One can pretty much guarantee that any general discussion of women in medieval England is going to talk about Chaucer’s Wife of Bath eventually. This collection gets double-duty from her. It isn't that there aren't other women (and actual, rather than fictitious, women) that appear in texts of the same era. But academia has always been fond of anointing specific figures and stories as central, iconic representations and then building analytic industries around them. In cases (such as women) where the relative volume of documentary material is smaller due to historic marginalization, this contributes to the "tyranny of the single story". The Wife of Bath is an interesting literary character, but she isn't the be-all and end-all of medieval women or even medieval widowhood.
This blog is going to be packed with material for a while because in addition to zipping through the remaining articles in the current singlewomen collection, I've set myself a project to get caught up with my book reviews. And just when all that is sorting itself out, it'll be time to really ramp up in preparation for the release of Floodtide in November. So buckle your seatbelts!
Moore, Jeanie Grant. 2003. “(Re)creations of a Single Woman: DIscursive Realms of the Wife of Bath” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
(Re)creations of a Single Woman
The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands. Through speech, she is able to claim the power to define her own history and identity, rather than have it defined for her, as her last husband attempted to do by teaching her woman’s “traditional” place. From one angle, she can be seen as mangling the meaning of the sacred texts she uses to justify her story, but from another angle she can be seen as deliberately re-making them for her own ends. The remainder of the article is a detailed analysis of how the Wife of Bath represents herself within her tale to lay claim to an androgynous and authoritative identity.
The character trope of the "personal assistant" -- the person in a subordinate position whose job consists of providing support and devalued labor for a character with more pubic agency -- is tricky to portray. Particularly in an intensely class-stratified culture when that role is not typically freely chosen from among other options. Given her family's background and her work history, Roz sees the position of lady's maid as a desirable goal, but that isn't meant to erase the ways in which being a household servant are exploitative, exhausting, and often degrading.
And yet...in fiction, there's an undeniable appeal to the special bond and experience that comes when your job is to go all out to make someone else's life easy and beautiful and enjoyable, to be the invisible hands that turn out someone else's life as a work of art. There have been occasions in my life when--on a temporary and limited basis--I had roles like that, whether in supporting a manager on a project, or within historic re-enactment events play-acting the role of servant in a context where I was also providing real, logistical support to my fictive employer. I've felt that appeal--with the knowledge that it was within a limited scope and the person I was "doing for" had no power over my life as a whole.
Further, one can be in a subordinate, supportive role and have the agency to perform that role as a piece of artistry, or begrudgingly as a chore to be endured.
Roz is torn between aspiring to perfect the skills of a real lady's maid--to become an artist with her maisetra's life as the medium of her art--and the more concrete and enduring art of the dressmaker. Neither of them is a certain path. Both are skill sets she has yet to master in full. But in this scene I've tried to show some of the appeal of the former.
* * *
Tiporsel House was still all upside down when Maisetra Iulien’s father arrived. I’d almost forgotten about that. Futures seemed so far away. I know it doesn’t belong to me to say so, but he was a sour-looking man, all puffed up with his own importance. I didn’t like the way he talked to the maisetra, like she was a child. I could tell Maisetra Iulien loved him the same as I loved my father, but I could tell why she might have wanted a look at the wider world, without him standing over her.
Dressing became a chore every morning and evening. It wasn’t that Maisetra Iulien had so many gowns to choose from, but she’d try them all on and toss them on the bed and try again until I was ready to send her down to breakfast in her chemise.
“This one makes me look too young! He’ll think I’m a child who shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. That one makes me look too sophisticated. Look at the décolletage. It’s not my fault my bosom has grown this year.”
“Then wear it with your fichu,” I suggested. “And you should put the ear-bobs away until evening. I know girls wear them for everyday in the city, but Mefro Dominique says it isn’t done in the country, and that’s what your father will expect.”
I’d been asking Mefro Dominique a lot of questions about what was and wasn’t done since Maistir Fulpi had come. I could have asked Maitelen, but she was so worn down from looking after the baroness. Maisetra Iulien was in such a dither, I needed somebody’s word that weighed more than mine to keep her from wearing anything foolish.
Maisetra Iulien looked up and said, “What would I do without you, Roz?”
“I’m sure you’d do well enough,” I replied as I put the earrings back in her jewelry box. “Now let me do up your hair. You’ll feel better once this business is settled.”
I’d learned more hairdressing and was proud of how I turned her out, but it was a very long week.
The use of the word “sely” in this paper’s title is likely to be confusing to anyone not versed in the historic development of the word. Originally (in Anglo Saxon) “saelig” meant “blessed, holy” and was typically applied to religious figures. The meaning shifted in Middle English (as sely) to meaning “worthy, noble, excellent” and sometimes with the sense “fortunate, lucky, prosperous.” One can trace the connections: holy people are worthy and considered to have inherent nobility, and one can conclude that worthy and noble people may have achieved that state due to good fortune and luck.
But then the word took a sideways shift. Lucky, prosperous people are assumed to be happy. And “sely” began being used with a range of meanings in the field of “lucky, happy, pleasant”. It’s likely that this is the sense Chaucer intended when he described the young and sexually-desiring widow Dido as “sely”. (She would be an odd candidate for being considered “holy” though perhaps she would fit “noble, worthy”.)
By the 15th century, the type of happiness and good nature described by “sely” was no longer considered to derive from good fortune and inherent virtue, but rather from a state of innocence of evil. Not innocence from evil, but an obliviousness to the bad things in the world. “Sely” came to mean “innocent, harmless” and then “simple (minded), guileless, foolish gullible.” One finds the word used to describe people with intellectual disabilities, perhaps in parallel with calling them “innocents”.
Once associated with a lack of intellectual capacity, new meanings attached themselves from the common social fate of such persons: “weak, helpless, defenseless” and by extension “wretched, unfortunate, miserable” leading to use as “worthless, trifling, insignificant”. The word has come into modern English as “silly.”
Those familiar with folklore and old ballads may also have encountered the variant “seelie” and “unseelie” as applied to categories of the Fair Folk, with the Seelie Court being those who are generally friendly towards humans (drawing from some of the earlier positive senses) and the Unseelie Court being those who are hostile. (Historic usage data from https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sely)
Amtower, Laurel. 2003. “Chaucer’s Sely Widows” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
Chaucer’s Sely Widows
Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions. They could represent themselves in law to protect these rights, although this required the skills and knowledge to navigate the legal system. Remarriage could offset some of these handicaps, but conversely had disadvantages. On remarriage, the widow would once again come under a husband’s legal control, though she might negotiate to regain independent legal control over assets from her previous marriage.
Widows were expected to be chaste, but did not have the (hypothetical) ability to “prove” that chastity with their body that virgins were expected to have. They were “unruly” bodies--sexually active but no longer “ruled” by a husband. This paper looks at the concept of widowhood in Chaucer, where widows are often used to represent men’s sexual anxieties. Throughout his writings, widows most often are allowed to “speak” in the text only as a voice for their dead husbands. The exceptions are the sexually aggressive Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales) and the clandestinely sexual Criseyde (in Troilius and Criseyde).
Chaucer’s younger widows generally express a desire for the married state and often are depicted as remarrying. Barriers to remarriage are typically thrown up by their potential partner. These men see them as “safe” targets of sexual interest. Their widowed state is used as an excuse for their sexualization.
The widows use language to have power in the world, either to punish their persecutors or to create justification for their way of life. The Wife of Bath and Criseyde lay verbal claim to their identities in part by claiming that marginal status as widow, rather than in imitation of a single state. Traditional paths are no longer available to them, leading them to question and challenge the status quo.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 37e - “The Black Handkerchief” by Gwen C. Katz - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/08/31 - listen here)
One thing I look for when choosing stories for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s fiction series is stories where the fact of women loving each other is taken for granted and situated among all the other conflicts, joys, and adventures of life. Such stories can involve drama, tragedy, and danger without those things being focused around the characters’ sexuality.
