It's a tribute to how disrupted the normal patterns of my life are at the moment, that I failed to post this on it's sheduled Monday (though I did remember I needed to at several points in the day). As of last Wednesday, I'm under direction to work from home until this whole pandemic thing sorts itself out. I have the privilege and good fortune not only of having a job that can be performed in this way, but in having an employer who was ahead of the curve in setting up guidelines and structures, not only to comply with what is now a government mandate, but to protect our supply chain and patient-customers. (We produce biologically based pharmaceuticals. It isn't a production line you can stop and re-start arbitrarily. And even an unplanned shutdown of a couple of months would mean failing to provide our customers with lifesaving medications.)
On the one hand, not spending 1.5-2 hours commuting every day is giving me time to get some household projects done that usually get crammed into weekends. Even under our current "shelter in place" directive, there's an allowance for getting out for exercise as long as social distancing is maintained. I've taken up a routine bike ride on my lunch hour. And I have sufficient supplies that I haven't had to expose myself to grocery-hunting crowds in this initial realignment phase.
But it's a scary and unsettling age we live in. I'm not sure anyone can foresee what the long-term consequences of this pandemic will be on social and political structures. We can hope that there's a lesson to be learned about collective action for the collective good, and about how infrastructure that protects the poorest and most vulnerable is actually in the selfish self-interest of even the wealthy and powerful. Maybe there's a lesson about how intersecting the groups "wealthy" and "powerful" so completely is part of what got us here in the first place. Do I sound like a radical? Probably not as radical as I should be. I long to be able to do something concrete to support those who don't have the advantages my specific employment gives me. I comfort myself that while I may not be directly supporting Covid19 health care, I do support vital health care in my everyday job. But outside of that, the only concrete things I seem to be able to do is targeted shopping at small businesses who don't have reserves to fall back on. (I'm still feeling uncertain about the risk involved in ording take-out from small food service businesses whose employees may not be able to afford to admit health risks.)
In any event, here is your regular weekly Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. A day late, but never a dollar short.
Verini, Alexandra. 2016. "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe" in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 365-391.
In reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the network of female friendships I've written into my Alpennia series--my "web of women." It has the same layered, multi-valent nature as what Verini describes. This is no accident, as I'm basing my world-building on my research into the lives of actual historic women, and that feature shines through as you read about women's lives. It may not be entirely fair to compare the prototypical ideal of men's friendships (focused on a single pair, viewed as being a bond of equals who share everything freely between them) with the emergent images of women's friendships extracted from tangential data (multi-faceted, distributed, often asymmetric, rarely exclusive to a single pair). The realities of men's and women's lives dictated some of the differences. A woman was rarely as free as a man to pledge all her resources to be shared in common with a friend (especially if married). But as Alan Bray notes in The Friend, celebrated male friendships often had an asymmetry of status or power, rather than the ideal of equality. And men, like women, had a wide variety of non-kin networks that included a friendship component. But I think Verini hits on some useful observations in this analysis that help us envision women's lives in the past.
Both historic treatises on friendship and academic studies of the concept have primarily focused on male friendships -- the historic treatises because they were written by men in the context of patriarchal societies, and the academic studies, because they largely focus on those treatises and their context. Male-oriented concepts of friendship typically focused on a bond between two men of relatively equal status and standing that represented a sense of “complete identity of feeling about all things” (Cicero) and that often was given formal standing within social and political structures. Historic authors often doubted that “true” friendship was possible either between women or between a man and a woman. Friendship scholar Alan Bray asserted that he could find no evidence for formal, publicly-recognized friendships between women before the 17th century.
Verini challenges this understanding, noting that while some female authors adopted the classical language of amicitia (friendship) for themselves, it can be more productive to identify concepts and philosophies of women’s friendship within texts whose focus is on other topics. For this purpose, she studies concepts of friendship within two 15th century texts: Christine de Pizan’s allegorical The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe’s autobiographical and visionary The Book of Margery Kempe. These very different texts approach concepts of friendship from different directions but evolve a number of similar understandings that contrast sharply with male-centered models of friendship.
Pizan develops a proto-feminist allegory of a city built and inhabited by virtuous women drawn from across the ages, while Kempe describes a wide variety of communal interactions--primarily with women, but also with men--that sketch a model of network-based communal reciprocity. Both--working with no formal guidelines for how to imagine women’s friendships--describe flexible, multi-faceted models that reflect their historic realities.
Pizan’s project is overtly a formal challenge to literary misogyny. It adopts some of the language of classical amicitia in viewing friendship as a “mirror of the self” that must be rooted in the virtuous nature of the participants. When applied to men, this was viewed as a complete intellectual unity accompanied by a willingness to share all material resources. (Male) humanist scholars excluded women from the possibility of such bonds on the basis that “their soul [does not] seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot” (Michel de Montaigne). But within the allegorical world of Pizan’s City, this focus on the ideals of sameness and virtue is claimed by women.
The importance of similarity is represented by the tutelary figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice who instruct the author’s textual persona and who are described as resembling each other so closely they could scarcely be distinguished. The elitist nature of true friendship is ensured in the City by admitting as inhabitants only “women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality.” But alongside this appropriation of the sameness/virtue model, Pizan critiques classical forms by describing a community founded on multiplicity and difference, creating a diverse network of women who exercise their virtue in individual ways. Friendship within the City avoids the absolutes of the classical model by depicting variation between public and private spheres and emphasizing the relationship of individual personal affairs to communal interests. This structure envisions multiple sets of friendship bonds between different pairs or groups of women within the City, constantly intermingling and reassembling in different configurations.
This same multi-layered, diverse network of friendships is represented in another of Pizan’s works The Book of the Queen, which invokes a community of women drawn from different classes, eras, and geographic locations. This model, Verini suggests, reflected the everyday reality of women’s networks of female friends and relatives that typically operated across boundaries of geography, family, class, and the public/private divide.
Kempe’s book has an entirely different purpose, being represented as something of an autobiography/memoir of a woman who entered a solitary religious life in middle age, having been a wife and mother. Kempe describes her relationships and interactions with a wide variety of figures, both human and sacred, male and female, across economic and class divides, and for a variety of immediate purposes and goals.
Kempe relates to various sacred figures with a sense of equality and reciprocity: they provide her with life examples while she provides them with praise and publicity. But the diffuse, reciprocal nature of Kempe’s model of friendship is seen in more detail in her relationships with contemporaries of all classes and levels of religious dedication. These are depicted as involving a sense of equality even when the immediate material or spiritual circumstances of the women differ. What is exchanged may be material (charity, nursing), spiritual (prayer, inspiration), or intellectual (advice, guidance) and need not be returned in kind or even returned directly to/from the same pair of women. Instead of direct reciprocity, a network of friendships is woven from a sort of distributed gift exchange in which acts of friendship may be “paid forward” rather than returned directly.
Both texts meet in this model of a web formed by multiple types and degrees of friendship of different natures, rather than envisioning friendship as inherently limited to a binary pair and resting on identity of nature and interests.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44b - Interview with Catherine Lundoff of Queen of Swords Press - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/03/14 - listen here)
An interview with Catherine Lundoff about her small publishing house, Queen of Swords Press
An interview with the founder of Queen of Swords Press about the process of starting a publishing company.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Queen of Swords Press and Catherine Lundoff Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
When I wrote a story about an epidemic, complete with administrative mismanagement, I hadn't intended it to be immediately relevant to the world the book was released into. (Though, of course, all fictional themes can have metaphorical resonances with contemporary life.) The elite of Rotenek respond to periodic bouts of river fever by "social distancing" -- i.e., by leaving town for their country properties. In Floodtide, a further quarantine measure was to block traffic across the river, in the belief that the source of the disease was the poorer quarters of the city. As today, these measures provide protection to some at the cost of abandoning others to the disease We don't have Celeste's magic charms to protect us against fever, and some of the bravest people out there are the health care workers who risk their own lives to stay at their posts.
Other than the cancelation of a couple of events in my near future, my life is being relatively unaffected. I'm working from home for the indefinite future because the pharmaceutical company I work for needs to reduce risk for the hands-on workers who are keeping our supply chain going to deliver life-saving medicines to the patients who depend on us. (Not directly related to Covid-19, although this morning's corporate update noted that other divisions are donating drugs being used for experimental treatments of the virus.)
I've only been working from home for two days now, and except for the isolation I could really get used to this. A 15 second commute, an entire garden to look at during my breaks rather than a single desk-rose. But in addition to the "what next" dread that hangs over us all, there's an unsettled sense of being off my habits and rhythms. I hope I settle in quickly to be able to put the extra time to productive use, but I hope even more that we all find ways to mitigate this epidemic and use the lessons in the future.
Be safe; wash your hands; and remember that you can read books in the safety of your sealed underground bunker!
Today's post kicks off a series of publications that revolve around the concept of friendship, especially same-sex friendships.
Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-07181-7
Although Bray does discuss women’s friendships at various points, the book is overwhelmingly focused on men and doesn’t always recognize the societal differences men’s and women’s experiences and possibilities. As usual with studies that purport to be inclusive but focus primarily on men's experiences, it isn't clear whether Bray even considered the possibility that women's experiences took a sufficiently different form that they would require a different approach to find. If women are overwhelmingly excluded from formal institutions of learning and from church institutions, then a study that finds a wealth of men's friendships in those institutions would be wrong to conclude that the absence of parallel female examples means that women didn't form friendships. If women are largely excluded from a publicly-performed life, then evidence for their friendships may need to be sought in more private records. And so on, and so forth. The reverse can occur in studies that look at the "romantic friendship" phenomenon through the lens of female-only institutions and activities and somehow conclude that men in that era were incapable of forming deep personal bonds with other men, just because they weren't necessarily using the same language and the same symbolism.
Bray’s book was inspired by trying to understand the meaning behind various joint funeral memorials of pairs of non-related men. The study expanded to “the distinctive place friendship occupied in traditional society” in Europe from the 11th to the 18th centuries. The focus is on friendship as a public rather than a private phenomenon. He also touches on the relationship of homosexuality to same-sex friendship.
The core of the book’s topic, and the image that Bray returns to in each section, is co-burial with symbolism reminiscent of that used for married couples. His study focuses on England and there are aspects of the English experience (especially around religious issues) that don’t necessarily track to other cultures. He stakes out a position that, before the 17th century, he could find no evidence for women possessing the specific type of “kin-like” friendships that he is studying. [Note: As in many similar studies, he doesn’t appear to question deeply whether this is because they didn’t exist or because they existed in forms that left a different type of evidence than men’s friendships did.] For this reason, I’ll skim over many of the details of his study and focus more closely when women are involved.
Chapter 1: Wedded Brother
The focal point in this chapter is the joint tombstone of two 14th century English knights buried in Byzantium. The helmets and coats of arms on the stone are arranged to turn to face each other. Each image bears a shield with both their arms impaled together, as might be done for a married couple. In the 15th century, a heraldic treatise commented on two Spanish knights who were “sworn brothers” and similarly impaled their arms as a sign of the relationship. Also in the 15th century we have a record of two English squires swearing an oath of brotherhood in a church. [Note: Compare this with Boswell’s study of “same-sex unions” which focuses on a specific type of liturgical ceremony for similar relationships and thus may overlook some of the examles Bray considers.]
There are references in medieval romance of sworn brothers sealing their pact with a “kiss of peace”. [Note: it’s important to be aware that kissing was used as a formal symbolic gesture in many non-romantic and non-erotic contexts in this era.] Bray discusses various examples of similar sworn brotherhood in various contexts. One example for which we have significant commentary, due to its prominence and political implications is that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston, who swore brotherhood “after feeling love [amor] for each other at first sight.”
Bray discusses the supposed “purposes” claimed for sworn brotherhood, all of which can be shown not to apply in many cases.
Chapter 2: Friend to Sir Philip Sidney
This chapter begins by describing the planned joint memorial for Fulke Greville and Philip Sidney in the early 17th century, although the memorial was never built. Again, the description matches what would be expected for a married couple in that era: a double tomb arranged as two beds (set vertically) with statues of the two.
Greville and Sidney described their friendship in a more private way than earlier examples of “sworn brothers.” They used pastoral imagery and discussed it in private letters.
There is a detailed discussion of Greville and Sidney’s history and context together, as well as the context of how friendship between men was represented at the time. Such sworn friendships almost inevitably involved inequity of rank, but bonds of patronage and service between them allowed a high level of closeness and trust.
The language of friendship partook of fancy rhetoric in part to negotiate the dangers of the bond, due to conflicting bonds and obligations external to the friendship. Friendship carried obligations that were not easily ignored. And friendship assumed a level of privacy that could easily be betrayed.
Chapter 3: Families and Friends
The chapter opens with more examples of joint memorial brasses of pairs of unrelated men, focusing on a 14th century example with two tonsured clerics at Merton College. Comparative examples of m/f married couples on memorial brasses are provided from the same era.
Bray compares the language of brotherhood oaths with the language of marriage and betrothal. [Note: it’s important to recognize that much of the vocabulary we now consider to be specific to marriage derives from language that had more general applications. Those general applications were not a metaphoric extension of the vocabulary, but the original core meanings. Thus heterosexual marriage was seen as a subset of a larger variety of formal bonds between people that included same-sex bonds.] This language included phrases like “to plight troth” or “wed-brothers” where both “troth” and “wed” are related to the swearing of formal oaths. “Wed” means a pledge or covenent. “Wedded” can apply to any act of commitment. There is also regular use of kinship terminology for sworn friends.
Studies of Byzantine adelphopoiesis rituals [the ones Boswell studied] note that such rituals were considered ordinary in secular society but began to be viewed critically within the church (for clerics) around the 12th century, though it continued to be practiced.
