There are times in your life when you really need a deeply engrossing story that will take you away from the here and now for the space of a couple hours. One of those times is when you’re sitting in an emergency room waiting for them to confirm your pulmonary embolism. One of those stories in Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I don’t recommend the former, but I do recommend the later.
A historic fantasy in a China-inspired setting, the story uses a quiet, measured narrative style to build tension with the feel of a thriller. Quite a feat when the action is all in the past and one of the principle characters has just died. The framing story involves the non-binary monk Chih, whose vocation is to collect histories, and whose immediate task is to unravel certain mysteries known to the empress’s handmaiden, Rabbit. The empress is a political hostage, imprisoned, powerless…or is she? There are several delightful twists to the plot, and half the fun is trying to guess what they’ll be from the scraps and clues, in parallel with Chih’s quest.
The narrative style is likely to be different from what you expect from a fantasy novel, but I recommend embracing it and letting it lead you, bit by bit, into the story. There’s a second novella featuring another of Chih’s story-collecting adventures and I’m looking forward to equal enjoyment. Oh, and both books have sapphic elements, so there's that as well.
This sapphic, Vietnamese-inspired historic fantasy is warm and cozy, like sipping tea in front of a blazing fire, with a cat sitting on your lap, where the cat might turn into a tiger and the fire might burn your palace down. Aliette has the knack of compressing enormous amounts of world-building into a very few pages. You can easily read this story in a single bite, but it immediately plunges you into the deep back-story of a princess-hostage, the fraught politics of maintaining an unequal power balance, and the personal hazards of re-igniting an old love affair. (With the delicious queer context of a world in which a princess could take a princess as her consort.) But not everything is what it seems, and sometimes the seductive lure of someone who sees you and desires you—when no one else seems to value you—is the deepest peril of all.
OK, that sounds like I’m trying out to write book blurbs. But really, Fireheart Tiger is delicious and heart-warming and leaves you guessing until the end.
Is the study of history concerned with discussing concepts, and only secondarily the people who embody them? Or is it the study of people and their institutions, with ideas and theories emerging secondarily from those lives? Both approaches have their value. They answer different questions. In this very brief essay, Boyd stakes a claim for studying ideas and then relating people's lives to those ideas. And from the point of view of "does it make sense to study the history of the idea of lesbianism?" I'm not going to argue against that approach. But at the same time, I find that the histories that most inspire me come from the other angle: the study of people in all their messy particularity, whether or not they fit neatly into ideas and theories.
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. 2013. "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no. 2 362-365.
This is a very brief paper—the sort you might expect to hear as an introductory presentation at a conference, touching lightly on key concepts but not really focused on new or analytic information.
Boyd is poking at the difference between “lesbian history” as the study of a category, of “a kind of person,” and as the study of particular historic individuals, communities, and institutions that we associate with that category. She asks whether it’s appropriate to use the word “lesbian” to identify people and communities who did not use that word for themselves?
[Note: It always seems to be specifically the word “lesbian” that provokes this sort of strict scrutiny, though I suppose one could view Foucaultian theories as doing the same thing to the word “homosexual”. But how often do you run into historians seriously questioning, “Can we call a community European if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community working class if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community multi-ethnic if people don’t use that term?” What is it about the word lesbian that provokes people to shy away from applying it in descriptive ways, as opposed to viewing it as something that must be claimed or bestowed?]
Boyd actually takes the broad view that lesbian history concerns the idea rather than the specificity, and that it includes all people and institutions that participate in producing the meaning(s) associated with that word. The idea of the lesbian has been spread and transmitted across time and space, changed and changing in the process. But it is imbued with specific situational meanings within the very different contexts to which it applies.
There is a nod to the ways in which using a Western vocabulary item for a concept that transcends Western culture carries the risk of making that usage a form of colonialism. She also notes the “contentious borders” between lesbian and transgender identities. Lesbian identity can be treated at the same time as an identity one must choose or recognize for oneself, but also as an essential identity that exists whether recognized or not.
This idea—that the “lesbian as a type of person” has always existed across time and space—has ideological significance, and Boyd suggests that we need to ask, “To whom is this idea useful? Whom does it serve?”
And it’s undeniable that even if one considers there to be an essential, timeless concept of lesbian identity, the communities and manifestations of that identity are constantly changing. Multiple versions of lesbian identity may be performed side by side in the same culture and may have independent histories and experiences even when specific individuals may cross between them.
