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Tuesday, April 23, 2019 - 07:00

The issue of character motivation weaves deeply through chapter 3 of Floodtide. Why did Dominique reach out to Jeanne to help Roz? Why did Jeanne agree to see what she could do? (These were covered in last week's teaser blog.) Why did Jeanne approach Margerit? (“Who did she know who kept a large enough staff that there would always be a place for one more? And who could not possibly object to the reason for the girl’s fall? The answer was obvious.” Mother of Souls ch. 12) Why did Margerit agree to give her a try? (In truth, Jeanne guilted her into it.) These are all questions that fall outside the reader's knowledge in Floodtide.

Rozild doesn't know that Maisetra Sovitre had to be guilted into offering her a position. But her initial reaction considers an entirely different motivation:

* * *

The lady’s voice was soft and kind but my mind started running over all the things a thaumaturgist might need a girl like me for. They did real magic with the mystery guilds, not just charms like the old women in the market did, or like Celeste had used to fix my leg. Mostly thaumaturgists were men. Men didn’t do charm-work, at least, you didn’t want to go to the ones that did. I’d never met a thaumaturgist before. But you knew about them from stories—the sort you told at mid-winter.

I must have looked afraid because when I managed to say, “Yes, Maisetra,” she laughed a little. A pleasant laugh that made me feel a little easier.

* * *

And Maisetra Sovitre can turn on the charm when she's not distracted.

* * *

She had a nice smile—the sort that made you think she didn’t know there were bad people in the world. Certainly that she didn’t think you could be one of them.

* * *

But in every good cop/bad cop scenario, there needs to be a bad cop. What does Margerit Sovitre's housekeeper, Charsintek, think of the new prospect?

* * *

She looked stern and sour like housekeepers always did. I wondered if the work did that to them or if you had to be that way to get hired for the position. 

“So. What can you do, girl?” she asked. No questions about why I was looking. That would come later, I thought.

“I was a laundry maid,” I recited. “And helped out downstairs. I can do mending and fancy sewing. I’d like to learn dressmaking,” I added. “That’s why I came to Mefro Dominique.”

She harumphed and began quizzing me on the work, asking me how I’d deal with this stain or that kind of tear in a dress. I showed her the place on the sleeve of my chemise where I’d mended it so tiny you couldn’t even see it had been torn, except that the thread was a little darker.

I kept waiting for her to ask, Why were you let go? What did you do? Let me see your references. She never did, so I knew Mefro Dominique must have told them about all that. But then why would they consider me at all? A woman who dressed like Maisetra Sovitre could have her pick of maids. The housekeeper gave another harumph and left me standing there while she went out into the front of the shop.

* * *

For that matter, what does Charintek think of her employer's personal life in general? Charsintek was part of the Old Baron's staff. She watched Barbara grow up. Once things had sorted themselves out in Daughter of Mystery I suspect she was happy to integrate the almost motherly affection she'd always felt for Barbara with the respect she owed her new employer. As for their personal lives...

* * *

“I want you to be certain of one thing Rozild Pairmen,” she said softly, but I could tell from the way she used my whole name that there was nothing soft about what she was about to tell me. “Maisetra Sovitre has a kind heart. Nobody’s going to bother you about why you left your last place.”

I knew she didn’t mean at Mefro Dominique’s. I’d expected this warning since we first set out.

“But don’t you do anything, I mean anything to dirty the maisetra’s good name. If I hear you’ve been causing trouble in the household, you’re gone. Like that.” And she snapped her fingers in my face.

* * *

The essence of Charsintek's attitude is loyalty and protectiveness. Does she approve of same-sex relationships in general? No--or rather, the question  is irrelevant. Margerit and Barbara's relationship isn't her business to approve or disapprove; but Roz's past is a potential source of discord and scandal. The two aren't the same at all. Charsintek is loyal to the family of Tiporsel House and that's what's important.

Roz isn't in that same place of loyalty yet--she doesn't know if she'll ever get there, but her brain has already recalibrated to her sudden good fortune...

* * *

The maisetra left in her little town-carriage—I’d already started thinking of Maisetra Sovitre as “the maisetra” —and Mefro Charsintek set a good pace from the shop up along the river [toward Tiporsel House].