Gwen C. Katz has given us a story of those dangers set in Russia on the cusp of revolution. She describes herself as “a writer, artist, and Nazi-puncher who lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals.” Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, was a 2017 Junior Library Guild Selection. She’s on Twitter as @gwenckatz and her website is gwenckatz.com.
Our narrator today is Lara Zielinsky. Lara is a published author of lesbian and bisexual women’s fiction. An avid reader, she devours anything related to words, women, and love. She’s on Twitter as @lczielinsky and on facebook as AuthorLaraZielinsky.
The Black Handkerchief
Gwen C. Katz
St. Petersburg, 1881
I’m standing on Nevsky Prospekt, holding a black handkerchief.
The passersby give me a respectful distance. They think I’m in mourning. In a sense, they’re not far off. But I was wearing black long before today.
Natalya didn’t understand it. She wore gowns of pink or yellow, airy with lace. Fairylike.
Fairylike was how she had appeared when I first met her. I was just eight and much intimidated by the old housekeeper who opened the door of that fine city house. She frowned at the letter I handed her as though she’d never heard anything about a poor relation coming to live with them, and I feared I’d be sent back to toil and starvation and birchbark shoes.
Then Natalya appeared on the stairs. When she saw me, she put both hands on her cheeks and squealed.
“Lera!” she cried, rushing forward and taking me by the hands. “You’re finally here! We’ll have such fun together!”
And just like that, we were best friends. I never had any say in the matter.
One of Natalya’s many books was about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole. That was how I felt at Natalya’s house. The rooms seemed endless, each one filled with new curiosities. On the parlor wall there hung an ink drawing of a crane perched on a branch. It was all drawn with a few quick strokes, yet there was incredible life in the bird’s figure. Natalya’s father had brought the picture from Japan, along with two heavy wooden chests, which I imagined were full of treasures until I discovered, to my disappointment, that they contained spare bedspreads. Natalya had her own room and a whole closet filled with dresses. Instead of sleeping on a stove, she had a big four-poster draped with damask curtains.
The rules of society people were strange and inscrutable. We might walk in the garden, but it was unseemly to run. Our pinafores had to remain spotless. Maintain good posture and be seen and not heard when adults were present. At mealtimes there were strict table manners. If my elbow strayed onto the table or I reached for my fork before the adults did, I was in for a rap on the knuckles. We saw Natalya’s parents only at mealtimes. If we had a splinter or a skinned knee, the old housekeeper was the one we ran to.
I would have been lost without Natalya. For years we did everything together. She taught me my letters out of her books of fairy tales. We drank tea out of little round cups with dragonflies painted on them; there were no tea glasses at the Tanaka house. And at night, we slept side by side in the four-poster bed.
There was always another party, Maslenitsa and New Year’s and Natalya’s birthday blending together in a swirl of colors. It was before one of these occasions that Natalya’s father called us into the parlor and laid out for her a rainbow of bolts of imported cloth: yellow with flowers, green with branches, blue with little birds.
“Pick one,” he told Natalya.
Natalya made a great show of deliberating before settling on a bolt of peach-colored silk. Then she said, “You pick one too, Lera.”
She caught me by surprise. Mindful of my lesser position and unable to picture myself in any of those lavish colors, I picked a bolt of plain black wool.
Natalya frowned. “You don’t understand. You can pick any of them.”
“I pick this one,” I said.
At the party, Natalya was radiant in her dress. I was invisible in mine. I decided I preferred it that way. I’ve been wearing black ever since.
Everything was simple in those years. We studied together, played tricks on the old housekeeper, begged Natalya’s father for new hats and gloves. Our futures were clear. She would marry a fine young gentleman, and she would see to it that her father gave me a modest dowry and set me up with a respectable clerk or shopkeeper. And we would be best friends forever.
Was it the night of the storm?
Natalya pretended to be afraid of things because it got her the sort of attention she liked. Boys gallantly trapped spiders for her and climbed ladders to fetch things off high shelves and she looked up at them through her lashes and smiled and everyone thought she was a darling and a dear. In reality she wasn’t afraid of anything.
Which was how I knew, when I woke up and found her curled up and shaking, that it wasn’t the lightning.
It was the night of her fourteenth birthday and the weather had been wretched all day. There had been a party, of course, and a crowd of family friends told Natalya how grown up she looked in her new blue gown. Her father was not among them. He was away finishing a business deal. He’d sent a telegram saying that he would be back in time for her birthday. The day came. He did not.
And now Natalya was awake and crying.
“Natalya,” I whispered, touching her shoulder. “What is it?”
“He said he’d be here,” she said, her voice wavering. “He promised!”
I wanted to say so many things. I wanted to tell her how my parents had cut me out of their lives like I was nothing but an inconvenience. But everything I could think to say seemed wrong. Instead I wrapped my skinny arms around her. She snuggled close against me. Something stirred in me that I’d never felt before.
My hands strayed. So did hers. And the night went in an entirely unexpected direction.
From then on, scarcely would we turn off the gaslight at night before we rushed into each other’s arms. We were half nervous, half afraid of being caught, yet we couldn’t hold back our desire. In the mornings we emerged flushed and bright-eyed, certain her parents would notice. But to them, we were still little girls.
No, that wasn’t the moment everything changed. I remember now. It was the article.
The Tanakas were fashionable people, and at the time the fashionable thing was to subscribe to all the newspapers and know the latest developments in all the political debates. Natalya and I implicitly knew these papers were not for us—girls had far too many concerns of their own to worry about something so frivolous as politics—but the newspapers were always lying around. On one endless winter night, I began flipping through one and my eye fell on an article titled “The Workers and the Sphinx.”
I began to read, thinking it had something to do with mythology. What I encountered was something altogether different.
“The Council of Action declares that, so long as the working masses are plunged in the misery of economic servitude, all so-called reforms and even so-called political revolutions of a seeming proletarian character, will avail them nothing,” I read to Natalya. “They are condemned to live in a forced ignorance and to accept a slave status by the economic Organization of wage-slave society.”
Natalya laughed. “What a load of nonsense! This isn’t the Dark Ages. We have all kinds of reforms. The Tsar abolished serfdom. Workers and peasants have everything now.”
“I don’t have everything,” I said indignantly, remembering how my feet had cracked and bled on cold nights.
“You do now,” said Natalya lightly, poking her embroidery needle through the piece of silk she was working on.
I closed the paper. But I didn’t forget the words.
Natalya was sixteen then, and beginning to attract gentlemen callers. None were interested in the poor relation who wore black dresses. So, while our nights were occupied with each other, I found more and more time to myself during the day. I read the newspapers. I began to grasp the ins and outs of the different political arguments. One day, there was a notice about a meeting. I made up an excuse about going to buy ribbons and went out.
The meeting was in a dingy apartment over a cobbler’s shop. Journalists and university students and other intelligentsia in shabby winter coats stuffed the small room, the ears of their hats pulled down low, for it was November and the apartment had only a small oil-drum stove in the corner. There was a name for these sorts; I’d learned it from the newspapers. Narodniks. The people’s people. They styled themselves reformists, but they were far from respectable.
I slid into the corner and tried to make myself as small as possible.
A young man with a wild, spiky hair and the beginnings of a peach-fuzz beard stepped up to the front of the room. His eyes were like live coals. At the sight of him, the hubbub of voices died down.
“Brothers,” said the young Narodnik, “We are all here because we recognize the dangers of the state. The state means nothing but domination and exploitation.”
Murmurs of approval from the crowd.