Finally a female example! Mention of the early 17th century joint memorial for Ann Chitting and Mary Barber in Suffolk, which was described by Ann’s son Henry. (The memorial no longer survives.) Does this mean that co-burials of unrelated women were a new thing in the 17th century? Or are they simply more visible then? [Note: or were they less likely to survive? Many of the male examples were preserved in academic institutions where there may have been more active conservation. Judith Bennett’s study of the 15th century joint memorial brass of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge was not published until 5 years after Bray’s book. So he may not have known about it. But this is an illustration of the overall problem of male-centered research.]
The chapter provides many biographical details of m/m pairs of friends and discusses the religious context around the Reformation. More discussion of terminology, illustrated with letters between King James I and the Duke of Buckingham that refers to their friendship as “marriage.” A broader discussion of this history of royal favorites as “sworn brothers” who might act in the king’s name and were often attacked or disapproved of for that authority.
A discussion of kinship structures and anthropological concepts of “family” that extend beyond genetic links. There was a greater diversity of non-genetic bonds being recognized than in modern life where marriage is the only major recognized example. Pre-modern individuals existed within a potential multitude of “families.” Some such bonds automatically brought in other connections, while some were more narrowly construed as applying only to the specific bond.
We return to the Chitting/Barber tombs, now lost, but described by contemporary documents. Barber was the niece of the Chitting family’s patron. The inscriptions for the two women both recognize their marriages. Anne Chitting is buried next to Mary Barber (whose husband is buried on her other side). It’s unclear if Ann’s husband was still living when the memorial was created or was buried elsewhere.
Bray discusses the “uses” of friendships of this type, including inheritance, patronage, mentoring, family support, and legal surrogacy.
The chapter moves on to a discussion of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for creating adelphopoiesis (sworn siblinghood). The Franciscan order had a similar rite (a 14th century example is given). The original texts and translations are provided.
Chapter 4: The Body of the Friend
This chapter focuses on physical aspects and expectations for friends. The beginning example is a mid-17th century co-burial describing the two men’s relationship as “animorum connubium” (a marriage of souls) in the inscription. Would this phrase have been interpreted by their contemporaries as a “sworn brotherhood” as in earlier centuries?
The chapter discusses Jeremy Taylor’s Discourse of Friendship (1657) and how it describes a mingling of interests, fortunes, and counsels. Symbols of the physical closeness of friendship include the kiss of peace and the joint location in the tomb, but what else? Taylor exhorts “so must the love of friends sometimes be refreshed with material and low caresses, lest by striving to be too divine it become less humane.” That is, a physical aspect of friendship was considered not only ordinary, but necessary.
Between the pair of men that is the focus of this chapter, one served as the other’s secretary and go-between. (A not uncommon inequality between the pairs of friends discussed in this book.)
We return to the example of James I, this time in his relationship with the Earl of Somerset, with a description of their physical displays of affection and how these were viewed negatively. These included the earl kissing the king’s hand and how James “hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks.”
The language of kisses and embraces was common as a sign of friendship and goodwill between same-sex pairs. Examples of friendship gestures included arranging/adjusting the other’s clothing. Such actions conferred social status and power on the less ranking recipient and were meant to be understood as conferring that status.
Dining together was another sign of friendship, especially as we move into the 17th century when high-status diners were moving from the common hall into a private chamber. The bedchamber and bed were another place where friendship bonds could be publicly demonstrated. Giving someone an audience in the bedchamber was a mark of closeness and favor. Sharing of beds was expected and was another context where the choice of who to share with indicated closeness. One’s bed-partner was also public knowledge, given that bedchambers were not a “private” space--the lack of corridors in domestic architecture meant that one necessarily moved through rooms to get from one place to another. The term “bedfellow” reflected such choice of closeness but in this era did not assume a sexual relationship as it acquired later. Within the context of a status-differentiated friendship, performing personal service for the friend’s body is another sign of closeness.
These signs of closeness were both sincere and capable of being used strategically on both sides. Bray discusses how overwhelmingly male the environments in which these friendships took place. [Note: That is, how overwhelmingly male men’s environments were.] This is obvious in the context of colleges, but also in the context of the servants and attendants of a man of high status. Women, even when supplying the needs of great houses, tended to “live out” and reside in all-female groups rather than being an integrated part of the household. [Note: Bray doesn’t entirely make clear here how the picture changes in a household that includes a wife and children, rather than the household of a man who is either single or living separately from his immediate family.]
Friends at all levels of society marked their bond (especially at separations) with an exchange of tokens: rings, knives, caps, etc. But letters and books also formed a type of gift exchange. Letters were treasured, not only for the content, but as a symbol of the friend’s presence. Great men, who had secretaries to write for them, might write in their own hand as a special gift.
There is a discussion of suggestively sexual jokes and humor between friends, noting that it can occur between male friends who elsewhere express conventional horror of sodomy. Bray takes the position that such jokes are about affirming masculinity, but could not possibly(!) be about sexual relations. (And yet, the enemies of those friend-pairs clearly might read sexual meanings into the relationship.)
There is a brief admission that little has been said about women, who also formed similar pseudo-kin bonds, shared beds, etc. Bray notes that women left fewer traces in the historic record due to having less property and influence. But in literature, how do women figure in relation to same-sex friendships? His answer is that they appear primarily as the enemies of men’s same-sex friendships. [Note: once again, there is plenty of data on women’s positive same-sex friendships in literature if you are specifically looking for it.]
Chapter 5: Friends and Enemies
The chapter begins as usual with the biography of a specific pair of friends, this time two Catholic priests who fled England together in the 16th century during the religious struggles of the Reformation. There had long been a popular association of Catholic religious orders with sodomy, in part because of the prohibition on married clergy, but in part because of the association of sodomy with effeminacy. In the 16th century, sodomy was considered something everyone was capable of, not a fixed orientation. In contrast to earlier uses of the term, it had become strongly gendered, applying only to men and indicating effeminacy. The term was also more vague than “anal sex” and was considered to go hand in hand with other moral defects.
Thus, the association for Protestants of sodomy with Catholic priests was in part as a symptom of their general immorality. In England, in particular, Catholics were associated with treason and violent opposition to the government.
Pairs of close male friends, especially in universities or religious institutions, were ripe for accusations of sodomy. This connection then extended to the sense that sodomites (especially male friends) were more likely to turn traitor because of the overall immorality that was associated with that term.
There is more discussion of the overlap of male friendships and the idea of betrayal, but as there is no discussion of female topics I’m skipping the rest of this chapter.
Chapter 6: Friendship and Modernity
The chapter example is a joint memorial in Merton College. There is a discussion of shifts in domestic space in the 18th century that created “privacy” as a concept. The sharing of bed and board was no longer a public performance. [Note: it still happened, it just didn’t have the same public symbolism as an open act.] Physical intimacy changed in significance. Men of rank were no longer served by other gentlemen but by servants separated by a class divide. Up and down the social ladder, there was a sense that physical privacy was expected between non-family. Bray is talking here about a narrowly English development that continental visitors found odd.
Formal non-sexual kissing began to disappear. The Enlightenment and a shift away from personal bonds as the basis of commerce and government changed the economic function of close friendships. “Friend” became a more general and diffuse concept, rather than an intimate bond.
In parallel with this formalization of friendship, marriage became more rigid and formal, requiring the presence of clergy and documentation. Bray notes the marriage in 1680 between James Howard (Amy Poulter) and Arabella Hunt. [Note: see Crawford and Mendelson 1995] The evidence is confusing whether this marriage was intended to be sincere or was intended as a joke. Was this the formalization of a female same-sex friendship that was disavowed when things went awry? How might the clandestine Hunt/Poulter bond compare to the open Chitting/Barber bond that was celebrated? Another example of a female joint memorial is presented from 1710 between Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones. Bray discusses their biographical background and connections, showing how friendships were used to connect extended families.
Similar family bonds via same-sex friendship are demonstrated for men in the 18th century with multiple examples given. If such evidence of friendship bonds connecting families became harder to find by the 19th century, is it because they were less common or less visible?
Bray raises the example of Anne Lister to argue for the “less visible” option and points out that without the evidence of Lister’s diaries, her same-sex friendships would be invisible. He reviews evidence for how some of Lister’s family accepted and approved of her “union” with Ann Walker. The diaries go into details of various ceremonial signifiers for her different bonds, including exchanging rings, taking communion together, and pledges of fidelity. These all have echoes of how the language of marriage was incorporated in the tradition of “sworn friendship.”
Bray has a long discussion of the symbolism in the windows of the church where Lister and Walker took communion together. But this section is all very abstractly philosophical and involves a lot of putting thoughts into the heads of historic people.
Another joint memorial for two women--Anne Fleming and Catherine Jennis in 1795--is not technically a co-burial but references the proximity of the two graves in the church as a sign of their friendship.
Bray considers how the wealth of detail in the Lister diaries can shed light on the nature of less well documented same-sex friends. The erotic potential of such friendships goes in and out of focus. Only in rare cases, such as Lister’s, do we have access to the interior of such a bond. But we also know how Lister’s family treated that bond while being unaware of its sexual component. [Note: Or at least, while not leaving any documentary trace that they were aware.]
See also Lister’s opinions about the Ladies of Llangollen, whose public reputation was a non-sexual friendship while Lister suspected that it was sexual. Lister sometimes refers to her erotic interactions as a “weakness.” Might other same-sex friends have integrated their bonds in similar ways? The discussion concludes with a the legal and inheritance aspects of Lister’s union which reinforce the marriage-like aspect.
Chapter 7: Coda
The co-burial example for this chapter is from the late 19th century of two Catholic clergymen who explicitly requested to be buried together. There is a detailed documentary trail of how the one who died later re-emphasized multiple times this wish, evidently out of fear that his body would instead be memorialized in a more prominent and important location. Their memoirs emphasize the closeness (and even marriage-similarity) of their friendship. There is an involved discussion of the social politics of burials at the chapel. Bray creates a scenario in which the two are part of a long lineage across time of sworn friends who were commemorated with co-burial.
Afterword: Historians and Friendship
A discussion of the role and importance of studying friendship in history, with a survey of key studies of the topic and some of the major strands of disagreement among scholars, especially regarding the intersection of same-sex friendship and homosexuality.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44a - On the Shelf for March 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/7 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2020.
No matter what’s going on in the world, the seasons turn. Here in the northern hemisphere I’m enjoying the days getting longer and spending the extra daylight madly getting my garden in order for the new season. My interest in history includes a rather practical fascination with historic cookery, and since I also love gardening, I’ve incorporated a number of less common plants and trees to support that fascination. Did you know you can grow apple and cherry varieties that have been in continuous use since before 1600? I also love growing old roses and I’m just about to enjoy the explosion of gallica roses--the kind used for millennia to make rosewater and attar of roses for perfume. There’s an extra pleasure in reading or writing historical fiction that draws in all the senses, including taste and smell.
If you love reading historical fiction, have you ever participated in re-enactment or living history activities for your favorite time periods? Does it add an extra dimension to enjoying stories if you can imagine how one moves in the clothing, what the food tastes like, or imagine the soundscape of those streets? I spent a lot of my life doing medieval and Renaissance activities, and it’s all woven in with why I love studying history: to get a glimpse of what other lives might have been like. The days are past when I had the time to participate in creating an aristocratic banquet in 15th century Burgundy, but I can sit here and enjoy a Renaissance-era marmelade recipe on my toast, made from an ancient variety of oranges growing in my own garden.
Publications on the Blog
In February, spilling into the beginning of March, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog featured a series of articles that revolved around Sappho in some way, though perhaps only by allusion. I start with Harriette Andreadis a “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips” about the 17th century English poet. Then Susan Gubar’s “Sapphistries” discussing how Sappho’s work and image have been adopted and reworked over the ages. Judith Hallett’s “Sappho and her Social Context” is a bit dated, and I included a follow-up response to it by Eva Stehle Stigers. The article "Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece" by Marilyn A. Katz ended up being not to the point, simply using Sappho’s name for a review of publications on women in classical Greece.
In March, I start on a sequence of publications about friendship and the overlap it has with relationships that either are--or are perceived as--romantic or erotic. This kicks off with Alan Bray’s The Friend, which primarily concerns male friendships, but takes a deep look at relationships that use the forms and language of romantic love. Next is Alexandra Verini’s article "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe". Two very different women show some intriguing similarities in how they depict female friendships. The 18th and 19th centuries are a hotbed of female friendship themes, drawing on a number of different models for how those friendships were imagined. Carol Lasser’s article "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" looks at friendship envisioned as a familial bond, or even made familial by means of marriage to a close relative. Lisa Moore, in "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England,” analyzes various understandings of romantic friendship. The friendship series of blogs will continue on into April, but we’ll leave it there for now.
There hasn’t been any book shopping this month for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, but I did pick up a copy of Brian Copenhaver’s Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment which goes onto my shelf of deep background research for my historic fantasy series.
This month’s interview guest will be Catherine Lundoff, who was my very first author guest back when I expanded to a weekly schedule. This time, she’s returning to talk about her publishing house, Queen of Swords Press, and all the joys and tribulations of tackling the business side of publishing. I’ve been hoping to do a series of interviews with publishers of f/f historical fiction. To the best of my knowledge, there is no publisher who focuses specifically on f/f historicals, but it would be interesting to hear from a variety of sources about how that topic fits into all types of genre publishing.
