Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 163 (previously 47c) - Book Appreciation: Black Authors/Black Characters - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/06/20 - listen here)
In this month’s On the Shelf program, I went on a tiny little rant about the frustrating and heartbreaking dearth of black authors and black characters in f/f historical fiction. There are a lot of dynamics in play, of course. The financial incentives for writing in the genre are small and not everyone can afford to bypass settings and genres that offer more promise of a living wage. Authors as well as readers can be brainwashed by popular culture into thinking that black people were absent from vast swaths of the favored historical romance settings. And if a reader is actively searching out black authors and black characters in the field of f/f historical fiction, they may find that book lists and review sites aren’t designed to search on that particular combination of features.
So I’m putting my money where my mouth is and curating a list for this book appreciation show. I am immensely indebted to several websites that gave me a leg up in cross-checking and expanding my list, especially sites featuring authors of color writing romance, or authors of color writing queer fiction. Here’s a shout-out to SIstahs on the Shelf, Women of Color in Romance, the Black Lesbian Literary Collective, and The Brown Bookshelf, and also to LGBTQReads who reminded me of the existence of these excellent resources. You can find links to all of these sites in the show notes. It still took some searching to track down historical fiction within those resources, and to identify f/f stories within the results.
What I’ve come up with are twelve books. I certainly hope this isn’t the full extent of what’s out there! In particular, I may be missing self-published works where the ethnicity of the main characters isn’t foregrounded in the cover copy. Twelve books. As it happens, I’ve read six of them and two more were already on my TBR list. Two of the authors have been guests on this podcast. Very few of the books fit solidly into the romance category--only two or three by my count--though most involves some sort of romantic subplot. Four of the books are historic fantasy and another two use a cross-time motif where characters in a contemporary setting are researching the past. Eight are set in the 19th century and four in the first half of the 20th. None are set earlier than that. And--touching on another point I made in my earlier rant--most of them do feature elements of the trauma of black and colonial history in their plots.
On to the books! I’ve organized them more or less in chronological order, just for fun.
Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roadshas a gloriously inventive structure, set in three different times and places--early 19th century Haiti, later Paris, and Egypt in the early Christian era--all bound together by manifestations of Ezili, the goddess of sexual desire and love. The chapters are introduced as musical motifs making me imagine how a theatrical version of the story might play out. I’ve blogged previously about how the representation of many different identities and sexualities in this story made me feel seenin a way that characters who resemble me more superficially haven’t always. The book has many dark moments--how could it not, when it covers the conditions leading to the Haitian revolution? But it circles around to end in joy.
The book that falls most solidly in the historical romance genre is also the one where I’m least certain about having a woman of color as a protagonist. The author, Gabrielle Goldsby, is black and very often features black characters, but a close reading of The Caretaker’s Daughter, a mildly-gothic Regency romance, only has hints that the title character might be biracial. (Her father is described several times in ways that suggest dark skin.) On the other hand, I may have missed more specific evidence since I’m afraid I didn’t finish the book because the writing style wasn’t working for me. You, dear listener, may well have a different reading experience--it happens quite often. Set on a classic English country estate, the unhappily married Lady Bronte finds friendship and then love with the daughter of her groundskeeper.
The most delightful and charming romance on my list is the novella “That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole, who also has a very popular m/f historic romance series featuring black heroines set in the American Civil War. Alyssa Cole was a guest on this podcast to talk about her story, inspired by the setting of the musical Hamilton, in which the repressed Mercy Alston, acting as secretary in Eliza Hamilton’s interviews of those who knew her late husband, encounters the vibrant and challenging dressmaker Andromeda Stiel. I loved this story and wish that it was enough of a bestseller to tempt Cole to write more like it. “That Could Be Enough” is near the top of my list of recommendations for those who want to dip their toe in the waters of f/f historical romance.
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghostsis by Tiya Miles who is an award-winning historian and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. The book uses fiction to explore a little-known part of American history: the participation of Cherokee tribes in Georgia in the slave-holding economy. The author herself is of African-American and Cherokee heritage and has focused on this intersection in her historic research. This book presents that research in fictional form, framed by three contemporary women who come together on a Georgia plantation to investigate the past. The book is tagged as LGBTQ in Goodreads, though the specific content isn’t evident in the cover copy. Perhaps I’ll be able to provide more information in the future as I’ve just added the book to my TBR list.
One way to have a book cover a wide swath of history is to make your protagonist an immortal vampire. Vampire stories are often weak on historical grounding, but Jewelle Gomez’s collection The Gilda Storiesis a solid exception, tracing the protagonist’s life from 1850s Louisiana through to the present day. I remember reading this collection back when it first came out and was a rare example of overtly lesbian characters in SFF. The writing is atmospheric and explores issues of community and isolation.
Within the last year I had Penny Mickelbury on the show to talk about her novel Two Wings to Fly Away, set in Philadelphia shortly before the onset of the Civil War. There is an inter-racial romance that shows the delicate masquerade required when different worlds collide, though it is only one subplot among thrilling escapes, mysteries, and the building of a precarious community of free black people and those fleeing slavery at a time when one’s status could change in an instant. I found the writing rich in historical detail and atmosphere in a way that can be traced to Mickelbury’s background in journalism.
Justina Ireland has created an alternate history that asks the question, what if the American Civil War ended with a zombie invasion? In Dread Nationand the sequel Deathless Dividewe follow the adventures of a young black woman trained to fight zombies to protect her upper class employers. The sapphic content enters in the second book, though not the main focus of the plot, as our heroine and her companion set out on a journey west through dangers that are not limited to the restless dead. These books are on my TBR list. It is, alas, a very long list.
Also tackling alternate history with a speculative fiction twist, Nisi Shawl’s steampunky Everfairposits the creation by British and American idealists of an independent nation carved out of the colonial hellscape of the Belgian Congo. But having established it, they must find the resources to defend it, not only against their colonial neighbors but against their own deep-set prejudices and conflicts. There are several queer relationships among the extremely large cast, and though they are not the focus of the story, they normalize a variety of identities, expressed in historically grounded ways. This is a vividly imagined alternate historic path, with the assistance of some innovative tech that gives our protagonists just barely enough of an edge to survive.
Nik Nicholson’s Descendants of Hagarfollows the life of a gender-transgressing woman in Georgia in the early 20th century. Rejecting a conventional woman’s life, Linny takes on the role of her father’s “son” until she makes a promise that brings her into conflict with her responsibilities to her family. From the description, this looks to depict a complex extended family in which one woman slips sideways through society’s expectations. I haven’t read this one but it looks intriguing.
Set very closely in time to the previous book comes Jam on the Vineby LaShonda Barnett. A scholarship enables our protagonist to pursue her childhood dream of journalism, but she returns home to the hard reality that the only jobs she’ll be offered are medial labor. Leaving the South, Ivoe and her lover set up the first female-run African American newspaper just in time to cover the outbreak of lynchings and race riots in 1919. Like many of the non-romance books in this list, the plot centers around flash-points of racial oppression and injustice.
Those books are far more likely to be published as literary fiction than genre fiction, and that’s definitely the case with Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple, following the lives of sisters Celie and Nettie in early 20th century rural Georgia and tackling issues of domestic abuse and lives constrained by poverty as much as by race. Same-sex desire is a minor thread in the story as part of the complex relationships the women experience.
Bringing us into the mid-20th century, Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Treestackles the Nigerian civil war shortly after the country gained its independence in the 1960s. Ijeoma, temporarily displaced by the war, falls in love with another girl, but her mother’s disapproval and homophobia result in a long internal struggle for Ijeoma to find a balance point between her desires, her desire for her mother’s approval, and her religious beliefs. Although the protagonist’s lesbian identity is central to the novel, this is far from a feel-good romance. The social context it depicts is still prevalent today, reminding us that acceptance is not evenly distributed. Under the Udala Treeswon a Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction.
It’s a short list--I’d love for listeners to suggest more books that would fit. And it’s a narrow list in many ways. No books set earlier than 1800. Very few romances with happily ever after endings. Plots that too often rely on Black suffering for their conflict. And when you talk to authors, it isn’t that these are the only books they want to write, but often it’s the ones that publishers want to see. I know I’d like to see many more, with more different plots and settings. And more happy endings. Don’t we all want to see more happy endings, in real life as well as on the page?
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode we talk about f/f historical fiction by Black authors featuring at least one Black protagonist.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
This is the second article that is an earlier version of one of the chapters in Valerie Traub's The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. I keep thinking I should go back and compare these summaries to what I wrote about the same material in the full book. For that matter, I think I should see if the content changed substantially between these original articles and the later work. Or I could realize that I don't have time and leave that as an exercise to the reader.
Traub, Valerie. 1994. “The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England” in Queering the Renaissance ed. by Jonathan Goldberg. Duke University Press, Durham and London. ISBN 0-8223-1381-2
This collection of articles takes a broad view of “queering”. The articles look at the ways in whch “humanism” failed to recognize the humanity of many popuations, specifically those who were not straight white men. The research here encourages examination of the relationship of race, gender, and sexuality to notions of colonialism and imperial expansion.
Traub "The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England"
This article is one of the components that went into Traub’s later book The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. I haven’t reviewed whether and how much it was revised for that 2002 publication (just as I didn’t for the titular chapter in GLQ covered in LHMP #275). Since my coverage of the eventual book was necessarily somewhat more cursory, I’ve gone ahead and summarized this article as if new.
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Traub claims the title of this article is a “bait and switch” as she follows Halperin in treating “homosexuality” as such as only existing in the last 100 years, with “the lesbian” as an even more recent discursive invention.
[Note: I understand what the authors mean when they say this sort of thing -- that the concepts associated with the modern understanding of the category “lesbian” are only recently defined and codified -- but that leaves me wondering how they deal with the fact that the word “lesbian” was in regular use well before the last century in association with women who desired or had sex with other women. If “the lesbian” is a very recent conceptual invention, where does that leave the long history of the word and its associations? Do we just ignore that because it complicates our theoretical position?]
Traub compares the “asymmetrical representation” of three Early Modern figures: the French female sodomite, the English tribade, and the theatrical homoerotic “femme”. [Note: part of what Traub is trying to point out here is that sexualities are culturally grounded. The point isn’t that the words sodomite and tribade have different meanings, but that the specific manifestations those cultures applied those words to were different from each other.]
