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Sunday, July 23, 2017 - 10:59

I picked up this collection after seeing mention of the author’s novel Mask of the Highwaywoman, and seeing that it had the original shorter version of the same story (since the novel isn’t yet available for iBooks). I’m always looking for lesbian historical fiction that reaches farther back than the 20th century. Magic and Romance doesn’t have a focused theme (other than lesbian protagonists) and only four of the eight stories fall in my historical/fantasy target interest. The other four (In Rhythm: A ballroom dancing romance, Is She?: An on-campus student rom-com, Reason to Stay: A teen romance, and Delicious: A New Year’s Eve tale of food and infatuation -- and, yes, the genre-descriptive subtitles are part of the story titles) are contemporary romance and I’ll confess that I skimmed them lightly.

Enthralled: A dark vampire hunter story follows the usual conventions of the modern erotic vampire vs. vampire hunter story, with the protagonist infiltrating the lair of a vampire queen to rescue the object of her affection. The story veers away from being a rescue-the-damsel adventure at the climax when the protagonist’s understanding of what’s going on is turned inside out. A dark and violent story for those who enjoy charging single-handedly into danger.

The Lady Edris and the Kingdom in a Cave: A tale inspired by Arthurian legends also turns the protagonist’s initial understanding upside down, but is more of a traditional quest-and-rescue-the-damsel scenario. Edris is on a quest to seek assistance against the plague in her homeland from the sorceress-queen of Northgales, their traditional enemy. But the queen has other ideas for the female knight who has penetrated her enchanted realm--ideas that involve the queen’s bed. A deep familiarity with the themes and tropes of Arthurian legend shines through, though the plot feels like the summary of a role-playing game, where the character passes through a sequence of tests and challenges to emerge victorious with the McGuffin and the girl.

Mask of the Highwaywoman: The short-story that became a novel is the story that led me to pick this up in the first place. The plot itself follows the usual formula for highwaywoman romance stories: our heroine’s coach is stopped by a masked highwayman (with or without accomplices) who betrays a brief sympathy or erotic interest in the heroine, but takes a piece of sentimental jewelry from her. The highwaywoman uses returning the jewelry as an excuse for another meeting in which sparks fly, and... Well, presumably what happens next is in the expanded version of the story.

The Black Hound: A romantic gothic horror distills down the platonic ideal of a gothic novel. Our impoverished heroine has come to a lonely, sinister mansion to be the companion of a tyrannical distant relative. On being warned not to wander the woods as night, of course she does so, and barely escapes an encounter with The Black Hound. Curses, nightmares, and supernatural events come to a head as our heroine takes comfort in the arms of her employer’s lady’s maid. A forced separation, another flight through the haunted woods with the hound in pursuit, and a bloody denouement that...well, that would be giving away whether this turns our to be gothic horror or gothic romance.

I liked the story premises and how they dodged around some of the usual formulas, but the writing style was often choppy and too reliant on short declarative sentences and long passages of dialogue. I’m always hoping for something a bit more lyrical. The impression of a choppy style also comes from the stories being broken up into short chapters (as short as 300-400 words), sometimes breaking in the middle of a scene. Murphy has the potential to turn out some very enjoyable historical and fantastic fiction with a bit more work on the technical side and I will probably try out the expanded version of Mask of the Highwaywoman to see if it’s addressed some of these weak spots.

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Monday, July 17, 2017 - 07:00

One of the regular challenges to understanding the history of lesbians, even in as defined a scope as Europe, is the accessibility of the literature--not just the languages of the primary sources, but the languages in which research is published. I will freely confess that my own access is largely limited to material published in English, though I can work my way through a German article if need be. This means that every once in a while, I can be surprised by the wealth of information covering a topic that falls outside the usual England-France-Italy focus of English language publications, when I've previously only seen bits and cross-references that hint at what's out there.

I knew of Sherry Velasco's work on Catalina de Erauso in popular culture, but only stumbled across this title by chance when searching for something else online. This is one reason why I hunt through bibliographies to see what other publications might be out there waiting for me. (And, of course, why I spend a lot of time in the book sales room at the annual Kalamazoo medieval studies conference.) If you have an image of early modern Spain--the era of the Inquisition and the Armada and Spanish dominance throughout much of Catholic Europe--as being an unlikely place to find lesbians, this books should open your eyes as it did mine.

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.

Representations of female homoeroticism in this era range from the publicly notorious, such as Catalina de Erauso and Queen Christina of Sweden [*], to those treated as criminal, as with Inés and Catalina Ledesma. That range of representations is the topic of this study.

[*] It may seem odd to treat Queen Christina of Sweden as relevant to a discussion of Spain, but she had strong ties to several Spanish individuals, especially in the context of her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, and was consequently a figure of interest there.

The historic texts under study here often focus on the presence or absence of specific acts. But the picture that emerges is not a simple “acts vs. identity” dichotomy, as Foucault would have it. Velasco chooses to use the word “lesbian” in this book, not only because of evidence for a concept of specific romantic/erotic interests, but because it is less anachronistic than “homosexual” or “homoerotic”. In 16th century France, Brantôme was using “lesbian” in a homoerotic sense, just as Chorier was in the 17th century. When playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote a play based on the life of Queen Christina, he named her lady in waiting “Lesbia” with a wink and nod to Christina’s reputation, and included a motif of proposed same-sex marriage. Velasco spends a couple of pages rehearsing the usual debate over terminology in books on this history of gender and sexuality, and points out the markedness with which only non-heterosexual concepts have their terminology hedged about and policed.

Within historic documents, the absence of mention of lesbian-related topics can itself suggest meaning, as when writers such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and María de Zayas omit mention of Sappho as a literary antecedent in contexts where such an omission is notable. The absence suggests the possibility that they were anxious about how their own same-sex relations with friends and mentors were viewed.

Even when the topic of lesbianism is danced around with vagueness, the texts being studied here have no lack of language to convey female homoerotic activities. Velasco list the following: somética (sodomite), bujarrona (female sodomite), cañita (little cane), donna con donna (woman with woman), marimacho (butch), medio hombre y mujer (half man-half woman), incuba (partner who lies on top), succuba (partner who lies underneath), subigatrice (dominator, one who bounces up and down), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wearing scoundrel), terms equivalent to “tribade”, “fricatrice”, “rubster”, “Sahacat” (originally from Arabic), “Lesbian”, as well as more allusive phrases such as amistades particulares (particular friendships), “fruitless love”, “love without reward”, “not the marrying type”, “like man and woman”, “[women] making themselves into roosters”, and so forth. One somewhat telling term was the Latin peccatum mutum “silent sin”, specifically highlighting the approach of erasure by un-naming.

Velasco’s work seeks to demonstrate that representations both of romantic and erotic love between women were visible and accessible to all types of women in early modern Spain. These works not only discussed specific acts, but assumed a “type” of woman who participated in them, whether in fictional works or real life. Early modern Spanish legal writers were considered to be the “experts” in Europe on female homoerotic activity. The evidence suggests that this expertise was not merely a theoretical exercise but existed within a culture with an open interest in the topic.

Examples of this interest can be seen in the 16th century novel La Celestina in which lesbian acts are seen as part of the initiation of a prostitute, works that include erotic encounters between women, such as the pastoral novel La Diana and the chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc, or the novellas of María de Zayas. Popular plays went beyond the erotic implications of cross-dressed women to include female homoerotic desire outside that context. And real life “celebrity” could be conferred by individuals who challenged categories of gender and sexuality, such as Catalina de Erauso “the Lieutenant Nun” and the physician Elena/Eleno de Céspedes who was charged with sodomy and bigamy after marrying while living as a man. Saint Teresa of Avila warned of the erotic potential of “particular friendships” in convents, and the truth of this concern can be found in correspondence between nuns as well as personal memoirs of convent life. Court records of prosecutions reflect a complex understanding of lesbian potentials that went beyond a simple division between legal and illegal acts.

