Where is Alpennia anyway? What are its cultural connections?
Like most examples of a “Ruritania,” Alpennia exists within the geography of Europe without actually replacing or displacing any real-world regions. This makes it impossible to show it accurately on a map of Europe without serious distortion. In-story references make it clear that Alpennia sits roughly at the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland. But other than those three nations not having a three-point meeting in the world of Alpennia, they are not otherwise displaced or diminished. I could draw an internal map of Alpennia, but I couldn’t draw a map that included both it and its real-world neighbors.
There are ways in which Alpennia is a sort of shadow-twin of Savoy, but not exactly. The Rotein river is a sort of shadow-twin of the Rhône, but not exactly. The Rotein flows through France and into the Mediterranean somewhere in the general vicinity of Marseilles, possibly merging with the Rhône at some point but I haven’t really pinned that down. I would say that in terms of area, Alpennia is about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of Switzerland? Maybe? Not a tiny city-state like Monaco or Liechtenstein, but small enough not to be a power.
Alpennia has a Romance language that has a significant Germanic substrate in vocabulary and the early elements of the naming system. (In this, it is similar to France and Spain.) Alpennian “high culture” is strongly influenced by France and most upper and upper-middle class Alpennians are bilingual in French at the very least. The country is large enough that there are identifiable regional dialects, or at least regional accents that can be used to identify someone’s origins.
There are significant cultural connections over into the Italian states. At the time of the novels, the royal family has connections with the Austro-Hungarian empire as well, both due to Princess Anna’s Austrian marriage (to a non-royal duke) and to political maneuverings during the Napoleonic wars. In spite of those, Alpennia was occupied by France under Napoleon--one might even say “conquered” if one weren’t being tactful--and that has left the Alpennian government with a disinclination for relying too much on French “friendship” in the future.
When the world turns upside down, those who are thrown together can feel like all barriers and differences have been erased in the common struggle. At least, it can feel that way to those who don't worry as much about consequences once the crisis is past. I picked this scene because it illustrates Roz and Iuli's different takes on potential consequences. Iuli thinks she can make everything right once the crisis is over. Roz knows that some people are held to stricter standards of accountability than others. Iuli is certain that Roz's highest aspiration is to return to being her maid and confident that she can make it happen. Roz...has other ideas. And yet old habits die hard, and Roz's reflex is to look after her, as if nothing had changed.
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Maisetra Iulien had been quieter than usual that day, just asking what was needed. She only brought out her sweet-talk to assure Mefro Dominique there’d be no trouble from letting her stay. I couldn’t say she was right about that. I remembered how sharp Maisetra Sovitre’s words had been forbidding me to come here. Would she blame Mefro Dominique for not sending her back? Or would she understand it was beyond any of us to change Maisetra Iulien’s mind?
It was a habit for me to do for her as we got ready for sleep, hanging her dress up as neat as I could and plaiting up her hair.
“Oh Roz,” she said, “you needn’t. You aren’t my maid here.”
I made a little noise. I meant it to be a never-mind, but it came out like a sob.
“Don’t worry, Roz. I’ll put in a word for you when this is all over. I don’t know how much good it’ll do. Cousin Margerit may lock me in my bedroom again when all this is over. But I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have taking care of me to face a Rotenek season.”
It was nice to hear her say it. But I thought she was right. Not even Princess Anna putting in a word for me could get me hired back at Tiporsel House now.
In every era, the subjects tackled in academic debate are neither random nor comprehensive. They follow the interests and anxieties of the times. So it's not surprising to find that medieval writers applied their analytic and debating skills to a slightly different set of questions that the classical authors whose work they leaned on. One of the aspects that Cadden emphasizes (and that Laqueur downplayed) was the diverse and contradictory nature of medieval arguments and conclusions around sex. There is room within the existing literature to support any number of philosophical positions.
Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6
Chapter 3: Academic questions
This chapter looks at academic questions regarding the nature of male and female. With no agreed-on set of source texts or fixed principles of interpretation, the diversity and imaginativeness of late medieval interpretations was a natural consequence. But the contributions of Greek and Arabic writers and the development of structures for argumentation and presentation also affected the resulting conclusions. The formality of the field and its presentation can make it difficult to separate intellectualizing versus popular understanding.