[Commentary: Overall, this article seems to be speaking primarily to 20th century lesbian history with perhaps a bit of awareness of the later 19th century. But all the specific cultural references are from the second half of the 20th century. It’s also written with a fairly high level of theory-jargon. (I haven’t been able to parse out exactly which flavor of theory it’s coming from.) Not useful for the general reader.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 195 - Madame de Murat: Author of Fairy Tales, Lover of Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/02/20 - listen here)
In the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I’ve regularly discussed how the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries were the focus of a woman-led intellectual culture rife with possibilities for authors of historical fiction. The salonnières—mostly, though not exclusively, aristocrats—directed the attendance and topics of their salons with an autocratic hand and could elevate or banish the cultural and intellectual pop stars of their day from their lively and intimate gatherings.
At the end of the 17th century, the salons served as a counter-balance to the regimented and hierarchical life of the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles. If you’ve watched the tv series Versailles, you’ve seen the culture they were reacting to (though in a Hollywood version). While the glittering, over-the-top world of Versailles was coming into being far from the city, the salonnières of Paris were inviting the top philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists of the day to gather in their bedrooms—literally!—to discuss and celebrate ideas in a subculture that promulgated the ideal (if not always the reality) of a social equality of the mind.
The gender dynamics of the salons were not always predictable from those principles. The salon movement had its roots in the exclusion of women from public intellectual life. Often given a rather minimal education, and excluded from universities and academies, aristocratic women with curious minds began the salons as a program of self-education, inviting learned men to present lectures and act as private tutors. From these beginnings, they grew into an elaborate social structure in which women vied with each other to attract the most interesting and prestigious guests, as well as mentoring younger women who would go on to found their own salons.
But gender relations had another influence in later 17th century France as well. Among the aristocracy, during that era, marriage was overwhelmingly a matter of economic and alliance contracts between families. The personal interests of the spouses were of little account—both for men and women—and as a consequence there was a thriving culture of extramarital relations and little expectation of affection between husband and wife. This culture of libertinism embraced same-sex as well as opposite-sex relations, despite legal condemnation of the former. It was understood that some people had a preferred taste for their own gender, though the concept of orientation, as such, was not well developed.
One additional strand of this story arises from the fraught marital relations of the upper classes. Have you ever noticed how traditional fairy tales lean heavily on forced marriages, runaway brides, the thwarting of true lovers, and often cruelly repressive relationships between parents and their eligible children? The genre of literary French fairy tales arose in the mid 17th century as something of a game within the salons where writers—and especially female writers—would re-work traditional tales into elaborate, convoluted, multi-layered imaginative tales that were infused with criticism of the culture of the day. These aristocratic women whose own marriages had, often as not, been imposed on them willy-nilly, found themselves imprisoned, not always in literal towers, but in lifelong social contracts. In fairy tales they could feature clever, persistent heroines who endured grinding hardships but won through to true love in the end. Or who failed in heartbreak and tragedy. In stories, they could critique the forces that they were often powerless to oppose in their own lives.
At this point, let us turn our tale to one particular writer of fairy tales. Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat was born around 1668 or 1670 (accounts differ), possibly in Brittany, possibly in Paris, possibly elsewhere (accounts differ), to an aristocratic family. She was possibly the daughter of the marquis Michel de Castelnau, but the details are not certain. She may have inherited the marquisate of Castelnau at age two when her father died, which might well have made her a considerable heiress. She married Nicholas de Murat, Count de Gilbertez possibly in 1691 at age 23, or possibly in 1686 at age 16 (accounts differ). Many of the details of her early life come from a collection of legends about her written a century after her death. And some of the details in that work are easily falsified. Hence the uncertainty.
I can find no clear references to her husband’s age (and evidently the later legendary history adds confusion from a second Nicholas de Murat), but if the marriage followed usual aristocratic patterns at the time, he was likely significantly older, and tangential evidence suggests perhaps 40-ish. And—following usual aristocratic patterns at the time—the marriage was not an affectionate one. Indeed, there are suggestions that it was an openly hostile one on both sides. Madame de Murat is later quoted as claiming that her husband made no complaints about her conduct and therefore it was no one else’s business, however a police report—have I mentioned that most details of her personal life are taken from her police record?—a police report includes the assessment that, “Her poor husband…only remains quiet in order not to expose himself to the rage of a woman who has considered killing him two or three times.”
But we’ll get to that later.
Around the time of her marriage, she became a regular participant in the Parisian salons of the Marquise de Lambert and became part of the fairy tale writing set that included Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy (who invented the term “contes des fees” or “fairy tales”) and Catherine Bernard. De Murat began writing fairy tales of her own in the 1690s, but her earliest surviving published work in 1697 was in another genre entirely.