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Monday, April 22, 2019 - 07:00

There are always at least two layers of historic information about non-normative sexuality: the normative, prescriptive narratives of authorities, whether religious, medical, legal, or other; and the individual, concrete, descriptive accounts of everyday experience. It can be enlightening to see where and how these come into conflict. The cases where records acknowledge that actual human beings often fail to follow the paradigms the experts have set out. Or where we see the disconnect between the official model of how society was supposed to respond to sexual transgression, versus actual experiences and outcomes. Big picture histories too often lean entirely on the former and fail to represent the true variety of experience.

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Full citation: 

Puff, Helmut. 1997. “Localizing Sodomy: The ‘Priest and sodomite’ in Pre-Reformation Germany and Switzerland” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 8:2 165-195

As can be expected from the reference to priests in the title of this article, it focuses mostly on relations between men. But there is some information on women within the more general context of “sodomy” involving clerical personnel.

The article focuses on the church’s role in persecuting “sodomites” during a period roughly between the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Reformation (ca. 1517). Puff demonstrates that there were a variety of approaches taken, depending on context and contradicting the impression that the chuch was uniformly hostile. As a rule, church personnel didn’t participate actively in sodomy trials and there is little evidence for systematic purging of sodomites from clearical or monastic positions. The bulk of the article reviews a number of individual case histories that shed light on the everyday reality that contrasted with the more theoretical evidence of penitential literature, among other sources.

Although there had been increasing concern about sodomy in penitentials during the 5th through 11th centuries, the consolidation of institutional power in the church that increased in the 12th century and later made it possible to address a number of deprecated practices, including simony, priests keeping concubines, and the poor level of priestly education. Also at this period, we see the first introduction in law codes of a death penalty for sodomy, although there is little evidence that it was implemented.

What Puff identifies in this research is that the picture described by earlier historians of church officials acting in concert with lay courts to deliver sodomites for prosecution and execution turns out to be a myth. That picture may have been true for heretics, but although sodomy was sometime conflated with heresy, sodomites were excluded from this church-state partnership of persecution. And even when theoretically included, actual court records paint a different picture than these normative records.

The titular phrase of this article “priest and sodomite” was not an established “social type” but rather emerged from certain specific points of conflict that reflect specific local and political circumstances.

[There is a great deal of fascinating detail in this article, but most of it is irrelevant to the theme of this blog, so I’m going to jump and skim to hit the points relevant to women.]

One contributing factor to the image of the “priest and sodomite”, as well as to accusations against nuns of sexual deviancy of various types, was the popular trope of the morally corrupt clergy. Anti-clerical sentiment, and especially anti-monastic feelings, were regularly expressed in popular tales, satire, and reform propaganda. While corrupt clergy certainly existed, the motif had the attraction of transgression against the clergy/lay social boundary. And the real-life transgression of the boundary between clergy and secular persons seems to have generated a disproportionate number of the legal actions against sodomites. If such relationships remained entirely in one group or the other, they were less likely to cause notice.

While the majority of Puff’s examples involve relations between priests and laymen, one case of a religious recluse, Katharina Güldin in Rottweil in 1444 involves an accusation that she practiced the “vice against nature which is called sodomy” with an unnamed lay woman. The case was recorded because city officials lodged a complaint to the deacon of Rottweil. The outcome of the case is not recorded.

[That, alas, is the extent of the relevant information in this article.]

Event / person: 
Saturday, April 20, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33c - Interview with Zen Cho - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2019/04/19 - listen here)

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

NOTE: This month’s On the Shelf incorrectly announced this month’s guest as Molly Tanzer. The Molly Tanzer interview will appear at a future date.

In this episode we talk about

  • The Malaysian influences in Zen’s fiction
  • 19th century English literature and engaging with colonial legacies through fiction
  • Her favorite historic eras that may see stories in the future
  • The challenges of researching less-represented historic eras and regions
  • Being inspired by the gaps and omissions in mainstream history
  • The similar challenges of writing queer characters and writing non-Western characters

Publications mentioned:

A transcript is pending

Links to Zen Cho Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Friday, April 19, 2019 - 19:26

It's a bit of an impulse thing. Evidently Patreon is changing it's contract structure in a few weeks to something a bit less beneficial to users, but people with an account set up prior to that are locked in to the current structure. Since I'd been toying with the idea of a Patreon for a couple of years, this information made me think it might make sense to set up an account, even if I didn't seriously intend to push it.