“Some say that the ruling class deserves to rule,” he continued. “They say that the Tsar is divinely ordained because he is the wisest, most benevolent, and most suited to rule. This is nonsense. Power corrupts. Nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command. Even the best man, the most intelligent, disinterested, generous, pure, will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade. They will inevitably come to believe in their own superiority and despise the masses. No man can be trusted to rule—least of all the one who believes God has chosen him.”
I left with my heart pounding. Politics was supposed to be a game to entertain idle noblemen. But the look in the young Narodnik’s eyes convinced me that this wasn’t a theoretical discussion.
Back at the house, Natalya sat in the window, tossing her hair as she watched a departing cab. “What a ridiculous fop! You should have seen him. All he cared about was the cut of his jacket. Where were you, by the way? The housekeeper said something about buying ribbons.”
I realized I had returned empty-handed.
“They didn’t have anything,” I said. She didn’t enquire further.
I kept going to the meetings. The Narodniks lent me books and pamphlets. Herzen. Chernyshevsky. Marx. I found myself tumbling down a whole new rabbit hole. Across the river, the Peter and Paul fortress stood stark and gray, a symbol of what became of dissenters. Yet the more the Tsar’s secret police cracked down, the faster the ideas spread.
This newfound knowledge led to my first fight with Natalya.
Like every young lady of quality, Natalya did charity work. I went with her on one visit to bring food to a family of poor peasants sick with typhus. Natalya sat by the stove and spooned soup into the youngest child’s mouth, her green silk dress spread out on the dirt floor.
“I’m so worried about her,” she said on the drive back. “She’s as thin as a twig. We’ll bring more food on Sunday. Every week until they’re all well.”
The earnestness in her black eyes was real. But all of a sudden, the whole enterprise seemed too frivolous and self-indulgent.
“They’re only sick because they live in that filthy izba!” I said. “It’s in a swamp filled with bugs and vermin. Of course the children got sick. But I don’t see you doing anything about that.”
“Well, maybe the Ladies’ Charitable Society will see to that next,” said Natalya.
“It’s one building. One family. What difference does it make? There are millions of families like this in Russia!”
“I’m just one person. I can’t help everyone,” said Natalya, a twinge of annoyance in her voice.
“They shouldn’t need your help. They own nothing—not the house they live in, not the land they work. If they didn’t have to pay half their harvest to their landlord in rent, maybe they’d be able to feed their own children instead of relying on charity baskets!”
Natalya gave me a broad smile. “Lera,” she said, “The peasants are simple people. They enjoy a simple life. All that responsibility would be too much for them.”
“Is that what you think of me?” I demanded.
That would have been a great moment to storm out of the cab, but we weren’t home yet, so I had to sit there across from her, fixing her with a stern glare to let her know that I was very cross. This was hard to keep up. Eventually Natalya’s mouth twitched and she burst into laughter at my comical expression, and then she pointed out something funny that was happening on the other side of the street, and the fight blew over like a cloud in the summer sky.
But I didn’t forget what she said about the peasants. The memory nibbled at the back of my mind during the next meeting. The young Narodnik was speaking again.
“They break their backs in the fields, and where does the money go? To the gentry so their wives can have gold brooches and silk ribbons on their hats. There is no creature in the world as silly and vapid as a woman of fine birth. All they know how to do is spend money they never lifted a finger to earn.”
I was terrified of drawing attention to myself, but his words needled me until I couldn’t stand it. I put my hand up and, before I knew what I was doing, I called out, “What do you expect them to do, go out and get jobs in the civil service?”
Instant uproar. Many people laughed at the idea of women in the civil service, while several pointed out that they could hardly do a worse job.
The young Narodnik tried to quiet the room. “Women would be ill equipped to serve in the civil service, and anyway, they wouldn’t want to. They have no education.”
“And how is that our fault?” I demanded. “If women are silly and vapid, it’s because society made us that way. We have hardly any schools and they only teach dancing and drawing. We aren’t allowed in the universities. Why are we to blame for the opportunities we’ve been denied?”
“Don’t blame society because your sex has a different temperament,” said the young Narodnik.
“That’s the same thing the nobility says about the peasants!”
Half the crowd jumped to their feet and was accosted by the other half. There was no hope of calling the room to order.
Afterwards, as I elbowed my way out through the press of coats, the young Narodnik sidled up to me.
“You’re a sharp one,” he said. “You have clever ideas. Wrong, as it happens, but clever.”
“‘My apologies, my words were unforgivably rude and ignorant’ is more what I was hoping you’d say,” I replied, raising my chin and doing my best imitation of Natalya dealing with an unwanted suitor.
He shrugged. “Rude is a social construct. The words are either true or they’re false. If you want to claim they’re false, prove it.”
I shouldn’t have let him goad me, but I couldn’t bear to let him throw my own inaction back in my face. So I asked, “What do you want?”
“Deliver this,” he said, slipping a thin sealed letter into my hand. “Leave it at the green house on Gorsky Street across from the tea shop.”
“So I’m your delivery girl now,” I said.
“No,” said the young Narodnik. “You might become our delivery girl if we decide we trust you.”
I glared at him, but took the letter.
Fears flitted in my mind as I slipped the letter under the door of the green house. I half expected the Tsar’s secret police to spring out of the bushes and arrest me. But nothing happened. When I reported back to the young Narodnik, he didn’t thank me. He gave me another letter.
In time, he entrusted me with more. Bribing the gendarmes. Typesetting newspapers. I began to see the contours of the Narodnik movement.
One of Natalya’s lesson books had a cut-away drawing of the earth. From the surface of the earth, the stone crust was all you could see. But when you sliced it open, you found that the crust was only a thin layer. Underneath it was the mantle and, beneath that, the core, where the heat was so great that iron was a liquid.
Russian society was like that. The gentry rose above all like lofty mountains, seeing and being seen. Their wealth and leisure was built on Russia’s scant, threadbare middleclass—poor clerks, teachers, and secretaries, shopkeepers and lesser bureaucrats. And below them were the endless millions of peasants. They toiled away, scarcely seen, but if pressure built, they could explode like magma pouring from the earth.
I tried to talk to Natalya about these things, but it was like catching a butterfly in my bare hands. She would agree with everything, yet at the end, when I proposed a reform, she would laugh and tell me not to be ridiculous. Education for the peasants? How would those poor children tramp miles through the countryside to go to school, and who would do their chores in the meantime? Communal land ownership? You can call it communal, but someone has to administer it, and aren’t the gentry best suited for that? A parliament, like the one in Britain? Who on Earth could think it was a good idea to put the empire’s affairs into the hands of a room full of bickering Russian politicians?
Years passed. Natalya’s debutante ball came in a swirl of colors and music. Pigtails and high-collared girls’ dresses gave way to bare shoulders and updos. But I kept wearing my black dresses. And I kept attending the Narodnik meetings.
And then one day, chaos. The young Narodnik was giving a speech about capital when the door burst open and gendarmes began pouring in. The crowd became a herd of panicked animals. A burly man knocked me to the ground as he pushed past. Someone stepped on my hand. I struggled to regain my footing before I was trampled.
Gendarmes were everywhere, seizing people, pushing them to the ground, against walls, hitting them with batons. Men or women, ringleaders or bystanders, it made no difference. I saw the young worker with his hands pinned behind his back. A gendarme looked straight at me, but collared the man next to me. And then the chief of police was shouting, “All right, show’s over! Everyone go home!”
I stumbled back to Natalya’s house, unsure how I had escaped.
When the newspaper arrived the next morning and Natalya read the headline, her eyes immediately flicked onto me.
“‘193 Anti-State Agitators Arrested. Propagandists Spread Unrest, Foment Rebellion Among the Peasants.’ Is this what you've been up to?” she demanded.
“It was just talking,” I said. “No one should get thrown in prison for just talking.”