There is a discussion of the philosophical assumptions inherent in a 1729 book on “Ancient Laws against Immorality and Profaneness” that covers a wide variety of sex-related offences, encompassing categories of being (e.g., whores) as well as specific acts (e.g., bestiality). The author does not identify a common category for same-sex acts, grouping m/m sex with bestiality but omitting f/f sex entirely. Women may be whores (category) or may fornicate (act) but the possibility of being sodomites is excluded.
But was this an actual denial of the possibility of f/f sex or a byproduct of the author’s rigid approach to exclusive categorization? (I.e., that each person/act can only belong to one category of immorality.) After all, he also excludes the possibility of male whores, and yet those were clearly known and documented at the time. The book is a product of a period of gender instability and attempts to stabilize identities through artificial category boundaries. [Note: I feel like we’re going through a similar period currently. The early 21st century is a time of significant anxiety about shifts in older categories of gender and sexuality, and many people express that anxiety by trying to enforce rigid, artificial, and ill-fitting categories.]
It was the codification and normalization of sexual, psychological, and criminal categories in the 18-19th century that drove the legal regulation of same-gender desire. To a large extent, legal categories were seen to create fact: if no woman was prosecuted for sodomy, ipso facto, women did not practice sodomy.
It is only when one moves away from legal and theological discourse that we find texts that acknowledge f/f sexuality and attempt to regulat it, such as gynecology texts and stage plays. These genres were male-dominated, but show a distinct lackof anxiety about desire between women.
One must recognize geographic differences in attitudes toward f/f desire. Continental prosecutions for female sodomy emphasize the cultural difference from England. Montaigne’s anecdote about a cross-dressing woman (trans man) who married and had sex with a women shows contrasts between the law’s harsh response and the implication of a more accepting attitude of the couple’s neighbors, which is apparent in hints and wordings in the testimony. Within this French context, female sodomy is defined by the use of an artificial penis for sex. The focus is no on desire or non-penetrative sex, but only on the imitation of m/f sex.
Gynecological texts, both French and English, share this focus, being concerned specifically with the possibility of an enlarged clitoris that both caused and enabled women to have penetrative sex with women. See, e.g., Helkiah Crooke.
Despite the distinction in nomenclature and consequence for female sodomites (using dildos) and tribades (using a macro-clitoris), there is a unifying logic of supplementing female anatomy with male features. There is no consideration of distinction made in how these supplements may be used, only vague references to acting “like a man”. In masculinizing such women’s acts, authors failed to address what the acts may have meant to the women involved. Women’s agency in f/f sex is co-opted back into heterosexual forms.
Traub now turns to the question of finding evidence of f/f desire in other contexts. The nature and interpretation of this evidence is positioned within the framework of Judith Butler’s theories of gender as performance, and Derrida’s ideas of “difference”.
Early Modern women’s employment of anatomical “supplements” becomes not an imitation of man, but a replacement that emphasizes the artificiality of the gender binary, and indeed of men as a concept. The image of the enlarged clitoris becomes a cultural fantasy, apart from any possible biological reality, almost a fetish, in the same way that the image of the dildo became (apart from the concrete reality) and “object of desire” -- not necessarily for the women who were supposedly using them, but for the authorities who fixated on the phallus precisely in the context of its absence and displacement.
The focus of these texts is not on sexuality, but on gender; not on the pleasure the women experience, but on the usurpation of male prerogatives. So where do we see evidence of women’s erotic practices that do notinvolve a supplement for male anatomy? One place such practices are present is in Early Modern stage plays that feature what might be called “femme-femme love” as a viable, if unstable, state.
As with other literary genres, stage plays can’t be taken as representing real life experiences, but rather a discourse around how that possible experience was imagined, perceived, and regulated. Upon the stage, the popular motif of female cross-dressing can be viewed as representing similar cultural anxieties about gender identity as the fantasies of dildos and clitorises did.
The cross-dressing heroine becomes privileged as a representation of female homoeroticism because of her visibility. But -- aligned with Sedgwick’s “epistemology of the closet” -- are we as historians overlooking representations of female homoeroticism that did not generate the same obvious anxieties as cross-dressing? Are we focused too much on Viola (in Twelfth Night) the unwilling object of female desire due to her male disguise, and too little on Helena and Hermia, Celia and Rosalind, who express erotic sentiments for each other but whose destinies don’t challenge the marriage plot?
Shakespeare’s “femme-femme” couples always appear at the point of separation, simultaneously expressing homoerotic desire and placing the enjoyment of that desire safely in the past at the point of its betrayal. Female bonds become a point of anxiety when they threaten the patriarchal imperative (e.g., Titania and her handmaiden in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or the prospect of marriage.
Shakespeare’s successors shifted female homoeroticism into the present, and depict it as explicitly erotic. (e.g., Heywood: The Golden Age; Shirley The Bird in a Cage) At the same time, they displace f/f love, not in time, but into a mythic, separatist female realm, such as Diana’s band. The Golden Ageis a reworking of the myth of Callisto and Diana. The Bird in a Cagealso uses classical myth as the setting for its f/f eroticism, and again uses the motif of Jupiter disguised as a woman to gain sexual access to an otherwise forbidden female object.
The use of f/f themes on the stage suggest an acceptability of f/f desire as long as male signifiers such as cross-dressing and dildos are not present. Though f/f love in he plays is replaced by heterosexual marriage, this is a resolution that must be forcibly imposed, rather than emerging as the “natural state”. May we posit that the gender of a woman’s object of desire need not be significant so long as the woman retains a “feminine” role?
Traub suggests the existence of (at least) two modes for female homoeroticism at this time: the omnisexual femme who did not challenge norms, and the tribade who usurped the masculine role and did not participate in the expected economy of female availability to men. Tribades were, to some extent, defined by their use of a phallic supplement. So what sexual practices might femmes have enjoyed? Stage plays make reference to kissing and caressing. Given that (heterosexual) marriage manuals of the time encouraged men to arouse their wives by caressing the breasts and genitals, surely these techniques were available between women as well?
Precisely because “femme” homoeroticism failed to challenge gender roles, it is rarely documented outside of drama. [Note: but see also a few rare examples of female-authored poetry of the time that express it.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 162 (previously 47b) - Interview with Amy Hoff
(Originally aired 2020/06/13 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Amy Hoff Online
One of my newer side projects while reading and summarizing books for the Project is to pull out specific data that makes for a boring blog, but a useful resource. My eventual goal is to make these excerpts available in more organized form through my Patreon. From Klosowska's book, I've extracted three sets of data: a list of medieval French romances that include cross-dressing motifs (both male and female), a discussion of the language of desire and sexual activity differentiated by whether a same-sex or opposite-sex pair are involved (though the same-sex language is primarily male), and a catalog of the language in Yde et Olive specifically about desire, sexual activity, and love between the two women, both before and after Yde's sex is known by Olive.
Klosowska, Anna. 2005. Queer Love in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-6342-8
With a title like "Queer Love in the Middle Ages" my hope is always for a broad, general discussion of the stated topic. But academic publishing lives and dies by focused, specific, theory-filtered studies of narrow topics. So while there was some fascinating information in this book (especially close readings of certain vocabulary fields), I found it less interesting on a personal basis than I'd hoped. It isn't a book that I'd recommend to the non-specialist, not only for the very dense framework of literary and psychological theory that fills every corner, but because it assumes a fairly detailed familiarity with the specific medieval texts that are under discussion.
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Introduction: History of Desire, Desire for History
The general topic of this book is a queer studies look at medieval French literature. It’s inspired by looking at the contrast between the medieval theory of friendship in philosophical and conduct texts, and fictional depictions of friendship. The former exclude women entirely from the possibility of “true friendship” while the latter focuses on autonomous characters, including women, for whom true friendship is possible. But although that theme was the inspiration for the book, the content looks at a handful of specific motifs and their context.
A contrast is noted in the manuscript of the Roman du comte d’Anjou between the male-focused central text and the female-focused illustrations. Does this relate to the primarily female book owners and audience? There is a close relationship between friendship and passion, and readers may shift in interpreting one for the other. Among modern scholars, there has been a push by some authors to read depictions of passion in the text as friendship. This led to Klosowska’s refocusing this book explicitly on the topic of same-sex love.
She looks at “thematic sites” that regularly provide representations of same-sex desire -- sites that may be over- or under-specified with respect to that theme.
There is an extensive discussion of literary theory and motifs as background for the examination.
Question: were the same-sex aspects of these themes as evident to medieval readers as they are to modern ones? Pejorative readings of same-sex desire are common and obvious. But should we consider the medieval reader to include or exclude positive readings of same-sex relationships as well?
How did literary culture relate to the experiences of ordinary medieval people who might never interact directly with literary texts? There is a discussion of the dynamics of post-modern and queer theory studies of medieval topics.
What is the importance of sex acts to the study of the history of sexuality How do ideas about orientation/desire fit with historical acceptance of situational and life-stage same-sex relations? As an example, there is a discussion of classical Roman (male) same-sex social dynamics.
If contexts with homoerotic potential (such as bed-sharing between close friends) were not targeted as problematic, why not? Perhaps because they usually strengthened rather than undermined the social structure? See, e.g., Alan Bray's discussion of the contexts where these thematic sites were used as social/political weaponry.
The author discusses the theoretical context of Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” concept. There is a discussion of theoretical problems in studying homosexuality in past eras when that concept is ill-fitting to conceptual realities.
Chapter 1 - Grail Narratives: Castration as a thematic site
This chapter focuses on male topics and is not relevant to the Project.
Chapter 2 - Dissection and Desire: Cross-dressing and the fashioning of lesbian identity
The chapter begins with appreciation of the sensory experience of medieval manuscripts as objects: the manipulation of these objects via disassembly and recombination. The author compares that process to the segmentation of meaning and identity created by cross-dressing, whereby clothing, social status, gender performance, behavior, emotions, roles in romantic scripts, bodily configuration, all can be manipulated and combined independently to create new identities. [Note: This discussion is very theory-centered.]