Topics that the classical writers had overlooked were treated in more imaginative ways by medieval writers. Questions were more focused, precise, and contentious in the context of university debates. The answers were no clearer, but the questions were more sharply articulated. Some texts were newly accessible, such as Avicenna, who incorporated classical material via the Arabic tradition. New questions that had been of less concern to the ancients included how to determine the sex of a fetus and the nature and purpose of female and male sexual desire and pleasure.
The dissemination of these texts and debates were not only via academic institutions, but also in secular urban schools, such as the one at Salerno, that were not constrained by theological concerns. For example, while Albertus Magnus debated the logical arguments for why sex should or should not be pleasurable, later humanists considered such debates to be vain and pointless exercises.
Works that focused specifically on female medical concerns began to be created (typically by male authors). Debate over male and female contributions to conception were framed later as an “Aristotelian” position (which held that there was no female contribution) versus a “Galenic” position (which held that there were equal male and female contributions). Such positions oversimplified and exaggerated the classical authors’ views, while emphasizing the diversity of thought that remained current. But medieval authors often took a more compex position, drawing on a wider variety of authors, rather than following a single classical author.
The chapter has an extended discussion of how various authors considered and resolved these conflicts.
Sex determination had a practical as well as theoretical importance. If you know how the sex of a fetus was determined, then you could take actions to increase the chance of the desired sex (typically male). Whether this was due to the heat, strength, or other qualities of the man’s seed, he was considered to be the deciding factor in the child’s sex, though the position in the uterus was also considered relevant. These conflicting factors were also considered to account for non-binary sex and gender (i.e., intersex conditions and people who didn’t conform to gender norms). Such explanations always started with the assumption that the male was more perfect and more desirable. But even this presumption was sometimes contradicted on theological grounds (that God doesn’t create errors).
The role and purpose of sexual pleasure was not of special interest to classical authors, so medieval treatments of the topic were less constrained by precedent. Arabic sources focused more on desire than pleasure (to the extent that the two can be distinguished in the texts) and primarily on male experiences. The basic understanding of sexual pleasure was functional: to encourage procreation. But the rationales expanded to include health (via the balancing of humors). Psychology was also invoked, especially for disorders of desire such as lovesickness, as being due to a failure of reason.
Men’s sexual pleasure could be attributed to orgasm/ejaculation, but opinions were varied on how women received pleasure, especially in connection with theories about female seed. Even if female seed was not assumed to be a factor in procreation, orgasm was thought to enable conception by various means, such as by “opening the womb.” Later medieval writers on sexual pleasure could de-couple it from the mechanics of procreation when considering marginal cases such as desire during puberty, during pregnancy, etc. Specifically non-procreative pleasure (e.g., masturbation) was disapproved but discussed. (Albertus Magnus describes penetrative masturbation by women in this context.)
Debates over whether women or men had greater pleasure in sex were tinged by anxieties about gender traits. Is male orgasm a symbol of strength or of loss of control? Discussions often compared and contrasted consideratoins of pleasure (delectatio), love (amor), and desire (appetitus). Overall discussions of sexual pleasure were typically teleological--designed to explain pre-determined conclusions.
I needed a breather from recording and editing new episodes this month, so I’m reprising a series of episodes on poetry about love between women. If you’ve been a podcast listener from the very beginning, I hope you enjoy them just as much as you did the first time. And if this is the first time you’ve heard these episodes, you have a real treat coming!
This is a reprise of Episode 8 - Medieval Love Poetry which originally aired on 2017/03/25.
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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 39b - Medieval Love Poetry (Reprise) - transcript
(Reprise aired 2019/10/12 - listen here)
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Today I’d like to talk about two related themes in medieval literature: love poetry, and relationships in romances. Now, keep in mind that when we use the word “romance” to talk about genres of medieval literature, it doesn’t mean stories centering around a specific love relationship, as it does modern use, but rather stories of heroic adventure and courtly deeds, that have love as one of several themes. Medieval romances usually included fantastic elements and otherworldly settings. So we can’t interpret them as representing actual historic behaviors and cultures. But they do give us a glimpse into the beliefs and attitudes of the people who created and listened to the stories.