“Lera,” said Natalya quietly, “What you’re doing…it’s dangerous. You think I don’t understand because I only care about dresses and dances and young men. But revolutions…they don’t help people. The peasants, the workers, everyone you say you care about: When the Tsar sends out the Cossacks, they’re the ones who get hurt.”
“Would you rather let the common people suffer?” I asked.
“They always suffer, Lera. No matter who’s in charge. That’s just how it is.”
I had no intention of accepting things just as they were.
I joined the throng as they crowded the snowy square in front of the courthouse for the trial of the one hundred ninety three. Their breath made clouds in the air. The gendarmes shoved people aside and clubbed them with rifles to clear a path for the prisoners. The young Narodnik was thin and ragged, but defiance still shone in his eyes as they led him forward.
I was too far back to hear anything, but I felt the anger and unrest that swept through the crowd when the sentences were read out. Eventually the news trickled back to me: Five years’ hard labor in Siberia. For one speech.
The crowd roiled like a kettle. Someone threw a handful of icy mud at a gendarme. It splattered across his brass buttons. I found a rock in my hand. I threw it, unplanned and unaimed, at the nearest gendarme. It flew past his head. Now more rocks were in the air. So many voices were shouting that their words were unintelligible.
Hoofbeats. The Cossacks burst into the square in their sashes and black hats, sabers flashing in the winter sun. The crowd fled in all directions.
We regrouped a week later, a ragtag and restless group. Nearly everyone had scrapes and bruises, and a few wore bandages on their saber cuts. I was stunned when someone turned to me and asked, “Well, Lera, what do we do now?”
I looked around, expecting someone else to jump in with the answer, but there was no one but me. Somehow I had become the leader of the Narodniks.
Now I was the one giving instructions to fresh-faced young revolutionaries with more passion than understanding. Count how many gendarmes are on Nevsky Prospekt. Watch the palace and note when the Tsar comes and goes. Go to this construction site and pick up a suitcase full of dynamite from a sympathetic foreman. I had a map of the palace with a red X marking the Tsar’s private dining room the day I found Natalya going through my purse.
“What are you doing?” I screamed, too instinctively angry to think about how guilty my reaction made me sound. “Those are my things!”
“Lera,” asked Natalya, “What’s this?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I snapped.
“What happened to you, Lera? When did you become like this?”
“The world made me like this. Nothing will ever change until we take matters into our own hands. But you don’t care, because you don’t care about what the people are going through!”
“Maybe I care about the people in that room!” said Natalya, her cheeks coloring. “I don’t think you care about the peasants at all. You just want to blow something up!”
I started back as though she had slapped me.
For a long moment, we stared at each other.
“Lera,” said Natalya quietly, “Lera, I’m sorry. I know you care. You’ve always cared. About everything. But this…I just don’t understand.”
She slipped her arms around my waist and rested her head on my shoulder. I shivered at her touch.
“I wish I could explain,” I said. “I don’t want this to come between us. But it’s something I have to do.”
“I know,” she said.
I turned and raised my face to hers. Her lips were like a warm fire in the winter snow. We sought each other with furtive urgency, clinging to the familiarity of each other’s embrace.
Natalya’s door banged open. Her father’s shadow fell over us. We sprang apart, struggling to reassemble our tangle of frocks and chemises.
He didn’t speak, just strode forward and grabbed me by the arm. He dragged me out of the room. I stumbled along, trying to cover myself with my unbuttoned dress. Behind me, Natalya cried, “Father, wait! Where are you taking her?”
He threw me into the street. I landed in the mud.
I never set foot in the Tanaka house again.
I stand now on Nevsky Prospekt, scarcely two blocks away from the Tanaka house, yet I might as well be in a different universe.
I flick my eyes from one side of the street to the other. A young man in a gray coat meets my eyes, black powder on his fingers. A student with glasses looks up from his paper. There are four men altogether, waiting for my signal. The dining room plan failed. The bomb went off too soon. But this plan will not fail.
I wondered if I would be afraid when this day came, but I’m calm. The hand holding the handkerchief does not tremble.
A flash of pink flits through the street like a tropical bird. Natalya. The feathers on her hat flutter in the wind. My heart catches at the sight of her. She still has the same effect on me as when we were young.
She turns and sees me. Our eyes meet. At a glance, she knows everything. She could have the gendarmes on us in an instant.
She raises a hand in a white lace glove and gestures to the left. The Tsar is going down a different street.
When I opened my apartment door a month ago and found Natalya there, I just stood there and stared at her foolishly, half convinced it was a dream. Only when she rushed into my arms did her familiar warmth convince me that this was really happening. Delicately, as though I feared she might vanish, I returned her embrace.
“How did you find me?” I managed to stammer.
“I looked everywhere. I was sure something terrible had happened to you. My father throwing you out just like that…I had no idea he would do something so cruel. I searched the tenements, the alleys. And everywhere I went, every miserable creature I saw, I imagined it was you.” She drew away from me and looked me in the eye. “All these years I could look past the suffering because it was abstract, even when it was right in front of me. But when I thought it was happening to someone I cared about, that changed everything. I was wrong, Lera. I’m ready to act.”
I clutched her to me, letting my tears stain her hair.
Quietly we slip from Nevsky Prospekt onto the side street. The four young men find their spots. Together Natalya and I take our place at a vantage point at the end of the street where we can see everything, side by side.
We might not survive the aftermath. None of us. If we succeed, the hammer will fall. We’ll be hunted. And yet I’m filled with a sense of calm and clarity. We’re doing what no one else would do. We’re giving Russia a future.
A procession of brightly dressed riders emerge around the corner at the north end of the street, their plumes nodding proudly. Behind them comes a gilt carriage decorated with a two-headed eagle. The man in that carriage has never suffered a day in his life. He’s about to learn that being chosen by God can’t protect him from the people.
There’s an imperceptible motion on the street as the four men reach for the bombs in their pockets. As the carriage approaches, I look at Natalya. She nods.
I drop the handkerchief.
* * *
As Floodtide approaches the events that form the climax of Mother of Souls, I can't escape the need to fill the reader in on a bunch of activities that my protagonist Roz is not only unaware of, but is mostly uninterested in. Roz knows, in theory, that her employer is the royal thaumaturgist and that means she makes up mysteries for Princess Anna. But the details? Not something that touches her directly. And the part being played by Luzie Valorin's magical opera is entirely outside her everyday experience. And yet, for the climax of Floodtide to make sense, the reader needs to know at least the general shape of the magical weather system and what's being done to combat it.
There are two points of contact that Roz has with those larger doings that the story can use as a door for the reader. One is a fairly minor part of the big story: Iulien's contributions to shaping the Tanfrit libretto. It is regularly established that Iulien "has a way with words"--whether it's writing of entertaining fiction, composing evocative poetry, or simply being persuasive. It isn't technically a "magical" ability, but the efficacy of magic is built up from a lot of non-mystical building blocks: logic, symbolism, structural repetition, and above all, careful choice of vocabulary. Roz knows that Iulien is contributing her writing talents to some Great Work because Iulien will inevitably chatter about it incessantly.
But for an efficient sketch of the larger shape of events, there's no substitute for Serafina Talarico's role. She has unexpectedly returned to Rotenek specifically because of those larger events, and Celeste is deeply invested in the fact of that return and what it might mean for Serafina's future plans. And on the other side, Serafina's role as mentor gives her a natural reason for explaining the whole to Celeste at a higher technical level than ordinary conversation would require. Roz may not understand the details, but we're allowed to eavesdrop through her.
All together, we have the perfect context for a concentrated info-dump.
When that summer was past, people remembered it as feeling strange and out of balance. For me, the real strangeness started the night we heard about the baroness, and it became worse after Maisetra Talarico came.
She was as good as her word and came down to the dress shop the next afternoon. From the moment I said Maisetra Talarico was back, Celeste was hanging in the front door of the shop looking up the street, even though we didn’t know when she might come.