The author wants to create an alternative model to understand medieval cross-dressing fictions in order to challenge existing interpretations such as “carnival reversals” or the creation of an “other” to contrast with the norm. But those models presuppose a relatively modern view of gender such that contrasts could define or contradict it. Given that fictions of female cross-dressing can’t be understood either via models of heterosexual couples or as female friendships, the author suggests a direct parallel with the cutting up and reassembly of medieval manuscripts: a violent process that leaves the marks of seams.
[Note: This is the point where the author began to lose me. She returns regularly to this "cutting up and re-assembling" motif, though it isn't the only focus of the analysis.]
Texts such as Yde et Olive are created to “fulfill erotic needs and social fantasies rather than being mere accidents of narrative.” That is: the homoerotic consequences of cross-dressing narratives are the point, not a side-effect.
The author discusses the illustrations in the manuscript of Yde et Olive in which the two women are married and in bed together.
There is a review of the legal evidence for f/f relationships and the explanations offered for why there is comparatively less evidence than for men.
Can characters like Yde and Olive be explained purely in terms of plot requirements? Or as an intense female friendship with no erotic component? This is hard to reconcile with the details of the text. (Which, in fact, requires a later change of sex for plot purposes.)
There is a very useful catalog of female cross-dressing episodes in medieval French literature. This is followed by an analysis of cross-dressing episodes (for both sexes) and their contexts, such as the motif of the cross-dressed woman being accused of rape. But in Yde et Olive the audience is set up to sympathize with the couple, not to condemn them.
Some authors see a “progression” from ambiguous/sympathetic portrayals of cross-dressed women in f/f relationships, to a focus of the purpose of the cross-dressing on achieving a heteronormative destiny. Thus cross-dressing becomes just one more “feminine trick” to achieve the woman’s goals. But while cross-dressing and consequent same-sex encounters often serve as humor, or to reinforce gender norms, Yde et Olive is well positioned to suggest a function of expressing f/f fantasies.
The chapter returns to a symbolic discussion of manuscript mutilation. [And I’m skipping over large section that are mostly playing with symbols.]
The chapter concludes with a very detailed discussion of the exact language used in the bedroom scene in Yde et Olive. It looks at how a literal reading of Olive’s thoughts and verbal responses portray a woman desiring and enjoying sex with a female partner in specific preference to intercourse with a man. [Note: this part of the chapter is perhaps the most useful for the purposes of the Project, though it requires a familiarity with medieval French and with the story to be fully understood.]
Chapter 3 - The Place of Homoerotic Motifs in the Medieval French Canon
While the previous two chapters took a deep dive into specific themes and works, this one surveys a selection of motifs, such as the false accusation of same-sex preference. Such an accusation might be in reaction to apparent indifference to a heterosexual advance, or as a shield against unwanted attention. These motifs occur in texts as varied as an adaptation of Aeneas, a collection of courtly anecdotes, and the chivalric allegory The Romance of the Rose.
In some, there is a contrast between a “literal” same-sex interaction being used to allegorically represent an opposite-sex one. Within a homosocial society, same-sex playing-out of romantic scripts becomes ambiguous.
[Note: consider this in the same context as the use of heterosexual forms and scripts in single-sex school crushes, or the assertion that pairs of young women may “practice” with each other for marriage, in contexts where mingling of the sexes is discouraged.]
Another repeating motif is the disguise of a noblewoman’s male lovers as waiting women. In this context, there is an explanation of hair as a distinguishing gender marker--or in age-differentiated m/m relationships, as a sexual role marker. The young, beardless, long-haired cinnaedus of Roman age/status-differentiated pairs creates a split contrast of male/effeminate performance with m/m bodies. Whereas the medieval “disguised waiting woman” motif creates a different split contrast between f/f performance with underlying f/m bodies.
There is a discussion of the gendered vocabulary of hair in various medieval languages with a highly speculative connection made between effeminate curled/kinky hair and the use of “kinky” for non-normative sexual acts. [Note: Even the author indicates this is highly speculative, and there’s a distinct lack of receipts.] In general, there is a sense that deliberately ostentatious and excessive hairstyles were associated with effeminacy, luxury, and sexual wantonness.
The author discusses a medieval version of Aeneas that depicts the titular hero as sexually wanton with both men and women, though always in the “active” role. This discussion includes more interesting vocabulary analysis regarding which expressions for sexual desire/pleasure are used for which gender combinations. The overall tone of the Aeneas text is one of disparaging him for his sexual tastes and a female complaint at being set aside in favor of male lovers -- disguised to some extent as a concern the failure to produce a next generation.
The next motif is how the attractiveness of ideal, but non-gendered, features disturbs the boundaries of gender and heterosexuality. Both men and women may express appreciation for an attractive body, as long as the attractiveness is not described in specifically gendered terms. A shapely leg is beautiful because it is “noble,” not because it is “manly.”
This theme is explored in Lanval, via the courtship-like symbolism of the lord-vassal relationship, but embodied in the vassal relationship of Lanval to his secret fairy-queen lover. Lanval has sworn to keep their relationship secret, so when he refuses Queen Guinevere’s advances, she accuses him of preferring boys.
The chapter concludes with brief discussions of other texts. [Note: there is very little attention given to f/f motifs, even when they involve men disguised as women. Which is odd since texts that include them, such as Silence, are mentioned.]
The author discusses how medieval and modern readers view the homoerotic themes, placing the reading within various theoretical contexts. The existence of overt accusations of same-sex preference in medieval literature only works as a plot device if medieval readers had an understanding that such a preference was possible. This understanding must be dealt with, no matter what theory of sexuality one uses to interpret it.
[Note: There is much discussion of the themes of the book within various theoretical contexts, but by now you probably know that I get bored easily with theory for the sake of theory.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 161 (previously 47a) - On the Shelf for June 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/06/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2020.
The Color of the Past
Sometimes I think if I didn’t have regular commitments to my blog and podcast -- to say nothing of the day-job -- I’d want to just curl into a ball in a corner and hope for the world to stop burning. It’s a standing joke among my writer friends that no novelist or script writer would have been allowed to create a year like this one because it has smashed the limits of plausibility. And yet, we persist.
Watching people rise up, not only across the US but around the world to once more protest the callous disregard and disrespect for the lives of certain human beings purely because of the color of their skin, I’m reminded of how critical it is for the stories of our history to tell us truths. Truths about the deep and poisonous roots of the social dynamics that are at play. The truth that history does not belong to only certain people.
Historical fiction and historical dramas too often offer us lies instead of truth. Not the inventive lies that entertain, but lies about who exists, about who matters, about who is allowed to imagine a happy ending. If you learn your history from novels and movies--and too many people dig no deeper than that--you are fed a skewed version of the past. And it we don’t understand the past, how can we expect to understand the present?
History has been used by racists to distort our image of the past by careful and selective omission. Historical fiction reinforces that distortion when it sticks to safely familiar tropes and images.
As queer people, we’re accustomed to thinking about the ways in which certain genders and sexualities have been erased from the popular fictions of history. But how often have you thought about the erasure of entire ethnicities, entire religions, entire cultures from the vision of history that we passively consume?
When was the last time you read a sapphic historical story that centered around black protagonists? When was the last time you read one where the story did not revolve around the traumas of black history? That allowed the character simply to exist like everyone else? When have you ever seen a sapphic historical novel set in Africa and written by a black author? How often have you paused to notice and wonder about the gaps in the stories available to you?
I’m white. And I’ve had to work to learn to notice those absences. Every month I search out new books, and believe me I notice how overwhelmingly white the field of f/f historical fiction is. Or that when non-white characters are featured, too often they are written by white authors to be the “exotic” love interest. Beyond doing my best to feature and promote authors and characters of color when I find them, there are limits to one person’s ability to influence the field. But readers, collectively, can make a difference by supporting a diversity of authors and stories: with your reading, with your reviews, and with your enthusiastic recommendations of what you love.
There are so many stories out there. Ask yourself what you can do to bring all those pasts to life so that we can survive the present and build a better, more inclusive, more just future.
June is, of course, Pride month. It was Pride month that originally inspired me to start the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. And if you like queer genre fiction, one tradition is the Pride Storybundle: a curated collection of eleven SFF books featuring queer characters, many with a historic flavor, available on a “pay what you like” basis (with a fixed minimum) that supports not only the authors but a worthy charity as well.
This year I once again have a book in the Storybundle: my most recent historical fantasy Floodtide alongside authors like Melissa Scott, A.J. Fitzwater, A.C. Wise, and Ginn Hale. Check out the link in the show notes and consider picking up this bargain while it lasts.
June also means that the year is nearly half over and it’s time to look ahead to 2021. Next month it will be time to officially announce the 2021 podcast fiction series. Stay tuned for details of what we’ll be looking for and details regarding submissions.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent May working through some books and articles on gender presentation and the many ways in which gender and sexuality intertwine. If there is a single lesson to take from this field, it is perhaps to shift from thinking of gender in terms of male and female, but to contemplate a whole array of male genders, of female genders, and of genders that blend the two in diverse ways. By gender, of course, I mean social and performative identity categories, but those categories also interact with the variability in human bodies in a similar spectrum of ways.
Toss the question of desire into the mix and we can see the oversimplification of trying to classify desire into homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. Within this context, it becomes easier to understand the difficulty of applying a label like “lesbian” to a specific subset of that spectrum of identities.
Every once in a while, the blog examines a book that helps me break my brain free of previous ways of thinking. It needn’t be a book that is particularly earth-shattering in subject matter, but simply one that unsticks a particular image or idea. Halberstam’s Female Masculinity was one of those books for me last month. The other May publications in the blog were Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety which unfortunately was much more dated in its analysis, Hindmarch-Watson’s study of a cross-dressing Victorian juvenile delinquent “Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy”, and Hermann’s literary analysis "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction". In June, my plan has been to cover several books that have only bits and pieces of lesbian-relevant content, but I may have to scramble to do all that reading, given the way the quarantine has disrupted my normal working routines. First up is Klosowska’s Queer Love in the Middle Ages, which falls more in the literary analysis category. Next is Goldberg’s collection Queering the Renaissance, which has three articles of interest. I was going to follow that with Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England, but my intention was to read a library copy on the assumption that the lesbian-relevant content would be too scanty to be worth buying the book. Since going to the library is out at the moment, that book will get moved to a later date. How much later is anyone’s guess at this point.