Within all this, there is often an ignorance demonstrated by male writers of “what women can do together” apart from a vague understanding of mutual masturbation or an assumption of the imitation of heterosexual penetrative sex. It isn’t always clear whether this is genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of specifics to avoid “giving women ideas” (an avoidance that is sometimes explicit in penitential manuals). But clearly the absence of such detail shouldn’t be presumed to imply an absence of activity.

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the topics covered in the remaining chapters.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 12:00

Today I have a reader question from Andrei, who has kindly allowed me to answer in this blog:

I really enjoy your books. Lately I've been reading a history book on pre-Revolutionary France and it noted that the Christian message that was preached to the masses by the post-Reformation Catholic Church was one of a angry God, a God of vengeance and wrath that demanded penitence and misery. This sermon that Yves Michel Marchais delivered to his congregation in Western France in the 1780s is quite illustrative:

"The  joys,  the  pleasures,  the  happiness  of  life  are  always dangerous  and  almost  always  fatal;  the  games,  laughter,  and amusements  of  the  world  are  like  the  mark  of  damnation  and  are given  given  to  us  by  God  in  his  anger.  Whereas  tears  and suffering  are  the  signs  of  God's  pity  and  a  certain  promise  of salvation"

With that dully noted, how do characters like Margerit, Barbara, Antuniet and Serafina, who have studied theology (in depth, I presume) in order to work mysteries, reconcile their sexuality with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma? I'm asking because at this time in history, the religious climate seems to have been hostile to legitimate "earthly pleasures", let alone illegitimate ones.

I've stacked the deck for my answer a bit in the title I gave to this post. But the answer can be broken down into several questions:

1. To what extent do the positions of religious extremists affect the self-perception of devoutly religious persons?

2. Do views like the one quoted above reflect the general beliefs about worldly pleasures among the educated classes of the time?

3. Did women who loved women in the early 19th century consider that to be a qualitatively different moral problem than other possible moral lapses in their lives?

For the first, in every age we can find ascetic extremists who feel that suffering is the only moral good and that any sort of non-devotional pleasure (and sometimes even the devotional pleasures) is sinful. And in every age you will find lay people who take those views to heart and lay people who dismiss them. Consider that many of the philosophers that contributed to the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of humanism were Catholic and found no inherent contradiction in that. (Or, in some cases, resolved the contradiction by drifting away from a strong adherence to the religious hierarchy in favor of more general philosophical principles, such as the deists.) I think that if you take issues of sex (much less sexuality) out of the question and ask, "how did people who had studied theology in depth in a philosophical context reconcile the enjoyment of 'joys, pleasures, games, laughter, and amusements of the world' with their knowledge of church teaching and dogma?" I think the simplest answer is that, historically, obviously many of them did, though some could not. So I don't feel the need for special pleading with regard to my characters on that point.

In general, the extent to which extreme religious positions are taken to heart depends a lot on what other theological and philosophical arguments a person or a society can bring to bear in dialectic. And the extent to which people turn away from sensory pleasures to embrace asceticism often reflects the overall tenor of the times: whether people feel hopeful or fearful, optimistic or pessimistic. Pre-revolutionary France was obviously a time of great social unrest and hardship--if it hadn't been, there wouldn't have been a revolution. Some of those factors were specific to the political and social situation in France. Consider also that the church was, to some extent, viewed as part of those hardships, not necessarily as a solace for them. Alpennia is hardly a social or political paradise, but it didn't experience the specific forces and conditions that led to revolution in France in the later 18th century. And therefore the specific religious undercurrents present in France don't necessarily apply either.

Moving on to the more specific topic of moral attitudes towards sex and sexuality, it's important to keep in mind that different ages have different frameworks for thinking about these things. In the specific case of lesbian sexuality, there have been many eras in western history when the dividing line between what counted as non-sexual acts of affection and love and what counted as sexual acts have been drawn in very different places. There's a long history of theological positions that only penetrative sex counts as "fornication" (as well as a long history of contrary arguments, it must be admitted). So it's not only possible, but fairly certain, that many pre-modern women enjoyed what we would consider a sexual relationship without themselves considering what they were enjoying to be "sex" in the context of moral prohibiltions.

I did include one interaction between Margerit and one of the nuns at Saint Orisule's convent where it's clear that the nun specifically disapproves of the nature of Margerit and Barbara's relationship. And Margerit's answer to her is that she considers the love she has with Barbara to be the best means she knows by which she can understand God's love. It isn't necessarily a solid theological argument in the specific form presented, but it does have roots in historic theology regarding the divide between praiseworthy and suspect forms of affection between unmarried individuals (regardless of gender). As a scholar, she would have more access to those arguments than an average person would, so it makes sense that she might bring them to bear on a relationship that she very much wants to feel good about.

Social disapproval of women's romantic relationships in the 18-19th centuries in western Europe more often focused on whether those relationships interfered with women's availability for marriage, rather than on the question of the nature of their physical relationship. Another aspect of disapproval focused on whether a woman appeared to be claiming a masculine role, either in society in general, or specifically in the context of the relationship. Both of these concerns are reasons why Margerit and Barbara experience social disapproval without anyone involved necessarily bringing sexual activity into the question. They accept that there are those who consider their close friendship suspect on the grounds of proper gender roles in society, but that holds true as well for their interest in women's education and for Barbara's eager participation in politics in her own name (rather than marrying and handing off the political duties to a husband). They wouldn't necessarily extrapolate that social disapproval to moral self-doubt.

For another example, consider Antuniet's attitude toward her two different types of sexual experience: the incident in Heidelberg when she traded sex to a man for protection and assistance, and her sexual relationship with Jeanne. It should be clear that she views the first as a moral failing, but her concerns about the second are much more to do with emotional insecurity and her precarious social position at the time of their courtship. Having sex once with Gustaf made her a "fallen woman", having an ongoing sexual relationship with Jeanne makes her an "eccentric".

And as an overall consideration, all of my central characters are living lives of comfort and pleasure, within the scope of their individual means. In the case of Margerit and Barbara, those means are considerable and they enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. If their theological studies led them to question the pursuit of earthly pleasures, there would be a lot more of those pleasures to consider rejecting than just the erotic ones.

Now, as it happens, Margerit is due for something of a crisis of faith in the aftermath of the events in Floodtide (the book I'm currently writing), as well as certain other events. That crisis won't be specifically about her sexuality, but her general uncertainty about whether she's chosen the right paths in life will probably end up touching on that aspect as well. So stay tuned to see how she works through that crisis and what her conclusions are about living a moral and ethical life that includes both magic and the pleasures of the flesh.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, July 10, 2017 - 07:00

Velasco takes a deep look at how the historical facts of a specific individual are interpreted and rearranged to suit the entertainment and didactic purposes of later ages. From that angle, this book is strongly aligned with the underlying purpose of the LHMP: to consider how history can be used as a basis for fiction, without the fiction being constrained entirely by the history. This book is also a great example of how a focus on only the texts, histories, and creative works that are available in English can distort our picture, not only of what history was like, but of the rich tradition of interpretation of historical stories.

Fortunately for those of us who are primarily constrained to English language sources, Velasco has written another book on the subject of lesbian sexuality in early modern Spain, which we'll be tackling in the next several weeks.

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2000. The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire and Catalina de Erauso. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-78746-4

Publication summary: 

A study of how the story of Catalina de Erauso was interpreted and used in popular culture during the 17-20th centuries.


This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.