Mefro Dominique made tea and I fetched some sweet buns from the baker’s and we even closed the shop—though that wasn’t a hardship in high summer—so we could hear about her adventures and why she came back.
“I was traveling through the mountains,” she began, “and I had a vision. I knew I must return to tell Maisetra Sovitre about it.”
She didn’t tell us everything that first day, but as the summer went by I learned more about the doings at Tiporsel House from Maisetra Talarico than I did from household gossip. There were comings and goings all the time: important people coming in the door or sometimes landing from the river. At first they’d gather in the baroness’s bedchamber when she wasn’t allowed to come downstairs yet, and later in the parlor, with the doors closed and all the staff shut out. We knew it was important because for anything less the maisetra would have bitten your head off if you worried the baroness about it. But it was Maisetra Talarico who told us what it meant.
“There is a curse on the land,” she began, and we all gasped like you would for a ghost story. “We knew the curse lived up in the mountains. The snows of three winters are locked up on the peaks. That’s why your river hasn’t flooded. It isn’t only the snow. The curse is spreading. Not only here in Alpennia but everywhere.”
She waved her arms and I tried to imagine what might be happening in other lands. People talked about the land feeling cursed, but what did that mean? If someone cursed your chickens, they stopped laying. But what happened if the whole land was cursed?
“What can we do?” Celeste asked, like she was ready to put her hand in.
I scoffed. “We can’t do anything!”
I meant people like her and me, but Maisetra Talarico told us a little about what they were trying to do to lift the curse.
“We’re making the tutela of Saint Mauriz into a stronger shield. And Maisetra Sovitre is building her new mystery to be even better. The mystery guilds are all working to put their strength together. Every little piece we can think of.”
“Like the songs that Maisetra Iulien is writing?” I asked. She was proud of doing her part, but I wasn’t sure how it fit into the mysteries.
Maisetra Talarico nodded but she looked worried. “I think the songs will be important. We’re building a mystery into an opera—a story that tells what we want the magic to do. There’s a woman who can set mysteries in music. The right words make the mystery even stronger.”
It made sense they’d asked Maisetra Iulien to help with that, because she had that knack of putting words together to make you feel what she wanted you to feel. It was a kind of charm. I’m not talking about just coaxing and sweet-talking people to do what she wanted, but her stories and poems had that way of making you see what she was talking about and feel what the people in the story felt. The words stuck with you. I still had bits from the Lautencourt book stuck in my head, as solidly as my nightly prayers.
I am, of course, quite familiar with John Lyly’s delightfully queer play Gallathea, in which we have two--count them, two!--cross-dressing heroines who inadvertently fall in love with each other. And who still proclaim their devotion and intent never to be parted after they find out their beloved’s true identity. But I hadn’t been aware that Lyly made a career from framing heterosexual marriage as a dispreferred alternative. This article situates it in the political context of Queen Elizabeth I’s singlehood.
Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. 2003. “A Strange Hatred of Marriage: John Lyly, Elizabeth I, and the Ends of Comedy” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.
A Strange Hatred of Marriage
Comic drama traditionally relies on and enforces the stereotypes and norms of heterosexual marriage. Most Elizabethan comedies do not present female singlehood and independence as a viable option, even when used as a transitional motif in the plot. Comedic resolutions overwhelmingly require the pairing off of single women into heterosexual marriages. Female resistance raises the questions: Must women marry? And must women marry men? Rarely are those questions answered in the negative. John Lyly stands out in offering a negative response. The pairing and marriage of two women (one to be magically transformed into a man) in Gallathea is as close as he comes to offering marriage as a desirable goal for women.
Although anywhere between 5 to 27% of early modern English people remained unmarried, singlewomen received little representation in literature. Lyly is the only early modern playwright who regularly features them. Comedic works are more likely than other genres to acknowledge singlewomen, as they represent an essential conflict in the plot. At the same time, comedy has the potential to highlight the absurdity and artificiality of compulsory heterosexuality. In Lyly’s court plays (Campaspe, Sappho and Phao, Gallathea, and Endymion), only the first involves the central female character marrying a man. His single female characters fall in various categories: chaste goddess, unmarried virgin, old hag. The attitudes he displayed toward these characters is similarly varied, from admiration to sympathy to contempt. He acknowledges the understanding of heterosexual marriage as both compulsory and a patriarchal structure that subjugates women.
These plays were all performed for Elizabeth I, who was the ultimate role model of the time of a powerful singlewoman, though scholars typically focus on how this affected men, not how it could have inspired women. Descriptions of Elizabeth’s reaction to romantic comedies often noted that she took dramatic debates over the desirability of marriage personally. (And, no doubt, many of them were intended to convey a personal/political argument to her.)
Moralists viewed unmarried women as inherently wanton and sexually uncontrolled. The politics of the question of the queen’s marriage was complicated in that her sister Mary had been married (the approved state) but was massively unpopular, while Elizabeth, though single, was loved. Moralists’ arguments that women should obey and serve their husbands complicated the case of a female ruler. Either that position argued against female rulers marrying, or it argued against having female rulers at all.
Earlier in Elizabeth’s reign, drama was a medium for courtiers to comment on Elizabeth’s unmarried state. By Lyly’s day, the marriage debate was essentially over. But drama still had a role to play in making sense of that situation. The role of “virgin goddess” was an obvious one, but Lyly’s works go beyond that to normalize female singlehood. He focuses on issues of subject and sovereignty, and the negative potential: rape, exile, death, and virgin sacrifice.
Lyly’s Venus sees heterosexual love as being about the (desirable) subjugation of women. For her, singlewomen are an affront to be conquered. Lyly’s Sappho finds the resolution of her desire for (the male) Phao untenable and remains single, thus conquering Venus. Similarly, Cynthia in Endymion, will not countenance marriage to her lower status suitor, though multiple secondary characters in Endymion are married off at the end in a resolution imposed punitively by Cynthia. The individual pairings represent negative tropes about marriage.
In Gallathea and Campaspe, the characters avoid the fate they are initially presented with. In Gallathea this fate is to be a virgin sacrifice, in Campaspe, the heroine is a prisoner threatened with rape by the conqueror Alexander and this situation is equated with the essence of marriage. In Gallathea, the two women at risk of virgin sacrifice instead fall in love with each other in an egalitarian desire not paralleled in heterosexual relationships. Instead of accepting marriage/sacrifice, they escape the system entirely. The marriage that concludes the play reveals gender to be arbitrary and capable of being chosen, rather than an essential characteristic. Their love is entirely symmetric and reciprocal. And despite Venus’s promoise to change one of them (randomly) into a man, the play ends at a point when both are still women. The running theme in Lyly’s heroines is that love demands this equal and reciprocal relationship and cannot thrive in a hierarchical and asymmetric coupling.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 37d - Postcards from Worldcon - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/08/24 - listen here)
I just spent the last two weeks in Ireland for the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, popularly known as Worldcon. It’s an annual gathering of science fiction and fantasy fans, authors, artists, and industry professionals. The convention travels every year and in recent years has been making good on the claim that it truly represents the world. This year it was in Dublin Ireland, last year in San Jose California, the year before in Helsinki Finland, and next year it will be in Wellington New Zealand.
Some podcasters attending Worldcon made plans to record live shows as panel discussions. I wasn’t that organized, but I decided to send my listeners a set of audio postcards from a few of the attendees. Some of these were recorded with more ambient background noise than is ideal, for which I apologize. I asked people to introduce themselves, maybe talk about what they were enjoying about Worldcon, and give out a shout to something they currently love that involves queer women in science fiction, fantasy, or history.
First up, we have Adri Joy from London.