One strand contributing to the development of the novel as a literary form was the fictitious memoir. Presented as a work of fiction, this genre provided a certain plausible deniability to the content when authors either detailed events of their own lives or criticized the lives of their contemporaries. Names were obscured by the transparent fiction of using only an initial or a nickname. But within this fictional costume, authors were able to openly discuss their own lives and experiences—an opportunity particularly embraced by female authors.
De Murat’s first published work, Memoirs of the Countess of M***, was written in heated conversation with an earlier fictitious memoir Memoirs of the Life of Count D**** before his Retirement, by Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, seigneur de Saint-Evremond. Saint-Evremond’s work was openly misogynistic, depicting women as incapable of virtue and honesty. De Murat’s counter tells the story of a young wife subject to physical and emotional abuse due to her husband’s jealousy, who attempts to escape the marriage but is pressured by her family to return. How closely the tale marches with her own experiences is impossible to know, but the general shape is plausible. One version of her biography indicates that having presented her husband with a son the year after they married, she separated from him due to his mistreatment. Evremond’s memoir appears to have been forgettable, but de Murat’s was a best-seller.
Though the memoir was her first published work, it wasn’t the first splash she made through her writing. That would be her History of the Courtesan Rhodope, evidently written in 1694 but not published until 1708. This work was a not-particularly-veiled satire on Madame de Maintenon, the favorite mistress—and by then, wife—of King Louis XIV. Madame de Maintenon was not happy about it, and when she was not happy, the king was not happy. Some sources indicate that this work was the primary reason Murat was banished from court. Keep this in mind as we trace Madame de Murat’s life.
Let us recap: Madame de Murat marries roughly around age 20, plus/minus, and in the next half-dozen years, bears a son, leaves her abusive husband, begins hanging out in salons, writes a biting political satire, writes a best-selling feminist memoir, and begins publishing her collections of fairy tales.
This genre of salon fairy tales were not pretty romantic pieces of fluff. They were typically packed full of abusive suitors, coerced marriages, petty persecutions, cruel supernatural beings, and deeply cynical takes on human (and fairy) nature. The versions that are presented to us today are greatly softened and tidied up. These are the tales where Beauty’s Beast is a genuinely terrifying monster, where Cinderella’s sisters cut off pieces of their feet to try to fit the glass slipper and then Cinderella’s songbird companions peck their eyes out during her wedding. So in thinking of Madame de Murat as an author of fairy tales, let us think of her as a woman who has Seen Things and packs hard truths into her convoluted plots.
As I mentioned earlier, one consequence of aristocratic arranged marriages of the time was the normalization of extramarital relationships. It was expected that everyone would have lovers, the only question was how discreet they would be about it. Once she had separated from her husband, Madame de Murat was in a somewhat precarious position. As she herself wrote, “As soon as a woman lives separated from her husband, she provides weapons against her, and no one thinks she should feel insulted if they suspect her behavior.” De Murat perhaps provided them with a higher caliber of weapon than was wise.
In 1698, during the height of her literary success, and for the following four years, a Lieutenant General of the Paris Police was instructed—evidently by King Louis himself—to take note of Madame de Murat’s activities and warn her to reform her behavior under threat of banishment from Paris or even imprisonment. What were those activities? The police records begin with references to general “immorality and scandal” occurring during regular social gatherings at her house. She was accused of cursing and blasphemy, of singing lewd songs at all hours of the night to the disturbance of her neighbors, of pissing out a window during an evening of debauchery and—now we come to the specific reason for discussing her in this podcast—of “a monstrous attachment for persons of her own sex.”
Offered in evidence of this was an extended relationship with one Madame de Nantiat. Madame de Nantiat is first mentioned in a police report of 1700, when the Lieutenant General is describing, “A portrait [of Madame de Murat] perforated by several thrusts of a knife because of the jealousy of a woman she loved and left a few months ago to attach herself to Madame de Nantiat, another woman of the worst immorality, known less for the fines levied against her for gambling than for the disorderliness of her morals. This woman, living with Murat, is the object of her continual adoration, even in front of the valets and several pawnbrokers.” And there are continued references to Madame de Nantiat in de Murat’s life throughout her police records covering the next several years.