The romance genre arose in the same context as the idea of “courtly love” as expressed in the songs of the troubadours. The courtly love movement was, in part, a reaction to the stark reality among the upper classes that marriage was a business transaction with nothing of individual attraction or affection. In fact, when the rules of courtly love were written down, they stated baldly that love was impossible between married couples because there could be no love where there was coercion. Instead, one was expected to perform a fiction of romantic desire for a person one could not possess. A fiction of adultery, as it were, where extravagant language and pledges of undying devotion were understood as representing sexual desire without ever being allowed to fulfill it.
As a result, the language used in acting out courtly love can be highly ambiguous in terms of how it related to behavior. Was it all play-acting or was it a way of expressing frustrated desires that might otherwise work out in less socially acceptable ways? When the language of courtly love appears in poetry or prose to express interactions between men and women, few scholars deny that it was intended to represent actual sexual desire, even if in a formal and stylized manner.
But when we find the language of courtly love used between women, there is often a greater hesitancy among scholars to attribute it to actual romantic or erotic attraction between women, as opposed to being mere literary convention. I’m going to look at three works that were written around the 12th and 13th centuries in western Europe in which the language of romantic love is used between women.
The first is a 13th century French romance titled L’Escoufle or, the kite -- referring to the bird, not to the child’s toy. The story centers around a young woman’s adventures after a man persuades her to elope with him and then abandons her--pretty much for the majority of the remainder of the story. The “kite” of the story comes in shortly after Aelis (our heroine) rides off with Guillaume. The bird swoops in and steals Guillaume’s fancy silk purse and Guillaume chases after it, abandoning Aelis to her own devices in a strange land.
But Aelis is a resourceful young woman and gradually betters her situation by a series of alliances and personal relationships with other women. What is most interesting to us at the moment is that these relationships are described with language and using situations that would be unambiguously sexual if a man were involved.
When she finds herself alone, Aelis promptly takes up with another young woman named Ysabel. And shortly after being taken in by Ysabel and her mother, “Fair Aelis began thinking that the two of them could well spend the night in one bed together.”
Now, spending the night in bed together is no big deal. It was something that travelers often did even when they were complete strangers. The implication is primarily one of friendship and probably of social protection, since Ysabel is an established member of the local community while Aelis is a stranger and alone. But as the two start up an embroidery business together, their relationship becomes more physically ambiguous. Aelis “moves closer to her, she kisses her, embraces and hugs her” and Ysabel “tells her that she will accomplish completely her wish, whatever it is.”
This is language that, in mixed-sex contexts could indicate either sexual or non-sexual interactions, but the language continuing to describe their relationship is framed strongly in the conventions of romance. Ysabel provides Aelis with “so much solace, so much pleasure” and Aelis “enjoys herself in so many ways.”
These same-sex romantic descriptions are balanced by how the story focuses on their combined search for Aelis’s missing boyfriend, Guillaume.
In this quest, Aelis encounters two further intimate friendships with women in the story, using the same ambiguously suggestive language about sharing a bed and, in the second case sharing a friendship so close that, “they are all one body/heart and soul; they no longer remember Guillaume … No other woman was ever treated in the way the noble countess did [Aelis]; She kisses her, then let the other young women kiss her. Then she takes her to relax in her bedroom, holding her with her naked hand.”
Other medieval romances include episodes of desire between women, but more commonly it is excused by having one of the women be in disguise as a man at the time, such as in the story of Yde and Olive, or the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil. In L’Escoufle there is no such plausible deniability. These are women who know each other to be a woman. One can only try to explain away the interactions as using conventional formulaic language that used the forms of romantic love without intending the substance. Or...one can believe that they may have intended the substance.
Bieiris de Romans
This same argument has been used in regard to the lyrics of the 13th century troubariz --or female troubadour -- Bieiris de Romans. The bare facts are that Bieiris, a woman, wrote a love song addressed to a woman named Maria, using the conventional language of courtly love poetry. Where scholars come into disagreement is the question of what it means. (The show notes mention two articles that discuss this question from different points of view.) Before considering that question, let’s take a look at the lyrics themselves. I wish I could recite the original in Provencal, but I’ve never studied the language and would only make a hash of the pronunciation.
Lady Maria, in you merit and distinction, joy and intelligence and perfect beauty, hospitality and honor and distinction, your noble speech and pleasing company, your sweet face and merry disposition, the sweet look and the loving expression that exist in you without pretension cause me to turn toward you with a pure heart.
Thus I pray you, if it please you that true love and celebration and sweet humility should bring me such relief with you, if it please you, lovely woman, then give me that which most hope and joy promises, for in you lie my desire and my heart and from you stems all my happiness, and because of you I'm often sighing.
