(Originally aired 2021/04/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2021.
How’s everyone doing? I’m finally back working on my next Alpennia novel and feeling like most of my work routines are back in the groove. Spring is going sproing and my demographic group is finally eligible for the Covid vaccine. My garden is straining at the leash waiting for the contractor to finish getting the new irrigation system set up and I’m looking forward to the day when I can invite all my local friends over for a garden party again.
But in the mean time, I’m inviting all of you to a party celebrating some big milestones for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. We’re celebrating 7 years of the history blog—7 years and over 300 publications, who would have thought? But more importantly, we’re celebrating 200 podcast episodes! 200 episodes in almost 5 years. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty amazing. I wanted to do something to mark the occasion, and after talking to folks about various options, I decided the best choice was an all-day open house on our Discord server.
Um…you did know we have a Discord server, right? You don’t even have to be a Patreon supporter or anything to join, all you have to do is ask for an invitation. The Discord has been gradually accumulating members during our “soft-launch” period…well, ok, that’s a fancy way of saying that I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t promoted it as much as I should. But the podcast anniversary party seemed like a good excuse to ratchet up the promo.
So on Saturday May 8th, the week after episode 200 comes out, plan to drop by, chat about lesbian history, about books, about whatever else strikes your fancy. There will be both text and audio/video channels available, and I just might be doing some surprise give-aways. Put it on your calendar and ask for an invite link if you aren’t already a member.
News of the Field
From light-hearted celebration, I’d like to turn to a somewhat more serious subject for a moment. This was inspired by a topic that came up in my social media about lesbian fiction that exoticizes or objectifies characters from non-white or non-Western cultures. Now, I’m a middle-class white American, so I’m not going to try to speak for marginalized readers. But at the same time, I’m a middle-class white American so if this subject gets people’s noses out of joint, I’m not going to be personally hurt by their reactions. And maybe that gives me a responsibility to speak up.
I’d like to frame this issue as questions that we can ask ourselves—whether as readers or writers—about the books we love. I’m not going to tell anyone how to think about any particular book, but I’m going to urge you to be mindful and consider the following.
Does this story treat the characters as full, individual human beings? All the characters, and not only the viewpoint ones? Does this story show an understanding of the history and cultural context that the characters exist in? Does the story recognize and engage with differences in status and power between the characters? Are all the characters given equal agency within their relationships? Or, if not, are the consequences of that inequality acknowledged? Does this story assign attributes or reactions to characters that reflect cultural stereotypes? Does the story fetishize certain characters or cultural attributes? How would a reader who shares a cultural background or identity with one of the book’s characters feel about how that character is portrayed? How are language or speech patterns used to represent a character’s identity? Which characters get to be depicted in a neutral manner and which are set apart in how they’re depicted? How are characters described? What types of physical traits are described positively, and which ones negatively? Whose appearance is treated as the default and who gets described in contrast to that?
When I’m putting together the lists of new books, it sometimes happens that the cover copy for a book makes me uncomfortable about how certain characters or cultures are portrayed in objectifying ways. I don’t want to set myself up as a gatekeeper of which books get included or not, but at the same time I feel a responsibility to my listeners. All of them. Sometimes I’ll feel uncomfortable enough that I’ll include a cautionary comment. Very very rarely, I’ll quietly leave a title off the list. But we’re all responsible for the publishing landscape of lesbian fiction: not only as authors in what we write, but as readers in what we accept in the books we read. We have not always lived up to that responsibility. And the absolute minimal bottom line is that if someone stands up and says, “This book depicting someone with my background hurts me in the way that character is written,” we have the responsibility to listen, and believe, and think about the consequences of that.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has finally finished covering all the journal articles I downloaded back in July of 2019! I mixed a number of other books and articles in among them, but that store of material has kept me going for almost 2 years. It’ll be a little while yet before I’m ready to brave social mixing enough to access the JSTOR terminals at the UC Berkeley library again, so maybe I should work on books for a while. Maybe even some of my recent acquisitions!
In March I covered a rather eclectic selection of topics: Katherine Binhammer’s comparative study of how female same-sex sexuality and eroticized pain were treated in later 18th century England. Marylynne Diggs’ exploration of relatively early depictions of female same-sex desire as psychological pathology in 19th century American sources. Deborah Nord’s exploration of a loose network of middle class singlewomen in Victorian London who stood outside the supportive communities of feminists, as well as refusing conventional married life. And Mary McLaughlin’s detailed history of a very different community of unmarried women in 16th century Ferrara, which gives another triangulation on the options women could have available. Then, just for fun, I tossed in an examination of a Regency-era satirical cartoon showing two women making out on a park bench.
For April, I’ve lined up several relatively recent books that examine histories of people who were assigned female but lived male lives through a transgender lens. For me, it’s not possible to study lesbian history without studying it in parallel with transmasculine history, because of the shifting ways in which gender and sexuality interacted in past societies. In the literature of the later 20th century and early 21st century, there has been a tendency to default to treating these people as “women in male disguise” in all cases. And while I think it’s equally mistaken to treat them all universally as trans men, that framework can guide us to a different set of historic understandings that we’d see otherwise.
My book shopping has picked up a bit this month. There’s a new biography of my favorite 19th century American actress, Charlotte Cushman, and it’s a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity by Tana Wojszuk looks like a more popularly-oriented biography than the one I leaned heavily on for my podcast on Cushman. I’ll keep hoping that someone in the movie or tv business latches onto her story and decides to make a lavish costume drama.