For this month’s essay, I plan a fairly brief biographical sketch of a woman in 13th century Italy who got in a bit of a legal squabble over her sex life with women. We know nothing about Bertolina Guercia except what ended up in some court records, but those provide a glimpse of a life that may be rather different from what one might imagine in that time and place.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
How about new and forthcoming books? The February books that I haven’t previously mentioned are fairly wide-ranging in setting. First up is a book--or rather a collected set of books--that would have fit into my episode on Viking-inspired fiction, though like most of the books in that episode it falls more on the fantasy side than the historical. This is Tooth and Blade: Collected edition (parts 1-3) self-published by Julian Barr
Two worlds. One destiny. Dóta has dwelled sixteen years among the trolls. She knows nothing but the darkness of her family’s cave. Her mother says humans are beasts who would slay them all. Yet the gods of Asgard whisper in the night: Dóta is a child of men, a monster unto monsters. To discover her human side, Dóta must take up her bone knife and step into the light above. Secrets await her in the human realm—beauty, terror, the love of a princess. Soon Dóta must choose between her clan and humankind, or both worlds will be devoured in fire and war. A monster sheds no tears. Norse mythology meets historical fantasy in TOOTH AND BLADE. Step into a realm of haunted meres, iron and magic.
This next book is book three in a series, but doesn’t appear to share characters or a setting with the earlier books, and is the only one that fits into the broad category of lesbian-relevant fiction, stipulating that one of the characters is identified as non-binary, though assigned as female by society. The book is The Flowers of Time (Lost in Time Book 3) by A.J. Lester from JMS Books.
Jones is determined to find out what caused the unexpected death of her father whilst they were exploring ancient ruins in the Himalayas. Along with a stack of books and coded journals, he’s left her with the promise she’ll travel back to England for the first time since childhood and try being the lady she’s never been. Edie and her brother are leaving soon on a journey to the Himalayas to document and collect plants for the new Kew Gardens when she befriends Miss Jones in London. She’s never left England before and is delighted to learn the lady will be returning to the mountains she calls home at the same time they are planning their travels. When they meet again in Srinagar, Edie is surprised to find that, out here, the Miss Jones of the London salons is “just Jones” the explorer, clad in breeches and boots and unconcerned with the proprieties Edie has been brought up to respect. The non-binary explorer and the determined botanist make the long journey over the high mountain passes to Little Tibet, collecting flowers and exploring ruins on the way. Will Jones discover the root of the mysterious deaths of her parents? Will she confide in Edie and allow her to help in the quest? The trip is fraught with dangers for both of them, not least those of the heart.
The title of the next book is self-explanatory -- Red Kate: a tale of lesbian piracy self-published by Sarah Tighe-Ford.
A tale of lesbian piracy set at the height of the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the heart of the Caribbean. In a world of piracy, even trust can be stolen… but can it be reclaimed? Navigating the deadly seas of the Caribbean, Captain ‘Red’ Kate’s pirate life should grant her all the freedom she desires: no rules, no restrictions, no consequences. Yet betrayal and a chance encounter leave her at the mercy of two women: Morgan, her bold but unreliable lover, and Will, a quicksilver former thief who appears from nowhere to join her crew. We all have to choose which life to live.
The first of the March books is set in the 18th century, but the rest skew a bit more recent in setting.
Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn from Zephys describes itself as:
The first in a dazzling, commercial, historical adventure series set in the extravagant and deadly world of the French Revolution. A whirlwind of action, science and magic reveals, with a diverse cast of fearless heroines, a band of rebels like no other. Camille, a revolutionary's daughter, leads a band of outcasts – a runaway girl, a deserter, an aristocrat in hiding. As the Battalion des Mortes they cheat death, saving those about to meet a bloody end at the blade of Madame La Guillotine. But their latest rescue is not what she seems. The girl's no aristocrat, but her dark and disturbing powers means both the Royalists and the Revolutionaries want her. But who and what is she? In a fast and furious story full of the glamour and excesses, intrigue and deception of these dangerous days, no one can be trusted, everyone is to be feared. As Camille learns the truth, she's forced to choose between loyalty to those she loves and the future.
This next book might be better thought of as a fictionalized biography, because it’s about two real and fascinating women. Never Anyone But You: A Novel by Rupert Thomson from Other Press.
In the years preceding World War I, two young women meet, by chance, in a provincial town in France. Suzanne Malherbe, a shy seventeen-year-old with a talent for drawing, is completely entranced by the brilliant but troubled Lucie Schwob, who comes from a family of wealthy Jewish intellectuals. They embark on a clandestine love affair, terrified they will be discovered, but then, in an astonishing twist of fate, the mother of one marries the father of the other. As “sisters” they are finally free of suspicion, and, hungry for a more stimulating milieu, they move to Paris at a moment when art, literature, and politics blend in an explosive cocktail. Having reinvented themselves as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, they move in the most glamorous social circles--meeting everyone from Hemingway to Dalí--and produce provocative photographs that still seem avant-garde today. In the 1930s, with the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism, they leave Paris for Jersey, and it is on this idyllic island that they confront their destiny, creating a campaign of propaganda against Hitler’s occupying forces that will put their lives in jeopardy.
Although the cover copy for this next book only hints at f/f content, I’ve received confirmation that it isn’t just teasing. Is it simple history, or perhaps something more fantastic? The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In August 1939, thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright arrives at Lockwood Manor to oversee a natural history museum collection, whose contents have been taken out of London for safekeeping. She is unprepared for the scale of protecting her charges from party guests, wild animals, the elements, the tyrannical Major Lockwood and Luftwaffe bombs. Most of all, she is unprepared for the beautiful and haunted Lucy Lockwood. For Lucy, who has spent much of her life cloistered at Lockwood suffering from bad nerves, the arrival of the museum brings with it new freedoms. But it also resurfaces memories of her late mother, and nightmares in which Lucy roams Lockwood hunting for something she has lost. When the animals start to move of their own accord, and exhibits go missing, they begin to wonder what exactly it is that they might need protection from. And as the disasters mount up, it is not only Hetty’s future employment that is in danger, but her own sanity too. There’s something, or someone, in the house. Someone stalking her through its darkened corridors…
Next we have a fairly straightforward historic romance: Behind the Bandstand self-published by Theresa J. Everlove
Club owner Jo falls head-over-heels for the gorgeous singer who has taken her jazz club by storm. But Delilah is leading a dangerous double life. Will Jo be able to show the world the stunning talent Delilah possess or will Delilah's complicated world keep them apart? While their romance burns bright, it might not be enough to protect them in the strict social structures of post-war Chicago.
Robin Talley has been specializing in stories that teeter just on the edge of what might be considered historical fiction. This one is Music from Another World from Inkyard Press
It’s summer 1977 and closeted lesbian Tammy Larson can’t be herself anywhere. Not at her strict Christian high school, not at her conservative Orange County church and certainly not at home, where her ultrareligious aunt relentlessly organizes antigay political campaigns. Tammy’s only outlet is writing secret letters in her diary to gay civil rights activist Harvey Milk…until she’s matched with a real-life pen pal who changes everything. Sharon Hawkins bonds with Tammy over punk music and carefully shared secrets, and soon their letters become the one place she can be honest. The rest of her life in San Francisco is full of lies. The kind she tells for others—like helping her gay brother hide the truth from their mom—and the kind she tells herself. But as antigay fervor in America reaches a frightening new pitch, Sharon and Tammy must rely on their long-distance friendship to discover their deeply personal truths, what they’ll stand for…and who they’ll rise against.
I dithered a bit about including this last book, The Mail Order Bride by R. Kent from Bold Strokes Books because the cover copy makes it clear that this is a romance between a cis woman and a trans man. So I want to emphasize that by deciding to include it, I am not claiming that this is an f/f romance, but rather--given the fuzzy and nebulous edges of the gender categories that fall within the scope of this podcast--it is a story that might appeal to readers who also enjoy gender-disguise romances. I’m not going to include this title in my cumulative database of f/f historicals, but books that fall between the popular identity categories often have a hard time finding an audience and I thought I’d give this one a hand.
Austin’s killed a man. Escaping his nefarious past and running from those who would force him to live as a woman, Austin dreams of becoming an upstanding man and homesteading alone on the fringes of the wild frontier. The burgeoning tent township of Molasses Pond is clenched in the bloody fist of the deadliest gunslinger the country has ever known, Lightning Jack McKade. McKade knows who Austin is. In fact, McKade knows more about Austin’s past than Austin does. He had a hand in creating it. On the last stagecoach until spring, a mail order bride, Sahara Miller, arrives in Molasses Pond. She claims to be Austin’s and has the documentation to prove it. But McKade’s gang will do anything to have her. Now Austin must choose: Strap on his twin six-shooters to protect the bride he never wanted, or turn a blind eye and keep his dream alive
At this point, my planning spreadsheet doesn’t list any f/f historicals coming out in April. I’m sure I’ll find a few when I do my keyword search in Amazon next month, but if you have, or know of, a book coming out that fits the podcast’s scope, don’t assume I’ll magically be aware of it--let me know! Last month, an author whose book was listed on the podcast tweeted about how honored they were for their book to be “on my radar.” I’d like to be clear about something. These book listings aren’t something you have to earn. They aren’t a prize to be won. They aren’t meant to be a difficult achievement. Quite honestly, they aren’t even an endorsement. The book listings are meant as a public service. A place to find out about f/f historicals you might want to follow up on and check out. Because to the best of my knowledge there is no other single place that is assembling this specific set of information. So if you have an f/f historical coming out, don’t sit there in a corner whispering to yourself, “Oh please Heather, please mention my book, please.” Because that’s not what this is about. Send me a link, a press release, a carrier pigeon with a promotional bookmark tied to its leg, anything. That’s all it takes to get your book mentioned. Really.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? I saw an absolutely gorgeous f/f costume flick: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 18th century France, it’s an intensely psychological story about a reclusive young woman and the woman who comes to paint her portrait as a gift for the woman’s prospective husband. It doesn’t have a traditional romance ending, but is overall a positive story with beautiful costuming and sets. The story is very woman-centered. It’s in French with subtitles and you may need to hunt around for an art-house theater or wait for it to come out on video.
Similar in tone, in that it is a very woman-centered story but with an unflinching look at unpleasant aspects of history, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which I mentioned in last month’s book round-up. When I was checking out the preview for my mini-reviews write-up (available to Patreon supporters of the show) I found myself describing it as beautifully written, but out of sync with the sort of prose I was likely to enjoy reading. But even as I wrote that, it occurred to me that it was exactly the sort of prose that I enjoyed in audio narration--a text with a strong, idiosyncratic story-telling voice. And so I bought the audiobook and was on the nose in thinking I might enjoy it that way. It’s a very dark story, focusing on an episode of witch trials in 17th century Norway, though it has a lovely same-sex romance between the viewpoint characters. I haven’t finished it yet, so I don’t know whether it will end in tragedy or relief. When I review it, I’ll hide a spoiler on that point for those who need that information to know whether they want to read it.
In text, I just finished Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Sundering Flames, the final book in her very-alternate historical fantasy series set in a magically devastated Paris with fallen angels warring with Vietnamese dragon princes. It’s relevant to the podcast, not only for the sort-of early 20th century setting, but for the inclusion of casually queer characters all over the place. It’s a delight to read a story where you can relax and know that you’ll find your identity reflected somewhere, without any fuss being made about it.
I also started reading Edale Lane’s Merchants of Milan, set among warring factions in Renaissance Italy. It isn’t quite hitting my sweet spot yet, but we’ll see.
For a complete change of pace, I’ve started reading the graphic novel Rose of Versailles about a gender-bending swordswoman in the court of Marie Antoinette. My understanding is that there’s a fair amount of same-sex flirtation, though not actual serious romance, but the art is lovely though I’m struggling a bit with the manga reading layout. I’m not used to the formatting of graphic novels designed for Japanese publication and I keep tracking the panels in the wrong direction!
What are you reading, watching, or listening to with queer women in history? Would you like to come on the podcast and talk about it? I’m always looking for people who’d like to share their favorites on the book appreciation segments.
Links and Notes
Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
New and forthcoming fiction
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This article winds up my topical group of articles related in some way to Sappho. Next week I plunge into a two-month series of books and articles focusing on the topic of friendship and how it relates to women's same-sex relationships.
Katz, Marilyn A. 2000. "Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece" in Signs vol. 25, no. 2 505-531.
I added this to the list on the basis of “Sappho” in the title, but there’s very little directly-relevant content. While this sort of “survey of the field” article is useful to mine for my to-read list, in general I’ve tried to avoid scheduling them as actual entries. In this case, I’d done the review before realizing it should have been in that category.
This is a publications survey essay, talking about recent (as of 2000) publications on the topic of women in classical antiquity. It starts by noting that a similar survey in 1976 found it possible to survey the entire topic in the form of a half-dozen or so publications, and that the current state of the field is much more satisfactory.
This much material focusing on classical women is especially remarkable, given the generally conservative state of the academic field of classical studies. A great deal of the expansion is due to scholars taking a women’s studies approach to Classics, reanalyzing existing material from new angles.
Within this general survey, there is a section specifically looking at “Sappho Studies”. Two collections are noted: Reading Sappho (critical studies) and Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs (including explorations of Sappho’s work in relation to a world “female-centered by contrast with the male domain of ‘hierarchical, agonistic relations.’” Also noted is Jane Snyder’s edition and analysis of Sappho’s work from a thematic point of view, Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho (see here for my summary). Similarly Margaret Wiliamson’s Sappho’s Immortal Daughters reviews her poetic technique and contextualizes the poems with their social milieu. Also mentioned is Joan DeJean’s analysis of how sexism and homophobia affected interpretations of Sappho’s life (Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937)
Another collection of studies is E. Greene’s Re-reading Sappho that looks at readings and interpretations of Sappho from the 17th century on. (I have this on my list but haven’t read it yet.) A more post-modern approach to interpreting and contextualizing Sappho is found in Sappho is Burning by Page DuBois.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43e - Talking to Ghosts by Caitlin Flavell - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/02/29 - listen here)
This episode starts the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 2020 fiction series. This year, I expanded the scope of the series to include historical stories with fantastic elements that fit the setting. Given that, you get to decide whether Caitlin Flavell’s story from Victorian Scotland, “Talking to Ghosts,” fits that category or not. Caitlin is a freelance writer and student, based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to the feminist magazine Clitbait. You can find links to that magazine and her social media in the show notes.
