to strolling places. I want to shape your education, which, making you more pleasant, will save you from the boredom of being often alone. I’ll have you taught to read, write, dance, sing. I have mistresses for all these subjects at my disposal. I have them for other subjects, as your tastes or your talents develop.”
The young woman eagerly agrees, and we get a description of the initiation ceremony. It takes place in a classical temple featuring statues of the goddess Vesta, of Sappho, and other symbolic figures. There are black marble altars, and stoves that burn incense. The members of the society take their places in pairs, reclining entwined on pillows in the Turkish style. The new initiate and her sponsor enter dressed in loose gowns with symbolic colors. Then a welcoming speech is given by the society’s president, Mademoiselle de Raucourt, after which the members vote on the acceptance of the candidate.
In the overall form and shape of the ceremony, one might think of any number of private formal social clubs. Masonic rites come easily to mind.
In a separate entry in L’espion Anglais, a supposed initiation address to the Anandrine Sect is given by Mademoiselle de Raucourt. The address is purported to have been given in 1773, but this should be understood as a literary invention.
“The Anandrine Sect is as old as the world. One can’t doubt its nobility, since a goddess was its founder. And what a goddess! The most chaste, whose symbol is the element that purifies all the others. However opposed this sect is to men, the authors of the laws, they’ve never dared to proscribe it. Even the wisest, strictest of legislators sanctioned it in Lacedaemon Lycergus had established a school of tribadism where young girls appeared naked, and in those public games they learn tender and amorous dances, postures, advances, embraces. Men bold enough to look in there were punished with death. This art is found reduced to a system and described energetically in the poetry of Sappho, whose name alone awakens the idea of what was most amiable and enchanting in Greece. In Rome, the Anandrine Sect received, in the person of the vestal virgins, almost divine honors. If we believe travelers on the score, it spread to the most distant lands…”
This explanation and introduction to the society goes on at great length and moves on to more explicitly sexual matters. It becomes clear that the description of pure and noble pleasures is only the beginning, and there is a reference to flagellation as part of the standard repertoire of their sexual practice. The structure, as laid out in this address, is one of age-differentiated relationships, where an older, experienced woman takes on a young, inexperienced student. They form a bond based on this mentorship, and then eventually, in turn, the student graduates to being a mentor to a new initiate herself.
The titillating hints at the sexual rituals of the group contrast oddly with the utopian commune that is described. Here’s how the fictional de Raucourt sets out the arrangements:
“It’s not enough that a structure be built on solid and lasting foundations, that it be kept away from destructive elements, and protected from dangers that can threaten it. It’s necessary, in addition, that it offer the eye fine proportions, a sense of harmony, a whole, the great merit of masterpieces of architecture. It’s the same with our moral structure. Tranquility, unity, concord, peace should constitute its principal support, its praise in the eyes of outsiders. May they see nothing in us but sisters, or rather maybe, admire in us a large family, in which there is no hierarchy other than that established by nature itself for its preservation, and necessary to its administration. Benevolence toward all unfortunates should be one of our distinctive characteristics, a virtue flowing from our gentle and sociable manners, from our essentially loving heart. But it’s with respect to our sisters, our pupils, that it should be deployed. Complete community of property, so that no one distinguishes the poor from the rich. May the latter, on the contrary, take pleasure in making the former forget that she was ever impoverished. When she is brought forth into society, may she be noticed because of the sparkle of her clothes, the elegance of her adornment, the abundance of her diamonds and jewels, the beauty of her horses, the quickness of her carriage. May those who see her recognize her and exclaim, “It’s a pupil of the Anandrine Sect! That’s what it means to make sacrifices to Vesta!” It’s thus that you’ll attract others, that you’ll plant in the heart of others like you, who will admire you, the desire to enjoy your fate by imitating you.”
The Anandrine Sect in the Sex-Pamphlet Wars
The description of the Anandrine Sect in L’espion Anglais is decidedly tame compared to the next significant representation of the group, which again sets up Mademoiselle de Raucourt as the leader of the group. This pamphlet from 1791 entitled Liberty, or Mademoiselle Raucourt to the Whole Anandrine Sect can best be understood as part of a connected series of raunchy political satires featuring a mythical “Committee on Fuckery” which has taken on itself the application of revolutionary principles to the sexual underworld of prostitutes, sodomites, and tribades. The prostitutes have aligned themselves on the side of the revolutionary government and used seduction to gain the upper hand over their rivals, the buggers. The Anandrine pamphlet in the series takes up the story when de Raucourt is warned of the prostitutes’ legal triumph over the buggers and she goes to the Comedie Francais to rally the tribade troops to the side of homosexual solidarity. While one purpose of the pamphlet series may have been to satirize the over-the-top polemical language of the genre, another purpose may have simply been the joy of seeing how many times one can say “fuck” in a paragraph. I won’t be quoting from this particular text, not so much out of prudishness, but frankly because it's tedious and boring. A translation of the entire text can be found in Merrick and Ragan’s Homosexuality in Early Modern France, listed in the show notes. You might find it useful for research purposes regarding types of sex acts that the writer envisioned women engaging in with each other.
The Anandrine Sect of this post-revolutionary pamphlet is a foul-mouthed, working class, sex-obsessed rabble, compared to the pre-revolutionary Anandrine Sect of L’espion Anglais, with its formal, classically inspired rites and emphasis on sensual pleasures. But in both cases they represent a dangerous, uncontrolled female sexuality that is disruptive by its very existence, while at the same time being controlled and managed by being presented and filtered through a male pornographic gaze.