Who is Madame de Nantiat? We can assume that she, too, was a member of the French aristocracy. Nantiat is a town located near Limoges. Google-searches turn up a genealogy from the relevant time period for a Gaspard Chauvet, baron de Nantiat, a page to Queen Marie-Thérèse. (I should note that random genealogies on the internet should be taken with a large grain of salt, but with that information I was able to find more reliable references.) In 1681 the baron de Nantiat married Diane-Marie de Pontcharraud who was born in 1667, so she would have been very close in age to Madame de Murat and—if the dates are to be believed—married at age 14. Ah! And a further entry in that genealogy does identify her as the Madame de Nantiat who was the lover of Madame de Murat. It even lists the relationship among her spouses. Now, as I say, internet genealogies are tricky to rely on, but it’s just possible we’ve located our second protagonist. She outlived her first husband, as well as de Murat, married again, and lived to the ripe old age of 89.
Maybe it’s her, maybe not, but whoever Madame de Nantiat was, Madame de Murat was enamored of her and they were understood to have a sexual relationship—one that provoked violent jealousy in at least one of de Murat’s other female lovers.
De Murat was scarcely the only woman among the salonnières who loved her own sex. The Duchess d’Aiguillon, a niece of Cardinal Richelieu, was paired romantically with Madame du Vigean. Others for whom there is less evidence for a physical relationship left romantic correspondence with their female intimates. Such relationships might be considered scandalous, but they were accepted as within the normal range of behavior. Which raises the question of why de Murat came in for special persecution.
The police were trying to obtain sufficient evidence to arrest de Murat, but ran into a few practical problems. Her actual crimes--and lesbian sex was, in fact, a crime in France at the time, though not typically pursued against aristocratic women—her crimes took place in private spaces. Her neighbors were said to be intimidated by her and afraid to testify against her. But they are also quoted as considering it beneath their dignity to turn informant to the police. Her husband claimed he was in fear for his life if he tried to control her which, given that legal and social power was on his side suggests either that he was looking for excuses or she was truly formidable.
After the affair of the slashed portrait, de Murat claimed she was thinking of rusticating for a while and this seems to have mollified official interest somewhat. She pleads that she had only delayed leaving the city due to destitution. She needed to pay her debts before leaving and had no money for travel expenses or to make provision for her seven-year-old son. She has been surviving on loans and the profits of card-playing. The police report sounds genuinely sympathetic to her.
We hear nothing for more than a year and a half. One source suggests she may have spent the year in the Limousin region staying with Madame de Nantiat, based on information in her journals. Then there is another police report: Madame de Murat “has returned to Paris after a week’s absence…she has made up with Madame de Nantiat, and the horrors and abominations of their mutual affection rightly make all their neighbors shudder.”
King Louis XIV wanted her imprisoned, but she had friends in high places to run interference, presumably not just her fellow salonnières. De Murat also claimed at this time to be pregnant, which must have been a bit awkward as a get-out-of-jail-free card, given that she was not on intimate terms with her husband. A later note refers to her “pretending to be pregnant” to avoid imprisonment and there is no record of a child, though given the scantiness of solid records of her life this isn’t definitive evidence. The police make reference to leaving it up to her “closest relatives” to determine where she should be confined, perhaps suggesting that her husband had entirely washed his hands of her.
Within a week of her returning to Paris, in December 1701, someone sent the police a letter “regarding the abominable conduct of Mesdames de Murat and Nantiat.” The police strongly suspect that the author of the letter is a discarded lover “who formerly reigned over [the heart] of Madame de Murat” (perhaps she of the portrait-slashing?) and who was seeking revenge for the reconciliation of Murat and Nantiat. This ulterior motive doesn’t seem to have bothered the police much, for they noted, “the blasphemies, obscenities, and drunkenness with which they are reproached are not less true because of it.”
Two months later, Madame de Nantiat left for the provinces, just barely ahead of a warrant for her arrest, while Madame de Murat remained in Paris. Consequences are closing in on her. One option is to confine her in a convent, but the report notes that “she reckons that no religious community will be found bold enough to take her in. Indeed, I do not think there is a single one, and I could not have a good opinion of those that would be willing to take the risk.”
Imprisoning wayward female relatives in convents was a fairly common practice in 17th century France, but as the police noted, it wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of virtue. Especially when sapphic relationships were at issue. When Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarine was packed off to a convent by her jealous husband, she was accompanied by her girlfriend Sidonie de Courcelles and they simply carried on as before. When Julie d’Aubigny’s girlfriend was sent to a convent by her disapproving parents, Julie infiltrated the establishment to break her out by simply pretending to be interested in taking in the veil herself.
In this context, there’s an interesting episode in Madame de Murat’s fictionalized memoir, in which an anonymous letter accuses the Countess de M—and her friend Mademoiselle Laval of doing “horrible things” together and demanding that the police imprison her. In the memoirs, the two women are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent together which, of course, would hardly prevent them from continuing to do whatever things they might have been doing together.