Although my ideal narrator for this story would have been Scottish, to match the setting, the tight turn-around after submissions closed means that I’ll be doing the narration. Short fiction narration is an art that is getting a lot of exposure with the popularity of fiction podcasts and I’m always hoping for the perfect narrator for the stories I buy, finding someone who not only is skilled at making the prose and characters come alive, but who is comfortable with the cultural setting--the names and vocabulary--as well as with the language rhythms specific for each tale. That’s a rather high bar to meet, especially given that a professional narrator is also expected to be their own sound engineer and audio editor. (Lest it isn’t clear, I definitely pay narrators, except for myself.) Setting out my ideal goals creates a risk that great potential narrators may self-reject because they don’t nail every single one of the qualifications. If you think you might be a good narrator for one of the upcoming stories, please contact me to discuss. I’m specifically looking for someone comfortable with Yiddish names and vocabulary of late 19th century Russia, and I have a story set in medieval Provence that would be ideal for someone who’s studied Langedoc poetry of the troubadour era. Think about it.
And now, on with the story.
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.
Talking to Ghosts
by Caitlin Flavell
When the news broke that the esteemed Professor Johnathan J. Brownrigg had died, only three of his four daughters cried.
Eloise immediately broke into noisy, dramatic sobs, as was her wont. Maria clutched her younger sister to her chest and wept bitterly, though without the flair and panache of Eloise. Sophia stood still, and silent, but tears streamed freely down her face all the same.
Henrietta did not cry at all.
She felt as though she were oddly outside herself, staring through a window at the grief-stricken scene playing out against the backdrop of their hallway. She noticed little details: the elegant lacing on Eloise’s dress, the late afternoon light peering through the little window in the front door, the sketch that their father had made of their mother that hung on the wall—he would never draw again. The thought hit her like an oncoming steam train, and still, she could not cry.
“Henrietta?” She heard her mother’s voice as if from a great distance.
“I—I have to go.” She mumbled through numb lips, and reached blindly for the coat hanging on the stand. She shoved her way through the small crowd of Brownrigg women gathered in the hallway and out onto the bustling Edinburgh street.
“Harry!” She thought she heard someone cry behind her, but she had built up too much momentum to turn around now, and so she kept walking, her feet propelled by an unfamiliar, desperate force.
She was not sure how long she walked for. Her feet ached, but then, her whole body ached with a ceaseless, gut-deep pain. It was bitterly cold, the January wind biting right through her. What were the Brownriggs going to do now? They had no source of income beyond the salary paid to their father by the Government School of Art. Maybe they could take up sewing, or start a laundry. Did their father own their house? She wasn’t sure—
She looked up, startled, as someone reached out and grabbed her shoulder. The impression of a tall and narrow man with curling blonde hair swam before her eyes before she could focus properly. It was Huw, her childhood friend and a student of her father’s.
“What’s wrong? You’ve gone all white and shaking,”
For a moment she could not remember how to speak, the concern on Huw’s face painting his brow darker and darker, until finally she managed to choke out the words.
“Father has died.”
Huw’s mouth fell open, and he jerked away from her as though she had physically hit him.
All she could do was nod.
“He—he had pneumonia,” she said, her voice hoarse as though she had been crying, even if the tears still would not come.
“I didn’t even know,” Huw said, face pale.
“It was very quick.”
He reached out wordlessly and pulled her into his arms, pressing his face into her shoulder, not caring about the propriety of it. She carefully wrapped her arms around him in return, fisting her hands in his shabby velvet jacket to hide the fact that they were shaking.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” Huw mumbled, in a wet kind of voice. “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Huw escorted her back to the townhouse in Comely Bank, holding her hand tightly in his own. Her mother opened the door and gulped back a sob at seeing the two of them. She grabbed Henrietta, pulling her inside and by extension pulling Huw as well.
“Don’t ever run off like that again,” She scolded, wiping the tears from her face as she dusted imaginary dirt from Henrietta’s shoulders. “Your sisters need you right now.”
“I know,” She said.
The three of them sat at the old wooden table in the kitchen, the one where she had often taken breakfast with her father before he departed for work, where he had sat and sketched in charcoal whilst his wife entertained in the sitting room or his daughters played at his feet. She traced the dark veins in the grey planks and sighed.
“If there is anything I can do to help,” Huw said, as disgustingly earnest as he always was, “please let me know.”
“Oh, my sweet boy,” Jane said, brushing a loose strand of hair back behind his ear. “You are as much a part of this family as Harry is, by now.”
Huw nodded, scrubbing a hand across his face to hide his watery eyes.
“We have been very lucky,” Jane said, and Henrietta scoffed. “Do not make noises like that, Harry, it’s not ladylike. Your father had some money in savings, and he owned this house outright. If the five of us band together, we will continue to support ourselves just fine. I will find work sewing, or perhaps at one of the printing factories—”
“No, Mrs Brownrigg,” Huw said. “Don’t go there, it’s awful work.”
“He’s right, Mama,” Henrietta said. “You’ll kill yourself. I shall find a husband that can support us all.”
Both parties looked up at her, Huw in shock and Jane in pity.
“Harry, I fear you are being naïve,” Jane said gently. “It is a very rare man that will take on such a financial burden.”
“Well, even if he wouldn’t support all of you, it would be one less girl for you to feed,” Henrietta said.
“Your father…didn’t want to rush you,” Jane said, haltingly. “He wanted you to be happy, when you left this house.”
“I know,” Henrietta said, and finally the tears came, and she buried her face in her hands as Jane stood up and moved round the table to embrace her.
“My sweet girl,” she murmured, tears streaming freely down her own face even as she comforted her eldest daughter. “He would not stand for tears, if he were here. We must carry on, with virtue and fortitude.”
“I know,” Harry sobbed.
And so it came to be that the house in Comely Bank was cold and dark for many weeks. Each of the five women resident within were pale-faced and tired, occasionally joined by Huw, who would wring his hands and offer his meagre savings to them any time work was mentioned.
“Stop it, Huw!” Harry finally snapped at him one day. “We are not going to take your money, and Lord knows you need it more than we do!”
He moped at her and left, and Jane indicated to her that she should apologise. She huffed but obliged. Unfortunately the Queen was making a visit to Holyrood that day, and crowds and crowds of people were swarming towards the Royal Mile, and Huw had vanished.
She walked, aimlessly, until she was arrested by a large wooden board that stated in bright purple letters “TALK WITH DEAD LOVED ONES TODAY!” that was hung on the side of a building. Underneath that in smaller script were the words “the Magnificent Medium, Madame Lascaux.”
She looked around and realised she was in a part of town that she didn’t recognise at all. She thought she was in the Old Town, judging from the rundown state of the houses, but neither the castle nor Holyrood Palace could be seen anywhere. The sign, however, was insistent at the edges of her attention, flashing its outrageous message out of the corner of her eye wherever she looked.
Finally, she gave in, and knocked at the stained wooden door that stood underneath it. There was no answer, so she cautiously pressed and the door opened easily before her. Inside, she found herself in a cramped, dark hallway that smelt strongly of spices and wax candles, with strange artwork hung on the walls and strings of beads adorning the doorways.
“Hello?” she called nervously and a young woman pushed her way into the hallway and looked at her, startled.
“What do you want?” she asked. She was shorter than Harry, with dark skin and darker freckles sprinkled delicately across the bridge of her nose. A mass of tightly curled hair was held back from her face in a brightly patterned scarf, and she wore a lace shawl that shimmered with pretty beads.
“I—I’m sorry,” Harry stuttered, thrown violently from the reverie that the purple sign seemed to have put her in. “I have no idea what I’m doing here—I should go—”
“Wait,” The young woman said, sharply. “Do you wish to contact the dead, my dear?”
Harry stared at her, totally undone by the eclectic mishmash of her clothing, and the pleasant smell wafting through the apartment, and merely nodded her head. There was nothing more she wanted in all the world.
“What’s your name?”
“Come on, Henrietta,” the woman said, grabbing Harry’s pale hand in her own, and dragging her through the doorway into another small room. Harry felt incredibly out of place in her sensible blue dress and little hat pinned firmly to her mousy hair, next to this woman in a mass of bright colours. She wore huge chandelier earrings that sparkled and threw the light whenever she turned her head.
The second room had only a round table in it with a few old chairs and the walls were covered floor to ceiling in photographs. Old and young, happy and sad faces in foggy black and white stared at Harry from every wall as she gaped.
“Where did you get all these?” she asked, voice strangely hoarse.
“People give them to me,” The woman said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Stop dawdling about and sit down.”
She lit a few candles before pulling the curtains on the solitary window closed. This threw them into a strange twilight, lit only by the afternoon light that got in around the edges of the curtains and the sparse candles.
“Now, who is it you wish to contact? Have you lost someone recently?”
Harry wasn’t sure if five weeks was recent, actually, but she nodded her head.
“Grandmother? Aunt? Parent? Yes, a parent,” the woman said. “I am the magnificent medium, Madame Lascaux, and I will be your connection to the spirit world, your guide as we journey to find the one you are looking for…?”
“My father,” Harry croaked.
“The late Professor Brownrigg.”
“Yes,” Harry sucked in a shocked breath. “How could you—”
“I see many spirits pass from this world to the next, and they tell me many things,” she said. Her eyes, a deep, warm brown, glinted in the candlelight. “Now, take my hand,”
Harry did, closing her eyes.
“When did you last see your father?”
“I—in the hospital,” Harry said. “The iron lung. He looked small and pale. It was horrible.”
“When did you last see your father as he truly was in life?”
Harry narrowed her eyes at her. “Do any of us know who another truly is?”
“An interesting answer.” Her lips curled in a wry smile. “Before he got sick, then.”
“We had breakfast together before he went to work, as we always do. He kissed each of us goodbye. He left. He didn’t come home again. It was January, it was bitter cold. It was…so fast.”
“Think of him as he was,” Lascaux said, closing her eyes. “Let your memory of him flow through you.”
Harry closed her eyes as well, wrinkling her nose as the smell of the incense seemed to grow stronger. Her head felt…fuzzy.
“Johnathan…” Lascaux murmured, quietly. “If you are there…your daughter wishes to speak with you…”
Henrietta felt a twisting, roiling anticipation in her gut.
“I’m sensing…a special name, a pet name, that he is calling for you by…it’s not quite coming through…”
“Is it—is it Harry?” she asked, hoarsely.
“Yes, Harry…he is speaking to me…my dear Harry…”
Harry gasped as she was struck by a barrage of sensation: her father kissing her on the forehead before he had left, the smell of turpentine, the rough low sound of his voice.
“Is he here?” she gasped, voice thick and wet with repressed emotion. Her eyes remained closed.
“Yes,” Lascaux said. Her voice sounded different; deeper, more distant. Harry felt her hands tighten around her own and the table began to shudder. “Say what you wish to say.”
“Father…” Harry said, and was struck dumb. She had no idea what to say. “Father, I love you. We miss you.”
“He knows,” Lascaux said. Her hands left Harry’s, and Harry, though she felt lost in a fog cloud of memories of her father, thought she heard the faint noise of the table creaking.
She was torn from her reverie as the curtains were thrown open, flooding the room with light. She blinked her eyes open blearily to see Lascaux blowing out the candles and dusting off the table.
“Is—is he gone?”
“Unfortunately, my dear, the connections we make with the spirit are tenuous and fleeting,” Lascaux said, pushing her hair back from her face and tying the coloured scarf tight. “That will be two shillings.”
“What?” Harry said, unsure where she was.
“Two shillings, Miss Brownrigg,” she said. “This is how I make a living, after all.”
Harry reached for her purse, fumbling out a few coins and passed them to her. She was unable to forget what she had felt in the dark, the certainty that she had had that her father was nearby.
“Can—can I come back?” she asked, a sense of desperation creeping over her as she felt the memories of the sensations start to fade.
“I’m sorry?” Lascaux looked up from the candles.
“Can I come back again? And you can do…that, again?” Harry said, struggling to keep tears from her eyes.
“I—yes. Of course. It will still cost two shillings.” Lascaux said.
“If you come back next week, I should be ready to venture to the spirit world once more. Bring something that represents a connection between yourself and your father,” Lascaux said. She hurried Harry out of the door, called, “Have a pleasant day!” and then firmly shut the door behind her.
Harry stood in the street for a very long time, staring at her reflection in the puddle of water at her feet without really seeing it. She only looked up when she realised it was getting dark, and the street she was in was devoid of streetlights. She trudged home, water seeping into her boots, and when she knocked at the front door her mother answered it with vengeance in her eyes.
“Henrietta Brownrigg, where, in the name of the good Lord, have you been?”
Harry stared, unable to answer her.
“Come inside at once.” Mother grabbed her arm and tugged her inside, where Sophia and Huw were sitting at the kitchen table. “Apologise to Huw.”
“For sending him out searching for you all over Edinburgh, and for worrying us all sick.”
“Sorry,” Harry muttered.
“Goodness me,” Jane said, and then pulled her into a tight hug. “Shame on me for raising such wilful children, I suppose.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Harry said again, returning the hug. Huw and Sophia both stood up and joined the two of them. “I’m sorry, everyone. I lost track of time.”
A week could not pass quickly enough. Harry walked around the house as though in a trance; though she tried to read, to draw, she could not get the thought of the séance out of her mind, and she especially could not forget the look of Madame Lascaux’s eyes reflecting the candlelight.
Nobody noticed, of course, for they were all of them wrapped up in their own grief and assumed that Harry was the same. Eloise on occasion attempted to get her to come out walking with her, but Harry turned her down in favour of sitting in the window seat and looking at the sketches she had retrieved from her father’s possessions. Jane began to receive sewing from various ladies in Comely Bank, and Maria helped her, the two of them sitting at the kitchen table and sewing until their fingers bled. Sophia, ever the independent, went and found employment for herself as a maid in one of the big houses on Frederick Street.