And because merit and beauty raise you high above all others (for none surpasses you), I pray you, please, by this which does you honor, don't grant your love to a deceitful suitor.
Lovely woman, whom joy and noble speech uplift, and merit, to you my stanzas go, for in you are gaiety and happiness, and all good things one could ask of a woman.
Within the genre of troubadour song, the romantic and erotic desire that is expressed is often something of a literary game, composed in the framework of the “courtly love” genre where unconsummated desire for an unobtainable beloved was a default trope). But when the sentiments are expressed between a man and a woman, no one questions the sincere underlying emotions. For this work, modern commentary has attracted unique skepticism with some scholars dismissing it as a mere literary exercise, or as an expression of platonic friendship in the language of romantic love (charges which are not used to question the heterosexuality of other authors), or as being the pen-name of a male author (which leaves open the question of why a male author would represent love between women).
When one is determined to avoid interpretations of lesbian desire in literary works, it's easy enough to point to the formulaic nature of many genres. Even the language of personal correspondence can be composed of stock phrases and meaningless formulas. (After all, think about how many letters you’ve written that begin “Dear So-and-so” and ask yourself how many of the people are genuinely "dear" to you?)
It is impossible to argue that all written compositions should be taken at absolute literal face value. But at the same time, it’s important to consider whether we interpret literalness versus literary style differently based on pre-existing assumptions. No one would argue that the formulaicness of troubadour love poetry means that there’s no such thing as romantic love and sexual desire between men and women. But when a woman writes in the genre of love poetry or writes love correspondence to another woman, you will often encounter circular arguments of the following format:
You see how it ties up so neatly?
The Tegernsee Manuscript
Bieris was writing a work for public performance, and therefore it’s reasonable to analyze it within the conventions of that type of public performance. But similar arguments fall short when considering private poetry that was never meant for any eyes but the one it was written for.
It is reasonable to assume that this was the case for a poem found in a 12th century manuscript that was preserved at Tegernsee Abbey in southern Germany. Again, we know little of the context in which this was written except that it is clearly addressed from one woman to another. The writer laments the absence of her beloved and longs for her return from a journey. Given the context in which the poem was preserved, it is possible that the women were nuns. There are a number of biblical allusions in the poem that would suggest that possibility.
This translation is by Ann Matter, whose article on expressions of love between medieval religious women is cited in the show notes. Again, I’d love to be able to present the original so that you could hear the poetry of the sounds, as well as the meaning, but I’ll take pity on my listeners. The women’s names are abbreviated as G and A, so we don’t even have that much identity for them, although I’m tempted to go by the most popular German women’s names of that era and think of them as Gertrude and Anna.
To G., her singular rose,
From A. -- the bonds of precious love.
What is my strength, that I should bear it,
That I should have patience in your absence?
Is my strength the strength of stones,
That I should await your return?
I, who grieve ceaselessly day and night
Like someone who has lost a hand or a foot?
Everything pleasant and delightful
Without you seems like mud underfoot.
I shed tears as I used to smile,
And my heart is never glad.
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you.
What can I, so wretched, do?
Where can I, so miserable, turn?
If only my body could be entrusted to the earth
Until your longed-for return;
Or if passage could be granted me as it was to Habakkuk,
So that I might come there just once
To gaze on my beloved’s face--
Then I should not care if it were the hour of death itself.
For no one has been born in to the world
So lovely and full of grace,
Or who so honestly
And with such deep affection loves me.
I shall therefore not cease to grieve
Until I deserved to see you again.
Well has a wise man said that it is a great sorrow for a man to be without that
Without which he cannot live.
As long as the world stands
You shall never be removed from the core of my being.
What more can I say?
Come home, sweet love!
Prolong your trip no longer;
Know that I can bear your absence no longer.
Given the ways in which women’s writing--and writing that centers women--has been erased from the historic record, it is a treasure to find literature of this sort. I won’t fault scholars for being careful and skeptical about interpreting such material at literal face value, but I will always fault people for placing an extra burden of proof on representations of same-sex love that is not placed on heterosexual expressions.