Adri Joy: Hi, this is Adri Joy, reporting from Dublin Worldcon 2019. I’m from London in the UK. I’m also a writer for the fanzine Nerds of a Feather Flock Together. I’m having my first Worldcon at the moment. I’m having the most amazing time. I’ve met so many wonderful people. I’ve had lots of experiences. I’m learning about when to turn up to panels and what’s going to be full and what’s going to be busy and queues and all of those adventures that I’m sure anyone else who’s been to a Worldcon will also recognize. But what I’ve found is that whatever I end up doing, even if it’s not what I expected, has been really really wonderful. And I have a book recommendation for you for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Podcast. I recently read The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, who is a queer author based in Singapore. This is the fourth in their Tensorate series and it focuses on a relationship between two women, one of whom happens to be the empress of the Protectorate, and her rise to power, and one of whom is kind of her handmaiden turned spy turned lover, who finds out that the relationship is not really what they expected. And who ends up playing quite a dramatic role in the sort of later historic events that happen. It’s really inspired by Southeast Asia and Singapore and Malaysian culture. It’s super queer in all forms and it’s got two amazing women at the center. So, thank you!
HRJ: I was delighted to meet the three podcasters who host the Hugo-finalist show Be the Serpent, although I only got postcards from two of them. Here’s Freya Marske, from Australia with some favorite books.
Freya Marske: Hello, my name is Freya Marske. I’m a writer and podcaster from Australia. In terms of books that I have enjoyed recently that are about queer women, I want to shout out to Jeannelle Ferreira’s The Covert Captain, which is one of my favorite historical romances recently. And in terms of upcoming books, I am very very excited for Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth.
HRJ: There’s currently something of an explosion of SFF featuring queer characters and author Everina Maxwell is excited about that. Her novel Winter’s Orbit will be coming out from Tor in 2021.
Everina Maxwell: My name is Everina Maxwell. I’m a science fiction author and I think a really interesting thing about women in science fiction in particular is if you make a world where people are free to choose which of any gender identity they’re attracted to, maybe that choice means more, maybe that choice means less, but it gives a whole new perspective on it.
HRJ: Irish SFF reviewer and classical historian Liz Bourke was featured in a book appreciation show on this podcast a while ago. She has a few new book recommendations. I was delighted to be able to attend her wedding during the week before the convention.
Liz Bourke: Hello! My name is Liz Bourke. I review books for Tor.com and Locus. I am a queer woman and I just got married! And...my wife is wonderful! (You don’t have to put that in your podcast.) [laughter] And I read an awful lot of queer science fiction and fantasy and the really really great thing about the last couple of years is how much more of it there is! Heather herself writes really good stuff, but, I mean, the one that I most recently read that’s really blowing up in a big way is This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It is a novella and it is the most fantastic, dramatic, over-the-top time-traveling epistolary romance--queer romance--that you never knew you needed. And what I’m looking forward to...oh, I’m looking forward to Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace. I am promised that there’s queer kissing in it. Queer kissing and politics and interrogation of colonialism, but also the queer kissing. So you know, I’m there.
HRJ: A second member of the Be the Serpent podcast team, Jennifer Mace, provided some cheerleading for a favorite historical figure.
Jennifer Mace: Hi, my name is Jennifer Mace and I am a podcaster and fantasy author, currently working on an f/f book involving Naples. And an interesting thing about f/f in science fiction and fantasy is...uh, let’s talk a little bit about the French spy Julie [d’Aubigny], who broke into a nunnery, made out with all of the nuns, and set it on fire on the way back out, who is frankly a role model for us all. And more people should read at least her Wikipedia article, because it is excellent. And I wish to be her when I grow up. [laughter] [echoing cheers of “Julie d’Aubigny!” from bystanders]
HRJ: Worldcon is a great place for meeting up with online friends in far-flung lands. This next postcard is from someone I’ve known a long time and see in person too rarely. I first met Sara Uckelman when she was a teenager and we were both in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Now she’s a university professor in England and has plunged enthusiastically into writing and reviewing SFF.
Sara Uckelman: Hello! I’m Sara Uckelman. This is my first Worldcon. So greetings from Worldcon from a Worldcon newbie! It has been a fabulous convention because I’ve gotten so many recommendations for books, for authors, for blogs, for podcasts, for people to follow on Twitter. What I have really enjoyed is seeing the diversity of queer women that are showing up in SFF, because it gives me a chance to see people that...maybe I didn’t know that there were women like me, because I didn’t know that there were...that women like me were a thing. And to see them reflected in literature and media is a really neat and exciting and kind of scary thing. But scary in a good way.
HRJ: Two years ago Worldcon was in Finland and the Finns had so much fun they are highly represented among the fans at Dublin. I met Katri when she came to my reading and she was kind enough to contribute a postcard.
Katri: Hi! I’m Katri. I’m from Finland. This is my second Worldcon. I really like that there’s more and more queer women in SFF in lots of different times and places. Also, I’m just really happy when there’s women interacting with each other and having relationships with one another--whether it’s romantic or not. Some of my favorite books...I’m really fond of the Alpennia books. And another I read recently was Alice Payne Arrives, which is time travel with lesbians and all kinds of adventures. I still need to read the second part, but it was really good.
HRJ: One of the things I really love about my online community is being able to introduce people to each other and see new friendships develop. I met @fromankyra through twitter several years ago, finally met her in person when Worldcon was in Helsinki, and have been delighted to introduce her to other SFF fans who have now become fast friends.
@fromankyra: Hi! I’m @fromankyra and I am an SFF fan and a fan of Heather’s books. I love just all the queer women that we’ve been having in SFF lately, and just how they’ve been in so many different places. The thing that comes to mind is This is How You Lose the Time War. But also...well, Floodtide, which is coming out in November. And it feels like we’re putting the queer women back from the places they’ve been erased. Back into those areas. And it just feels so comforting.
HRJ: I’ve strayed a bit from my historical mandate for this show, but in the realm of genre fiction featuring queer women, there’s a lot of overlap between historicals, fantasy, and science fiction, as I hope the recommendations have shown. Conventions are also a great place for me to pick up new interview subjects and I have a couple of people tentatively scheduled to do shows in the next year that I think you’ll find as interesting as I do. These have been your Dublin Worldcon audio postcards. Having a great time. Wish you were here.
When last we saw our SFF adventurer (i.e., me), it was Sunday late afternoon and I was getting a post in before figuring out what to do for a pre-Hugo dinner. Given the timing, I decided not to try to coordinate with anyone else and had a solo-but-not-exactly-alone dinner at a small sushi place on the river bank between my hotel and the convention center. I'd been eyeing it speculatively for several days and can now confirm that you can find excellent sushi in Dublin (J2 Sushi & Grill). (I note that the menu said "American-style sushi" with I suspect referred to the prominence of complex rolls on the menu as opposed to a focus on nigiri and single-ingredient rolls.) I went for the chirashi bowl with some unagi nigiri on the side. The scallops were quite good (I don't usually like raw scallops) and the salmon was excellent (as one might expect).
I texted back and forth with @fromankyra to coordinate meeting up with her and her father to get seated and we found space toward the back of the main level, right next to the tech booth. The ceremony was great and full of passion and excellent award results. (I won't give a recap -- you can find full results and videos online.) Dublin certainly set a high bar for the non-award entertainment between groups, and co-MC Afua Richardson set what is probably an unmatchable standard for MC talent when (in addition to the artwork that led to her being named a featured artist) she sang and played the flute in some of the musical numbers.
After the ceremony, I joined a small group of friends hanging out in the back of the convention bar/lounge where we discussed and analyzed the award results for an hour or two before heading to bed.
I had thought about participating in the final business meeting, but wanted to go listen to the live podcast recording for Breaking the Glass Slipper, and since the latter was in the main convention center I couldn't do both. Maybe some day my podcast will have enough established presence in the SFF community to do a live show at a Worldcon. It would be a lot of fun.