On the seventh day, Harry took some pencil drawings that she had done with her father’s supervision and went back to the Old Town.
Madame Lascaux opened the door tentatively, peering out at her.
“Oh. You came back.”
“Yes. Of course I did,” Harry said, holding her bag awkwardly in front of her. “Are you still willing to…contact the dead again?”
“Come in,” Lascaux said, and led Harry back into the séance room. Harry opened her bag and pulled out the drawings; pictures of their house, a few portraits of her sisters.
“Yes, yes, these are good,” Lascaux said. She immediately reached out and grabbed the one portrait of her father. “This is him?”
“You’re actually quite talented, eh?” she muttered, examining every pencil stroke on the thick sketching paper. “This is a good likeness.”
“Father was a good teacher,” was all Harry said.
“Let me lay these out…” Lascaux said, setting the pictures out in an order only she understood. “Now, tell me something about yourself.”
“Not about Father?”
“No, you.” Lascaux said. “The person trying to make the connection is just as important as the spirit we are trying to contact.”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I’m just like any woman, really…I went to school at St George’s until I was fourteen, then when I left I took classes with my father, mostly because he was there and he was a teacher.”
“What was that like?”
“Not many of his students were pleased to have a girl in their classes, actually.” Harry said, smirking a little. “But Father didn’t care, and I didn’t care. I was the only one of my sisters to take an interest in the fine arts; the others have their own hobbies.”
“And you are not married?”
Harry looked down at her hands, suddenly uncomfortable with looking her in the eyes. “Forgive my frankness, though I feel I can be frank with you. Men have never been a source of curiosity for me, as they are for my sisters. I prefer books.”
“Books?” Lascaux smiled that wry smile again.
“I imagine I will be married one day, as all women are. But I’m in no hurry.”
“Wise.” Lascaux remarked, moving her hands seemingly at random over each of the portraits on the table.
“Are you married?” Harry asked, and Lascaux looked up in surprise.
“Would you like to be?”
She stared for a moment, as if unsure what Harry meant, and then said “Are you proposing?”
Harry laughed, loudly and freely, for what felt like the first time in weeks. “My father would have liked you.”
“Everyone likes me,” Lascaux said, shrugging. “Now, take my hand.”
Once again, the room was darkened and the candles lit. Harry closed her eyes, inhaling the now familiar smell of the incense, and waited.
“Johnathan…” Lascaux murmured. “Your daughter is here once more. If you are present, please speak with us.”
Harry felt herself begin to drift; the dark, the firm grip of Lascaux’s hands in hers, it all began to fade away.
“There is someone here…Harry…” Lascaux said. “Do you remember the last thing I said to you?”
“Do you mean—what Mother told me? About getting married?”
“Yes…that…remember it well…” Lascaux’s voice had gone throaty and hoarse again, as if someone else was speaking through her.
“I shall,” Harry said.
“Tell your sisters I love them as well. Tell Eloise that there is more to life than pretty dresses.”
Harry gasped softly, tightening her grip on Lascaux’s hands. She could feel it once more, the sensation of her father close by, the smell of his old tweed coat. She began to cry, silently, as Lascaux rose and opened the curtains once again.
“Here,” Harry said, pulling the money from her purse and shoving it at her as she wiped her eyes. “I’ll come back next week.”
Lascaux’s expression was closed, indeterminable. “You may return. Be warned—spirits will move on eventually.”
“I’ll deal with that when it arrives,” Harry said. Lascaux reached out and took her hand again, squeezing it tight, before leading her to the door again.
“Thank you, Madame Lascaux.”
Lascaux bit her lip, seeming to consider something. “Call me Paola. Please. Madame Lascaux is a silly stage name.”
“Well, if you insist. Paola.”
So Harry visited the medium the next week, and the week after that, and every time she asked if she could come back Paola looked at her in surprise, but acquiesced. By the fourth visit, Harry had stop coming to feel close to her father, and more because she was so utterly fascinated by Paola’s work. And she liked the way she felt when she smiled that wry smile at her. She began to ask questions. “Where did you learn to do this? How do you know which spirit to look for? What does it feel like?”
Paola would answer vaguely, but the more Harry asked, the harsher her responses would become.
On her fifth visit, Paola sat down at the table and paused, staring at one of the photographs on the wall before looking to Harry with a sombre expression.
“Your father is no longer nearby. He has passed on to the other side.”
“Oh,” Harry said, swaying in place. “I see.”
“I’m sorry, Harry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Harry said, automatically. She stood up and walked out without saying anything more, stopping only to throw a couple more coins down on the table—the last of her savings.
“You don’t have to pay—”
Harry walked out without listening, stumbling onto the cobbled Old Town street and looking up and down, uncertain of the direction home was in. Eventually she came back to her senses and trudged home, turning her felt hat over and over in her hands until it became crumpled. When she realised she had ruined it, she simply dropped it by the side of the road.
She lay awake all night, turning over and over, watching Sophia sleeping in the bed next to her, but still never slipping away. The next morning, the doorbell rang, and she opened it with bleary, baggy eyes. It was Huw, wearing his nicest jacket and a silk tie.
“Oh, it’s you. Come in,” she said, stepping aside to let him enter.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“Of course,” she said, a little sharp. “Why do you ask?”
“You look a little…” He gestured in front of his face. “Never mind.”
“It’s not appropriate to comment on a lady’s appearance,” she said, too tired to care about sounding snippy.
Huw took a deep breath, nodding to himself. “Can I speak with you?”
The two of them sat down at the kitchen table, Huw upright and nervous, Harry slumped and grey. Huw took another deep breath.
“I have been…mulling something over, for a while. I know that you would be too proud to ever accept money from me—”
“It is not pride, Huw, you need that money for yourself—” Harry interrupted hotly and he nodded, waving her away.
“I know, I know, but I had an idea.” He had a hand in his jacket pocket, twisting something over and over. “We are close friends, yes?”
“Of course. Always.”
He drew his hand from his pocket, revealing a battered gold signet ring. “I couldn’t afford a new ring, but this was my father’s—I feel that it would make sense, the two of us, nobody else knows me as well as you do—and this way I can support you, I have been talking to someone at Jenner’s about a job as an accountant—”
“Wait,” she said, holding up a hand. “I thought you were going to be an artist?”
He paused, looking at her strangely. “That is the part you’re questioning?”
“Well, when have you ever wanted to be an accountant—”
“Henrietta,” he interrupted, placing the ring on the table in front of her. “Would you like to get married?”
She gulped, staring down at the ring. For some reason, she could not stop thinking about Paola.
“I can’t ask that of you,” she said, through numb lips. “To give up on your art. Father always said you were good.”
“It won’t be a great hardship,” Huw said. “And you need money. The rest of your family have found ways to support themselves.”
She nodded, absent-mindedly, then stood up abruptly. “I have to go.”
“Harry!” Huw tried to stop her, but she was already out the front door, running up the road in her old heeled boots—they were falling apart, and she had spent all her money on the medium—until she reached the narrow street in Old Town. Puffing, she hammered on the door of Paola’s apartment.
She answered the door warily, peering out at Henrietta, whose hair had fallen from its updo and was lying loose around her face like she was a child again. “Harry? I thought I told you your father had passed on.”
“I need—some advice,” Harry panted. “You do—fortune telling—don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Paola said, looking at her as though she had gone mad.
“Wait—” Harry said. “I have no money left. Never mind. I’ll go—”
“Oh, for the love of God,” Paola said, grabbing Harry by the wrist and pulling her inside. “Forget about it, you’re the only customer I’ve ever had that came back.”
Harry let herself be dragged into the photograph room, noticing that some of them had been removed and replaced with others. Paola took a pack of cards as if from nowhere and began shuffling them in her hands over and over, turning them round and ruffling the cards like an expert. She fanned them out onto the table and gestured to Harry.
“Pick a card.”
Harry took one and turned it over: a man in red robes standing in front of a table with a hand upraised. The label underneath read “The Magician”.
“What does that mean?” she asked. Paola did not answer for a long time, staring at the card with her fingers steepled in front of her face.
“Harry, I have something I should confess to you.” Paola said, eventually.
“I cannot contact the dead.”
“I have been fooling you.” Paola’s eyes, brown flecked with green and gold, stared guiltily at her. “It’s how I make my living. And it’s why none of my clients ever return.”
Harry stared at her, unable to really process any of what she had said. “You…you knew who my father was, when I came in.”
“I read the obituaries every week.”
“I—I could feel him, when I was here. I sensed him.”
Paola spread her hands apologetically. “It was what you were desperate to feel. When I offered you the opportunity…your mind took it, and gave you what you wanted.”
Harry stared at her a little longer, unsure what to do.
“Can I continue the reading?”
Slowly, she nodded, and turned over another card. It was upside down; a man and a woman, naked, standing in front of a huge winged angel in the sky. The Lovers.
“What was it you wanted advice about?”
“I received a marriage proposal.” Harry said.
“Do you love him?”
“As a brother. Though the match makes sense, I suppose. He wants to help.”
Paola’s eyes crinkled as she smiled her wry smile, enigmatic as always. “I don’t think you should accept. Turn over the last card.”
It was a young man sitting at a workbench, crafting coins with a chisel. The Eight of Coins.
Paola nodded, as if she had expected it. “You should take up drawing again.”
“It is an unconventional career path for a woman, but I believe the cards are telling you to master your skill.”
“How do I know you aren’t lying to me again?” Harry asked, annoyed at how petulant she sounded.
“You don’t. The cards don’t lie, though.”
“Why shouldn’t I accept Huw’s proposal?” Harry said, crossing her arms. “I mean, it makes sense. We’re friends, he’s going to be an accountant, even though I know it’s going to make him miserable. Maybe I need to settle down and—”
Paola stood up, moving around the table, and she took Harry’s face in her hands and she kissed her. Shocked, uncertain, Harry sat frozen for a long second before placing her hands over Paola’s and kissing her back.
She had never kissed anyone before, but it felt irredeemably right; soft lips on hers, the wild dark hair tickling her face as Paola leant over her. Eventually the two of them drew apart, and Harry drew in a soft breath, not wanting to open her eyes again.
“Don’t accept Huw’s proposal.” Paola whispered, leaning her forehead against Harry’s.
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I had meant to post this on Tuesday, as an immediate follow-up to the Hallett article it responds to. But it slipped my mind until I was updating my blog spreadsheet today. Oops! The blog has gotten a little thin lately, in part because building up a store of prepared material means I've allowed myself a minor vacation (to get other things done, like gardening!) but I have some reviews knocking at my door and other content that needs to get posted. Once I get past FOGCon, next week, which has been joyfully looming over my calendar for a while.
Stigers, Eva Stehle. 1979. “Romantic Sensuality, Poetic Sense: A Response to Hallett on Sappho” in SIgns vol 4, no 3: 465-471.
This is a response to Hallett’s article in the same volume of the journal and should be read in conjunction with it.
Stigers responds to several topics touched on in Hallett’s consideration of Sappho’s poetic voice and persona with respect to her personal life. It is acknowledged that special care must be taken when considering a poet writing in the first person. The poetic voice may be generalized or fictionalized or it may in fact represent the poet’s own experiences and emotions.
These questions are complicated with regard to Sappho because of the reactions that scholars have to the possibility that the homoerotic sentiments in her poetry represent her own desires and interests. Those reactions inevitably color their reception and interpretation of her poetry, influenced not only by the personal attitudes of the scholars but by the modern social context and attitudes towards homosexuality that they feel compelled to judge by. And, as Hallett notes, these responses and attitudes are applied in the case of Sappho in ways that they are not in the case of male poets with similar bodies of homoerotic work.
But Stigers disagrees with Hallett’s argumentation and conclusions. Even if one accepts that Sappho’s poems reflected a ritual role with respect to the young women that are their subjects, could that role be effective if the author dissociated herself from it? For that matter, how do the expressions of personal response--for example, the wish to die when abandoned--fit into the idea of celebrating a joyous social occasion? Even if there is a social context for institutionalized praise of young women in archaic Greek society, that doesn’t prove that Sappho’s works represent that tradition.
Stigers points out that Hallett has fallen into the trap of asserting that the absence of descriptions of physical sexual acts in Sappho’s poetry undermines the idea that she had homosexual interests, while the presence of passing implications of heterosexual activity can be understood as indicating Sappho’s personal orientation. Further, Hallett seems to consider all of the poetic fragments as equally useful in interpreting Sappho’s inclinations, both those where the first-person voice is general or communal, and the ones with highly personal and specific expressions.
One is on solid ground in arguing that whatever Sappho’s sexual preferences were, they were considered compatible with heterosexual marriage, but it is difficult to argue that there is equivalence between her expressions of emotion directed toward women and those presumed to reference men.
Stigers asserts that the overall tone of Hallett’s argumentation addresses the position that accepting Sappho’s sexual interest in women would require grappling with the accusation that this makes her psychologically “abnormal” and unusual for her historic context. Instead, Stigers suggests, within the context of archaic Greek society and its gender-segregated dynamics, a woman’s poetic contemplation of beauty, romantic attraction, and the pangs of romantic disappointment might only be expressible in a same-sex context. That, while every poem might not reflect a specific real-life relationship, the body of work could still represent a social and emotional reality that reflected Sappho’s personal experience. (Stigers points out that if similar criticism were applied to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, we would be debating whether it was possible for her to have died frequently across the span of her career.)
This fits well with the parallel that Hallett makes with homoerotic praise poetry addressed to young men. While one shouldn’t assume that every poem represents an actual specific sexual relationship on the part of the poet, such relationships did exist and are the context in which the poems were socially acceptable. Why should Sappho’s poetry be evaluated on an all-or-nothing basis?