And in the context of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, the importance of works like this is not whether there was an actual woman named Bieris who loved a woman named Maria, or whether there was a real Gertrude--or whatever her name was--who kissed and caressed Anna’s breasts with tender words. The importance is that people in the 12th and 13th century could imagine such things, and had language to express them. That some woman reading about how Aelis and Ysabel kissed and embraced each other in bed, or listening to the voice of Bieris longing to be given “that which most hope and joy promises”, might have thought to herself, “This is what it means--this feeling I have for the woman I cherish. This is real and others have felt it too.”
The full text of Na Maria by Bieris de Romans can be found in:
The full text of the Tegernsee MS poem can be found in:
This podcast topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:
I'm starting to draft up a FAQ about the series, based on actual questions I've received or that have been implied in people's comments on the books. Let me know what your questions are, or if you want additional detail in these explanations.
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Are the Alpennia books historical?
The setting deviates from real-world history in two major ways. Magic exists. And the country of Alpennia does not correspond to any real-world place or nation.
Other than those features, the timelines, events, and major characters of real-world history are retained. Sometimes those events are presented as being driven by magical effects rather than how they are understood in our timeline. The culture of Alpennia is designed to be roughly accurate for a small south-central European Catholic-dominated country that falls primarily within the cultural/political influence of France. The attitudes and social dynamics around women’s same-sex relationships are intended to be historically accurate for this setting.
One of the hazy images that came to me when I was first plotting Daughter of Mystery was a system of nearly forgotten catacombs under the city of Rotenek. I think the original image was in connection with Margerit and Barbara fleeing when the mystery guild was betrayed. That vision of the scene was discarded, but I kept a vague fondness for the idea of underground passages. The image merged eventually with the developing idea of the chanulezes and the thought that some of them had been covered over and nearly forgotten. Old European cites have layers and layers of forgotten history, shut behind doors, covered by new foundations, walled away when inconvenient. When Roz and her friends needed a different way to return to Saint Rota's well, that image of underground passages returned.
And, like Chekov's gun, the existence of a set of tunnels and forgotten access points lying underneath the main Plaiz between the palace and the cathedral just may be relevant in another book or two. Or three.
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Maisetra Iulien said later that it would have been more of an adventure to find our way all on our own. But it seems to me adventures are enough work, and you should take help when you can. No one does great things all by themselves, except maybe in Maisetra Iulien’s stories. Look at Celeste’s charm work. She’s the one with the knack to put together a charm against the fever, but she never would have tried using the well water except for Mesner Aukustin wanting to explore the chanulezes and Liv providing the boat. And she wouldn’t have had dared to finish the charm, except for Liv’s nephew needing the cure. Even I’d done my part, carrying the chest of charm-goods for her, so I wasn’t going to grudge the cellarer his bit.
The iron-banded door took three of us to drag it open once we’d cleared out the rubbish in the way, found the right key, and oiled the lock into life. The passage went on and on until it felt like we must have crossed under the whole city. But in the end it led straight to a door with a simple bar, like it was only meant to be opened by someone from inside the palace. When we pushed it open, there was a rush of damp air and the hollow mutter of the current in the hidden chanulez. The water was higher, most of the way up the steps to the well, but sweet water still flowed down from the fountain into the dark.
Cadden takes a deep dive into the details of some sample texts that illustrate the range of thought on the topic of sex differences--as well as illustrating their internal incoherence at times.
Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6
Chapter 2 - The emergence of issues
The rise of universities, growing importance of towns, and shifts in the focus of ecclesiastical and secular courts created a new context for discussing sex differences. The rise of universities also inspired translation of vast quantities of Greek and Arabic material on natural philosophy and mediecine, providing access to classical sources that had been altered in the course of Latin transmission. This wealth of detail highlighted problems with the consistency and structure of the body of knowledge. This chapter highlights several texts grappling with this diversity. The very diversity of material meant that no single model of sex difference prevailed.
Constantine the African, an 11th century monk, connected with North Arica, a Moslem converted to Christianity, brought in Arabic medical texts and the influence of the medical school at Salerno. He wrote topic-based treatises intended for practical use, not only philosophical discussion. He took a consistent approach to explanation and treatment that followed humoral theory and consiered sexual desire in the context of procreation as well as discussing female and male roles in conception. He accepted that sex determination was caused by the uterine environment and the balance of the male and female seeds. In addition to the classical hot/cold, wet/dry distinctions, he discussed the bodily importance of a left/right polarity. He was more concerned with male influence on conception than female but accepted the physiological equivalence of the male and female organs and semen. He acknowledged female libido but did not put much focus on it, though he considered sexual pleasure to be an essential part of procreation. He also discussed how to decrease libido, when experiencing it was inappropriate. He considered women to take greater pleasure in intercourse (based on a theory of how sexual activity affected humoral gradients).