My last program item was my reading at 1:30. I was gratified to find several friends hanging out in the lobby waiting to join me for it, but even more gratified to have about 10 people in the audience, most of whom were not close personal friends. I read my favorite "performance selection" from "The Language of Roses" (yep, I still love it lots) and then gave the audience a choice between a Flooditde excerpt about fortune-telling and one about laundry charms. They picked laundry charms and I was happily surprised that they even found parts funny!
I was able to snag several people who had been at the reading to record audio postcards for the podcast and have enough for a respectable (if short) show. It's more meant as a "concept" episode than a "content" one. Today's non-work time will be spent editing the postcards and drafting some connecting text.
I went to the official closing ceremonies, which as usual are mostly thank you speeches, some organizational attaboy awards, and the official handing off of the gavel to the next year's committee. It's a nice way to feel closure.
After that I had dinner at the Harbourmaster restaurant with Jen Zink and Shaun Duke from the Skiffy and Fanty podcast (they were both on the podcast panel I moderated) where I completed my "lamb tour of Dublin" with a meltingly-braised lamb shank and some great conversation. Jen has been working on transcriptions for some of my interview shows and it was great to meet her in person.
After dinner I went back to the convention center for the "dead dog" party in the convention bar/lounge and--with the instigation of @fromankyra--participated in a group twitter art project of cartoons of Welsh-speaking Patagonian sheep that we then tweeted at Ursula Vernon (because that's what one does with random sheep). The inspiration was an offhand joke by Hugo Awards co-host Michael Scott (during the ceremony) that no one wanted to hear him talk about Welsh-speaking Patagonian sheep farmers. I mean, with a prompt like that, what else could we have done?
My only adventures on Tuesday were the discovery that two and a half hours were nowhere nearly enough to get through airline security/customs with any comfort margin. The Dublin airport has a deal with US Immigration/Customs that they pre-process US-bound people in Dublin. So you get the standard Dublin security queue, the US-specific security queue, and then the US Customs queue, all with Disneylandesque levels of "turn the corner and discover that you're nowhere near the end of the line yet." And on top of that, there was some issue with my ticket when I tried to use the automated kiosk and I had to wait in line half an hour to talk to a human agent. Fortunately, the airlines were sufficiently aware of the overall delays that I didn't actually have to have run from Customs to the gate (which was doing "last call for boarding") since they were still boarding late-comers half an hour later. It did mean that I didn't dare stop at any point in the airport to pick up some last-minue edible souvenirs for the office. So I must now face them without the traditional post-vacation gifts. But I'm home and got a reasonably proper night's sleep. (Only woke up at 3am.) Onward to face the day!
I confess it: I love playing a long game in planting foreshadowing and setting things up. The failure mode is having some readers complain that I stick in random events and people as if they were meaningful and then drop the thread unresolved. You can't take every single reader aside personally and assure them, "Trust me, it's going to be relevant. Just hang on."
In The Mystic Marriage, Iulien Fulpi gives Margerit a notebook to read...and Margerit sets it aside and misplaces it. It drops out of sight--both literally and figuratively--and the thread isn't picked up again until Mother of Souls, when an anonymous novel is published that contains some clear, though coded, implications about Margerit and Barbara's relationship. The joke is that Iuli didn't understand the truth of what she wrote. She just felt that two people who were so clearly in love as those two were, by rights ought to be characters in a romantic adventure novel.
The book becomes the catalyst for some unfortunate events, but is also the door for Iuli to be let into their secret. It shouldn't be any surprise that Iuli accepted their relationship joyfully. After all, she'd already concluded that they ought to be married. At least in their fictional guises.
But The Lost Duke of Lautencourt isn't done with being a catalyst for character awareness. It might feel like Roz is being hopelessly naive at not realizing that Maisetra Sovitre and the baroness were a couple. But that is because we're looking at her not only with the knowledge that they are, but with modern people's assumptions and understandings about domestic arrangements. And this is where it's tricky to lead readers into thinking like an early 19th century working class girl.
There were class-based differences in assumptions about women's emotional relationships with each other. European society in general was going through several century-long swings between assuming that all women were capable of erotic feelings for other women, and assuming that erotic desire in women (regardless of object) was inherently lower class. Within that context, it's perfectly plausible for a housemaid who is quite aware of her own desire for women to assume that middle and upper class women "wouldn't do that sort of thing," that their affection for each other is purely platonic.
So Roz is in for a bit of a revelation when she happens upon Iulien's own copy of The Lost Duke of Lautencourt in the wake of the news of the attack on Barbara, when she recognizes Iulien's characteristic writing style, and when she understands who the characters are meant to be.
This is a bit of a long excerpt, but since it's all about the novel it isn't giving away much in terms of spoilers for Floodtide.
* * *
I don’t have much time for reading. We’d take turns passing around tattered books, bought cheap at the bookstall because they’d been discarded. Charsintek didn’t like them but she never forbade it. Sometimes Celeste and I would take turns reading from the fashion journals while we worked. But now reading was something to keep me awake while I watched over Maisetra Iulien.
If it had been a hard book, I don’t think I would have kept at it, but it was the sort that put pictures in your head. The words were fancy in a pretty sort of way, like the ones Maisetra Iulien used when she was telling me stories. In fact, the more I read, the more I could hear the story in Maisetra Iulien’s voice and I was more and more certain it was one of her stories. I mostly skipped through looking for the name Lautencourt but sometimes it would pull me in and I’d read pages at a time.
It was exactly the sort of adventure Maisetra Iulien loved, about a beautiful woman who inherited a fortune, and a bad man who wanted to marry her for the money. She was an orphan and her guardian wanted her to marry the bad man because he was going to be the Duke of Lautencourt. That didn’t make sense from what Maisetra Iulien had said before. The Duke of Lautencourt was supposed to be the hero. But he wasn’t the duke yet. There was another man who might be the old duke’s heir but no one knew where he was. The woman refused to marry the bad man and her guardian set it up so he would kidnap her.
You didn’t need kings and castles to put that sort of thing in a story. Women got forced to marry men they didn’t like all the time. It didn’t need kidnapping, just being caught alone with him so that you had to say you were betrothed or you were ruined for life. That’s one thing armins were for, after all: to guard a girl’s reputation. It was why Maisetra Iulien wasn’t supposed to go anywhere without me or Maistir Brandel or both of us. It was why she was never ever supposed to be alone with someone like Mesner Aukustin, because he’d never be allowed to marry someone like her who wasn’t noble. She’d just be ruined with nothing to gain from it.
The rich girl in the story didn’t have an armin, but just as the bad man was about to carry her off, another man showed up and rescued her and begged her to let him serve as her armin. That’s not how it works at all. You don’t hire someone with no name and no reputation—that’s no better than being with a stranger in the first place. And it was clear that he loved her. There was this place in the story where he says, “I would die for you. You mean more to me than my life and my salvation. I would go to the ends of the earth to bring you your heart’s desire.”
I think I would have melted if someone said that to me. If it was someone I loved, that is. I read that bit over and over until I could say it by heart. And the girl loved the armin too, but she knew they’d never let her marry a nobody.
I skipped through a lot of the story that was about balls and clothes and such nonsense. I suppose it might be fun to read if you thought you might have such things, but I wanted to know what happened to the girl and the mysterious stranger and I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have to find out.
So I went to the end and read bits backward to figure out what happened. I still didn’t know what the Duke of Lautencourt had to do with the maisetra and the baroness. Then everything fell into a pattern. It was a pattern I hadn’t even imagined. I should have guessed how the story would end because fairy stories like this always ended that way. The mysterious armin was really the lost heir, and he fought a duel with the bad man for the sake of the lady’s honor, and killed him, and then everyone found out who he was. So the armin became a duke and married the lady and they were happy together for the rest of their lives.