New book acquisitions haven’t been from shopping but a gift of a copy of Anne Choma’s Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, the biography on which the tv show was based. One of my friends from science fiction fandom had promised to give me the copy he was done with the next time we met, and since meeting face-to-face is postponed indefinitely, he mailed it to me instead.
This month’s author guest will be Amy Hoff whose historical fantasy novel My Heart’s in the Highlands is coming out from Bella Books this month. So look forward to hearing more about that book next week.
I don’t have an essay topic lined up yet for this month, so it’ll be a surprise. At this point, it’ll be a surprise to me as well!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
On to the recent, new, and forthcoming books!
I have one March book which is a bit further back than I usually reach, but the sequel came up in my search and when I checked out the first book, it looks to have sapphic themes as well. This is the Chinese-inspired historic fantasy The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 1) by Nghi Vo from Tor.com.
A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.
April books missed during previous searches include Lovers & Dancers by Heather Ingman from Lume Books.
Ireland, 1916. The First World War rages on and rumours fly about nationalists planning an uprising against the British for Independence. Sheltered from the outside terrors, Louisa lives at High Park, an upper-class estate in the Irish countryside where she feels she never quite belonged. Caught between an unhappy marriage and mundane wifely duties, Louisa’s dream of being a painter never felt so distant. But then she meets wild, strong-minded Viola Luttrell and Louisa’s world is turned upside down. Viola has a secret that could put both their lives at risk: she knows James Connolly, the nationalist rebel leader, and she plans to join the imminent uprising against the British. As Viola and Louisa grow closer and their friendship blossoms into something more, the fight for freedom becomes more than a fight for a nation, but a fight for themselves.
Another April book is Heart of Gold (Heart Series Book 1) self-published by Luci Dreamer. This is one of those gender-disguise stories where it’s hard to tell from the cover copy how the author is handling gender identity themes, but the cross-dressing character is referred to with female pronouns in the description.
Sometimes to be yourself, you have to become someone else. Thomasina Miller knew from a young age she wasn't like other girls. She didn't want to be a rancher's wife, so she makes the harrowing decision to leave all she's known, risking everything for the chance to choose her own fate in life. Now going by 'Thomas' she realizes hiding her identity is a rather small price to pay for the freedom to live her own life and the Klondike Gold Rush is the perfect opportunity to help her fund her endeavor. Rachel Harkes knew that marrying Roy would be her ticket out of her small town in Kansas. Two years into their marriage and still looking for more adventure, Roy decides they should try their luck and join the Klondike Gold Rush. When tragedy strikes and Thomas and Rachel are brought together at the top of the world in the unforgiving, arduous search for gold, can Thomas navigate her relationship with Rachel without revealing her secret? Will Rachel reconcile what she's known with the new, seemingly overwhelming reality she now finds herself in?
The recent May publications continue the theme of series books. So many books with Book N of the X series!
Leather and Lace (Gold Sky Series Book 5) by Rebel Carter from Violet Gaze Press is part of a romance series encompassing many types of couples set in a not-quite-entirely-historical Montana.
What do you do when you’ve been chasing the wrong dream your entire life? Mary Sophia James came to Gold Sky, Montana to find a husband at the insistence of her overbearing mother. Striking out in spectacular fashion after setting her eye on Julian Baptiste, her options are dwindling, and time is running out. She needs to find a man to marry before her condition becomes...obvious. Her mother’s prejudice and sharp tongue aren’t helping matters and Mary, to her shame, hasn’t behaved much better. But all her plans are upended when she spots the most beautiful person she’s ever seen across the town square. Alex Pierce is strong, intriguing, looks stunning in a pair of trousers...and a woman. Gold Sky is accepting of all types of love, and that between women is no different. Still, Alex didn’t expect to be so floored by the sight of the firey haired, yet fragile looking young woman. Mary needs to be married and Alex has a solution. Because in Gold Sky, Montana there are many ways to be married...and not all of them include a man.
This next publication is quite short and appears to be the start of a serial, being released in individual chapters. So don’t expect a full, completed story yet. The Queen Takes All (Part 1, Book 1) self-published by Clarissa Somers.
A rumored courtesan, an exclusive party and a secret society. What could go wrong? Hetty is overcome with excitement when her stepfather asks her to complete an undercover assignment. The catch? She must travel to London and pose as a French Lady in order to win the friendship of the infamous Delphine Dubois. Yet the evening takes an unexpected turn...
A Matter of Time (The Unlikely Adventures of Mortensen & Spurlock Book 1) by Lucy True (aka Jea Hawkins) from Persephone Press takes place in a supernatural version of the past.
It’s not easy finding love in 1892 Victorian London. Midnight adventures, artifact hunting, and the occasional murder—it’s all in a day’s (or night’s) work for Alice Mortensen. As an Aetheral, a supernatural race with special abilities, she is hardly an eligible marital prospect, even with her upper class social status. Not that she minds. The woman she once loved broke her heart and that, for Alice, is that. Until said woman, one Lady Eleanora Spurlock, returns with a desperate request: find a powerful artifact to ransom in exchange for a kidnapped servant. It’s one thing for Alice to risk her life. It’s quite another to risk her heart for the second time. But her perpetual curiosity about the mysterious Aetheric world is enough temptation for Alice to gamble both. Soon, both Alice and Nora are fighting off fireballs, an over-eager stepmother determined to see them marry, and each other in a race to rescue an innocent lady’s maid.
Coming back to ordinary--very ordinary--life, we have Like a Tornado self-published by Lauren Abosamra.
Charlotte Swanson comes from an affluent family in the town of Yursbury, Vermont. The time is 1955. To the untrained eye, Charlotte has it all. A charming husband, two young adoring sons, and a prominent place in the town's circle of book clubs, tea times, and a local women's organization. A beautiful newcomer, Evelyn Howard comes to town and does more than intrigue our restless Mrs. Swanson. Exchanged glances, accidental hand brushes, and small talk may not be all these two share.
I found five books coming out in June, though based on experience, more will pop up in next month’s search. The first one is rather cagey about whether the queer content is solid or only being teased at.
Belladonna: A Novel by Anbara Salam from Penguin.
An evocative, atmospheric story of friendship and obsession set in the 1950s that follows two schoolgirls from Connecticut whose lives are changed forever when they travel to a silent convent in northern Italy to study art for a year. Isabella is beautiful, inscrutable, and popular. Her best friend, Bridget, keeps quietly to the fringes of their Connecticut Catholic school, watching everything and everyone, but most especially Isabella. In 1957, when the girls graduate, they land coveted spots at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Pentila in northern Italy, a prestigious art history school in the grounds of a silent convent. There, free of her claustrophobic home and the town that will always see her and her Egyptian mother as outsiders, Bridget discovers she can re-invent herself as anyone she desires. Only Isabella knows the real Bridget, just as Bridget knows the true Isabella. But as that glittering year goes on, Bridget begins to suspect Isabella is keeping secrets from her, secrets that will ruin all of her plans and that will change the course of their lives forever.
I keep thinking from the title that this next book is set much earlier, but it’s a post-World War I story: Her Lady's Honor by Renee Dahlia from Carina Press.
When Lady Eleanor “Nell” St. George arrives in Wales after serving as a veterinarian in the Great War, she doesn’t come alone. With her is her former captain’s beloved warhorse, which she promised to return to him—and a series of recurring nightmares that torment both her heart and her soul. She wants only to complete her task, then find refuge with her family, but when Nell meets the captain’s eldest daughter, all that changes. Beatrice Hughes is resigned to life as the dutiful daughter. Her mother grieves for the sons she lost to war; the care of the household and remaining siblings falls to Beatrice, and she manages it with a practical efficiency. But when a beautiful stranger shows up with her father’s horse, practicality is the last thing on her mind. Despite the differences in their social standing, Beatrice and Nell give in to their unlikely attraction, finding love where they least expect it. But not everything in the captain’s house is as it seems. When Beatrice’s mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nell must overcome her preconceptions to help Beatrice, however she’s able. Together they must find out what really happened that stormy night in the village, before everything Beatrice loves is lost—including Nell.
This month’s author guest has written a cross-time story that blends several of her favorite eras and themes: My Heart's in the Highlands by Amy Hoff from Bella Books.
Lady Jane Crichton is one of the Edinburgh Seven, the first women to study medicine in the United Kingdom. Jane’s real love is science and invention, and she builds a time machine. Her first flight, attended only by Dr. Joseph Bell, ends badly when she crash-lands in 13th-century Gaelic Scotland. Her rescuer, a gruff warrior woman named Ainslie, shows her the delights of island life and teaches her more than she’d ever learned in the university’s hallowed halls.
A.J. Fitzwater has had two book releases in the last month, and I can’t go without mentioning The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper (published by Queen of Swords Press), a collection of stories about a lesbian capybara pirate. Yes, you heard that right. But Cinrak doesn’t quite fit into anything resembling our history, so for that I’ll feature No Man's Land from Paper Road Press.
Dorothea ‘Tea’ Gray joins the Land Service and is sent to work on a remote farm, one of many young women who filled the empty shoes left by fathers and brothers serving in the Second World War. But Tea finds more than hard work and hot sun in the dusty North Otago nowhere—she finds a magic inside herself she never could have imagined, a way to save her brother in a distant land she never thought she could reach, and a love she never knew existed. Inspired by feminist and LGBTQ+ history and family wartime memories, AJ Fitzwater has turned a piece of forgotten women’s history into a tapestry of furious pride and love that crosses cultures, countries and decades.
And we finish up the June books with what looks like the start of another series, Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery (A Vera Kelly Story) by Rosalie Knecht from Tin House Books.