Hildegard of Bingen (12th century German abbess and prolific author) is an example of how monastic thought adapted to new learning without a radical transformation of conclusions. Her approach is eclectic and non-systematic. Her writing generally had a conservative context but she was also a visionary and largely self-taught. A collector, not an innovator. Her work mixes traditional remedies with theological explanations. She does not specifically address sex differences and reproduction, but these topics arise in other contexts, shedding light on her thoughts on the nature of male and female. She saw procreation as inherently related to the Fall from Eden and as resulting from physical imperfection. She viewed the female part in conception as more passive, but in the context that “active” conception resulted from bodily imbalances. The key binary properties in her theory were strength/weakness, with a lesser input of hot/cold. Her gender distinctions were not aligned clearly with positive and negative judgments. She viewed the gender binary as strong/soft (not strong/weak). There is an emphasis on difference, but not necessarily on hierarchy. Her discussion on the physical aspects of sexual arousal is incoherent and based on the idea of forces moving through the organs. She distinguishes delectatio (delight, arousal) from libido (lust, with a negative connotation).
Anonymous 12th century dialogue on sex and generation. This text addresses sexual topics openly and argues for them as a respectable subject. The author works from an assumption that the male is the primary influence in conception. The uterus is treated simply as a vessel, but he also follows the idea of right/left influence on conception. [Note: in this theory, the uterus was thought to have multiple chambers aligned on a right-left axis, and the both sex and gender were influenced by which one the fetus developed in.] But the dialogues also place an importance on female orgasm and female seed in the process. Given the belief in the importance of female orgasm to conception, the text debates why prostitutes rarely conceive. Various theories are offered deriving from different philosophical frameworks. He also touches on the question of pregnancy from rape as a contradiction of this principle, but concludes that if a pregnancy resulted, then the woman must have enjoyed the rape at some point. He recognizes that children often resemble their mothers (suggesting more female influence than some theories allowed for) and that even loving marriages might be barren. But these questions are then answered by finding explanations that support the original philosophical premises. Moral concerns in the work tend to be sublimated within the focus on examples of prostitution and rape, and misogynistic assumptions go unquestioned. In general, he turns the subject matter into an intellectual game rather than taking a medical approach.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 39a - On the Shelf for October 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/10/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2019.
When you have a weekly podcast, the idea of taking a vacation becomes tricky. My schedule for the next couple months is jam packed, in part because of an extended vacation in October and in part because of my book release in November. Hey, did you know I have a new book coming out in November? Expect me to talk about Floodtide a whole bunch in November. But for now, I need a bit of a breather, so in place of the usual author interview and essay, I’m going to do a thematic group of reprised episodes on poetry for the rest of October. I’ll be re-sharing my shows on medieval love poetry between women, poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries, and a special Halloween show about Christina Rosetti’s “The Goblin Market.”
Once I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, I’ll be back to the regular format. I have a number of show ideas that are specifically aimed at creating characters and descriptions for lesbian-relevant historical fiction. I also hope to do some really fun shows centered around Anne Lister and the tv series Gentleman Jack.
And, as always, think about the 2020 fiction series. Submissions will be opening sooner than you know, and you don’t want to start writing at the last minute!
Publications on the Blog
In September, the blog finished up the collection of articles from The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. Then we moved on to start a series of foundational theoretical texts on gender and sexuality, starting with Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. These works are dense enough that I’m going to need to back off on doing an entire book each week so Joan Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages is going to get spread out over a few weeks and then I’ll move on to Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” That should probably cover most of October and I haven’t planned the specific reading schedule past those.
Book shopping recently has been entirely oriented around picking up the books for the theory series that I didn’t already have. So I’m sitting here looking at a stack of books that need to get logged in to my card catalog that include Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, Lochrie et al’s Constructing Medieval Sexuality, Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian, Garber’s Vested Interests, and Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval. Woah. That’s going to keep me busy.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
This month’s new and forthcoming book listings are pretty slim. Either we’re hitting an f/f historical slump or people are getting better than usual at hiding queer relevance in their cover copy.