I’d gotten so tied up in the story that I’d almost forgotten why I was reading it. When I remembered, my stomach knotted up all sick-like. Because if Baroness Saveze was the Duke of Lautencourt… Baroness Saveze had been the maisetra’s armin before she found out who she really was and became a baroness. That meant that the maisetra must be the rich lady in the story. And it made sense because she was rich. The maisetra and the baroness lived together in the same house and even slept in the same bedroom. I’d never thought anything of it because people did that, you know? Maisetra Fillert’s daughters shared a bedroom with their cousins when they came visiting. I’d never had a bed to myself until here at Tiporsel House and that was because Charsintek didn’t want me getting in trouble. But Maisetra Iulien had said, “The Duke of Lautencourt saves his true love and they live happily ever after.” And the baroness was the Duke of Lautencourt. And Maisetra Sovitre was her true love. And they were supposed to get married and live happily ever after.
I knew the maisetra and the baroness were friends who loved each other, but I’d never thought about them being in love. Not like me and Nan. I never imagined them lying in the big fancy bed they shared doing the things a man and woman who were married did. The things Nan and I had done. Maybe it should have made me feel glad to think the maisetra and I were alike that way, but instead I was frightened. It was one of those secrets Tavit warned me about. The kind that were dangerous to know and even more dangerous for people to know you knew. I thought about how the maisetra had hired me, even knowing why I’d lost my last place. Maybe that had been a part of it—thinking that we were just a little bit alike—but it wouldn’t go any further than that.
Spicksley, Judith M. 2003. “To Be or Not to Be Married: SIngle Women, Money-lending, and the Question of Choice in Late Tudor and Stuart England” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
To Be or Not to Be Married
This is a fairly extensive research paper in two parts. The first looks at the demographics of singlewomen in Late Tudor and Stuart England, along with some of the social forces that affected women’s inclination and ability to avoid marriage. The second part looks specifically at the occupation of money-lender as an option for women to support themselves or to supplement other forms of income.
Demographic studies indicate that the percentage of never-married women in England during the period in question ranged from 10% (the cohort born in 1566) to 22% (the cohort born in 1641). Contemporary literature indicates anxiety about a “man shortage” as a contributing cause. Society was structured around the expectation of monogamous heterosexual marriage, but increasingly there was a perception that marriage was in decline. This perception was of particular concern in the context of considering an increase of population as a desirable goal. Marriage was, in theory, an expected life stage for all women, and male-authored literature depicted women as strongly desiring marriage and aiming to achieve it at a relatively young age.
Because of these attitudes, female singlehood was viewed as being due to a situational lack of opportunity, e.g., as a result of male mortality during the English Civil War, due to greater male participation in emigration, and due to plague. Other concerns focused on male choice not to marry and blamed that, in turn, on women’s behavior. The atmosphere of sexual license in the Restoration court was felt to encourage men to decline marriage in favor of less formal arrangements. This perception led to legal measures to encourage marriage with special taxes on bachelors and childless widowers. There was little discussion at the time of women who were single by choice, although some hint of this concern appears in satirical attacks on spinsters.
But moral literature around marriage also recognized that not all people were suited to marriage, especially those who were not able or disinclined to procreate. Some individuals were advised (or chose) not to marry due to not being suited to the physical and emotional demands of marriage. In other cases, an individual might remain single to to being unable to convince their family of the suitability of their chosen partner.
The most widely accepted reason for not marrying was financial. The north-western European marriage pattern involved formation of a new, independent household on marriage. This required an accumulation of goods and capital, as well as stable employment. A woman’s “marriage portion” was considered an essential contribution for the economic success of the match.
Women of the lower classes acquired this portion from work, legacies, gifts, or charity. Such women generally worked outside the home from their mid-teens until marriage. But work opportunities were contracting in the 17th century. Charity offered to women often took the form of money or goods to enable marriage. Legal regulation of marriage often targeted foreigners or internal migrants who were felt to be “competing” with local women for marriage opportunities. Other statutes were aimed at delaying marriage, such as apprenticeship regulations that required an unmarried state.
Overall, the result was a significant population of mobile, unmarried poor. For example, rural servants were highly mobile. Gender-related differences in migration patterns also affected marriage opportunities. Curiously, disease also contributed to a “surplus” of unmarried women, with men being twice as likely to contract the plague and five times as likely to die from it, though the data is not entirely clear on this point. Similarly, emigration strongly favored men. The next part of the article focuses on an overlooked demographic: women who remained single by choice. [Note: the author identifies them as women who remained “celibate” by choice, but that’s a different question.]
What factors drove this? The 17th century saw increased freedom of choice in marriage partners. There was a general shift from a focus on marriage as a community-oriented action to marriage as an individual action, with an emphasis on personal autonomy and individual happiness. That individual happiness was not necessarily tied up in marriage. For example, Blanche Perry, a maid to Queen Elizabeth I, chose to remain single in order to devote herself to Elizabeth’s service. In other cases, women related their chosen singlehood to the inability to marry a specific preferred partner. In other cases, they ascribed singlehood to “God’s will.”
Popular literature of the day often humorously debated the joys of a single life as contrasted with marriage. This was more typically focused on men, but in the later 17th century the debate was engaged in more seriously by women who were focused on religious celibacy both within formal ecclesiastical institutions and as lay women. Women writers such as Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, and Jane Barker wrote of “single” life in the context of female friendship or as a positive state in the face of negative attitudes toward “spinsters.”
The choice to remain single required financial stability. Demographic data from the middle ages shows a link between women’s marriage rates and economic autonomy. The labor shortages of the late 14th and early 15th centuries were paralleled by an expansion of unmarried women working outside their household of birth, especially in towns. This included a sharp increase in the rate of never-married women. Even for those who married, marriage might be delayed later in life.
While women’s labor was often marginal and badly paid, the article now focuses on one economic opportunity available to some women: the profession of money-lending.
In England, lending money for interest (with a statutory rate of 10%) was legalized in 1571 (though it occurred on a less regulated basis earlier). It was part of a complex system of many types of financial arrangements, making details hard to track. Female moneylenders are also often not mentioned in the historic records of the time, therefore the field is researched primarily in the context of a small number of prominent and wealthy women. This article expands that data to a wider demographic by use of probate inventories that note lending arrangements that were outstanding at the time of death. While these records show that 40% of all persons were engaged in lending, singlewomen were over-represented with 50-60% engaging in moneylending. This holds across all income levels. Income from loan interest often supplemented other income sources available to singlewomen, such as spinning.
The interest return on a sum equivalent to a woman’s typical marriage portion was roughly similar to the typical wages for the same economic class, although wages were generally supplemented by room and board. But lending did not preclude other economic activities. The singlewomen in this study also engaged in farming, renting out animals, dairying, textile production and processing, along with more poorly paid manual labor. It’s unclear to what extent singlewomen chose this path deliberately, but if chosen, it was a sustainable lifestyle. Most loans were within their own community and class, and served as a communal financial resource against economic fluctuations.
Women whose fathers had died had legal control of their inherited marriage portion either at marriage or at majority. And with marriage typically occurring after the age of majority and a higher male death rate, this meant that many singlewomen were in a position to control their assets. Wills typically left cash to daughters more often than to sons (sons being more likely to get real estate and goods). [Note: but see Staples 2011 for counter-evidence to the claim that sons were more likely than daughters to get real estate.]
As married women’s property came under the legal control of her husband (unless there was a special provision in the marriage contract -- a case only typical for widows), singlewomen had more ability to serve as lenders than married women did. This legal situation also provided a motivation to remain single if they wanted to keep control of their property.
The economic independence of moneylending may have given singlewomen more control over the timing and choice of marriage, or as a way to avoid marriage entirely. Women also sometimes viewed moneylending as a type of charitable activity.