You see, I feel a bit weird about soliciting financial support through venues like Patreon because I don't need the money. Even with the added expenses of the audio fiction series (royalties + narration fees), and commissioning podcast transcripts, I'm quite capable of funding the thing out of pocket. But on the other hand, having a Patreon gives people an opportunity to make a concrete statement that they find what I'm doing valuable and worth supporting. And since I've currently set up only a single support tier ($1 per month) with no benefits other than good will and thanks, it's not like I'm going around begging people for more than a token statement.

In theory, between the fiction series and commissioning transcripts of the interview shows, I'm out of pocket about $150 per month. (This doesn't count general overhead for the blog. I certainly wouldn't ask people to underwrite my rather extravagant book-buying habits. And the podcast hosting is currently covered by The Lesbian Talk Show which has it's own Patreon.) This is, if you will forgive me, only slightly less than my coffee shop budget.

So I'm not asking people to support the LHMP Patreon because I'm in financial need, or because the blog and podcast won't continue without the support. Trust me, they'll keep going as long as it makes me happy to do them. But if you support things on Patreon already, and you find the LHMP (especially the podcast) of value to you, and you wanted a concrete and low-effort way to give me that feedback. Then pledging a dollar a month on Patreon is one way to send me that message. The message that you find what I do valuable is far more important to me than the money.

Oh, and here's the link.

If you have any ideas for Patreon benefits for higher support tiers (that wouldn't involve significantly more time for me), feel fee to suggest.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 07:00

Because Floodtide is written solely from Roz’s point of view, there are a lot of details that she (we) don’t have access to. Like why in the world Dominique would go out on a limb to try to get Roz another position in service? And how did she arrange for Margerit Sovitre, of all people, to consider her?

Fortunately, if one has read Mother of Souls, the answer to the second question is laid out there, although purely in passing.

* * *

[from Mother of Souls]

Jeanne skimmed over the contents of her own messages with a broadening smile but she waited until Antuniet sat back and looked up before sharing them.

“This is curious, Toneke. My dressmaker begs the favor of a word with me. You remember Mefro Dominique? I wonder what that could be about? It certainly isn’t a dunning letter!”

* * *

But the question of “who” Dominique approached for help doesn’t entirely answer the question of “why”. Why did Dominique think/know that Jeanne would be a soft touch to help a girl who’d gotten in trouble for a bit of same-sex hanky-panky? And what gave Dominique the impression that appealing to her would be taken kindly as opposed to being seen as a great impertinence?

It’s one thing to have a reputation that “everyone knows, but everyone pretends not to know,” though at the time of that scene in Mother of Souls, Jeanne and Antuniet were cohabiting and had visited Dominique’s shop together on several occasions. But it’s quite another thing to have your dressmaker make it clear that she’s well aware of the truth of the rumors about your personal life.

When I was writing Mother of Souls I was thinking that perhaps it was rather forward of Dominique to approach her. But while putting together this month’s Alpennia newsletter, something else clicked into place. (By the way, if you aren’t subscribed to my monthly author newsletter, you’re missing out on some fun stuff.) Dominique was featured in this month’s “Who’s Who in Alpennia” item and it forced me to pin down some details of her chronology.

In 1798, Dominique has been in Rotenek for about 4 years and is about 16 years old. She has recently become independent of the French family who brought her to Alpennia, and is struggling to set herself up as a dressmaker, handicapped by being outside the Rotenek professional organizations. (Craft guilds lingered as an economic force in Alpennia well past their era in our timelime due to the strong connection between professional guilds and secular mystery guilds as social clubs.) In 1798 it is a year after the events of “Gifts Tell Truth,” Jeanne is coming out of her multi-year funk, she is starting out on developing her reputation as a social “influencer,” and she has come to the understanding that she prefers women over men in bed (though she enjoys both).

Jumping ahead to the era of Daughter of Mystery and later, Dominique is clearly Jeanne’s favorite dressmaker, and Jeanne throws a lot of business her way (enough that she can ask for the occasional discount for a needy friend). I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Jeanne’s patronage and connections were a big factor in helping Dominique get established at the beginning of her career. And it might not be beyond the allowable limits of speculation to guess that they might have briefly enjoyed a somewhat closer relationship...