The second book I picked up this month is Debating Sex and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Spain by Marta V. Vicente. I’ve covered a number of publications that look at the 18th century seismic shifts in cultural understandings of gender from English and French sources, so it will be interesting to see how Spanish texts cover the same topics.
When I get to the part of the On the Shelf script where I’m supposed to tell you what his month’s podcast essay will be, about half the time I realize in a panic that I haven’t picked a topic yet. So…um…that would be the case this month. I have an idea, but it depends on whether I can brainstorm enough content for it. So I’ll leave it a mystery for now, in case I end up doing something different.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
We have a bumper crop of new and recent books this month, most of them from February and March. The February books come from some unusual angles.
The most intriguing is Adeline Lim’s self-published memoir In the Footsteps of Anne Lister (Volume 1): Travels of a remarkable English gentlewoman in France, Germany and Denmark in 1833. Lim is retracing some of the journeys that Anne Lister documented in her diaries and combining her own experiences and thoughts with excerpts from the diaries. For those of you who can’t get enough of Anne Lister, this looks like an interesting adventure to tag along on.
Whether you try this next one depends on how you feel about real-people fiction that introduces a queer element not present in real life. Vivian Dunn’s self-published For the Love of Many takes on a fictitious romantic encounter in 1920s Broadway between the future star Joan Crawford and a fellow chorus dancer. A story of secrets and show business, but it’s unclear to me why the author chose to associate her character with this specific historic person.
Nathan Long’s The Woman in the Coffin published by Oolong Books is another unusual cross-over, this time with a different author’s fictional universe. With the knowledge and permission of the original author, Long has written a different viewpoint of characters from Elizabeth Watasin’s “Dark Victorian” universe, following Nellie O’Day, a theatrical male impersonator, and her obsession with an acrobat who performs as part of a mesmerism act. Magic and murder follow.
I turned up five March books that weren’t on my radar yet last month. First up is another story in Stein Willard’s self-published Regency series, The Reserved Doctor. Gender disguise on the part of the title character leads to some romantic confusion for emperiled Catherine Poole, who isn’t accustomed to being attracted to men. I’m not familiar with this author, so I can’t advise on how well the story handles the gender issues.
Have you ever looked at the shelves full of het Scottish highlander romances and wondered what a sapphic one might look like? Sarah Swan has you covered with her self-published Like the Down of a Thistle. In 18th century Scotland, a young widow and her neighbor, whose husband is off at the battles, lean on each other to manage the grueling farm labor. An unexpected love grows, but what will happen with the battles are over and the soldier returns? The author promises us a happy ending, just in case you’re worried.
In contrast, readers might want to take a look at some of the content notes for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore from Square Fish. Following parallel stories in 16th century France and the modern day, this reinterpretation of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the red shoes includes motifs of persecution of trans people and Romani. In 1518, a strange “dancing sickness” in Strasbourg is blamed on witchcraft and Lavinia must make a desperate choice. Five hundred years later a descendent of Lavinia’s family confronts a new curse, bound to a pair of red shoes, to save his friend Rosella. Notes on Goodreads confirm that the book includes lesbian characters, but the details aren’t clear.
Vesper St. Clair’s “Gilded Lily” series, set in the upper crust of 1920s New York has previously focused on male couples. But a new novella in the series, Diamonds & Pearls, from Eventide Press, follows an heiress and a female jewel thief through both speakeasies and Upper East Side parlors. There’s a content note for violence, but also a promise of a happy ending.
German author Helmi Schausberg seems to specialize in stories set in Ireland. The German-language novel Für ihr Land (For Her Land), from Querverlag, follows Irish nationalist Eileen and unionist Josie as they are caught up in the Easter Rising and swing between extremes of friendship and conflict against the setting of the struggle for Ireland’s freedom.
I’ll conclude with three April releases, though I’m sure I’ll find more next month. In Poison Priestess from Amulet Books, Lana Popović takes on the “affair of the poisons” in Louis XIV’s glittering and dangerous court of Versailles. There’s a fantastic element in the story as Catherine Monvoisin turns to prophetic visions and sorcery to fight off the threat of poverty, only to find herself facing greater dangers than mere debt.
Magic is an even more integral part of the worldbuilding in Ester Manzini’s The Other Side of Magic from The Parliament House, in which a fantasy world based on 16th century Italy finds two young women from opposite sides of a magical conflict thrown together in a common struggle for their freedom.
And the final April book is Riley LaShea’s romantic steampunk adventure, Dr. Todson's Home for Incorrigible Women from Midnight Jasmine Books. When Caroline Ajax’s husband finds her inconvenient, he thinks to disappear her into an asylum. But Dr. Eirinn Todson’s Home for Women is not at all what Caroline expected. And neither is Dr. Todson, who has her own mysterious and tragic past.
What Am I Reading?
I’ve made a lot of progress on getting caught up with book reviews, and while it hasn’t entirely evaporated my reading block, I can feel things loosening up. I did read one queer historical romance novella this past month, though the pairing involved a trans man, not a female couple. The book was Meg Mardell’s The Christmas Chevalier, which is a lovely Victorian-era holiday-themed story involving masquerades, printing presses, and the delicate negotiation of meeting someone anew whom you’ve known all your life. It has mild peril and a happy ending, with a historic grounding that feels solid and effortless.
This month our author guest is Rose Lerner.
[Interview transcript will be added when available.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Rose Lerner Online