The book looks at the larger context of transgender narratives, and how private (real-life) experiences got turned into public spectacles that reflect cultural anxieties of the era doing the interpretation. Chapter 1 looks at the early modern Spanish context of lesbians, gender ambiguity, and crossdressing in life and art. All this fed into how Catalina’s story was constructed, and how that story in turn fed back into the cultural context. Chapter 2 considers the politics of Catalina’s life in Spain and the New World through the different versions offered in the early 17th century legal records, witness accounts, letters, popular news publications, and her memoir, as well as later renderings of her life in novels and on stage. In particular, 17th century versions framed Catalina as a lesbian, while later interpretations began to erase that aspect.  The historic context allowed Catalina to simultaneously be a heroic virgin hero and a killer lesbian. Her desire for women enabled approval for her transgender performance, simultaneously framing her as virtuously non-heterosexually active, but excluding her from acceptable models for female behavior.

In chapter 3 we see how Catalina figures in 19th century works as a character in Spanish and Mexican novels and theatrical works, including an operetta. But lesbianism was no longer considered harmlessly eccentric, so her character was either pushed to demonization as a lesbian, or reconstructed as hetersexual or asexual. This parallels a general cultural shift to demonized lesbian sexuality. One anonymous Mexican novel is an exception in presenting her lesbianism as erotic entertainment. Chapter 4 concerns 20th century interpretations that “re-lesbianize” Catalina. For example, three films dating from 1944 to 1987 show shifting portrayals of her sexuality and the attitude toward it. Mid-20th century prose works leaned toward various takes on a transgender framing, based on her desire for women. Versions of her life in sequential comics focus on historic or action-adventure takes, but often overtly show her rejecting queer encounters.


The book begins with a summary of the facts of Catalina de Erauso’s life. She lived in the early 17th century, born to a Basque noble family, and ran away from the convent where she was being “warehoused” at age 15 before taking vows. She passed as a man and went adventuring in the Spanish colonies in the New World where she lived a violent and unsettled life. She returned to Spain after revealing her physical sex and received a pension from the Spanish king as well as dispensation from the Pope to continue cross-dressing. She later returned to the New World and spent 20 years in Mexico as a mule-driver until her death.

In addition to later transcriptions of her autobiography, her life is recorded in letters, legal records, and testimony relating to her status and return to Spain. There is a detailed discussion of the textual transmission and editions of her memoir. Velasco considers the question of whether the sensational news accounts fed into the more sensational variants of her biography, or whether they simply reflected the “true” story, while the tamer variants were deliberately toned down. There is also a question whether Catalina counts as a “woman writer” of the era, due to questions regarding whether she was the author of her memoir or whether it was ghostwritten.

The translation by Steptoe and Steptoe (1996), although not the first rendering into English, brought Catalina’s story to the attention of Anglophone queer studies scholars and sparked conflicts over how Catalina’s gender should be understood and presented. For example, one scholar chose to alternate randomly between feminine and masculine pronouns in writing of Catalina in order to reject privileging either approach or associating gender with specific actions or contexts. Other authors have alternated based on context and presentation, or follow Leslie Feinberg’s example in referring to Catalina a “s/he” (a style that is now deprecated).

The early manuscripts themselves provide no clear guidance on the issue, rendering the adjectives Catalina uses to describe herself in both masculine and feminine grammatical forms. Different manuscripts distribute them differently but, for example, there is a tendency for masculine forms to be used in passages about courtship, flirtation, and romance as well as martial contexts, while feminine forms appear in neutral or unmarked contexts. Velasco sets out her reason for using feminine pronouns in the book: because it is studying the literary/cultural figure, not the real life historic individual, and that cultural figure is clearly understood to be a woman in male disguise. In trying to assess Catalina’s own position, it can’t be ignored that gender presentation had massive social and economic consequences. As a woman, Catalina had no option but life as a nun. As a man, Catalina had physical freedom, could travel, earn money, have adventures, and have as much control over her life as anyone of her class and context could. The only means Catalina knew of to be “not a nun” was to be a man.

In popular culture, Catalina has consistently been used to reflect the readers/viewer’s concerns: a transgender activist, a Basque patriot, a heroic colonial soldier, an adventurous lesbian. Velasco discusses the cultural contexts that drive each of these. Transgender narratives destabilize the idea of fixed categories, but also can be used to enforce gender difference. The introduction of Catalina’s romantic/erotic encounters with women can provide the reader or viewer with titillation while preserving the forms of heteronormativity. (Popular culture, alas, rarely allows a context for a same-sex romantic/erotic resolution.)

Chapter 1: Hybrid Spectacles

Catalina’s memoir includes a number of episodes with romantic and erotic encounters with women that remain short of any activity that would reveal her body. 16-17th century Spanish records (like everywhere else) have fewer examples of genital contact between women than between men but there is a long record on the topic in legal, religious, and philosophical discussion. Spain had a reputation for being the “specialists” in legal concerns about lesbianism. For example, a 1556 version of Las Siete Partidas argued that sodomy laws applied to women as well as men.

Velasco reviews all the usual arguments for and against using the word “lesbian” in discussing historic persons and activities. She chooses to use the terms “lesbian” and “transgender” to the extent that they can be associated with early modern frameworks. But she notes that Brantôme used the word “lesbian” in the 16th century for women who had sex with women, so supposed concerns about anachronism are overblown.

Sex between women in the early modern period was considered less sinful than heterosexual fornication, due to the presumed lack of penetration. In general, women’s sexual activities were not viewed as threatening in and of themselves. Velasco offers a survey of early modern Spanish depictions of female homoeroticism in literature, theater, songs, and pornography.

Within limits, female masculinity could be considered admirable, as masculinity was more highly valued. Studies of “hermaphrodites” considered it possible for spontaneous female-to-male transformation, but not the reverse, as nature would only spontaneously “improve” a body. 

Neo-platonic love between women could be framed admirably even when a “masculine” woman was involved. But this was only because love between women could be considered “chaste”. In this context, Velasco presents an extensive discussion of same-sex love and “masculine” women in Alvaro Cubillo de Aragón’s play Añasco el de Talavera.

Female cross-dressers on the stage from the 16th century onward were always associated with at least the implication of female same-sex desire. Scholars differ on whether it was felt one must “be” a man to experience desire for women, or if the performance of masculinity made expression of desire between women more acceptable. Theatrical performances may have inspired some real-life “masculine women”.

Legal records suggest that the boundary of tolerance for female same-sex activity was the use of an instrument for penetration. But see also the Italian case of Benedetta Carlini where no instrument was involved. There is ample evidence for concern about same-sex love in convents. See also the case of Elena/Eleno de Céspedes.

These complex attitudes toward lesbian desire, cross-dressing, and masculine women help explain the variety of responses to Catalina de Erauso. Catalina allowed patriarchal authorities to define and control her identity after her revelation, and emphasized both her virginal status and the absence of penetrative or genital activities with women. She also allowed or encouraged interpretation of her life as a “spectacle”. This brought her life within the general fascination for “hybrid monsters”, including the concept of hermaphroditism and “monstrosity” in general. In the context of monstrosity, there were theories that “manly women” were a type of birth defect, a consequence of some prenatal experience by their mother. Other theories interpreted physiological ambiguity (which modern medicine would likely see as intersex conditions or hormonal issues) in terms of humoral imbalances.

The image of the warrior woman is found in an extensive tradition of women cross-dressing for military service, both in real life and in popular culture. These often explore the potential for same-sex romantic consequences. Cross-dressing on stage prompted censure from moralists and sometimes even official sanction. Stage presentations featured sexualization of cross-dressed women for the male gaze, especially as it revealed body parts (e.g., legs) typically concealed in that era.