One might think that this episode in the memoir was directly lifted from the events detailed in the police report, except that the memoir was published two years before the first police blotter item. The parallels, in whichever direction, certainly lend credence to a certain truth underlying both.
Two months after de Nantiat left Paris, Madame de Murat was sent to be confined in the chateau of Loches. It seems to have been a fairly light imprisonment. She corresponded regularly with her family and her friends in Paris and evidently entertained visitors regularly—though whether this consisted of recreating the philosophical salons of her youth or of the wild debauchery her enemies accused her of is open to speculation. But she kept scheming to escape. She forged a letter from her husband asking for her release. She staged a daring escape, dressed in men’s clothing, but was caught and then held in two other locations before being brought back to Chateau de Loches. She wrote an extensive journal of her captivity, framed as letters to her cousin Mademoiselle de Menou, which incorporated several more fairy tales.
Finally in 1709—seven years after her initial imprisonment—she was paroled by the intervention of her friend the Countess d’Argenton, on the condition that she stay with her aunt Mademoiselle de Dampierre in Limousin. During that period, she wrote her final novel, which some consider her best work. She was not allowed to return to Paris until King Louis’s death in 1715—a fact that strongly suggests that it was the king’s personal animosity toward her that underlay her persecution, rather than the specifics of her sexuality. By the time of her return to Paris, she was in poor health and only survived for one year more. She died in 1716 at age 46 (or 48, accounts differ).
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Countess de Murat lived multiple lives: unhappy wife, literary hostess, fairy-tale author and satirist, passionate lover, victim of royal persecution, stubborn rebel against her fate. In none of these was she unusual or exceptional for her day and age. But combined together they present a picture of a complex, intriguing, and very human character whose life would make excellent material for fiction or the screen. She fictionalized her own life and lived the real version of her fictions. She loved passionately, if not wisely. Remember her.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
This isn’t so much a review of the book as a discussion of my reaction to it. For what that’s worth. I picked up Romancing the Beat because it was recommended on a podcast for authors who want to analyze what does or doesn’t work in their romance plots. And while I’m content to write books where the romance doesn’t follow a conventional structure, I’m also rather analytical and figured it would be useful to understand what people meant when they talked about “the standard romance novel structure.” I can see how Hayes clearly lays out one of the popular structures for romance novels. And if you want to write that specific type of romance, I think this is a good primer for how to do it.
The problem I have is the author’s insistence that this is the One True Romance Plot. Because it doesn’t work for me as a reader. In fact, in parallel with reading Romancing the Beat, I happened by chance to be reading a historic romance that followed this exact structure. And the points where it most closely followed the prescription were the points where I felt the strongest urge to throw the book across the room. And I love romance, I just don’t love some of the specific story-beats that Hayes treats as a sine-qua-non.
And yet … when I was sorting through the outline of a project that’s moving from random notes and character sketches to actually in-process, I decided to match my plot against the structure Hayes describes, and then see how much tweaking it would take to follow it. I think I got about an 80% match, and I think the story is better for it. (I just left out the parts that drive me crazy, like the bit about how the characters must be completely romantically broken at the start, and how it must be clear that only this particular match can “heal” them, and the specific number of minor crises one must endure before the end.)
So, although I spent most of my read through this book shouting angrily at the author, and I remain in deep disagreement with her premise that this is the One True Way to write romance, I can’t say that I didn’t find the book useful or thought-provoking.
It isn’t necessary to be as much of a language geek as I am to love this book. McCulloch does an excellent job of applying linguistic analysis and principles to the ways the internet has used and changed language, and then explaining it all in an engaging and understandable way for the lay person. If you have ever had a “kids these days!” moment about online language, this book will explain to you why the things you’re complaining about are actually fascinating examples of larger trends in language change that have always been present. She talks about how different “generations” of online experience have different internet “dialects”, and how some of those baffling conventions and understandings arose. Whether you want to be entertained or informed, I recommend Because Internet to everyone. (P.S., Gretchen is also half of the podcast LIngthusiasm which is also great.)
A relatively short Regency novella, with a f/f match that’s a spin-off from an existing m/f series. It’s lovely to see more entries into the f/f Regency field. (Pro tip: there are other ways to make your Regency heroine stand out as non-conforming than to give her scientific interests. I mean, I’m all about the geek girls but it feels like it’s being treated as obligatory.) The story is well-written with engaging characters, though either it was relying on the reader being familiar with the prior books, or it was trying to stuff too many side characters into too few words, because I felt like we were getting the synopsis of several novels’ worth of plot. If, like me, you’re pining for more f/f romances in traditionally popular historic settings, this will be a treat.