Regarding the assertion that Sappho’s poems lack explicit indications of physical sexual relationships, Stigers discusses poem 94 L-P and its focus on physicality and language reasonably interpreted as orgasmic. When compared to Alcman’s “maiden songs,” his praise is formulaic and presented in terms similar to the praise of heroes (comparing the girl to a horse, for example) while Sappho’s praise is focused, not on physical appearance, but on the emotional reaction of the viewer and on sensual accompaniments to their shared experience. The result is an image of woman-centered experience, in contrast to Alcman’s male gaze (even when voiced by a feminine narrative persona).
The non-chronological way in which I read and blog about existing scholarship means that I'm often reading articles from a context that includes theories and analysis that was not available to the author at the time. It is, perhaps, not entirely fair of me to rail at an article, "But how can you conclude this when a decade later So-and-so will write a clear refutation of your claim!" For some topics, the entire context in which the subject is discussed has changed so drastically that the value of an earlier analysis is badly obscured by what are now considered invalid ways of approaching it.
I'm dealing with that problem at the moment as I read Garber's Vested Interests (on the general topic of cross-dressing and transvestism). The current conversation about gendered clothing and the contexts and meanings for wearing clothing that contrasts with one's assigned gender is very different from the conversations on that topic in 1992. Different enough that I'm not sure the book has any value today except as a snapshot of cultural attitudes at the time it was written (as opposed to its potential value as a historical study of the topic).
So keep that in mind as I splutter my interjected comments and objections in the summary below. Hallett is an excellent scholar, and her article on female homoeroticism in classical Roman literature is great. But today's article doesn't feel like it stands the test of time when set alongside other authors on the difficult question of the historic Sappho's sexuality.
Hallett, Judith. 1979. “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality. in Signs 4: 447-464.
This article contrast somewhat in tone from Hallett’s later (1997) article “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” on evidence both for the existence of, and attitudes toward, female homoeroticism. In the 1997 article, Hallett carefully builds the case for the realities of relations between women (though often realities that were disparaged by the patriarchal Roman establishment). But in this current article she seems bent on creating maximal doubt that homoeroticism was a part of the social and personal dynamic underlying Sappho’s poetry. To be fair, the cultures addressed in the two articles are quite different, regardless of the modern tendency to conflate the whole classical world into a single impression. But there's a striking contrast between Hallet's analysis here and the evidence and conclusions presented by Lardinois (1989) a decade later (but based on data that was surely available to Hallett as well) which found solid support for a homoerotic Sappho.
[Note: in this summary, I’m going to be interspersing my own commentary without necessarily calling it out with square brackets, although I may use brackets to set off some comments. The next LHMP entry includes a scholarly response to this article that appeared in the same volume of the journal and shows that some of my questions were also raised at the time.]
Hallett takes a deep dive into the nature and reception of Sappho’s life and work across the ages, and what the evidence is for the underlying truth. This is a topic on which different researchers have had very different conclusions and--as Hallett herself points out--makes Sappho a canvas on which scholars have painted their own prejudices.
Classical authors had difficulty grappling with a supremely talented woman who apparently wrote about very personal experiences. Some dealt with this by classifying her, not among the great poets, but among the Muses, thereby erasing human talent and agency from the equation. (Others did include her among great human poets.) The literal mythologizing of Sappho’s life continued with Ovid’s invention of the Phaon story in his Heroides, which was seized on thereafter by those who were uncomfortable with the image of Sappho as having homoerotic relationships.
Early commenters on her life dealt with this image largely by raising it only to dismiss it. A text associated with the Roman writer Horace cites the epithet Sappho mascula (masculine Sappho) as being due to her “being maligned as having been a tribad” and her 10th century biography in the Suda says she was “slanderously accused of shameful intimacy with certain of her female pupils.” These references certainly support the conclusion that Sappho had such a reputation, but are nearly useless on the question of whether that reputation was true.
But here Hallett’s framing of the evidence becomes questionably slanted (in my opinion) when she notes that a 4th century Greek author remarks that Sappho praised her paidika using the feminine form of paidikos, which has the default meaning of the youthful beloved of a male homoerotic relationship. Hallett notes that the text “is only talking about verbal expressions of passion ... [and] cannot truly be regarded as testimony to Sappho’s sexual habits.”
This strikes me as setting an extraordinary bar for such testimony, given that the discussion follows with a citation of various texts with evidence suggesting that “Sappho’s primary erotic allegiances were heterosexual” all of which are even more tangential to the question of personal erotic experience (references to a husband and child, the Phaon story). Also noted is that the texts that express unease over Sappho’s homoerotic reputation do not similarly express unease over acknowledging the homoerotic relationships of male poets. Men could be neutrally acknowledged as bisexual even within cultures that had negative views of homosexuality, but Sappho must either have same-sex relationships denied or disparaged. [Note: this strikes me as saying far more about attitudes of the authors writing the commentary, rather than providing evidence about Sappho’s life.]
Modern scholars are more likely to deal with Sappho as a human being rather than a mythic figure, and in recent years are more inclined to take her homoerotic relationships as established fact. Hallett suggests that they do so to the exclusion of evaluating her poetry itself. And once again, she notes, modern scholars are far less likely to obsess over the sexual proclivities of male Greek authors than they are to obsess over Sappho's hypothetical sexuality.
This dichotomy in how homosexual possibilities among men and women are discussed has resulted in Sappho receiving differential and inequitable treatment from scholars from the Hellenistic period to the present. But Hallett then proposes that the content of Sappho’s poetry may not validly represent “female homosexuality” at all, but rather that she thinks it may be evidence that her poetry served the public function of “instilling sensual awareness and sexual self-esteem and of facilitating role adjustment in young females coming of age in a sexually segregated society.” And further, that it may be a mistake to assume that the sentiments expressed in Sappho’s poems represent her own personal experiences at all. [Note: in other words, Hallett is proposing that the homoerotic themes in Sappho's poetry are the functional equivalent of "girls who enjoy kissing each other are just practicing for kissing men."]
Negative reactions to female homosexuality have inspired people to discredit Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but that reputation, Hallett asserts, has only gained significant currency in recent years. [Note: In my podcast presenting translations and interpretations of Sappho’s poetry across the centuries, I also include a brief summary of references to the poet’s homoerotic reputation starting at least as early as 1500.] The modern sense of the words “Sapphic” and “Lesbian” is thought to be responsible for this backward projection of Sappho’s personal preferences but, Hallett asserts, the set of related words with that meaning was only introduced into English in the last decade of the 19th century in the context of sexologists discussing homosexuality as a phychopathology.
[Note: As Hallett leans heavily on the Oxford English Dictionary citations for this assertion of recency, I would like to point once more to an article laying out how earlier and more clearly sexual usage for words in the sapphic/lesbian range was deliberately excluded from the OED. The claim that homoerotic senses of words derived from Sappho and Lesbos are very recent evidently must be debunked again and again. Lately I've been hearing it a lot in commentary on the Anne Lister tv series, with people claiming that "they didn't even have words for what they were feeling, back then." But see my podcast When Did We Become Lesbians? for a review of much earlier examples.]
The classical sources that mention Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, Hallett notes, frame it as slander. [But does that mean it was slander in the sense of being false, or that attitudes towards female homoeroticism made the charge inherently slanderous? I don’t see this as an argument against the possible truth of the claim.] Moreover the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry that include emotional responses to the beauty of women do not include “decisive evidence that she participated in homosexual acts” [i.e., don’t include explicit descriptions of genital activity]. Hallett acknowledges that this may be only “tasteful reticence” and points out a parallel with a vase painting depicting two women performing a “chin-chuck gesture,” which was understood as indicating erotic interest/activity, but not depicting intercourse (whereas male couples in art were sometimes depicted as unambiguously engaging in sex acts). Hallett also notes that there may have been more explicit content in poems that have been lost or deliberately excluded from the surviving material. However the poems do include first-person expressions of strong physical responses in same-sex contexts.
Hallett now moves to her theory that the interpretation of these passages as indicating personal homoerotic interest is due to imposing modern ideas about gendered sexual behavior. Specifically, she points to the fact that archaic Greek society was extremely gender-segregated and that women could not expect to receive romantic love and sexual satisfaction from a husband. The “wedding poems” focus on the desirability of the young women and their upcoming change of status and loss of “maidenhood”. Their education in sensual experiences and sexual awareness could only (in this social context) have come from other women. This, Hallett suggests, was the true purpose of Sappho’s poems: to awaken young women to sensual awareness and prepare them for marriage.
Male and female experiences within gender-segregated socializing would quite distinct. For the most part, “public life” (politics, education, athletics) were exclusively a male sphere and included an acceptance of male same-sex liaisons of an age-differentiated character. Male praise and esteem of male beauty was an accepted and approved rhetorical mode without necessarily indicating a specific sexual relationship in every case. [Note: and yet, it did encompass sexual relationships in many cases.] Similar same-sex praise of the beauty of women could presumably have been institutionalized and accepted without necessarily indicating personal erotic relationships. And there is evidence (from male authors) that the sharing of sexual knowledge was part of women’s homosocial socializing.
When considering to what extent Sappho’s poems reflect her own emotional responses, rather than being part of a formal tradition, Hallett compares them to the “maiden songs” of the male poet Alcman from a similar era. These are accepted as formal compositions intended to be performed by women, and that therefore the first-person expressions in them clearly cannot be taken as Alcman’s own personal emotions.
Hallett concludes by acknowledging that while Sappho may well have had homosexual relationships, this question isn’t necessarily relevant to understanding and appreciating her poetry.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43d - The Evolution of Butch as a Lesbian Signifier - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/02/22 - listen here)
Special Note: A slide-show version of this podcast will be available to Patreon sponsors of either the LHMP or TLT (See links at the end of the post) Slide-show will go live of 2020/02/23.
In an iconic scene from the classic black and white movie Queen Christina, Greta Garbo stands at the prow of a ship wearing a doublet and feathered hat, sailing away from her crown and off to adventure. In Morocco, the fabulous Marlene Dietrich in a form-fitting tuxedo serenades and kisses a female nightclub patron. In the more recent period drama The Favourite, Rachael Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough strides through the queen’s chambers wearing high black leather boots and breeches.
These scenes have two things in common: from a queer perspective, they are hot, hot hot! And one of the things that makes them hot, is the strategic use of male-coded clothing on an unambiguously female body. But when and how did these two features become joined together?
F/f historical fiction and visual media are full of women whose romantic and sexual interests are signaled to the consumer by the strategic use of male-coded garments. And 20th century lesbian culture (using “lesbian” in the broadest sense) has a fascination with butch stylings. To the audience, these signifiers can be read either as deliberately indicating the wearer’s own orientation, or as being inherently attractive to the woman-loving woman. To a contemporary viewer, this connection may seem so obvious that we don’t question whether it has always existed. So let’s explore the question of how and when it developed. For the author of f/f historical fiction, it can be very useful to know how your characters might have understood “mannish” clothing, and what forms it might have taken in the era being written about.
I’ve previously discussed how some past cultures considered that desire for the female body was an inherently masculine experience, and that therefore women who desired women were viewed as behaving like men. I’ve also previously discussed the use of gender disguise to enable two women to appropriate the forms of heterosexual marriage in order to have their relationship recognized--as well as the ambiguous territory between that and transmasculine lives. Today’s show inevitably touches on behavioral masculinity as well as masculinity in dress. Both themes contribute to the development of butch images, and both threads are part of the weave, but today’s show will revolve primarily around clothing.
Historic Attitudes Toward Clothing Gender
The historic relationship in popular imagination between female same-sex desire and masculine-coded presentation is complex. Clothing and behavior are inevitably assigned gendered meaning, but those meanings aren’t static and fixed. In ancient Greece and Rome, manly men railed against the wearing of trousers because it was an effeminate Persian practice. Real men wore tunics. So the issues around gendered clothing are rarely about objective features of the clothing itself, but about the meanings assigned to those garments.
Aside from the question of what counted as a masculine or feminine garment, there was the question of how society interpreted wearing garments associated with a different gender. This is part of a larger question of how society reacted to people wearing garments associated with any category they didn’t belong to. Pre-modern society didn’t necessarily see clothing as an arbitrary accessory to one’s identity; clothing was your identity, in some essential sense. Sumptuary laws weren’t only concerned about people overspending their clothing budgets but also that people might wear clothing that was above their station and thus lay claim to rank. (I’m waving hi to my girlfriend Lauri at this point, because this is a vast oversimplification of her academic field!)
Cross-dressing was a concern, not only because it might confuse or deceive the observer, but because it might directly affect the gender of the wearer. This fairly extreme understanding of the expression “clothes make the man” began to fade around the 16th century, but that only gave rise to a more complex anxiety about gender confusion in clothing.
When historic texts talk about women openly wearing male-coded garments, we are dealing with concerns that the women will either gain or claim male attributes, but we also need to look more closely at how people understood “male attributes”. So let’s look at that question a bit.
Gendered Clothing Confers Gender Characteristics
The most immediate aspect of male identity that a woman might claim would be the social freedom and status that men had in relation to women. If women could wear male garments, they might want legal equality, or the freedom to move through the world as beings with independence and agency. They might turn the entire social hierarchy upside down. They might want--as the saying goes--to wear the pants. In medieval and Renaissance iconography, the image of a man and woman fighting over a pair of pants--often in the form of male underpants--was used to signify the battle of the sexes and the specter of women claiming the upper hand over men. And when feminist movements began to gain traction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the hostility directed against feminists regularly brought up masculinity in clothing as both a symptom and cause of their political positions.
Types of social activities that were considered to be the prerogative of men--such as active sports--were another area where masculine clothing featured. This wasn’t simply a matter of masculine styles being more suited to physical activity. For one thing, the association was applied to intellectual pursuits as well as physical ones. But also, the adoption by women of masculine garments for active pursuits didn’t necessarily enable mobility.