Chapter 2: Celebrity and Scandal

This chapter looks at the symbolic use of Catalina in popular culture, as opposed to the true facts of her life. There were four general aspects to her image: criminal, lesbian, virgin, and hero. These are reflected with different emphasis in contemporary records, in sensational news pamphlets, in her memoir, and in later dramatic renderings. Of the four aspects, the lesbian theme undergoes the greatest change over the course of the 17th century.

The image of the hero is more relevant in her petitions for recognition and a pension, but also in her request to be allowed to continue to cross-dress. These focus on her vocation as a “defender of the faith and the Spanish crown.” The bare details of Catalina’s memoir are more aligned with the image of the criminal than the hero. The memoir could be compared to the genre of picaresque novel and other autobiographies of soldiers in the New World, with a focus on violent altercations and criminality, or at least episodic violence.

The lesbian element is most prominent in Juan Pérez de Montalbán’s 1626 play La Monja Alférez and in a letter from the bishop of Guamanga (to whom Catalina first told her story) that cites her attraction to other women. In two of the relaciones (tabloid new publications), her lesbianism is linked overtly to criminality. They emphasize how jealousy of her brother over a woman they both associated with led to his death. Catalina had three brushes with marriage that included flirtation and erotic activity though they are, in the end, more about exploitation than desire. In a third relacion, detailing an incident positioned well after the end of Catalina’s memoir, she falls in love with a young woman that she is escorting on a trip, but when the woman marries a man, despite Catalina’s persuasions, Catalina is violently jealous such that the new husband forbids her from visiting. Note that in this (almost certainly fictional) relacion Catalina’s sex is known openly at this point in the story. Various texts of Catalina’s life include episodes of affection shown to nuns (e.g., in Peru when she was waiting for the results of the inquiry into her status vis-a-vis final vows). These are presented in a positive light and framed as non-erotic, but in several later (20th century) dramatizations, this affection is portrayed as clearly sexual.

Velasco takes a close look at the portrayal of Catalina in de Montalbán’s play, which was first performed in 1626 at the height of her initial notoriety. The immediacy of the events meant de Montalbán was not entirely free to fictionalize Catalina’s life. He depicts her as very masculine but as a sympathetic figure, sacrificing her own interests to benefit her female love interest. De Montalbán’s audience was familiar with cross-dressing female stage roles. His work does not have a tragic ending but can’t be considered “happily ever after” as Catalina’s beloved ends up with a man. The play doesn’t focus on Catalina’s initial decision and transformation, but only on the “after” period. And in contrast to the lack of concern about discovery in Catalina’s memoir, de Montalbán’s character regularly denies challenges to her gender presentation. The play associates military performance with masculinity. The central plot is Catalina’s love for Ana (the love interest) and how Catalina tries to protect and secure Ana’s reputation after her honor is impugned. Although Catalina is portrayed as violent and impulsive, it’s always in a justifiable cause. Her erotic desire is framed as being in vain, and therefore non-threatening.

Though overt homoeroticism is absent from much of the documentary evidence, it was an inevitable implication of Catalina’s cross-dresing in the context of 17th century Spanish drama. Some modern analysis interprets Catalina’s homoerotic actions as a deliberate part of her male persona. However one interprets Catalina’s motivations, she is never portrayed as desiring or flirting with men.

Perhaps one of the more surprising depictions of Catalina is as “orthodox virgin”. Connections can be made with the “transvestite saint” motif of early Christian women who cross-dressed to preserve chastity and to prove religious devotion. One account of Catalina’s life by Fray Diego de Rosales does its best to portray her as driven by religious motivations. This included many outright inventions regarding her behavior and habits in order to make her conform to the image. At least one of the relaciones also created an image of devotion, especially at the end of Catalina’s life. Catalina’s “proof of virginity” is taken as balancing out her other transgressions.

Velasco discusses the complex image of the “hybrid spectacle” with a emphasis on the contrast of “lieutenant” and “nun” in Catalina’s nickname. Her story was treated as interesting specifically for this sensational aspect. De Montalbán’s character explicitly complains about being treated as a freak show and there is a semi-comical episode in the play when she is induced to wear a hybrid costume to meet an official, with themes of the restrictiveness of female fashion and her unfamiliarity with it. Catalina’s memoir also depicts her negative responses to celebrity.

Chapter 3: Melodrama and Reconstruction

Catalina’s story was not given much attention in the 18th century except for the transcription of her autobiography in the later part of the century. There was a revived interest in her (in part due to that transcription) in the 19th century, as an asexual or heterosexual figure. Catalina was seen as a cautionary tale, not a source of entertainment, that showed what happens when women are not educated in proper behavior. Ferrer’s publication of her memoir in Paris may have contributed in part to the stock image of the “exotic” aggressive transvestite lesbian in French literature.

The Romantic movement’s appreciation for spontaneity and adventure latched onto those aspects of Catalina’s life. But this sympathy required erasure of the sexual aspects of her story. Romantic renderings depict her as embarrassed by women’s erotic interest in her and compare her to Jeanne d’Arc. In contrast, Carlos Coello’s 1866 play of her life depicts Catalina as a sinister and savage animal, but desexualizes her and then redeems her by a heterosexual adaptation of the love triangle set up in de Montalbán’s play. Juan A. Mateo’s 1877 play La Monja Alférez largely abandons any previous version to create a Romantic heroine. Here she escapes the convent in pursuit of a man’s affections. The conflict is around her jealousy of the man’s intended marriage to another, which Catalina interferes with in male disguise.

An anonymous Mexican version of Catalina’s story in the 19th century works more from the original texts. She is coached on how to perform masculinity by a male friend, including the seduction of women as part of that performance. But these are framed specifically as disguise performances, and Catalina shows by interior monologue how conflicted she is about the whole masquerade. Once her physical sex is revealed, she is able to express true (but chaste) affection for a woman. Here the presumed impossibility of love between women is a shield for its expression.

A late 19th century Spanish historical novel based on Catalina’s life depicts her homoeroticism as pure disguise and the author overtly undermines the possibility of genuine lesbian desire.

Chapter 4: From Cinema to Comics

20th century media reintroduced a lesbian framing for Catalina’s life, but the specific portrayal depends on the media. In 1940s movies she was depicted as a heterosexual femme fatale, while 1980s movies took a lesbian approach ranging from tragic to hopeful. Text and visual media in the 20th century that were aimed at a younger female audience downplayed the same-sex attraction, while works aimed at older audiences were variable. Overall, most 20th century interpretations marketed Catalina as a “transvestite spectacle.”

Film versions tended to highlight the actress’s attributes, not those of the historic Catalina. The marketing of a sexualized masculine woman for the male gaze evokes the early modern sex appeal of cross-dressed actresses appearing on stage in form-fitting and revealing clothing. The actress María Félix (who starred in a 1944 film) adopted the clothing styles she wore for the role in everyday life afterward.

One consequence of this approach (of highlighting the traditionally feminine appearance of the actress) is that the movie viewer is never in doubt of the character’s underlying sex, even though the other characters are fooled. Comparisons are made with the Spanish obsession with the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden, who cross-dressed and was almost certainly bisexual. Greta Garbo’s 1933 portrayal of Queen Christina was likely a major stylistic influence on the 1944 film about Catalina. Velasco discusses the differential treatment of male and female cross-dressing in cinema. Male cross-dressing is an occasion for laughter, female cross-dressing is an occasion for (male) desire.

In mid-century fascist Spain, Catalina was used as a model of female heroism for indoctrinating girls, somewhat in contradiction to the domestic ideal it purported to encourage. But this purpose required focusing on (masculine) bravery and erasing homoerotic implications. In addition to erasing issues of sexuality, fascist Spain also erased Catalina’s Basque identity and Basque nationalism, which played a major role in her memoir.