When ex-CIA agent Vera Kelly loses her job and her girlfriend in a single day, she reluctantly goes into business as a private detective. Heartbroken and cash-strapped, she takes a case that dredges up dark memories and attracts dangerous characters from across the Cold War landscape. Before it’s over, she’ll chase a lost child through foster care and follow a trail of Dominican exiles to the Caribbean. Forever looking over her shoulder, she nearly misses what’s right in front of her: her own desire for home, connection, and a new romance at the local bar. In this exciting second installment of the Vera Kelly series, Rosalie Knecht challenges and deepens the Vera we love: a woman of sparkling wit, deep moral fiber, and martini-dry humor who knows how to follow a case even as she struggles to follow her heart.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? Still not much. I started the non-historical science fiction story Cat-Fishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer but it isn’t really grabbing me. I swear I started reading something on Kindle but my Kindle app is being wonky at the moment and I can’t check--and I don’t remember the title. And--now don’t laugh--I always have a hard copy book that I’m reading while brushing my teeth because it ensures I spend the right amount of time on the job, and for that I just started--very belatedly--Malinda Lo’s young-adult fantasy Huntress. And I’m still listening to the audiobook of N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy of a sentient New York, The City We Became which is simply amazing. (And at least one of the avatars of the city is a lesbian so it fits in the theme.)
How about you? Has the quarantine completely disrupted your fiction reading or has it sent you to books for comfort?
Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
THE 2020 PRIDE MONTH BUNDLE
Celebrating Pride Month with a StoryBundle has become an annual tradition, one in which we present a different and wonderful collection of LGBTQ+ books and authors each June.
This year, I'm curating the Pride Month Bundle for StoryBundle and it is an amazing lineup. We have novels and novellas as well as an anthology and a single author collection, each one a unique and terrific read. As always, at StoryBundle, you name your own price—whatever you feel the books are worth and you can designate a portion of the proceeds for our selected charity, Rainbow Railroad. Rainbow Railroad is a nonprofit that works with LGBTQ refugees, helping them to leave dangerous situations and safely resettle in new areas.
The 2020 Pride Bundle includes two works by creators from New Zealand, in honor of this year's Worldcon. A.J. Fitzwater, author of the joy-filled collection The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, is a Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist this year, as is editor Andi C. Buchanan, whose ground-breaking special issue of Capricious SF Magazine, Capricious: The Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue, is also included in the bundle.
Like your queer fiction to have elements of the Southern Gothic, perhaps a touch of horror and mystery, coupled with sumptuous writing and compelling characters? You're sure to enjoy A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney and Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise. Looking for beautifully written stories set in historical settings with a fantastical edge? We've got you covered with Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett's Armor of Light, Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones and Will Do Magic for Small Change by Andrea Hairston. Want adventures set just beyond the worlds we know? Come along on some glorious adventures with Grilled Cheese and Goblins by Nicole Kimberling and the novellas The Counterfeit Viscount and The Hollow History of Professor Perfectus by Ginn Hale. And finally, for something a little different, join author R.R. Angell's cadre of queer college students as they play an unusual game set in virtual reality with an AI who's more than she seems in Best Game Ever.
Not only is this year's bundle an intriguing mix of stories, it's star-studded too! Our bundle's authors and editor have won the Astounding Award, the Otherwise Award, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards and several Lambda and Spectrum Awards, as well as being finalists for awards like the Nebulas. So there we have this year's Pride StoryBundle – lots of variety, lots of new voices, a fun mix of new and classic tales, adding up to 11 great reads for a great cause! – Catherine Lundoff
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For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you're feeling generous), you'll get the basic bundle of four books in any ebook format—WORLDWIDE.
If you pay at least the bonus price of just $15, you get all four of the regular books, plus seven more more books, for a total of eleven!
This bundle is available only for a limited time via http://www.storybundle.com. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub, .mobi) for all books!
It's also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.
Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.
StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.
Why yes, yes we have. Sorry for being so brief this week.
Boyd, David Lorenzo & Ruth Mazo Karras. 1995. "The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London" in GLQ vol. 1, 459-465.
Sometimes being a completist means including publications that are simply summarized as "see this other publication by the same author." Sorry to disappoint.
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This is a preliminary treatment of the legal record concerning 14th c crossdressing prostitute John/Eleanor Rykener that appears in more expanded analysis the next year as:
Karras, Ruth Mazo & David Lorenzo Boyd. 1996. “’Ut cum Muliere’ - A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X
The text of the present article is included in the 1996 version largely verbatim. The one significant difference is that this 1995 article has both the Latin transcript of the record and a modern English translation while the 1996 article includes only the translation. So if you're interested in original versions of texts, then you'll need this publication as well.
But for the content, see the link to the 1996 article.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 160 (previously 46e) - “Cardinal’s Gambit” by Catherine Lundoff - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/05/30 - listen here)
For the second episode in our 2020 fiction series, we see the return of Jacquotte Delahaye and Celeste Girard in Catherine Lundoff’s “Cardinal’s Gambit,” continuing the adventures of the 17th century pirate and spy who appeared in the debut episode of the fiction series back in 2018.
Catherine Lundoff is quite familiar to regular listeners. She is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife, bookbinder Jana Pullman, and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories and essays, which have appeared or are forthcoming in such venues as Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Respectable Horror, the SFWA Blog and SF Signal. Her books include Silver Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic. She is also the editor of the fantastical pirate tales anthology, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) and two other anthologies. In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world, and she teaches online writing classes at the Rambo Academy and Hidden Timber Books.
Our narrator this time is Cherae Clark.
Cherae is a writer originally from Kansas City. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. Although, presumably the world-traveling is on hold at the moment. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. She’s currently one of the co-editors at PodCastle which--by the way--is one of my favorite fiction podcasts and you should check it out. Cherae’s short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, PodCastle and Uncanny Magazine.
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.
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By Catherine Lundoff
Jacquotte Delahaye sighed and stretched her legs out before her. The impulse to scratch her head under the stiff, scratchy wig disguising her blazing red tresses was well nigh overpowering and she cast a quick glance at the others cooling their heels in his majesty’s antechamber to see if it would be noticed. Not surprisingly, the only one paying any attention to her was Mademoiselle Girard, who was frowning at her from a nearby, equally uncomfortable chair.
Unlike Jacquotte, Celeste was dressed as a lady, albeit a somewhat impoverished one. Still, the sight of her pretty face and exposed, and no doubt chilled, décolletage, made for a pleasant distraction from Jacquotte’s current discomfort. At least until Celeste noticed the direction of her gaze and wrapped her shawl tighter.
Celeste’s frown made Jacquotte smirk as she surrendered to impulse and scratched beneath her wig. For the kind of young gentleman that her disguise suggested she was: fresh up from the country, uncouth and brash, it was not unexpected. She surprised a sneer from one of the footmen and contemplated carving him a new smile with the blade she had hidden in her boot…but then neither Celeste nor the king were likely to condone that.
She settled for giving him one of her pirate captain glares, the kind calculated to get her a stool in any tavern in Port Royal. He paled and looked away and Celeste waved her fan before her face to hide a smile.
“Perhaps we should return tomorrow?” Jacquotte murmured softly.
“We are at his majesty’s pleasure since he has commanded us to attend him here. Really, it is not every day that the Sun King himself rewards a pirate and a spy. You might be more gracious about it,” Celeste leaned forward to murmur the words behind her fan.
As if summoned, a liveried footman in a large white wig appeared before them and said softly, “Cardinal Mazarin requests your presence.” His expression suggested that this was obligatory and that others in the antechamber were not intended to hear his words.
Jacquotte and Celeste glanced at each other in puzzlement, but since it was clear that they were expected to obey, Jacquotte rose to her feet and offered her companion her arm to assist in rising. “Let us not keep the Chief Minister of France waiting, chérie.” She kept her words soft but it was hard not to observe that many eyes followed them as they exited the chamber. She suspected that the Cardinal’s newfound preference for the company of country bumpkins would be all over the court in an hour or two.
The footman took them on a circuitous route through the palace, but Jacquotte could see Celeste noting each room and corridor that they passed down. She, at least, could lead them back out if they were abandoned in one of these gold-plated cherub-coated ridiculous excuses for rooms. Give me the ocean breeze and a wooden deck beneath my boots any day, instead of this smelly oversized rat hole with its wasted gold, Jacquotte thought.
She thought that even harder when they were finally ushered into a small ornate chamber, crowded with a desk, several chairs and a man in cardinal’s robes. And a tremendous number of paintings, quite a few cherubs, a great expanse of ornamented plaster and several rich carpets. If there had been any doubt as to his identity, the large portrait hanging on the wall behind the man at the desk certainly dispelled it.
“Your Eminence.” Celeste swept her skirts to either side in a deep curtsey and Jacquotte, much against her will, managed an awkward bow.
The dark-haired man studying them might have been carved of stone for all the reaction he showed. After a long few moments, however, he flickered long fingers in a gesture that suggested that they could be seated in the chairs that faced him. Jacquotte noticed that he did not also signal the guards to depart and the space between her shoulders itched at the thought of blades at her unguarded back. Celeste gave her an unnecessary warning glance before perching daintily on her chosen seat.
“You honor us, Your Eminence. How may we serve you?” Celeste asked quietly as Jacquotte took the seat beside her. It was a good question, she thought. She herself had no desire to serve the cardinal, the church or even the king, if she could help it, but she had, reluctantly, promised Celeste her assistance. Celeste served the king, and Cardinal Mazarin was well known for seeing no contradiction between serving the king and serving him. How complicated her life had become since she allowed Mademoiselle Celeste Girard into it!
“A spy and a privateer,” the cardinal murmured speculatively. “What use I could make of you! But that is for the future. For now, you need to know no more than that a Spanish ship will be at the dock in Calais in four days time. It brings the new ambassador from His Spanish Majesty, the Count of Olivares. The count carries certain papers of interest to me and, therefore, to France.”
Jacquotte quirked one red eyebrow upwards and asked the question she could no longer contain, “Your pardon, Eminence, but I am only a simple privateer and a woman at that. Such subtle machinations as kings and their advisors engage in are outside my understanding. If I comprehend your meaning correctly, you wish the ambassador and his papers to…part ways? Surely Your Eminence has servants who might serve you better in this endeavor than two humble women such as ourselves?”
Cardinal Mazarin laughed, the sound dry and echoing in the small chamber. “How hasty you are, Captain Delahaye. Do you think me a foolish or rash man? I am well aware of how all the king’s servants may be of service to France and I am able to advise him on this, as well as all other matters of import. If I intend to trust you with a mission of this delicacy, you may be assured that I know the nature of the tools that I wish to employ.”