(I have a vague recollection of having other, more detailed thoughts about this book, but that's the problem with writing reviews long after finishing.)
Considering what it takes for a book to make it from my TBR list to actually being read, it’s fairly rare for me to choose not to finish a book. Here are two that I closed unfinished.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir got a lot of hype as “lesbian necromancers in space” (or maybe that’s “in spaaaaaaace”). Evidently that wasn’t enough for me. I got up to chapter 12 and stopped. I found it impossible to care about any of the characters. Gideon was simply annoying and whiny. And the “in space” setting made no sense whatsoever in terms of physical logistics. The story structure would have made much more sense as a secondary world on a single planet, maybe doing the physical isolation via islands? Instead it was “in spaaaaaaace” and didn’t work at all for me. And, although this isn’t the author’s fault at all, I’m utterly bewildered by the publishing dynamics of which books are promoted as overtly queer and which are left to languish in hints and implications. Gideon gets it, but lots of other books with more central and more implicit queer content don’t. Some day I will give away my gorgeous first-edition, black-deckle-edged hardcover copy of Gideon the Ninth to someone who loved the book and will appreciate it properly.
Merchants of Milan by Edale Lane has a delightful premise: a young woman in early 16th century Italy, using da Vinci-style technology, becomes a masked vigilante seeking revenge for her father’s murder, and along the way finds romance with an aristocratic widow. Unfortunately, both the narrative style and the historic underpinnings failed for me. I wouldn’t have been bothered by the tendency to describe everything in twice as much detail as necessary (we know the exact shade of every character’s eye color) if the focus had felt more aligned with the era of the setting. But that was where I was pushed out of the story. The thoughts, concerns, assumptions, and preoccupations of the characters simply felt too modern to me. In particular, for a sapphic romance, the attitudes of the characters toward sexuality felt out of tune with the cultural setting. For me, one of the joys of reading historical romance is seeing how people negotiate and carve out a happy ending within the specific concerns and constraints of the setting. When both the roadblocks and the solutions rely on 20th century attitudes, I don’t get that joy. Merchants of Milan is the first book in a trilogy, so if you think you might have a more positive reading experience than I did, there’s a lot of story available.
Certain cycles of thought around gender and sexuality seem to recur across history, and different themes sometimes recur in conjunction. Binhammer's study of early feminist thought of the 1790s -- the era of Wolstonecraft's A VIndication of the Rights of Women among other texts -- addressed the question of women's sexuality, and how it seemed to parallel some of the feminist "sex wars" of the later 20th century in fascinating ways. But the most fascinating conclusion (at least, as I synthesize it) is that the main thrust of these radical English proto-feminists boils down to "women can only achieve equality if we can erase gender from human interactions, but the gender we need to erase is 'female'." Much like attitudes toward masculine and feminine under the earlier "one sex" approach to gender, these 18th century feminists coded undesirable traits as feminine and desirable ones as masculine. Thus for a woman to be self-actualized and admirable, she must "become a man" in everything but her sexuality.
It would be easy to deride such views as unenlightened. To note that true gender equality comes from ceasing to assign essential gender to specific personality traits or behaviors. And yet, it's a trap that feminism has fallen into again and again. Another trap we se recurring across centuries of feminist movements is a capitulation to respectability politics. The 1790s feminists dove into the rising tide of bourgeois domestic respectability, either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that "domestic respectability" was the enemy of gender equality. (Nor did embracing domestic virtue as a beacon save them from being derided as sexually undesirable or sexually deviant, even as they joined the mobs attacking non-normative sexuality.)
How does this engage with lesbian history? For one, it's part of the creation of the myth of "sexless" romantic friendship. It points out that there are multiple "lesbian histories" at work in parallel, being assigned to different streams of society and shifting in how they are judged. When creating historic characters, one shouldn't assume that a woman who rejects feminine norms and restrictions will inherently embrace homoerotic desire. At the same time, the character who "isn't like other girls," who rejects traditional femininity as a sign of her rebellion against social norms, and who adopts performative masculinity as a path to personal achivement is very much a part of the fabric of history, even though she sometimes feels anti-feminist to a modern reader. (I'm suddenly getting a character sketch in my head of a wild-eyed radical 1790s feminist being chided by an older woman, "It sounds like you don't actually like women very much, my dear!")