A Mexican graphic novel of 1991 presents homoerotic scenes in Catalina’s life as an unexpected and unwelcome consequence of her disguise. Operating in an entirely different context were works aimed squarely at the pornography market, such as two Chilean historical novels (of 1938 and 1972) that manipulate Catalina as an erotic spectacle in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts.

In post-Franco Spain, adaptation of Catalina’s story returned to the image of a lesbian military hero, for example in a theatrical version performed in 1993. It depicts Catalina’s erotic encounters with women as representing genuine desire, but the context is presenting a spectacle for the audience. This approach didn’t necessarily result in a postive portrayal, as in a 1986 Spanish film where Catalina comes to accept her desire for women, but is prevented from enjoying it.

Catalina’s life is treated overtly as a transgender/lesbian figure in the 1987 film She Must be Seeing Things, about two modern women obsessed with Catalina’s life.


Velasco concludes with a discussion of the popular reception of various of the works discussed and a summary of her thesis statements.

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - 08:00

There is an expression—a phrase, an image, a verbal trope—that I am trying to eliminate from my critical writing: “Does not disappoint.” When I think about it, I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to identify it as something I wanted to stop using, because I’d already examined a different model of the underlying issue from another angle and identified what it was that would eventually start bothering me about “does not disappoint.”

Here’s the thing. If I’m talking about a property (a book a movie, a meal, a performance) and describe an expectation I have for it, and then—having consumed the property—I observe that it “does not disappoint,” it seems to me that I’ve rejected the possibility of being surprised by joy. I’ve set the standard of my base-level neutral experience and determined that the property hasn’t fallen below that base level. It’s as if I’ve set up a job performance rating scale with only two options: “disappoints” and “does not disappoint”. Or, that if the rating scale includes “exceeds expectations,” I’m indicating that the experience didn’t exceed them.

And I don’t think that’s what I ever intended to convey when I used the expression. I don’t honestly believe that it’s what anyone else ever intends to convey when they use the expression. And yet, having seen it from that angle, it’s very difficult not to feel the gut-punch of, “So is that all I managed? I succeeded in not disappointing you?”

And here’s why I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to come to this point. Once upon a time, there was a couple in my social circle whom I’d had a chance to observe over an extended relationship arc. I listened to how Partner A talked about their expectations and interactions with Partner B, and it seemed to me that Partner A was operating on “disappoints/does not disappoint” performance rating. That—based on how their interactions were framed—the most that Partner B could hope to achieve was “does not disappoint.” It struck me as tragic. I felt strongly enough about it at the time that I spoke to Person A about my perception, no doubt being marked down as an obnoxious busybody as a result. And A and B are still together more than a decade later, so perhaps my perception was out of line. I don’t know.

But that’s why I’ve been trying to eliminate that phrase, in any of its forms. Because I want everything I consume to be allowed the possibility of surprising me with joy, not just failing to disappoint me.

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Monday, July 3, 2017 - 07:00

In 16-17th century Spain, a fictional genre emerged called the "picaresque novel". It features the adventures of a roguish protagonist, generally of low social class, who lives by his wits in the midst of a corrupt or dystopian scoiety. These works are generally written in the form of an autobiographical narrative and are episodic in nature, featuring neither an over-arching plot nor significant change or development of the protagonist as a character.

One might be forgiven for considering the memoir of Catalina de Erauso, the "Lieutenant Nun" (Monja Alférez) as being suspiciously faithful to this fictional genre, and it isn't impossible that the flavor of her narrative was shaped by those literary expectations. But there is plentiful corroborating evidence for the truth of de Erauso's story, in its basic facts. And those basic facts present a fascinating picture of the ways in which a woman might escape the expectations for her life, as well as the practical realities and possibilities for gender disguise and performance.

One of the interesting features of her story is that there is no indication that she had any practical instruction in martial activites or masculine professions, and yet there never seems to have been any question of her relative success in performing them, nor does casual discovery of her physiological sex seem to have been an issue. However one views Catalina's life from a modern understanding of gender and sexuality, these practical aspects are of immense interest to writers who wish to tackle the practicalities of a passing or transgender protagonist.

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Full citation: 

Stepto, Michele & Gabriel Stepto (translators). Catalina de Erauso. Lieutenant Nun -- Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8070-7073-4

Publication summary: 

A translation, with commentary, of the memoirs of a 17th century Basque woman who lived and adventured as a man in the Spanish colonies in South America.

[Note: within the context of current frameworks of gender and sexuality, there are equally strong cases for viewing de Erauso as a transgender man, or as a “passing woman” who used male disguise for the purpose of gaining economic and social independence, and who may have enjoyed erotic desires for women apart from performing heterosexuality as part of that disguise. There is an equally strong case to be made for considering both framings to be anachronistically meaningless in the context of early 17th century Spain. This topic is directly discussed in the book, however as the author defaults to referring to “Catalina” and using female pronouns, I will follow this usage in my summary.]


This is a translation and discussion of the (possibly ghost-written) autobiography of a 17th century Basque named Catalina de Erauso who escaped a convent prior to taking final vows, and began living as a man, using various names at different times: Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and--in later life after this history was made public--Antonio de Erauso. De Erauso, like many contemporaries, traveled to the Spanish colonial territories in South America and made a violent and turbulent living in a variety of military and civilian professions.

Many things can be read into Catalina’s story, which presents itself as a strict autobiography, though certainly ghost-written and probably embellished to follow contemporary narrative conventions. Certain events are too conveniently symbolic for literal truth (such as time-periods that can be seen as having biblical significance). At heart, this is a story of re-making the self, at a time when performance became the self rather than being “costume”. Catalina’s adoption of male clothing and a male profession was not simple masquerade, regardless of how she may have viewed her own gender.

The book’s introduction has a long discussion of the European social context in the 16th century and later of cross-dressing, both in theatrical performance and erotic play. Within the narrative itself, Catalina expresses little concern regarding casual disclosure of her physiological sex--including during extensive imprisonments and even when undergoing torture or medical treatment. Her concern for disclosure centers only around recognition by family members and people who knew her before she left the convent.

The first-person narrative does not clearly reveal any personal sexual desire (though, to be fair, it doesn’t involve much emotional introspection at all), but only anxiety about situations in which someone might expect her to perform desire. She evades the marriage plans of several women, but conversely expresses no erotic interest in her male companions. When her story is eventually made public, she requests medical examination and a great deal is made of the judgement that she is an “intact virgin”.

The fascination of society with examples such as Catalina indicate a “category crisis” that typically reflects greater social anxiety about categories. And Catalina’s avoidance of marriage is not strictly focused on issues of gender and desire, but is complicated by her attitudes toward race and class (e.g., rejecting the marriage proposal of a mixed-race woman using negative racialized language regarding the woman’s appearance). Attempts to adopt Catalina as some sort of progressive social radical must founder on the undeniable degree to which she participated in and benefitted from Spanish colonialist structures. An interesting related feature is the degree to which Catalina’s most crucial identity is her Basque origin, and she regularly evokes this to make common cause with other Basque individuals in South America to receive preferential treatment or to escape legal consequences.

One of the genres in which Catalina’s story must be positioned is that of “New World marvels." Another is that of “female soldiers”, who were sometimes given dispensation for gender transgression when their motivations could be framed as patriotic. In addition to this, Catalina can be seen as something of a pop culture celebrity, who was able to trade on being an entertaining “spectacle”.


The text is presented as a “confession narrative” and therefore had specific functional purposes. Catalina made contradictory claims for herself to escape the consequences of her various actions, alternately identifying herself with the nobility, as a heretic and, on her eventual revelation, as a chaste virgin. The confession served its purpose, gaining her not only immediate physical safety, but eventually a pension from the Spanish crown, and later a dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing.