Celeste’s breath hissed between her teeth. “Of course you do, Eminence. What my…friend meant to ask was how such poor tools as ourselves might have come to your attention and how we could possibly be of service.” Her bright blue eyes met Jacquotte’s eyes for a moment with an unreadable expression before she glanced back to the cardinal.
“And how such service might reward you? I am inclined to say that being of service to the king should be all the reward that you require, but I suspect that such will not suffice for the Captain, and her expertise with naval documents may be of some use in the success of this enterprise. In short, I wish you to work together to acquire the plans for the King of Spain’s new warship from the ambassador. I shall need those plans in my hands within a fortnight. “
Jacquotte blinked in astonishment. How…Celeste’s subtle headshake caught her eye and she closed her lips against further questions. Presumably as a spy in the king’s employ, she was accustomed to receiving her orders this way. That said, Jacquotte herself would not have ordered her crew to sack a captured ship with so little information.
A few more details were exchanged and they were dismissed to go back to cooling their heels at the king’s pleasure. When the day finally ended with them at a nearby inn, Jacquotte reflected that they were one small bag of gold the richer, still had not seen the king himself, had seen the cardinal and all in all, would have been better off had they taken her ship and raided boats on the Seine instead.
With that thought, came another: why not set sail immediately? The cardinal’s reach would not be so long in Madagascar or in the English seas of the Caribbean. Perhaps they could disguise themselves and live incognito somewhere for a year or two, until Mazarin’s attention turned elsewhere; she had enough gold for that.
Celeste eyed her askance as they entered their room but said nothing until the door was closed. Then she sat down on the one sturdy chair that the room provided and tilted her head up at Jacquotte. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said at last, “but I don’t want to flee. Not unless we must.”
“If we fail, you mean. If we fail at this fool’s errand that has almost no chance of succeeding.” Jacquotte swept off her hat and wig and tossed them onto the small table.
Celeste looked away for a moment, jaw set. Then she fixed her gaze on Jacquotte. “I have an idea.”
After two days by post and a broken night’s rest, Celeste walked slowly past a portside tavern in Calais. The ambassador’s ship was at the dock and the ambassador himself merely waiting on the King’s pleasure to disembark. Now there remained only the need to create an opportunity to board the ship, find the papers, steal the papers and get back to Paris. She suppressed a gesture of frustration at the thought of the huge obstacles that this list encompassed.
Jacquotte had left the inn that morning, clad in a sailor’s disguise with hair and eyebrows dyed black, bound for the taverns on the docks to see what she could learn. Celeste had not been able to bring herself to tell her that she had met the Count de Olivares once before. It had been two years ago and she had been passing herself off as the daughter of a visiting French nobleman when Olivares had stopped in Saint Martin briefly on his way to Cuba. There had been some papers involved then as well, along with an uncomfortable hour in which she had to wait for the sleeping draught that she gave him to take effect.
But would he remember her? She had been in disguise, her face powdered, her hair hidden by an elaborate wig. Robbers had been blamed for the loss of the papers, not she. How great a risk was she taking by trying a different ruse to see him now? In any case, she couldn’t see anything that Jacquotte could do about it and they were, after all, only here because she insisted on it.
Celeste bit back a heavy sigh as she slipped down a side street, her mind still awhirl in thought. Her distraction made her oblivious to some crude advances by passing sailors, but not to a sudden sound behind her. Celeste pulled a small knife from the hidden sheath in her skirts and turned quickly. Jacquotte emerged from a nearby alleyway, two Spanish sailors at her heels. She sauntered up to Celeste and gave her a ringing rum-soaked kiss. “What ho, my beauty! Looking for me, were you?”
Celeste found her hand tucked in the crook of Jacquotte’s arm as she was towed unsteadily down the street, the sailors trailing behind. “Where are we going? Did you find…the ship you were looking for?” She had been going to ask a different question, but the presence of the sailors behind them and the appearance of two guardsmen in uniform at the top of the street was inspiration to change her mind.
But conversation was not what Jacquotte had in mind. Instead, her companion staggered and stumbled, suddenly much drunker than she had been a moment ago. Celeste found herself first off balance, then pitched into the guardsmen, resulting in all of them tumbling to the ground in a heap. Jacquotte gave a drunken yell of outrage and waded in, nearly stepping on her hand.
The melee lasted a few minutes, long enough for Celeste to scramble to the side and out of immediate danger. She turned just in time to see Jacquotte’s Spanish companions seize her arms and drag her away. The guardsmen lurched to their feet, cursing, and charged after them, leaving Celeste sitting on the cobbles with her dress in disarray and her basket upended. With a curse or two of her own, she scrambled to her feet, retrieved her possessions and started after them. At least now she had a strong suspicion about how Jacquotte intended to get aboard the vessel.
Jacquotte nearly laughed out loud as Arturo and Felipe dragged her away from the guards toward the San Cristobal. She was a big ship, a galleon with 36 guns or more, and Jacquotte’s pirate heart ached to seize her, put the surviving crew to the articles or the sword and sail away. She could almost picture sailing into the harbor at Maracaibo in this beauty, flying the flag of the Spanish king and none any the wiser until they opened fire on the fort and seized the next gold shipment.
She shook her head a little and forced herself to abandon the vision as the shouts of the guards behind them grew louder. Once aboard, she would be under the ambassador’s protection, at least temporarily. Then it was up to her to prove to her new Spanish friends that she could be useful enough to keep aboard for a night or two. If she could smuggle Celeste onto the ship tonight…no, she knew that she was imagining a lack of obstacles where, in truth, there would only be obstacles. Get aboard, establish herself, steal the papers and make the cardinal ransom them: that was clearly the path to follow.
The direction that her thoughts were taking made her hide a smirk. Besides, when had she become so concerned about Celeste? The spy could take care of herself, and would, if the past was anything to go by. Jacquotte shook her head. She must be getting soft. Next she’d even be dreaming about leaving her fleet and settling down on an island, Celeste at her side.
A dagger point hovering before her nose brought her abruptly back to the present. Evidently, Spanish bosuns were harder to convince than those under their command. A flood of Spanish, liberally sprinkled with curses she’d learned from years of seizing Spanish ships, filled her ears and the guards shouted their own versions in French from the dock.
She narrowed her eyes and pushed the dagger point back from her throat before responding in pure dockside Spanish with a tale about pirates seizing her previous ship and marooning the crew, herself included, then being abandoned anew on French soil by the ship that found them. She had only been trying to find a ship sailing back to Spain when she was attacked by those fools. Here, she gestured at the dock and the French guards who were still swearing as they walked away. Her newfound friends had assured her that there was a place aboard the San Cristobal that needed filling. Were they correct? Did not this magnificent ship need more seasoned hands?
Some fast words followed, including the suggestion that her story was, perhaps, embroidered. But it was true, to some extent, and she told it most convincingly. She had commanded the pirates herself and several Spaniards had joined her crew rather than be marooned. Eventually, the boson reluctantly sheathed his blade and agreed to let her demonstrate that she knew her way around ropes and sails.
By the time she slumped into her tiny new bunk below decks, she had little energy left to wonder about documents or Celeste.
Celeste gazed up at the Spanish ship from the dock. A day of gathering gossip in the marketplace had given her a sprawling and often contradictory, picture of the habits of those who sailed aboard her. She had even gathered a few tidbits about the ambassador himself. Now it only remained to apply them and get herself aboard, presumably to join Jacquotte, who she hoped was already there. She had arrived too late to be certain of that.
The clothes she had bought from a lightskirt she’d met in one of the taverns fit well enough, did she not have the sneaking suspicion that the other woman had an infestation of what might be fleas. She tried to scratch unobtrusively while she waited for the deck watch to turn over. Once the senior commanders were gone, it was a matter of convincing one of the less experienced men that she had just what the ambassador needed to bring him joy.
According to the gossips on the docks, it was not her delightful person, as such, that she needed to present to him. Rather it was the somewhat motley bag of dried leaves in the small sack at her belt. The count was said to have been separated from his beloved tobacco for a fortnight now, by secret order of the king. Or the cardinal, so went the tales in the dockside taverns, and no reward was too high for the smuggler that brought him what he craved. Celeste glanced at the moon and judged the time to be about right. She made her way to the bottom of the gangplank.
Her journey aboard did not go as smoothly as Jacquotte’s and she found herself cornered on deck by a minor ship’s officer and one of the sailors, both of whom seemed eager to sample what they perceived as her wares. Neither of them spoke French and Celeste spoke little Spanish. She was holding one of her daggers and was making plans to use it by the time that Jacquotte herself appeared behind her interrogators.
“Ah, chéri, is it you?” she greeted her companion in rough, heavily accented French. She grinned impishly at Celeste before engaging the two men in a rambling conversation in Spanish. Jacquotte insinuated herself between Celeste and the sailor and appealed to the officer, man to man, in a stream of words of which Celeste understood only “tobacco” and “Conde.”
Celeste tried not to tap her foot impatiently or fidget. In their way, these were negotiations as subtle as any she had performed as a king’s agent in the Caribbean. At a lull in the flood of words, Jacquotte seized her elbow and towed her between the men, hustling her toward the entrance to the largest cabin on deck. A quick word here, a touch of the knife at her belt when words did not suffice, and the pirate captain provided her with safe escort to the vicinity of the man they needed to rob as if their feet had wings.
But there, their progress hit a snag. Bemused, Celeste listened as Jacquotte attempted to charm their way into the ambassador’s cabin. That attempt was a failure until Celeste flaunted both her décolletage and her precious packet of leaves. Even then, she had to insist on Jacquotte’s staying at her side as her translator. The count himself emerged briefly at the sound of raised voices and a woman’s laughter, and with a bemused expression, allowed them to be escorted inside.
And once in his quarters, Celeste had a moment to grasp the full impossibility of the mission that the cardinal had sent them on: a single room where the count slept and worked, a pallet for his valet at his feet, two guards at the door, the only other way into the cabin the great glass windows more than halfway up the ship’s side. She knew a moment of pure despair.
From the flicker of Jacquotte’s eyes, the pirate had seen what she saw. Celeste wondered if they would set sail for Madagascar tonight or wait for a new tide. But then, the count’s attention turned to her and she was instantly alert. She named the most outrageous price she could think of for her tobacco leaves and was astonished when the servant was ordered to fetch the ambassador’s purse.