Queen Marie Antoinette and the Anandrine Sect
There is not a direct connection between the Anandrine Sect and Queen Marie-Antoinette, but many of the same themes are present. She is worth discussing here for those parallels.
The hostility toward Queen Marie Antoinette in France focused around a number of themes. She was foreign. She was financially profligate. And she was sexually licentious with both men and women. Given the king’s sexual issues, there might have been a certain amount of understanding offered for her looking for satisfaction—and for a means of getting pregnant—elsewhere. But a common satirical image of the queen settled on depicting her as preferring sexual relations with her female favorites and viewing this as a symptom of her general character.
If we were looking for solid historical evidence for Marie Antoinette’s actual sex life and sexual inclinations, we’d probably be left with the same sorts of vaguely suggestive data that we have for figures like Queen Christina of Sweden, or Queen Anne of England. But when our topic is how her political enemies depicted her, the documentary evidence is solid, unambiguous, and explicit.
An anonymous pamphlet published in 1793 titled “The Private, Libertine, and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette” consists largely of a chronological catalog of all the women and men she was claimed to have engaged in sexual relations with, starting with her sisters at age ten and continuing through most of her closest friends and supporters in the court, including the duchess de Polignac and the princess de Lamballe.
The language is not as coarse as that of the Anandrine pamphlet. “[The duchess] was very pleasing in amorous diversions… the spirited and lustful Guémenée…was secure for a long time. There were continual tete-a-tetes. The sessions lasted for more than two hours. Antoinette’s eyes sparkled with the most passionate fire. The two women gave each other the lewdest caresses in public. … the excesses to which she surrendered herself with the tribades, her favorites … revolting acts of lewdness that she took pleasure in relishing with her own sex … Marie-Antoinette continued her hot caresses. Excited by the teasing of the royal finger, [she] was soon sharing her mistress’s rapture.”
Though the list includes both sexes, there are regular references to Marie Antoinette’s “taste for women…passion for [her own] sex…her natural inclination for women…”
Adultery was not the only point of the accusations. Her lovers were claimed to have influence over her decisions, to be given extravagant presents or the right to distribute favors or positions for profit. Women were said to use Marie-Antoinette’s bed as a means of gaining legal judgments and be granted pensions.
Pamphlets were not the only context for these claims. A comic opera of 1791 titled Le Branle de Capucins depicts Marie-Antoinette as sexually voracious with both sexes even while under house arrest by the revolutionary government.
The legacy of this queer sexualization of a powerful woman for the purpose of problematizing female power in general can be seen in the early 19th century rise in both France and England of the cult of female domesticity and the emphasis on female modesty and purity as a symbolic metric for the health of the state. Look at what politically powerful women become! See what they’re like! The state is only secure when women are properly chaste, modest, and motherly!
The Anandrine Sect Spreads
The use of realistic literary conventions in depictions of the Anandrine Sect, and the incorporation into those depictions of real women known to have sapphic inclinations meant that the Anandrine Sect as presented in L’espion Anglais was taken as factual by contemporary people, and was referenced by later writers as being an actual phenomenon. The term “Anandrine” as a synonym for “tribade” appears in the 1789 novel La Curieuse impertinente, where a convent is depicted as a branch of the Anandrine organization. In another 1789 novel, Les Chevalières errantes, ou les deux sosies femelles (The Female Knights-Errant or the Two Twin Girls), although the word Anandrine is not used, a close double of the Anandrine initiation ceremony from L’espion Anglais is depicted.
Was the Anandrine Sect Real?
This leaves us with the question: was the Anandrine Sect real? Was there an actual secret society of sapphic women in the 1770s in France that initiated young women with orgiastic rituals in a classical temple?
For me, the strongest argument against these being depictions of reality are the nature of the texts in which the sect is depicted. L’espion Anglais is very overtly pornography. The motif of a young woman confessing her journey into a sexual underworld was common, and understood as a literary technique. All references to an Anandrine Sect, by that name, trace back to that one source, though it in turn may have been inspired by the slightly earlier description of the “Lodge of Lesbos”. I’ve run across one modern historian who seems to take references to the Anandrine Sect at face value, but the majority opinion is that it was entirely fictitious.
But we can ask a different question as well: is the description of the Anandrine Sect plausible? There was definitely a tradition of secret societies in France in the 1770s. And groups such as the Freemasons did engage in formal initiation rituals using classical symbolism and imagery. There were certainly loose networks of women with sapphic interests who supported each other in finding partners. So if someone were to use a similar motif in a fictional setting, I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker.
A look at the motif of the 18th century French “Anandrine Sect” purported to be a lesbian sex club.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Not only did my reading get thrown for a loop this year, but I still have a bunch of reviews to write for things I finished in the past. This one is jumping the review queue because I just finished it and figured it was best to write something while fresh in my mind. I know, I know, I'm the one who made the rule about reviewing everything I read. But I know how important community reviews can be to a book, so I do my best.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian-based historic fantasy with casually queer relationships that felt very integrated into the cultural setting. The fantasy elements are drawn from Persian mythology and Zoroastrian motifs, backing up a coming of age story involving curses, family secrets, and the desperate ends to which loneliness will drive you. The writing style fits well into a YA classification, focusing on themes of self-knowledge and finding one's place in the world. The imagery is delicious and the characters all feel solid and well motivated. I'd love to say something more lyrical about the book, but I"m just coming out of my quarantine-driven reading slump, so "I picked up this book and read it all the way through and enjoyed it" is pretty high praise for the moment!
This is one of those books where it took some independent confirmation to clarify the queer content. (The blurb leads one to expect a m/f romantic thread.) Glad I didn't miss a lovely story because of the coyness of the publicity!