Catalina was born (most likely) in 1585) to a prosperous Basque family during the height of Spain’s conquest in the Americas. All four of her brothers became soldiers in the New World (and ended their days there). In contrast, the five de Erauso daughters were all sent to a convent for education and to protect their chastity, of which only one left the convent to marry, three lived out their lives in the convent, and Catalina escaped by more dramatic means. She describes how she remade her female clothing into a suit of male clothes, cut her hair short, and walked to the next town, where she presented herself in a changing series of roles until she eventually took ship for the New World as a ship’s boy. During this intial stage, she regularly interacted with people who were either blood relatives (the captain of the ship she traveled on was an uncle) or associates of her family. These interactions may have been part of the motivation for going overseas, but at this time becoming part of the colonial expansion was the easiest means for any young Spanish man to expand his horizons and seek a fortune.

On arriving in the New World in 1603, Catalina stole some of the silver her uncle was receiving for transport back to Spain and set out for adventure. Criminal activity (including targeting unwitting relatives or employers) was a common feature of her exploits, with the violent consequences of a hot temper being another regular feature.

At this time, Spain’s conquest of Peru and surrounding areas was solidly established and normalized. This wasn’t a frontier war zone, but a thriving colony, based on the coerced labor of the native population. At the same time, Spanish newcomers could expect wealth and status far above what was available back home. The resulting instability was a problem to manage, and newer arrivals who had no solid stake in the colonial strucure yet were often sent off on expeditions to subdue the frontiers. Some succeeded in becoming part of the very profitable colonial structure, others (in which category Catalina falls) led a boom-and-bust existence where short term gains were lost to robbers, rivals, or legal penalties.

Catalina spent 20 years as an itinerant soldier, mercantile agent, gambler, and troublemaker. And then, perhaps tired of the struggle to manage the consequences of her activities, she revealed her secret to a bishop and became something of a sensation. She spent three years in a Peruvian convent while her story was investigated. When it was confirmed that she had never taken final vows as a nun in Spain (if she'd taken final vows, she would have been held to them), she was released and returned to Spain. In 1625, she petitioned the Spanish king for a pension, essentially for being a celebrity, and indicated a desire to return to Peru. During this same period, she wrote or dictated her story, framing it in the tradition of the picaresque novel. Eventually, she traveled to Rome and received dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing. In 1630, she allowed her relatives to buy out her share of the familial estate and returned to Peru. There are later records of her living as a merchant and mule driver in Mexico (in 1639) using the name Antonio de Erauso and being referred to as one of several “brothers” of the de Erauso family. There is also an account dicated in 1693 by a man who met her in 1645 in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Her death is less directly documented, but is placed in 1650 near Vera Cruz.

Catalina’s story revolves primarily around action, travel, and detailed recitations of names and facts. It is not particularly introspective and makes no attempt at presenting her in a consistently heroic light, nor is there any imposition of an overall narrative plot.

Translator’s Note

The manuscript of Catalina’s story was copied some time in the 18th century and then re-copied with the names Hispanicized in 1784. This later version, with the Basque forms of the names restored, was printed in Paris in 1829. Neither the original, nor the first copy are known to still exist. The present translation is based on the 1784 version.

Given that the narrative is in the first person, the narrator’s presentation of gender is largely revealed in the grammatical inflections of adjectives. This aspect is, of course, lost in the English translation. Catalina  uses both masculine and feminine grammatical forms for herself in the text, but not entirely randomly. In the majority of contexts--and especially when discussing martial matters--masculine forms are used, while feminine forms more typically appear in more reflective or neutral contexts.

The Text

After all the above discussion, my ambition fails at giving an overview summary of the text itself. The basic outline of Catalina’s life, as contained in the work, is decribed above. The rest is a random and episodic account of the details. I encourage those who are interested in the specifics to pick up a copy. It’s relatively short and quite readable.

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Monday, July 3, 2017 - 06:45

I've done the random drawing for the bonus book for Storybundle buyers. The lucky winners are: Louvelune, Kareina, LG, Andrea, and Abigail. I'll be contacting you by e-mail to confirm book and format for fulfillment. Thanks to everyone who partcipated, and to all the Storybundle buyers in general!

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Friday, June 30, 2017 - 08:48

So here's the deal: we sold over 1000 Storybundle packages (in fact, over 1000 at the bonus level). To celebrate and thank the buyers for their support, I'm going to give away five (5) Alpennia e-books to randomly-selected bundle purchasers who comment on this post. If The Mystic Marriage (in the bundle) is your first introduction to Alpennia, I'd strongly suggest you try book #1 in the series (Daughter of Mystery). If you already have that, then try book #3 (Mother of Souls).

This offer will run through the end of the weekend (i.e., until I wake up on Monday July 3) at which time I'll do the drawing and contact people.

This is limited Storybundle purchasers, but that's entirely on your honor. (Obvious spam will be excluded, so some sort of content in the comment that makes it clear you aren't a spammer will help.)

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 15:36

Yeah, it's been a while since I've done a writing progress update, isn't it? I confess I've gotten a little knocked off the tracks with respect to blogging in the past month and I keep reminding myself that one of my New Year's Irresolutions was not to beat myself up about that. (Poor Abiel LaForge is sitting there on the front lines waiting for the war to end.) So where are we...?

Looking at my revised chapter outline, I have two and a half chapters to go to complete my zeroeth draft of Floodtide. "Zeroeth draft" because there are still a bunch of placeholders and "expand this"s and "this needs to get moved elsewhere"s. But in two and a half chapters, I'll have written through to the end of the book. That's something.

When people ask me about my writing process, my usual response is, "I'll let you know when I've used the same one twice." And Floodtide is no exception. None of my previous first drafts were quite this chaotic, in part because I've usually broken my rule about "no re-writing until I'm done writing." For the two previous books, having a complete draft felt like I could predict fairly solidly how soon I'd be ready to present the manuscript to my publisher. This time, I haven't even sent off a formal proposal letter yet because I have no good estimate of how long it's going to take me to whip the story into shape.

Part of that is because I plan to go out and hire myself a developmental editor who knows something about what a good YA fantasy should look like to help me make Floodtide the best book it can be. And I don't know how long that process will take, either finding the right person or working through the revisions with them. It's a bit of an unsettled feeling, but since I want Floodtide to be a book that can be an independent introduction to Alpennia, I figure it's worth taking the time.

(Oh, and the river isn't actually still rising at this point. The waters have started to recede. But not the troubles.)

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, June 26, 2017 - 07:00

This month I’m getting my fill of a particular sort of academic study that brings together parallel examinations of several related subjects (or persons) to build a layered case for the author’s conclusions. There is often a tendency to throw in a section of random leftover topics somewhere toward the end. This sounds a bit more negative than I mean it to feel -- academic writing has some rules and structures that are quite different from a more popular approach to historic topics. But it can make it hard to recommend books like this to a general reader. And yet, if you are planning to set a piece of historic fiction in western Europe in the 17-19th centuries, you can find a wealth of intellectual background and social understandings and expectations in works like DeJean, Andreadis, and Vanita. This applies in particular if you mean to set your fiction in intellectual or literary circles.

This book, in a way, continues on from Andreadis’ examination of English uses of Sappho in the 17-18th centuries, focusing on similar topics and treatments during the Romantic and Victorian eras, but with a slightly broader focus on how Sappho (and the Virgin Mary) inspired considerations and understandings of non-normative sexuality in general, not just female homoeroticism.

And with this entry, I conclude my Pride Month Special focusing on topics relating to Sappho. Maybe I should start planning now for another special topic for next year's Pride Month. (Though, to some extent, for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, every month is Pride Month!) Do you have any suggestions for next year's focus?

I'd also like to add a teaser that the podcast sister-project (The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast) will be expanding in format in August, with additional content beyond my historic essays. Stay tuned for more details!