Binhammer, Katherine. 2002. "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought" in Feminist Studies vol 28, no 3. pp. 667-690
Using the springboard of theoretical discourse around feminism and sexuality around the 1980s, Binhammer uses proto-feminist literature of the later 18th century as a lens for how theories of feminism and theories of sexuality intersect and come into conflict. The focus of 1980s feminist rhetoric narrowly on (heterosexual) sexual dynamics as a source of oppression, contributed to the rise of queer theory as the more dynamic field for examining theories of sexuality. But that pendulum-swing in turn led to queer theory discounting the importance of gender within theories of sexuality, and the relevance of how gendered bodies affect sexuality.
Having used more recent debates as a springing-off point, Binhammer turns to the ways gender and sexuality were handled in 1790s feminist literature by authors such as Wollstonecraft, Hays, Macaulay, Robinson, and Wakefield. A key theme of these writers was that “the mind has no gender” and that the supposed differences between the sexes were purely (or at least primarily) social custom and not rooted in biological fact. But the ways in which these principles were argued betrayed underlying assumptions about gender and sexuality that the authors were not equipped to recognize or challenge, especially given the socio-political context in which they arose.
[Note: I’m going to toss in a spoiler at this point, to make sure I don’t forget the thought. Binhammer’s conclusions—though she doesn’t phrase it in these words—is that “the mind has no gender, but the gender that it doesn’t have is ‘female’,.” And although these feminists argued for the right of women to embrace their sexuality, the sexuality they were supposed to embrace was heterosexual procreation within marriage. Equality of the sexes meant the right and responsibility for both men and women to be ‘masculine’ as understood at the time. Undesirable mental and moral traits were labeled “feminine” with no apparent self-awareness of how this undermined the feminist program.]
There were two key social factors that shaped this particular approach to feminism. During the 18th century, there had been a conceptual shift from viewing male and female as relative positions on a sliding scale (the “one sex” model) to viewing male and female as distinct and complementary (the “two sex” model). This raised the question “what did it mean to be a woman, now that she wasn’t simply a ‘lesser man’?” That is, having concluded that women were a “separate species” it was necessary to define what the characteristics of that species were. Having experienced a period of defining “women’s nature,” the 1790s feminists were now challenging the premises and conclusions of that definition.
The second factor was a disillusionment among the intellectual middle class (which was also the class rising in political importance) with the libertine sexuality of the aristocracy. Here Binhammer points out some significant parallels with 1980s feminism. The 18th century feminists are often critiqued, in retrospect, for having conservative anti-sex attitudes that led to the sexual repression attributed to the Victorian era. (Cf., the “sex wars” of later 20th century feminism.)
But Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries were not simplistically “anti-sex.” They were trying to re-envision an empowered feminist sexuality that challenged the embedded misogyny of their times. But they did so in ways that could not escape being strongly gendered. Criticism of 1790s feminists as being “hostile to the desiring female body” overlooks the extensive body of literature they wrote (and lives they lived) in which sympathetic women who embraced sexual desire (and especially sexual desire outside conventional marriage) were unjustly punished, ostracized, or doomed by the unequal status of women under the law, and the unequal judgement of society.
From this arose a critique of both gender and sexuality founded on the following premises. Male sexual appetite (portrayed almost exclusively as aristocratic) was a form of tyranny that had as a goal keeping women in a state of ignorance and helplessness. So long as libertine male sexual appetite is the ruling force in social relations, women’s survival depends on the skills of seduction and attractiveness, rather than cultivation of the mind and spirit. This not only makes women weak with respect to their own lives, but makes them ill-suited to be competent mothers and wives, contributing to the degradation of society in general.
Class politics were as much a force as gender politics in this rhetoric, and to some extent the 1790s feminists were piggy-backing on the revolutionary, anti-aristocratic political movements of the time. By assigning sexual tyranny specifically to aristocratic men [note: and dodging the reality that their revolutionary brothers-in-arms were equally at fault] they argued for the moral superiority of women, and specifically of bourgeois women.
This is one point where the philosophical structure becomes contradictory. “the mind has no gender” and yet women were considered innately more modest than men, by which they meant not that they were devoid of sexual desire, but that women were inherently more able to manage and control their sexual desires. And that this difference arose out of innate differences in the personalities of men and women. As Robinson wrote, “the passions of men originate in sensuality those of women, in sentiment: man loves corporeally, women mentally.” While it’s easy to see how this could be read by modern theorists as being “anti-sex”, the dynamic it arose from is more complicated and has to do with what 1790s feminists meant by “de-sexing” or “un-sexing” women.