Jacquotte gave her an almost apologetic look and volunteered what sounded like some unkind speculation on her virtue, and the count gave her a considering glance. Celeste begged the fleas to itch less, just long enough for her to appear desirable. Long enough for her to get the ambassador and his documents alone.
He looked somewhat interested, though his eyes lingered more on the pouch than on her person, Celeste noted. A few more comments from Jacquotte, some minutes of consideration by the count, and the guards were dismissed with a wave of his hand. It took somewhat longer to be rid of the servant and the pirate, but by then, Celeste was seated in a carved and cushioned chair with a flagon of wine at her lips.
Jacquotte gave her an infinitesimal nod before stepping outside, a small Spanish coin in her fist. Celeste pulled her precious pouch of tobacco free from her belt and placed on the table before the ambassador. He did not hesitate to reach out and seize it, holding it open and inhaling its scent with a loud, “Ah!”
She licked her lips and leaned forward, hoping to look distractingly seductive, but he held up his hand, then bend down to extract a pipe from a drawer. In silence, she watched as he filled the bowl, then lit it from the candle on the desk. He puffed slowly, eyes closed as a cloud of smoke enveloped his face.
Celeste wondered how long this would take. Would he require her to watch him smoke until the herbs she had added to the tobacco took effect? Would she have to find some other way to distract him until then? Whatever happened next, she promised herself that she would take his purse, as well as the documents, if the opportunity presented itself.
While he busied himself with the pipe, she risked a look around, trying to guess where he was most likely to store important papers. She could only hope that she would recognize what they looked like without Jacquotte’s assistance. But perhaps that wouldn’t be necessary…
He was still quietly puffing at his pipe, head wreathed in smoke, eyes closed, when she looked back. Celeste sent up a silent prayer that it would not take long to take effect. But what was she to do then? Claim the ambassador had fallen ill and summon the guards and the servant, and Jacquotte, if she was nearby, for help? Hope to take both purse and documents in the ensuing chaos? Hope merely to flee unscathed? She wished that there were better options; how had the cardinal expected them to succeed in this endeavor?
She decided that he was most likely keeping the documents in the locked strongbox on the table before him or in the drawers that he had kept his pipe in. She could see nothing else in this room that might serve the purpose and with an effort, she strangled the small voice in her head that suggested secret compartments or other rooms.
The ambassador gestured, eyes open and more alert now, the glint in them unmistakable, despite the cloud of smoke, and Celeste put her flagon down and rose reluctantly to her feet. She had resigned herself to being pawed, hopefully no more, when she caught the light of dawning recognition on his sleepy face. No! He opened his mouth to shout just as the candle caught her eye. She had a moment of inspiration and blundered into the table, flailing wildly as if to catch herself.
It tipped over slowly, the flame meeting the wood with a fiery kiss. A letter on the table caught light as the ambassador lurched unsteadily to his feet, reaching for the strongbox. Celeste screamed and scrambled backwards while he shouted for assistance. The guards thumped against the door as the table caught light and Celeste got to her feet to let them in. It was no part of her plan to let the Spaniards all burn, at least not if she had to join them.
But the ship shifted under her feet and she fell, tangled in her skirts. The door shuddered as the guards outside brought a ram of some kind to it. The ambassador staggered toward it as the flame caught the edge of his cape, and he dropped the strongbox. Celeste looked up to find a spreading wall of flames between her and the door and she screamed again with renewed urgency. The cabin filled with smoke and she scrambled to her feet and pulled her kerchief free from her neck to tie it over her mouth and nose.
The door shuddered and she threw herself forward through the flames, flinging herself on the count to smother the embers on his cloak. She also contrived to cut his purse free in a single motion. The door crashed open and soldiers and sailors poured in with buckets of water. The ambassador babbled like a man well into his cups and Celeste scrambled to her feet to make her way outside to cough and choke in the night air.
“Strongbox!” she coughed imperiously at Jacquotte as the latter ran past with a bucket. Celeste made her way across the deck, staggering as she went, trying to avoid the rush of men headed for the ambassador’s quarters. She lost sight of Jacquotte and was feeling her way along the rail when a man’s hand fell heavily on her shoulder. Reeling backward, she saw the sailor who had stopped her at the gangplank when she came aboard, just before he crushed her to him with a bruising embrace that reeked of fish oil, garlic and sweat.
Celeste coughed directly into his mouth and he sputtered and pulled away, but did not let her go. Clouds of smoke and men were beginning to pour from the ambassador’s cabin. If she was to free herself and flee, it must be now. She twisted and stomped on one of his booted feet with all the force she possessed. A sharp box of his ear loosened his grip and she tore free of his grasp.
Cursing, he grabbed for her again, just as an arm emerged from the smoke and a silver blade flashed across his throat. Jacquotte dropped him to the deck, then nudged his body behind a pile of rope. She seized Celeste’s arm and together, they scrambled down the gangplank with Jacquotte yelling something about orders and the ambassador’s commands as they shoved past the disoriented sailors.
Once they reached the dock, they ran, scrambling past some French guardsmen who had come to see what the commotion was all about. Jacquotte shouted they were following orders from some unnamed important someone, since using the ambassador’s name would not get them past French guards. And somehow, they were not stopped. They kept running until they reached a noisome alley between the taverns, just out of sight of the ship. Celeste slumped up against the side of a building and coughed for a few minutes.
Jacquotte put a flask in her hands and she drew a long draught of rum, which only made her cough more at first. But at last, she recovered enough to notice the sea bag at Jacquotte’s feet. “Is that them?” she gasped.
“I thought it would be easier to break the lock and take the contents than to take the box.” Jacquotte looked amused, even though it was clear from the bleeding cut on her cheek and her smoke-stained and burned clothes that it had been anything but “easy.”
“Did you think about keeping them?”
Celeste took another swig of the rum and laughed. She couldn’t stop herself from giving a quick glance back towards San Cristobal. A familiar face stood at the rail, seemingly watching them, even though she knew they could not be seen. The ambassador had recovered quickly, both from the herbs she’d put in the tobacco and the smoke from the fire. Too quickly.
Jacquotte followed her gaze. “Do you think he knows?”
“Of a certainty. That was far too easy. He also recognized me right before I knocked the candle over.” They looked at each other for a long moment and started laughing, the sound echoing off the walls around them.
“What do we do now?” Jacquotte asked at last, wiping the tears from the edges of her eyes.
“Claim our reward, I expect. Then off to Maracaibo or whatever benighted place you wish to sail to next,” Celeste grinned and crossed the alley to Jacquotte’s side. “No, I don’t think the cardinal will object to receiving whatever is in your bag, regardless of whether or not it includes the documents he claimed that he wanted. I think he sent us here to test vulnerabilities, not to succeed.”
“In that case, the sooner we leave France, the less likely we are to be immediately useful to him,” Jacquotte leaned down and gave Celeste a gentle kiss. The spy returned it, burns, smoke and all and when they broke apart, they gave each other smiles of perfect understanding.
“Shall we?” Celeste took her arm and they made their way down the alley, eagerly anticipating a different kind of adventure.
The second story in our 2020 fiction series. Written by Catherine Lundoff, narrated by Cherae Clark.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Catherine Lundoff Online
Links to Cherae Clark Online
Cross-dressing is a common theme in f/f historical fiction, but the fictional genre has tended to develop its own tropes and assumptions about the relationship between cross-dressing and sexuality that don't always match the historical reality. Furthermore, cross-dressing had different motivations, contexts, and meanings in different eras and cultures. If you're planning to write a story with a cross-dressing heroine, it can be a good idea to dig deeply into the specific context she would be operating in. Lois Schwich provides an example of one such model.
Hindmarch-Watson, Katie. 2008. "Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London" in GLQ 14:1, 69-98.
Contrary to the suggestion in Dekker & Van de Pol, “passing women” did not fade out of sight after the 18th century, but perhaps their contexts shifted. This article examines a case in late 19th century London that was well-documented in the papers, due to the criminal aspects. In fact, the nature and variation of that newspaper coverage is itself of interest in exploring Victorian understandings of the phenomenon.
In 1886 Lois Schwich was tried and sentenced in London for stealing expensive clothing from her employer. But the bare facts of the crime were not what attracted extensive media attention. Schwich had done this while passing herself off as a fifteen-year-old boy, and had done so for several years. Her case illustrates the various narratives around crossdressing in Victorian England as well as the intersections of gender, criminality, sex work, and competing images of masculinity.
We have almost nothing of Schwich’s own voice regarding her story, but Hindmarch-Watson has attempted to reconstruct as much as she can. Schwich started crossdressing at 17 and took odd jobs doing errands and deliveries, eventually specializing in working for clothiers. Across several jobs she began stealing and re-selling clothing from her employers, usually deflecting the crimes (when detected) by accusing others before she could be accused. There is clear evidence that Schwich’s mother not only knew about her crossdressing but supported her by providing references for her “son”. And part of Schwich’s explanation for her actions in general was that her work was needed to help support her family. But access to employment was not the only male prerogative Schwich claimed, and during the trial her habits of smoking, drinking and participating in other male-coded leisure activities were woven into the charges against her.
The author considers whether Schwich could reasonably be identified as transgender and is hesitant to do so, at least as the concept of transgender is defined today, and in the same sense that it is ahistorical to use the concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” to identify historic figures. [Note: which is to say that the whole discussion is problematic on many levels, including the assertion that one must use modern identity concepts as the benchmark for evaluating historic identities.]
Historic “passing women” are traditionally divided between those who had erotic relations with women who are then appropriated by lesbian history, and those who have erotic relations with men who are assumed to be cross-dressing purely for pragmatic reasons. Historically, passing women typically had working-class backgrounds. Alhough the male-coded professions they entered were spread across the social ranks, the majority tended to remain working-class. That history of cross-dressing women was invoked in Schwich’s trial.
Like many other cross-dressing women, Schwich had a disdain for the law, but this stereotype is skewed by the problem that our evidence for (known) passing women tends to come from criminal records. Those legal conflicts were not always due to a criminal profession, but might arise out of acts of passion, anger, or desperation. Perhaps a few cross-dressing women did adopt disguise specifically to pursue a criminal career, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Schwich. There are hints--including the age at which she began--that for her cross-dressing may have been a way of claiming sexual agency (or perhaps more precisely, agency in avoiding becoming sexualized). The article examines the context of Victorian sex work and how it offered it’s own sort of sexual agency, as well as noting some social parallels in the image and opportunities of sex workers and passing women.