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Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 1996. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-10551-7

Publication summary: 

A study of 19th century English writers working on homoerotic themes, with attention to how Sappho and the Virgin Mary feature as alternative models of female bonds and women’s creativity.

Introduction: Imagined Ancestries

Vanita was inspired by looking at Virginia Woolf as a Sapphic writer in the contexts of the Aestheticists and Romantics to challenge the idea that Sapphic writers were isolated from mainstream literary traditions. [Note: This beginning point explains why such a significant amount of the later part of the book focuses on Woolf and her contemporaries.] She looks at love between women as a literary force for both female and male writers, in contradiction to post-Freudian views of writers as operating in a phallocentric universe. These forces manifest in several ways: women’s search for non-biological ancestry (and descent) as creators, an erotic aesthetic focused on joy rather than reproduction, and love between women in literary and mythological ancestors.

The Marian model of relationships between women focuses on a mother-daughter dynamic of nurturence and mentorship, while the Sapphic model focuses on a passionate dialog between women. Both involve female communities and the models are not exclusive. The models considered here are not specifically about sexuality, but do center on erotic and affective preferences. Vanita is less concerned with issues of class than gender and sexuality, considering class to be less stable.

Romanticism was concerned with a search for alternate non-biological forms of family and community--a search for intellectual and spiritual ancestors in contrast to society’s primacy of biological ancestry. Affective relationships show an overlap between the “mentor” and the “crush”. Non-biological kindred are linked to relationships between women by pinning immortality on textual survival, not on the production of children.

Victorian radical and feminist networks included important alliances of homosexually-inclined men and women, and these networks are particularly apparent in literary communities. Vanita wants to challenge the traditional view of gender segregation in these networks. She reviews various schools of thought regarding gender dynamics in history and argues they omit significant chunks of data that incorporate themes of bonds between women. For example, she examines the concept of Mary’s immaculate conception as a ret-conning [my label] of her “perpetual virginity” as a way of elevating the Virgin to an icon of autonomous creativity and women’s community. As another example of overlooking female communities and bonds, she points out that Foucault’s focus on the historic influence of gender segregation fails to consider the female side of gender-segregated societies, such as Sappho’s community. Further, she criticizes the tendency to gender sexual activity as inherently masculine and love as inherently feminine.

Chapter 1: The Marian Model

The cult and legend of the Virgin Mary developed on a foundation of very thin fact, but created alternative models of femaleness for women in pre-modern England. [Note: in fact, throughout Christian history, but this book is looking specifically at England, so the discussion is skewed in that direction.] Mary gave women a focus for empowerment and a basis for rebutting misogyny. After the Reformation, Mary worship became identified with Catholicism, which was problematic in England. Mariolatry became a focus for Protestant hatred and also a focus of anxiety in the Catholic hierarchy, where it was felt to be tinged with paganism.

Catholicism was a continual fascination among English intellectuals but was viewed negatively in English popular culture. Catholic clergy and nuns were often portrayed as sexually frustrated or perverted. But the cultural presence of Mary was not so easily stigmatized, due to her pervasive presence in art, everyday life, and popular culture, not least because of the omnipresence of the name “Mary” for historic reasons. In the 19th century, there was a shift from framing Mary as the “mother of God” to seeing her as an autonomous agent, acting on behalf of mankind. [Note: I’m assuming that Vanita is referring narrowly to post-Reformation English perceptions here, as the image of Mary as an autonomous intercessor goes much further back.]

Due to the exclusion of Mary from Protestant theology, Protestant writers were free to re-imagine her in new and transgressive ways. For example, discourse around the word “conception” was highly gendered. For a man, “conception” immediately evoked inspiration and intellectual pursuits, while for a woman it assumed biological children. Biological conception frames women as a passive recipient, while intellectual conception is framed as active. In contrast, images of the Annunciation depict Mary with signifiers of the intellectual framing of conception: she is alone, in contemplation (very often depicted as studying a book). She is shown “receiving” Christ in the way one would receive an idea, absent of biological functions. There is an absence of the imagery of heterosexual conception. God is symbolized as a a dove, or via the image of a genderless angel. Mary receives a “word”, the usual precursor to intellectual conception, not pregnancy.

Mary’s experience cannot be duplicated by ordinary women, but can inspire imitation. The state of virginity implies that one is safe, free, and autonomous (i.e., not under a husband). But if “sex” is defined entirely in terms of penetration, then virginity does not imply a non-erotic existence. The immaculate conception (i.e., Mary herself being born free of original sin) and virgin birth (of Christ) create an image of a non-biological (in the sense of non-heterosexual) lineage that focuses primarily on female antecedents. Mary also presents a model of marriage resistance in that legend attributes to her a refusal to marry until assured that her marriage to Joseph would be chaste.

Protestantism rejected the concept of celibate religions vocations, and the Puritan concept of “companionate marriage” could be seen as a similar rejection of celibacy. In this context, a woman’s refusal to marry made her suspect. Mary presented one of the few models for an alternative. Early Christian legends often associate marriage refusal with martyrdom (i.e., virgins who aspire to a life of chastity or simply refuse to marry a pagan are martyred in punishment for their resistance). Spiritual marriage to Christ was another way of framing marriage resistance. But in the secular realm, unmarried women--especially older women--were seen as a social “problem” and a disruptive force.

Another symbolic association of Mary is books and reading. She is commonly associated with female education, or with her role in the education of the young Jesus.

It is possible that one of the attractions of Catholicism for homosexuals was the practice of confession and absolution, and the framing of suffering as a positive experience, with Mary providing a compassionate and forgiving response. The cult of Mary was attractive to marginalized people in general, offering mercy as contrasted with the rigidity of the law. For that matter, legend suggested that Mary herself was accused of (hetero)sexual transgression due to her unmarried pregnancy.

Chapter 2: The Sapphic Sublime and Romantic Lyricism

Vanita suggests that the Sapphic ode is one of the foundational inspirations for English Romanticism. It is defined by an intensity of personal and emotional voice. Instead of making logical and rational arguments, the Romantic position is to be overpowered by emotion--an experience that is at the core of Sappho’s poetry. Like Sappho’s work, Romantic poetry frequently uses dialogues between women or feminized entities such as Nature. In Romanticism, models for relationships--even between men--elevate nurturing and tenderness. The Romantic movement challenges the perception that male writers have always ignored and trivialized women’s writing. Vanita discusses Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as an example of this perception. There is a conflict between looking at academic writing about women versus imaginative writing about women. A Room of One’s Own focuses on the former but even Woolf notes the influence of women in men’s imaginative writing.

Vanita challenges the literary historians’ assumption that Sappho as an icon of love between women emerged only in the late 19th century (with the influence of the sexologists) and that previously the Phaon myth (framing Sappho as heterosexual, at least at the end) reigned. She traces the history of English familiarity with Sappho’s work, both in Greek and Latin and in translation, and traces the timeline of knowledge and discussions of Sappho’s homoerotic expressions. Although Anne Dacier’s French translation (17th century) largely elides Sappho’s lesbianism, she was an anomaly. Dacier’s father (Tanneguy LeFevre) published an edition of Sappho's works with commentary that confirmed her lesbian interests. In the 18th century, discussions of Sappho included reference to at least four specific women thought to have been her lovers. There are also poetic acknowledgements of Sappho’s homoerotic interests, such as in John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633).

The Romantic poets had a fascination for the icon of Sappho as a great poet and experimented with works in what they considered her characteristic meter and style. These works were associated with floral and pastoral imagery and with “clitoral eroticism”, and references to both the Marian and Sapphic models of women’s relationships. Mary is often depicted with floral imagery. Sappho’s poetry frequently makes reference to specific flowers and floral garlands. The imagery of flowers and gardens is prominent in Romantic poetry. The chapter concludes with discussion of some specific Romantic works on these themes, e.g., by Keats, in which the garden is presented as feminine and faces incursions and attacks from forces depicted as masculine.