By “de-sexing” they mean removing those elements traditionally assigned as “feminine” from the definition of womanhood. Removing the burden of sexual servitude to men and the focus on being sexually attractive, rather than allowing women to exist as rational beings equal to men. When the contemporary critics of thee feminists called them “unsexed,” they meant a variety of things, including “over-sexed, devoted to excessive (heterosexual) desire.” For critics like Richard Polwhele, educated women were to be derided for excess sexuality, not for the prudery they were later accused of.
For Wollstonecraft, in contrast, “unsexed” meant the absence of specific gendered qualities, but only in the context of the mind, not the body. The 1790s feminists did not envision a lack of physical distinction between men and women, nor did they reject the idea that woman’s appropriate goal was motherhood. Indeed, they embraced the idea that the ideal mother would be an “unsexed” woman whose education and virtue, being equal to men, made her better equipped to raise educated and virtuous children. Strip away the expectation for women to exist for the sexual convenience of men and they will naturally live chaste, monogamous lives.
Thus, the arguments these feminists made for women’s intellectual equality revolved around the goal of domestic virtue within marriage, rather than the goal of individual self-realization and independence for women. (“Independence” for women was associated with libertinism or prostitution and thus was suspect.) Once men and women were intellectual equals, sexuality would be governed solely by reason, not by sensuality. And reason, in their minds, dictated that the purpose of sexuality was reproduction. Nature had designed humans to take enjoyment in sex, but only for that eventual purpose.
Non-reproductive sexuality, they reasoned, resulted in a weakened body as well as weak morals. This necessarily denied the acceptability of a wide range of non-reproductive sexual practices that had previously been part of social strategies for family planning that did not require the denial of sexual desire. Those were now recategorized as inherently perverse. Within this philosophy, celibacy held a questionable place, in part motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment.
In dealing with the question of the appropriate relationship to sexuality, the 1790s feminists re-gendered the mind. Male sexuality was the deprecated libertine sensuality, female sexuality was the rational pursuit of healthy reproduction. But this was not the only way in which minds were re-gendered via the consequences of feminist philosophy. This is apparent in how differently the concepts of “masculine women” and “feminine men” were treated.
To the 1790s feminists, a “masculine” woman was not the perversely mannish sexual deviant who shows up in such fictions as Sir Charles Grandison or Belinda. She was the woman who, as Hays writes, “emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes.” [Note: Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary comment about feminism, “when they act like human beings, they’re defined as being men.”] Certain male-coded behaviors in women, such as a fondness for hunting and sport, were considered symptoms of deviant sexuality—an association that had developed gradually during the 18th century and supplanted an earlier less sexualized and more tolerant attitude toward “mannish” women.
For a woman “being feminine” should be a temporary, situational state, only engaged in for licit sexual purposes. The rest of the time, she should be masculine in the virtuous sense. “Being a woman” was a procreative function, not a stable identity.
The association of femininity with undesirable uncontrolled sexuality could then be turned around and assigned to men engaged in libertine, non-reproductive sexual promiscuity, even those who engaged in it only with women, but especially those men who engaged in sex with men. Having sex with men did not make a man effeminate, rather it was an inherent (undesirable) femininity that caused him to desire sex with men (among other things).
This alignment of how attributes are gendered male or female creates the apparently contradictory picture of “feminists” who argued for the rights of women but considered femaleness inherently bad and maleness inherently good. Women were to be liberated from gendered oppression by “becoming men,” not by removing any of the social stigma associated with being women.
Binhammer concludes by returning to the question of the consequences of a theory of feminism that does not include sexuality, and a theory of sexuality that does not critique gender. In focusing purely on liberating women from gender constraints, the 1790s feminists imposed equally oppressive constraints on sexuality. Not an entire rejection of sexuality, but one that served a highly specific bourgeois social ideology that itself remained hostile to women’s equality.
(I'm going to try to get caught up on reviews, which means the reviews may be briefer than I usually prefer to do.)
This is a coming-of-age story set in 1950s San Francisco that intersects the experiences of a second-generation Chinese-American woman, balancing the expectations of her family and culture with a geeky love of science fiction and math, in the midst of exploring her sexuality in the lesbian nightclubs of North Beach at the side of a new friend who shares all the interests that are drawing her away from the path laid out for a "good Chinese daughter." The story is a bildungsroman rather than a romance, though there is the promise of a happy ending for all the various threads. And the protagonist's discovery of her sexuality is only one of several central themes. In particular, Lo creates a vivid picture of the Chinese community in mid-century San Francisco, in all its complexity and contradictions.