One notable aspect of Schwich’s career is the obvious support from her family, especially her mother, but from other community members as well. Her mother clearly accepted her cross-dressing and provided references for Schwich’s male persona. There are other examples from the same era of cross-dressing women either asserting family support, or reporting that the presentation had originally been a mother’s idea. This may shed a different light on theories (by e.g., Dekker and van de Pol) that female cross-dressing more or less disappeared in the early 19th century. What if, instead, it simply became less visible due to community acceptance and support? [Note: Another possibility is that cross-dressing shifted into modes and contexts that were different enough from previous modes that they were not recognized as the same phenomenon.] Since the majority of the hard evidence for passing women comes from criminal records, perhaps a larger proportion avoided activities viewed as criminal. Regardless of speculations concerning causes, there are plentiful anecdotal examples of passing women in the Victorian era.
Another factor that became relevant in Schwich’s trial was the particular style of masculinity that she adopted: not a “respectable” upwardly-mobile presentation but that of the more flamboyant “swell” characterized by working-class hypermasculinity. She may have been negatively influenced by the stylings of theatrical “male impersonators” who adopted specific styles and mannerisms that advertised their underlying gender as feminine. Due to the nature of the evidence, it’s difficult to assess whether Schwich’s male presentation reflected some degree of male self-identity.
But heart of this article is an evaluation of how Schwich was treated in three different categories of the press that illustrate the complexity of how women were both admired and condemned for passing as male. Press treatments of her are regularly contradictory but cluster according to the audience and purposes of the publication.
Proto-feminist presses initially championed Schwich as a hero for women’s rights, emphasizing that cross-dressing had provided entry to a livable wage (shared with her family). She was used as a poster child for providing wider employment opportunities for women. They also viewed her cross-dressing as a means of resisting sex work, and therefore a symbol of chaste feminine virtue. This set of narratives faded away as Schwich’s self-confessed stealing and false accusations came out, as well as being undermined by her habits of drinking and smoking.
The latter were emphasized by politically conservative papers, which played up her criminality and anti-social behavior. These, too, dropped interest in the story once the basic facts had been established.
The sensational police tabloids, which presented Schwich as a spectacle, form the majority of the coverage. Her attempts to claim male privileges and status were treated as a matter of amusement and mockery, sometimes colored with respect. That mockery extended to other aspects of the trial, in which regular jokes were made about witnesses or jurors being unable to distinguish male and female, as all identities were called into question. Interestingly, these sensational papers never raised a comparison with theatrical male impersonators, possibly because it would tarnish people's ability to enjoy the latter.
The sensational tabloids were the ones who connected Schwich with a historic tradition of cross-dressing--not of everyday working-class passing women, but of prominent fictional or high-culture “heroines” such as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Mademoiselle de Maupin (the fictional one created by Gautier, not the historic one), the Chevalier d’Eon, and James Barry.
But the tabloids also made a different connection, suggesting that Shwich’s male disguise was not as sexually innocent as it might seem. That, rather than having the purpose of avoiding male sexual attention as a woman, it might have been intended to solicit male homosexual attention. This is insinuated in various articles, though not stated outright. This framing follows a long tradition in England of associating female gender-crossing with sexual licentiousness in general. Upper-class Victorian attitudes toward working-class sexuality saw it as dangerously uncontrolled and degenerate, in contrast to the myths about upper-class sexuality.
One element that is nearly entirely absent from the coverage of Schwich’s trial is a medicalized sexological take on her identity and presentation. Although sexological theories were prevalent on the continent already, they had not yet taken root in the popular understanding of sexuality in England. Only a few decades later, a woman’s predilection for wearing male attire and smoking would be taken as solid evidence of deviant psychology and lesbian tendencies.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 46d - Aphra Behn (reprise) - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/05/22 - listen here)
(This is a reprise of episode 7, aired 2017/02/25)
This is a reprise of an earlier episode from the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. I hope you enjoy revisiting the topic, or perhaps this is your first chance to listen to it.
* * *
I confess that, although there’s a lot of validation in finding historic evidence of ordinary everyday women who loved women, I’m a bit of a sucker for real-life stories that might be considered unbelievable as fiction.
One such person is the 17th century novelist, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn. Behn had an interesting and colorful career, the early parts of which are clouded by deliberate mythologizing.
What is clearly fact is that during the mid 1660s, when she was in her 20s, she worked as a spy for King Charles II in the period shortly after his restoration to the throne. Her espionage career may have begun in the Dutch East Indies, and is more solidly known from her time later in the Netherlands, where she operated under the code name "Astrea" which she also used as a pen name.
She was a staunch royalist, though one must assume her loyalty to King Charles was strained a bit by the efforts she had to go through to get paid for her work. Her career as a playwright was somewhat more lucrative, though not without occasional reverses. Her works were in the libertine style of the restoration era when the playhouses that had been closed under Cromwell turned to rather free-spirited works, in a sort of artistic whiplash. Her personal life was also free-spirited and she was linked romantically with a number of artistic figures. The late Mr. Behn had left the stage before her writing became popular.
During her heyday, she was a prolific playwright, second in productivity only to John Dryden the Poet Laureate and her poetic output was enormous, both published and private.
So what is Aphra Behn doing on this podcast? Behn was also openly bisexual--or at least as open as one could be about it at the time. Indeed, her pen name Astrea, is taken from the play L’Astrée whose plot involves several erotic scenes between female characters (or characters passing as female). And certainly her poetry and correspondence with a number of women had no hesitation in expressing sentiments that would be clearly understood as romantic and erotic if directed at a man. Or rather, that are accepted as romantic and erotic on those occasions when she directs them at men, for she was promiscuous with her attentions and her most well-known lovers are male.
Behn addressed several poems to a woman named Emily Price, possibly an actress, when the two were briefly separated, including a love song that begs for her affection to be reciprocated, and with acts, not words. The following poem of the group expresses a somewhat different emotion: the vain hope that absence from her beloved might diminish her desire.
It is entitled: VERSES design'd by Mrs. A. Behn, to be sent to a fair Lady, that desir'd she would absent her∣self, to cure her Love. Left unfinish'd.
IN vain to Woods and Deserts I retire,
To shun the lovely Charmer I admire,
Where the soft Breezes do but fann my Fire!
In vain in Grotto's dark unseen I lie,
Love pierces where the Sun could never spy.
No place, no Art his Godhead can exclude,
The Dear Distemper reigns in Solitude:
Distance, alas, contributes to my Grief;
No more, of what fond Lovers call, Relief
Than to the wounded Hind does sudden Flight
From the chast Goddesses pursuing Sight:
When in the Heart the fatal Shaft remains,
And darts the Venom through our bleeding Veins.
If I resolve no longer to submit
My self a wretched Conquest to your Wit,
More swift than fleeting Shades, ten thousand Charms
From your bright Eyes that Rebel Thought disarms:
The more I strugl'd, to my Grief I found
My self in Cupid's Chains more surely bound:
Like Birds in Nets, the more I strive, I find
My self the faster in the Snare confin'd.
The poetic circles Aphra moved in often used pastoral nicknames, which can conceal the identity of the people they are written to. She addressed several poems to “Aminta”, which may have been an alias or may have been a generic name. In some Aminta has experienced the pangs of heterosexual love, but in the poem entitled “The Dream” she is the subject of the poet’s desire:
All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.
The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.
Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.
‘Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!
Shall we hope that the Aminta--whoever she may have been--that Aphra dreamed of bringing to “the last mystery of love” entertained the same dreams?
The poem that is most often discussed in the context of Aphra’s playful takes on gender and desire is “To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.” One should understand that the phrase “make love” was not used as a euphemism for sex in this era and might be read as meaning something more like “to court, or to flirt.” We see here some of the troubling contradictions of the 18th century, where love between women was considered inherently “innocent” and yet the object of a woman’s desire might be imagined as masculine to some degree in order to justify the intensity of the emotion. And so the poet compartmentalizes her desire as friendship for the feminine part (Aphrodite) and love for the masculine part (Hermes), playing off the image of the gender-queer hermaphrodite.
Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer't sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd - thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.
Though beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd;
When e'er the Manly part of thee, wou'd plead
Though tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.
Although Aphra’s poetry often couched love between women in sentimental terms, her plays were most famous for their bawdy humor and that could include a recognition of the erotic potential between women, as when a character in “The False Count” asserts, "I have known as much danger hid under a petticoat as a pair of breeches. I have heard of two women that married each other," which may, in fact, be a reference to the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, discussed in a previous podcast.
The most intriguing romantic possibility in Aphra’s life is suggested by the dedication she wrote in 1689 to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarine, the niece of the great Cardinal Mazarin who, with her sisters and cousins, were known as the Mazarinettes, the glitterati of their day, lovers to a parade of great men and not a few women. Hortense Mancini enjoyed a number of unambiguously sexual relationships with women, both as an unhappy newlywed in France, and later in England, where she counted the young Countess of Sussex among her lovers, though the primary reason she had some to England was to elbow out a rival as the official mistress of King Charles.
In any event, Hortense Mancini had a reputation even more flagrant than Aphra’s own, and it is with that in mind that the following dedication has led some historians to conclude that the two women had most likely been lovers at some point. The dedication reads in part:
…to the Most Illustrious Princess, The Dutchess of Mazarine...how infinitely one of Your own Sex adored You, and that, among all the numerous Conquests, Your Grace has made over the Hearts of Men, Your Grace had not subdued a more entire Slave. I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment, nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justify my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprising Wit. What can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty?
To be sure, much of this may be the simple flattery that was common in such dedications. But Aphra Behn’s life, taken as a whole, suggests that the inquietude in her heart was genuine.
If you’re interested in further information about Aphra Behn and discussions about the queer and feminist elements of her life, see the show notes for links and references. And if you’d like to read a fictional imagining of an encounter between Aphra Behn and Hortense Mancini, there’s a link to a novelette that features them.
This episode is about the 17th century novelist, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn.
In this episode we talk about:
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
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