One area where we can trace this association is in the fashions of women’s horseback riding garments. In the early modern period, we see women adopting design features of male garments for riding habits--and being called Amazons for doing so--but without discarding skirts and the awkward riding postures that they called for. Wearing a riding habit even when not on horseback became a symbol both of an active lifestyle but also a rejection of more feminine fashion conventions. I’ll touch back on that topic a bit later.
If you want a modern example of a similar phenomenon, consider the design of women’s business suits, that lay claim to a place in the world of upscale employment in a way that more “feminine” dresses don’t, while still being clearly female garments.
Moving into the realm of sexuality, the most fundamental difference in pre-modern culture was that men were expected to be the active, controlling partner in sex, while women were expected to be receptive and acted on, rather than being sexual agents. Of course, medieval people recognized that women had sexual appetites--perhaps even stronger ones than men did--but the essential gendering was not in what type of partner one chose, but in what role one took in sex. This meant that women who wore male garments were viewed as being sexually aggressive, or simply sexually unruly, because that was the spin put on women who behaved sexually in ways that were considered normal and expected for men. They might claim male agency in the right to have partners outside of marriage, to disdain chastity, and have the right to say both yes and no to sex. Sexual interest in women was considered masculine, but it wasn’t the only aspect of sexuality that was assigned to men.
Another sexual strand in the weave is the way cross-gender theatrical performance created same-sex possibilities in the erotic imagination. Considerations of how to interpret 16th century English theater with its boy-actors playing women pretending to be men falling in love with women who were also boy-actors...well, it was complicated. But more directly relevant to today’s topic, once women were allowed on the English stage in the 17th century, they were soon followed by the phenomenon of women playing male roles in male clothing (while still being openly known to be female actors) attracting the dual possibilities of male desire for female anatomy that was being more clearly displayed than usual, and female desire that could be excused as being for the role and not for the person playing it--oh, no, not at all! Heaven forbid! For that matter, women openly wearing male clothing in the context of performance could also offer cover to men who were attracted to the appearance of masculinity while being able to claim the reality of heterosexual relations.
Not all of these contexts and interpretations are directly related to same-sex attraction and desire, but together they created a context in which that association developed. So let’s look at a timeline of examples of that development, with increasingly overt homoerotic associations.
Cross-gender Garments Signifying Sexual Unruliness
At the very heart of the matter, women wearing masculine items of clothing symbolized gender non-compliance. They were the mark of a rule-breaker, and especially a sexual rule breaker. Covert cross-dressing might be read in the same way, if discovered, but masculine cross-dressing when the body underneath was openly female was a direct challenge. For male spectators, sexual rule-breaking was assumed to mean a lack of chastity, a sexual wantonness. It primarily focused on heterosexual transgressions of expected female behavior.
In a 14th century English account of a group of women showing up at a tournament in male clothing, two things are clear in the author’s mind: that they were women despite the clothing, and that their purpose included to “wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity display their bodies.” That they had “slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.” This was not a case of mere masculine stylings or individual male garments. They were dressed in complete male outfits. How the women themselves intended the event is not recorded, alas. And unlike similar scenes in chivalric literature, there’s no indication that any female spectators fell in love with the women. But our chronicler gave their performance a clearly sexual interpretation.
Intent is somewhat more in evidence in a number of records of women wearing masculine garments in a sexual context--or at least a sexualized one. In the 15th century, Joan White was arrested in London for being “wont to dance and make revels in her master’s house, sometimes in man’s clothing and sometimes naked.” There are even more London records in the next century of women, such as Helen Hudson, who are charged with prostitution being cited for wearing men’s clothing at the request of their clients. The descriptions don’t always make it clear how obvious the women’s actual sex was, but their partners at least can be presumed to be aware.
There are a couple of points to make with respect to these women. Any woman at that time who had extramarital sex could be considered a prostitute. An economic transaction wasn’t required, only illicit sex. The sexual associations of cross-gender garments suggest the interpretation that they may have been charged with prostitution because of the gender play, rather than engaging in gender play because they were prostitutes. But secondly, their sexual unruliness is either in the context of a heterosexual relationship or perhaps in a mock-enactment of a male-male relationship. The suggestion of female homoeroticism isn’t much mentioned in this context.
The anxieties of gender-blurring that began appearing in England in the 16th century and on into the next were both a crisis of category--OMG dogs and cats living together!--but specifically a crisis over women leaving the category of domestic modesty for that of sexual agency. The polemical tract Hic Mulier describes such clothing as: “exchanging ... the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice ... and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action.” Those unfamiliar with late 16th century clothing may need help envisioning the subtleties. The “modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown” can be imagined as a long, loose one-piece dress. Whereas much ado is made over the half-unbuttoned doublet--a sort of jacket--noted as being short to the waist. Both the unbuttoning and the short length are framed as being for the purpose of easy access to what lay beneath: the woman’s bosom. A woman choosing this outfit would be wearing it with a skirt, not trying to be read as a man. It was only the styling and tailoring of the garment that carried the suggestion of wantonness, partly in its physical design, partly in the wearer’s obvious lack of fucks. Well, or perhaps not a lack after all.
In one specific case, an early 17th century woman wearing this sort of hybrid-gender outfit is accused, at least obliquely, of being sexually wanton without regard to the gender of her partner. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse (about whom I did an entire podcast) was notorious for wearing a mix of male and female garments, typically a man’s doublet over a skirt. When her contemporary immortalized her as a stage character in The Roaring Girl, one character in the play suggests that Moll “might first cuckold the husband, and then make him do as much for the wife.” That is, that she might seduce both members of a couple in turn. I won’t claim that this is the first instance where we can find the intersection of female same-sex desire and the open wearing of male-coded garments, but it’s probably as solid an example as you’re going to get in that era, due to the sexual ribaldry of the play.
Theatrical Contexts Interpreted as Sexually Desirable to Men but Also to Women
I want to pause for a moment to touch on some of the complications of interpreting gender-coding on stage or by people who were professional performers. When the fictional version of Moll Cutpurse is depicted on stage as having bisexual desires, alongside wearing a mix of male and female-coded garments, the implication is that both are features of her personality, not necessarily that wearing a male doublet made her more attractive to women. At that time, the intersection of cross-gendered clothing and female homoeroticism on stage largely invoked motifs of disguise and misperception rather than deliberate communication.
In one sense, cross-dressed actresses fit into today’s theme in that they are a case of someone known to be a woman wearing male garments. But the question is whether their choice to play such roles was an indication--or was read by others as an indication--of an interest in same-sex relations.
One might think that late-17th century French opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny would be a perfect example in my timeline of this connection, but in many ways she’s an anomaly. She wore male clothing openly in a performance context (where the performance was demonstration sword fights) but also as an everyday practice. She took an assertive role in courting women with evident success. People responded to her as a rulebreaker, but to some extent she was so over-the-top that looking for subtle sartorial signaling is beside the point.
Another potential theatrical example was Charlotte Cibber Charke, who wrote a fictionalized autobiography about her adventures on stage and off in 1755. Charke was famous for playing “breeches parts” on stage but describes how she was attracted to masculine clothing and activities from an early age, with mixed reactions from her parents. Off stage, she frequently traveled and socialized as “Mr. Brown”, attracting the interest of women who variously were and were not aware of the disguise, though she seems to have always been scrupulous about laying out the facts before going further than flirtation. She had one very long-term female partner and they sometimes presented themselves as a male-female married couple. As with d’Aubigny, Charke presented a juxtaposition of sometimes being read as male--both on stage and off--with a romantic life that involved both female and male partners, but there are only traces of evidence that she may have used a masculine presentation to advertise her romantic and sexual interests. In contrast to Moll Cutpurse and Julie d’Aubigny who may have been attracted to the theater for the opportunity to experiment with presentation and identity, Charke was born to the trade. Her father, Colley Cibber, was a prominent actor, theater manager, and playwright. In addition, there is a plausible case to be made for reading Charke more as transgender than as simply playing with cross-gender presentation, which adds complications to the interpretation.
A better theatrical example is another Charlotte: 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman. (I did an entire podcast on her, too.) Like Charke, she became known for playing breeches parts--though she was also famous for strong and quirky renderings of non-romantic female characters. In Cushman’s case, there is ample documentation that female spectators responded to her as a romantic and erotic icon, swooning over her Romeo and Hamlet, with the plausible deniability that their feelings were purely a matter of sensibility when directed to a female object. But Cushman blurred the lines between performance and life. She used her roles as a context for flirtations with women, including some flirtations that developed into serious relationships. Cushman also wore “mannish” styles off stage, including a period of look-alike fashion with her romantic partner radical author and feminist Matilda Hays. It was something of a fashion among the feminist set in the mid-19th century to wear masculine-style tailored jackets and shirts, as well as masculine hats, a topic I’ll come back to later.
But by Cushman’s time, the relationship between mannish clothing and same-sex romantic interests was solidly established. So let’s go back in time a bit to see more of the development phase.
Male-coded Garments in Gender Play Combined with Same-Sex Erotics
Early examples of openly wearing masculine garments while also openly engaging in same-sex erotics evolve in the context of gender play, often within a fictional all-female society where the cross-dressing offers an illusion of the gender binary.
Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, written in 1668, is set among an all-female retreat. Among the amusements the women enjoy is for some of them to dress in masculine clothing and “act lovers-parts”, engaging in courtship, though it is passed off as being a game.
A similar fictional women-only social group “The New Cabal” is depicted in detail in Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, published in 1709. (And, once again, I’ve done a podcast on the topic.) Here the erotic relationships between the women are covered with the flimsiest of performative disbelief. While the majority of the ladies of Manley’s Cabal are presented as being feminine in appearance and being attracted to each other’s femininity, one couple is described as adopting masculine dress to go off and have sexual adventures with prostitutes, in this passage.
“The witty Marchioness of Sandomire...used to mask her Diversions in the Habit of the other Sex, and with her Female Favourite, Ianthe, wander through the Gallant Quarter of Atalantis in search of Adventures. ... the little Liberties she took with her own Sex... These Creatures of Hire, failed not to find their Account, in obliging the Marchioness's and Ianthe's peculiar Taste...”
This is still a matter of taking on a complete gender disguise, though one that was known to her female partner--and evidently to the sex workers they visited. We haven’t yet entirely integrated that “peculiar taste” in sexual partners with the practice of only partially and openly wearing male garments on a female body.
A similar intersection appears in the 1744 novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the title character and another woman travel around Europe together in male disguise, flirting with women and having romantic adventures, while at the same time expressing (though evidently not consummating) romantic and erotic feelings for each other. Once more, this isn’t a case of someone who is read by those around her as female but using masculine garments. Other than the two women’s knowledge of each other’s sex, the male clothing functions as a disguise. The characters overtly use gender disguise as cover for expressing same-sex desire, even between themselves.
And yet in all of these cases, the reader is privy to the knowledge of the women’s sex and therefore is invited to make a connection between their sexual desires and their clothing choices.
Women with Same-Sex Interests Depicted as Behaving Mannishly
These are the roots of the intersection of cross-dressing and same-sex desire: the expression of that desire via play-acting heterosexual roles, and the interpretation of sexual agency as an inherently masculine characteristic. But by the time Mademoiselle de Richelieu was published, another trope has begun to emerge: the behaviorally “mannish” woman where the behavior is correlated with sexual interest in women. The earliest examples follow something of an “essentialist” position, focusing on physical appearance and behavioral mannerisms as reflecting innate erotic desires, rather than focusing on deliberate choices in presentation.
In the fictionalized biography, Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont by Anthony Hamilton, published in 1713, male characters compete for the attention of a series of young women with Mary Hobart, who has charge of the maids of honor in the Duchess of York’s household. Mistress Hobart is presented in derisory terms as behaving in an aggressively masculine way toward the women she desires--and that desire is presented in clearly sexual terms--but her clothing choices aren’t mentioned. In fact, following a motif popular in earlier centuries, Hobart’s erotic desire for women is hinted as being evidence that she is actually physiologically male, even to the point of having impregnated her maidservant.
“Miss Hobart's character was at that time as uncommon in England, as her person was singular, in a country where, to be young, and not to be in some degree handsome, is a reproach; she had a good shape, rather a bold air, and a great deal of wit, which was well cultivated, without having much discretion. She was likewise possessed of a great deal of vivacity, with an irregular fancy there was a great deal of fire in her eyes, which, however, produced no effect upon the beholders: and she had a tender heart, whose sensibility some pretended was alone in favor of the fair sex.
This becomes, unfortunately, an established trope in 18th century novels: a masculine-acting, predatory woman with same-sex interests. Samuel Richardson features such a character in two of his novels, which are among books frequently cited as helping to establish the modern novel as a genre. Pamela, published in 1740, is the story of a virtuous young woman in service who is steadfastly trying to resist the advances of her employer. In the following scene, her employer’s housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes, shows her own amorous interest in Pamela.
“The naughty woman came up to me with an air of confidence and kissed me: See, sister, said she, here’s a charming creature! Would she not tempt the best lord in the land to run away with her? ... Every now and then she would be staring in my face, in the chariot, and squeezing my hand, and saying, Why you are very pretty, my silent dear! And once she offered to kiss me. [The protagonist describes Mrs. Jewkes, emphasizing the ugliness of her features.] “She has a hoarse, man-like voice and is as thick as she is long; and yet looks so deadly strong, that I am afraid she would dash me at her foot in an instant, if I was to vex her.”
Richardson’s other mannish stereotype appears in the novel Sir Charles Grandison, published in 1753. Here, the heroine is describing the people she meets at a party, most of whom are pursuing her for her fortune. Miss Barnevelt isn’t explicitly in that category, but does flirt with her.