In fact the first title is one that I almost left off, because even though it turns up in my Amazon keyword search, there’s no indication of anything other than cross-dressing in the cover copy. If this does turn out to have f/f content, let me know so I can add a note in my database.
Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand from Mulholland Books
In the sweltering summer of 1915, Pin, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a carnival fortune-teller, disguises herself as a boy and joins a teenage gang that roams the famous Riverview amusement park, looking for trouble. Unbeknownst to the well-heeled city-dwellers and visitors who come to enjoy the attractions, the park is also host to a ruthless killer who uses the shadows of the dark carnival attractions to conduct his crimes. When Pin sees a man enter the Hell Gate ride with a young girl, and emerge alone, she knows that something horrific has occurred. The crime will lead her to the iconic outsider artist Henry Darger, a brilliant but seemingly mad man. Together, the two navigate the seedy underbelly of a changing city to uncover a murderer few even know to look for.
We’re on more solid ground with the other two books. House of Bliss self-published by T.T. Thomas looks like it might be riffing off of Jack the Ripper motifs.
London, 1905 When ladies of the night begin showing up dead in the dark and bawdy alleys of Covent Garden, the victims are wearing House of Bliss corsets made by Sabrina Blissdon. Now the police want to know how and why Blissdon, the bohemian but successful upmarket corsetière, appears to be dressing the dead. Sabrina does know a few working women, from a time when she found comfort and solace with a couple of the occupants of a so-called tolerated house of London—boarding houses by day, brothels by night. But she is not eager to recall her youthful lusty pursuits—and dredge up memories of falling in love with Annabel North, a working woman who mysteriously disappeared three years earlier. All Sabrina wants is to focus on her work and enjoy her current romance—substantial respites from old heartaches…but the dead women wearing House of Bliss corsets and the ghost of love forsaken torment Sabrina’s restless soul. Old questions surface and new ones challenge. Did Annabelle disappear on purpose? Is she dead or alive? Is someone intentionally trying to ruin Sabrina’s reputation, or worse, accuse her of murder? Sabrina Blissdon is soon tempted into pursuing answers that could clear her name and save lives. What she discovers she may not be ready to accept when the evidence reveals the line between obsession and true love is often invisible to the blind spot in one’s heart.
And we finish up this month’s very short list with Flying Aces by Shiralyn Lee from Wicked Publishing.
A 1920s Drama set in Northern England and Germany. Within the valleys, rivers, and hills of the Yorkshire Dales, Tilly Foster has led an exceptional life alongside her father, a pilot who performs acrobatic tricks in his biplane. But as Tilly enters womanhood, a tragedy changes what she once knew as a simplistic lifestyle. Over the next few years her love of planes and showmanship provide her with everything she needs, and even the fairer-sex are drawn to her in ways only two women alone could identify. After a thwarted kidnap attempt on Violet Rose Burton, daughter of wealthy socialites, her parents arrange for her to marry a prosperous German and live in his homeland. Violet is naturally horrified at such a request, and her protests go unheard by those who are supposed to love her. But Violet’s fate had been sealed, and unbeknownst to the Burton family, her future is set to take a turn they weren’t expecting—she’s gone missing, or so they fear. This is where Tilly and Violet shall be thrown together in a quest, one that will have more than a rescue mission at hand.
I know I must be missing some new releases. It’s fairly common for me to run across a title that I learned about too late for the window to count it as a “new” book. If you have or know of an upcoming book that would fit in the nebulous category of lesbian-relevant historical fiction, make sure I know about it so I can include it in these listings.
What Am I Reading?
What have I been reading lately that might be of interest to the podcast listeners? I finished up Claire O’Dell’s The Hound of Justice, a near-future thriller inspired by Sherlock Holmes but re-envisioning Holmes and Watson as queer black women. I haven’t started a new book with queer relevance. I’m desperately trying to get caught up on my backlogged book reviews so in my gym reading time I’m reading some fun non-fiction that’s not at all related to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, especially Gretchen McCullough’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.
The next couple months on the podcast and blog are going to be a bit chaotic, but hang on tight and enjoy the ride!