Chapter 3: Ecstasy in Victorian Aestheticism

Vanita examines the writer Walter Pater and influences from medieval, Rennaisance, and Romantic models of love between women, focusing on the theme of “images of clitoral ecstasy”. Pater saw love between women as a crucial model for love in general, including male homoerotic love. There were two competing models of male homoeroticism at that time, one focusing on “manly comrades” with themes of militarism, the other with Romanticism’s appeal to the past.

There is a discussion of Victorian era alliances between male homosexual radicals and feminists. Pater’s critical study The Renaissance is discussed in detail [Note: Much of the rest of this book consists of focused studies of specific works and authors. These notes are going to skim them fairly lightly.]

In comparison to Pater, J.A. Symonds falls on the “manly homoeroticism” side, displacing the passionate/hedonistic attributes of homoerotics onto Sappho (discussed in his study of Greek poets) and collaborating with Havelock Ellis on theories of homosexuality. He saw female same-sex passion as “unfruitful” and indicating a lack of control, contrasting with a cultural ideal of manliness. He saw a connection between male homoerotic love and genius.

Also discussed is the painter Simeon Soloman, an associate of Pater, who produced many homoerotic images of both men and women, including depictions of Sappho. Criticisms of his work included accusations that it was “insufficiently manly.” The chapter concludes with discussions of several other poets, including Oscar Wilde, who included Marian themes of compassion for those in despair.

Chapter 4: Anarchist Feminism and the Homoerotic

The highlighted authors in this chapter are Wilde, Carpenter, and Shelly. Oscar Wilde viewed the ends of feminism not as helping women better fulfill stereotyped roles (e.g., “to be a better mother”) but in an anarchist context. He provides an example of Victorian homosexual men promoting women’s education to enable women to have greater freedom and creativity, rather than to become better wives and mothers. As editor of Women’s World, he promoted women’s opinions regarding their own needs, including non-European voices. There is a discussion of Shelly as being popular among late 19th century writers on same-sex friendship and love in a feminist context. The latter part of the chapter is a long detailed analysis of Shelly's familial verse drama The Cenci”.

Chapter 5: The Search for a “Likeness”

One of the continual conflicts in the philosophy of love is between whether similarity or difference is the driver of desire. This chapter looks at the trope of likeness or similarity in 19th century women’s writing as “forging mythologies of love between women”, especially in the work of Jane Austen, the circle of the Ladies of Llangollen, and “Michael Field” (the writing pseudonym of Katherine Harris Bradley and her neice and partner Edith Emma Cooper).

The mythology of similarity as an ideal offered space for resistance to marriage and parenthood. Romantics worked with two major paradigms of love as likeness: the concept of God creating man “in his image”, and Plato’s image of the beloved as reflecting the “likeness of the world above” on earth. Themes of women experiencing love based on similarity are sometimes criticized as mere narcissism.

Austen’s Emma is analyzed as an example of a woman attracted to the the possibility of creating a beloved in one’s own likeness. Emma is continually searching for connection with other women or mourning the loss of connection. She seeks to replace the lost mentor-sister relationship she had with her governess by becoming a mentor in turn, but this quest is somewhat abruptly replaced with a heterosexual resolution.

In contrast, the Ladies of Llangollen (two upper class Irish women who eloped together to Wales and spent the rest of their lives as a couple) created that relationship of perfect similarity, abetted by female allies. Contemporary poets celebrated their idyllic union and they referred to each other with language that emphasized likeness, such as “better half”. They challenged attempts to reframe their relationship as mimicking a heterosexual couple (with Eleanor Butler cast as “the man”). Though they habitually dressed in a somewhat masculine-influenced fashion (riding habits and top hats), the emphasis was always on their similarity.

Michael Field was the nom de plume of two women engaged in a literary and romantic partnership. When the alias was uncovered, they explained that it had been chosen to free them from the limits and preconceptions imposed on female authors. Use of the common name created a symbolic unity. They used the language of marriage to describe their relationship and referred to their common literary output as their children. Their work regularly included themes of how the joining of two people “of exactly the same nature” produced a stronger whole. Their use of classical allusions in poetry included references to Sappho.

Chapter 6: Sapphic Virgins: Mythmaking Around Love Between Women

This chapter looks at Romantic anarchism as a contrast to models of patriarchal violence. The scope is late Victorian and early 20th century writers that combine Romanticism with concepts of evolution. They use idealized relationships between women as an ideal toward which humanity evolves.

George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads posits a shift in evolution from the physical to the mental, symbolized by the heroic feminine. The protagonists are “new women” whose bond (disrupted by heterosexual imperatives) is the core of the story. It presents virginity, marriage resistance, and non-heterosexuality as evolved traits. The conclusion retains this focus, though not in a triumphant fashion.

E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End similarly disparages heterosexual marriage and elevates love between women, though not in an uncomplicated way.

Hope Mirrlees' Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists (the Jansenists were a theological movement emphasizing original sin and the necessity of divine grace) openly invokes both Sappho and Mary. The protagonist Madeleine fuses Sapphic and Marian myths and is overt in the erotic and sexual aspects of her yearning for her namesake, the (historical) novelist Madeleine de Scudéry. The story situates the character in the precieuse tradition that considers perfect friendship as only possible between two women. The protagonist sees her beloved as “the modern Sappho” and her lifelong attraction to women is traced. She prays to Mary to grant her friendship with her beloved and fantasizes declarations of love but fails to express them in person. When she finally meets the object of her desire, both are disappointed in the other. The story ends in madness and disappointment, but an epilogue to the work, supplied by Mirrlee’s partner Jane Harrison, frames the protagonist as a divinely-mad artist rather than a victim of despair.

Chapter 7: Biography as Homoerotic Fiction

Victorian biographies that framed “geniuses” of the past (Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, DaVinci) as homoerotically inclined were a way of legitimizing those feelings by the biographers. If history is the biographies of great men, and great men can be linked to homoeroticism, then the course of Western Civilization can be seen as founded on homoerotic impulses. Vanita looks at the interface between homoerotically inclined academic histories by authors like Pater, and the works of sexologists like Freud who treated the same historical figures.

The majority of the chapter focuses on Virginia Woolf’s biographical fictions in a similar context of romanticizing homoerotic aspects of historical figures--both “great men” and ordinary people. The author looks at the experience and performance of homosexuality in the Bloomsbury group, combining a sublimated repression that was turned into artistic expression, alongside open eroticism and hedonism. Woolf intertwined her experience of alliances with male homosexual friends and her construction of love between women. The interplay of bonds of non-sexual friendship within the group created ambiguity when marriage might express an intellectual intimacy within a community of “outsiders” rather than being inspired by erotic love. In a context where works overtly addressing lesbianism (e.g., The Well of Loneliness) were banned, Woolf could use male homoeroticism as a dodge for considering her own homoerotic desires in writing.

Chapter 8: The Wilde-ness of Woolf

This chapter is a detailed analysis of Woolf’s Orlando and other works. It discusses how the intepersonal loves and conflicts among Woolf’s circle of female friends and lovers affected and appear in their writing.

Chapter 9: Dogs, Phoenixes, and Other Beasts

This chapter discusses the concept of difference as essential in (heterosexual) attraction, and of the developing concept of homosexuals as a “third gender”. It explores the use of non-human creatures to express this sense of otherness in homoerotic texts, through also drawing on the tradition of animal stand-ins in heterosexual love poetry. Vanita explores how the symbolism attached to the chosen animals expresses attitudes toward, and experiences of homoerotic desire. The detailed discussion revolves in particular around the works of Virginia Woolf.

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