“...Miss Barnevelt, a lady of masculine features, and whose mind bely’d not those features; for she has the character of being loud, bold, free, even fierce when opposed; and affects at all times such airs of contempt of her own sex, that one almost wonders at her condescending to wear petticoats. ... Nobody, it seems, thinks of an husband for Miss Barnevelt. She is sneeringly spoken of rather as a young fellow, than as a woman; and who will one day look out for a wife for herself. ... Miss Barnevelt said, she had from the moment I first enter’d beheld me with the eye of a Lover. And freely taking my hand, squeezed it. --Charming creature! said she, as if addressing a country innocent, and perhaps expecting me to be cover’d with blushes and confusion.”
Although Miss Barnevelt’s masculine appearance and behavior are described, the only mention of clothing indicates that what she wears is still within the feminine norm.
Not so in the case of Harriet Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (published in 1801). Freke is set up as antagonist and rival with Belinda for the bosom friendship of Lady Delacour. Delacour describes to Belinda her first impressions of Harriet Freke:
“She was just then coming into fashion; she struck me, the first time I met her, as being downright ugly; but there was a wild oddity in her countenance which made one stare at her, and she was delighted to be stared at, especially by me; so we were mutually agreeable to each other – I as starer, and she as staree. Harriot Freke had, without comparison, more assurance than any man or woman I ever saw; she was downright brass, but of the finest kind – Corinthian brass. She was one of the first who brought what I call harum scarum manners into fashion. I told you that she had assurance – impudence I should have called it, for no other word is strong enough. Such things as I have heard Harriot Freke say! – You will not believe it”
But more to the point, on several occasions we’re given extended descriptions of Harriot’s cross-dressing, balancing right at the edge of disguise and delighted when she can reveal to people how she fooled them. Harriot performs a masculine stereotype of boisterous, assertive cheer and loudly voiced opinions. She is an abolitionist, a revolutionary, a feminist--and all these things are meant to be absurd and a sign of her folly, putting her beyond the pale in terms of conventional relationships. Her clothing falls between that of complete disguise, for her identity is generally known, and that of the masculine-flavored female garments that come next under consideration. While there are other examples of the motif at this era, she may be the most explicit depiction. But was Harriot Freke purely a literary invention or did she reflect a type of woman familiar to readers of the time?
The Sartorial Stylings of Amazons and Bluestockings
The relationship of masculinity to the clothing of women pursuing an active sporting life or an active intellectual life went in both directions. To the extent that extremely feminine styles were considered impractical for those interests either on a physical or philosophical basis, women “dressed for the job” as it were. But to the extent that women with sporting and intellectual interests were considered masculine in personality, any clothing styles associated with them were also interpreted as masculine.
Thus, certain features of a riding habit were practical for sporting pursuits, but some simply borrowed from masculine fashions--especially military ones--for the psychological associations. And once it was established in the popular imagination that women who enjoyed horseback riding were, in some fundamental way, masculine, then a riding habit could stand in for feminine masculinity in general. And a woman who took on masculine traits like wearing riding habits could be suspected (or accused) of having a “masculine” romantic preference for her own sex. Such women might be nicknamed “Amazons” for their active pursuits, but the nickname carried the reminder of an entire tribe of women who had little use for men.
The idea of women wearing a special type of outfit for horseback riding appears by the mid 17th century in England. The prolific diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1666 “Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men's coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.”
Masculine-style tailoring of the upper part of the garment--though always adapted for female figures--remained a key feature of the riding habit across the centuries, as evidenced by the fact that women often went to men’s tailors to order them, rather than to their dressmakers. Decorations and details borrowed from men’s military uniforms were especially popular, with braid, epaulettes, frogged closures, and a masculine hat on top of it all. Riding habits might borrow features from popular women’s clothing of the day, such as sleeve shapes, but they were always in conversation with men’s styles. When 19th century men’s fashions turned away from bright silks and lace to more severe and monotone styles, so did riding habits, settling eventually on dull colors and little decoration other than braid across the front.
(I should probably note at this point that I have a serious Thing for riding habits. I could write entire books revolving around excuses to get women into and out of them.)
In parallel with the Amazons in riding habits, we also see stereotypes that associate unfashionable dress with female intellectuals, embodied in the nickname of “bluestocking” named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. While the nickname originally could apply to either sex, it became solidly attached to women via the Blue Stockings Society, a mid-18th century salon presided over by Elizabeth Montagu. By the end of that century, the word had acquired the sense of a learned, pedantic woman. Bluestocking culture arose within a somewhat puritanical vein of middle-class English culture, and the tendency of many of its members to value study and writing over fashion and frivolity cemented the stereotype in the popular imagination of the over-educated, plain-dressing old maid. Not that Bluestockings were necessarily unmarried, but they tended to form their strongest and most supportive relationships with each other, finding men to be a disruptive force in their pursuits. Thus, the Bluestocking, too, picked up a suspicion of sexual irregularity, or at the very least a suspicious aversion to marriage.
The time was ripe for the stereotypes of Amazons and Bluestockings to become merged with the images of the masculine-acting lover of women.
Lesbians in Riding Habits
The stereotype is laid out most clearly in fiction, as we’ll see in a bit, but we have clear glimpses of its roots in everyday fashions. As I discussed in the podcast about late 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, her whispered reputation as “a lady much suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way” was accompanied by--though not necessarily tied directly to--comments on the masculine elements in her chosen dress. A contemporary wrote: “The singularities of Mrs Damer are remarkable — She wears a Mans Hat, and Shoes, — and a Jacket also like a mans — thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick.”
In the same era, the famous Ladies of Llangollen were known, among other eccentricities, for preferring to wear riding habits as everyday dress. Despite the deliberate similarity of the couple’s clothing, when their appearance was remarked on in a newspaper article in the 1780s that described their elopement and their life together, this garment was specifically assigned to Eleanor in the following passage.
“Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful.”
These descriptions were designed to match a popular stereotype, not to reflect reality, for Eleanor was short and at the age of 51 rather plump, rather than resembling a “tall young man.” Additional descriptions in the article made clear innuendo about their relationship to each other--sufficiently clear that Eleanor consulted a friend about the advisability of suing the newspaper for defamation.
While Eleanor Butler’s diaries don’t seem to touch on their rationale for their distinctive style of dress, we get a bit more interior commentary on the subject from the diaries of Anne Lister, another contemporary of theirs. The recent tv series based on Lister’s life presents her as adopting a very masculine style of dress, but in the diaries we see her edging into that presentation gradually, first deciding to wear black, and later recording references to cravats and other masculine-style items. Her internal motivations suggest a relation to gender identity. She is uncomfortable with high-fashion feminine styles, but there also seems to be a contributing streak of frugality and just plain can’t-be-bothered-ness in her dress.
Perhaps even more clearly demonstrating the association in people’s minds between riding habits and same-sex romance are Lister’s comments on the clothing of her acquaintance Miss Pickford. Both Pickford’s preference for riding habits and her intellectual pursuits lead Lister to cautiously sound her out about her romantic interests--while considering whether she herself might be the object of that interest.
Lister’s diary records, “She cares nothing about dress; never notices it. ... She supposes me like herself. How she is mistaken! She loves her habit and hat. She is better informed than some ladies and a godsend of a companion in my present scarcity, but I am not an admirer of learned ladies.” Later, she critiques Miss Pickford for the same indifference to clothing that she herself has, saying “I wish she would care a little more about dress. At least not wear such an old-fashioned, short-waisted, fright of a brown habit with yellow metal buttons as she had on this morning.” And then, on another meeting, notes that Pickford was wearing a mourning gown and bonnet and that “she looked better, more feminine than in her habit.” When Miss Pickford takes up with a Miss Threlfall, she and Lister carefully negotiate a common understanding of their romantic interests. Taken as a whole, the observations show that Anne Lister considered Miss Pickford’s dress as correlating both to intellectual pursuits and to a romantic interest in women--but also specifically as carrying a masculine air. Lister might find her a stimulating friend, but was put off romantically by someone who mirrored her own masculine-flavored gender performance.
This stereotypical romantic pairing of the “butch” Amazon with the “femme” Bluestocking is perfectly encapsulated in Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia. In fact, the descriptions of Lady Cornelia and Miss Sandford illustrate the stereotype so well that they are worth an extended quotation. You may notice that there isn’t an explicit claim that the two are a romantic couple--although we’re solidly in the middle of the Romantic Friendship era and it may be taken for granted--but there’s a clear indication that they aren’t considered desirable by men. Particularly worth noting are the regular comparisons of Miss Sandford to the goddess Diana.
“I have rare news for you, Sir John; who do you think is come to breakfast with you? even the learned and scientific Lady Cornelia Classick, with the Diana of our forests, the fearless huntress Miss Sandford, who, at the age of forty-five, declares her fixed resolution never to marry, though an Endymion were to court her; and boasts of her wonderful art in keeping the men at a distance.”
[The female narrator contrives to keep to her room during the visit and only peers out the window to see the visitors as they leave.]
There is my uncle leading Lady Cornelia with the most gallant air imaginable. By the motion of her hand and head it would seem that she is discussing some deep question in politics, theology, or the belles lettres; and my uncle, by his asenting nods, is fully convinced I observe.
But here comes the virgin huntress, with Mr. Greville on one side of her, and Mr. Harley on the other. I protest she does not accompany Lady Cornelia in the carriage, but mounts her steed with most masculine agility, to escort her female friend. Her military riding habit, the fierce cock of her hat, the intrepid air of her countenance, make her have the appearance of a very respectable guard, Ah! what a pity she has petticoats!
[The narrator then joins the men to listen to them mocking their erstwhile visitors.]
“Lady Cornelia,” said Mr. Greville, “does not mix in company to converse, but to make orations. She will stun her female visitants of sixteen with learned gibberish; gives rules for epic and dramatic poetry, and cannot endure a comedy that is not within the law of four-and-twenty hours.”
“A man makes a silly figure,” said Mr. Harley, in company with so learned a Lady, and her Amazonian friend. Talents so masculine, and so ostentatiously displayed, place them above those attentions and assiduities to which the charming sex have so just a claim, and which we delight to pay. Women should always be women; the virtues of our sex are not the virtues of theirs. When Lady Cornelia declaims in Greek, and Miss Sandford vaults into her saddle like another Hotspur, I forget I am in company with women: the dogmatic critic awes me into silence, and the hardy rider makes my assistance unnecessary.”
In a similar vein is a brief episode in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas in 1844 in which the rebellious and intellectual Eugénie Danglars, who is described as seeming “to belong a little to another sex” flees an unwanted marriage with her “inseparable companion” in male disguise. “She took a man's complete costume, from the boots to the coat, and ... with a promptitude which indicated that this was not the first time she had amused herself by adopting the garb of the opposite sex, Eugenie drew on the boots and pantaloons, tied her cravat, buttoned her waistcoat up to the throat, and put on a coat which admirably fitted her beautiful figure. "Oh, that is very good—indeed, it is very good!" said Louise, looking at her with admiration.” It is not the temporary disguise that aligns her with our theme, but the prior description of her as being masculine in personality and behavior, combined with the romantic elopement with a woman--and that woman’s open admiration of how she appears in male garb. She is a transitional character: the masculine behavior is overt, the cross-dressing covert, except to her lover.
“Mannish” Clothing and the Decadent Movement
But over the course of the 19th century, the stereotype of the “mannish,” sexually suspect woman moves from mockery to accusation, for which we must turn our attention to France. The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France and is often interpreted as rooted in male anxieties about women’s social freedom and power. Feminism often went hand in hand with a rejection of extremes of feminine dress, if not an outright embracing of masculine styles. And the close supportive relationships among women in feminist movements--whether also romantic or not--were often read by their contemporaries as challenging heterosexual norms.
But although French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities), they were antagonists, not allies, to the feminist cause. The decadent movement was a major force in creating the stereotype of the “mannish,” predatory, sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian character, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (in 1835) or Émile Zola’s novel Nana in 1880.
This isn’t to say that there were no actual women who fit the type--including some who were decadent writers themselves. There were rumors as early as the 1830s about author George Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), and she depicted desire between women in her novel Lélia.
With later examples it can be hard to distinguish between women who inspired the stereotype and those who were inspired to adopt it for their own purposes. Women in theatrical professions might flaunt cross-gender outfits on stage and in everyday life as well, deliberately using them to attract female fans. But non-theatrical women also used male clothing in the context of courting female lovers: including Natalie Clifford Barney, the Marquise de Belbeur who partnered the famous writer Colette, the painter Rosa Bonheur.
By the end of the 19th century, French illustrated magazines and scandal rags had fixed the image of a lesbian set: peopled with women wearing masculine vests, jackets, and hats (with their skirts--or sometimes, more daringly, with pants) entertaining their more traditionally feminine companions--or sometimes similarly butch lovers--in cafés, taverns, or clubs, especially in the bohemian Montmartre district. Even more than descriptions in literature, the sketches and paintings of the time make clear the place of clothing in identifying these “young women following in Sappho’s footsteps” as author Rodolphe Darzens described them in 1889.
But I think I’ll leave the story here. By the time we’ve arrived at the 20th century, the association in people’s minds of a deliberate choice of masculine-coded garments with a sexual inclination toward women had become solidly established. It was no longer merely an accusation made against women who were considered to transgress gender norms in other ways, nor was it always an expression of a male gender identity trying to find expression in the context of allowable variations in style. Butch clothing was also being used as a playful signal, a means of participating in a community of practice, and of communicating desires that--though they were beginning to have more explicit labels--were not always wise to speak in words.
I’ll be posting a summary timeline of the content of this podcast on my Patreon, aimed at authors and artists who want to represent proto-butch characters in a historically based fashion. It’s part of an irregular series of practical reference materials provided as bonus content that I’m just beginning to create. Become a patron and check it out!
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