I thought it might be time to put together a more-or-less official set of answers to freuqently asked questions about the Alpennia series, now that there's been enough time that I've heard plenty of questions. (Though sometimes the questions are implicit in comments rather than being asked directly.) I thought I'd post the individual questions+answers here in the blog first--which gives a chance to get more feedback--and then migrate them to their own page once the series is finished. If you have a general-interest question about the series that you think might not occur to me, let me know in the comments! Or if you want more details or further explanation on a topic.
The rough organization is: questions about genre, questions about format, questions about content, questions about overall series structure, and then miscellaneous questions. But I may initially post them more randomly as I get inspired. So here's the first.
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Are the Alpennia books romances?
This is far from a simple question. From a very strict definition of a book where a romantic arc forms the dominant element of the plot, none of the Alpennia books is a romance. For a reader who requires on-page sex to consider a book a romance (and, yes, there are readers with that definition), none of the Alpennia books is a romance.
But if your definition of “romance novel” can include a story where the initiation, development, and fulfillment of a romantic relationship forms one central part of the plot, and where the characters involved in that relationship are an accepted couple for the foreseeable future by the end of the book, then both Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage are romances. If you require that there be only one central romantic couple in the story, then remove The Mystic Marriage from the category. On the other hand, if the romantic couple is allowed to settle into a happy but non-romantic relationship at the end of the book, you can add Mother of Souls to the mix. Under pretty much no definition of “romance novel” could Floodtide be considered a romance, although the protagonist’s romantic feelings are a central motif. And although the short stories "Three Nights at the Opera" and "Gifts Tell Truth" are both very much about romantic/sexual relationships, neither ends in a HEA ending.
Rather than trying to fit the Alpennia series into a romance box, it's probably better to think of it as a developing ensemble “found family” cast in which romantic ties are only one of several types of connections that bind the characters together. But if any of the books works for you as a romance, then by all means continue to consider it as such!
So, to summarize:
Daughter of Mystery – One central romantic relationship with classic HEA. No on-page sex. The romance is only one of several plot elements.
The Mystic Marriage – One existing/continuing romantic couple, one new relationship, both with classic HEA. No on-page sex. The romances are only one of several plot elements.
Mother of Souls – Two existing/continuing romantic couples. One new romantic relationship that resolves into platonic friendship. No on-page sex. The romances are only one of several plot elements.
Floodtide – Protagonist works through romantic/erotic feelings for several other characters, but is not in a romantic couple at the end of the story. No on-page sex. The romantic conflicts are only one of several plot elements.
"Three Nights at the Opera" - One central erotic relationship (but no on-page sex). The characters are not together at the end. But the relationship is the primary plot element.
"Gifts Tell Truth" - Once central erotic relationship (but no on-page sex). The characters are not together at the end. The relationship is one of two main plot elements.
This Edwardian country-house murder mystery follows the usual script of assembling an odd assortment of family, friends, and what-the-heck-are-they-doing-here characters, identifies certain characters (ideally more than one) as worthy of murder, establishes murderous motivations for most of the cast, with a handy storm to pen everyone in at the crisis. The mystery here is solid and even--if you haven’t read the book this is a prequel to--carries just enough doubt regarding the motivations and guilt of some of the more likeable characters to keep one on edge. If the primary viewpoint character--a Ladies Shooting Champion--were not our window on events, she’d be one of the prime suspects, simply on the grounds of no-nonsense efficiency.
The primary set-up, of course, is not so much the murder but the romance that develops in its shadows. Pat realizes she’s falling in love with her best friend’s apparently air-headed fiancée, though the engagement is dispensed with quickly enough that she’s never faced with serious ethical conflicts over it. Instead, the moral conflict is over how to handle the possibility that either her brother Bill or Bill’s male lover committed the murder in reaction to blackmail over that relationship.
Charles deftly lays out the contrasting experiences of men and women in same-sex relationships at the time: men’s relationships being criminalized and exactly the sort of thing one might murder to conceal, and women’s relationships being considered of little importance and not the sort of thing anyone was expected to organize her life plans around.
The development of Pat and Fenella’s relationship from wary companionship to attraction to “gosh, in the wake of murder we all need to stick together to protect each other so of course we should move into the same bedroom” proceeds apace, following the needs of the compressed structure of the story. (OK, so it all felt very rushed to me, but for at least one of them it wasn’t her first rodeo, so I’m willing to allow the benefit of the doubt for allosexual impulsiveness.)
If you like cozy mysteries and enjoy your romances to be layered with regular explicit sex scenes, this should be just up your alley.