A past history of that type might excuse certain liberties. (And would go some way to explain Dominique’s perhaps surprising broadmindedness regarding Roz’s indiscretions.)

Now you know one of the secrets of my complex character histories: half of it isn’t planned at all! This would not be the first or tenth or twentieth time that I’ve looked at my characters from a new angle and realized I’d planted the seeds for some aspect of their lives two books earlier without noticing.

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Monday, April 15, 2019 - 10:00

If I’d paid attention to the contents of this article before scheduling it, I might have saved it to cover after reading the book it’s commenting on: Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. And I’ve compounded the problem by scheduling it next to an item by Dinshaw, again talking about Getting Medieval. Given that this article is Hollywood’s personal reaction to reading Dinshaw, it’s going to be of somewhat less relevance and usefulness than covering Dinshaw’s book itself. (Which I really need to do.) This is a byproduct of my habit of pulling a group of miscellaneous articles to cover and not wanting to set them aside for a more logical time. My habit of pre-scheduling publications before reading them in detail is also how I've ended up scheduling an article for a couple weeks from now that's written in French. I can manage academic French--just barely--when it's on a topic I'm familiar with. But I've kept pushing that one farther and farther back in the queue and now it's butting up against the end of the Journal of the History of Sexuality group. Ah well, I do these things to myself.

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Full citation: 

Hollywood, Amy. 2001. “The Normal, the Queer, and the Middle Ages” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 pp.173-179

[This is from the same group of papers commenting on Dinshaw's Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern as entry #242 by Dinshaw herself.]

Hollywood expresses an appreciation for how Dinshaw articulates a queer desire “for partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time” and how that shapes how queer historians approach their topic. [This is a theme that is certainly aligned with the purpose of the Project.]

Dinshaw argues for a middle ground between searching for a complete identification with the past and treating history as unalterably “other” (citing as epitomes of these positions, John Boswell and Michel Foucault).

Instead, Hollywood is attracted by Dinshaw’s argument for an incomplete but fulfilling identification with aspects of the past, centering around the concept of queerness--which she then goes on to interrogate as a slippery and problematic concept itself. What she settles on is an acceptance of historic “queerness” as a defiance of the norm and the normative, rather than a clearly definable set of identities or sexualities.

From this, she reviews the history of how statistical norms have been applied to sociology, starting from the 19th century. Does human variety represent a failure to achieve an ideal of perfection? Or does every aspect of humanity exist within a distribution around a statistical norm? And how do we read that norm? Descriptively or prescriptively? This 19th century idea of a behavioral “norm” as the reference for correct behavior contrasts with earlier appeals to “nature” as the guide for acceptable behavior.

The disruptive figure of Margery Kempe is examined with regard to the category “queer”. She’s something of a darling of the queer studies field, but despite some passing allusions to “luring wives away” (more overtly to join her religious movement) there is little of sexual transgression in her life except in the way she rejects and challenges normative heterosexuality. Is that enough to place her in the category of “queer”?

As I say, a very brief article that mostly ruminates on Hollywood’s reactions to the book without adding significant new material. But it does remind me to move Dinshaw up in the queue.

Time period: 
Saturday, April 13, 2019 - 09:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33b - On the Shelf for April 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/04/13 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2019.

No, you aren’t imagining things, this month’s On the Shelf episode is airing the second Saturday of the month, not the first Saturday. Horrors! It’s all due to the timing of our 100th episode special last week.

A hundred episodes. Wow. That would have been hard to imagine when I first started doing this podcast. But then, when I first started collecting materials for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project--although I wasn’t calling it that yet--I figured that it would be a short-term project because, after all, there wasn’t that much to be known about queer women in history, right?

I think there’s a general lesson to be learned about the amount of what we currently know on a topic compared to the amount there is to be known. Maybe it’s on a personal level: just because you personally aren’t aware of books on a particular topic, or written by a particular group of people, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. But the lesson also operates on a societal level: just because we don’t currently have available information on a topic doesn’t mean it might not be out there to be discovered. And--somewhat more carefully--just because information about a certain topic hasn’t survived directly doesn’t mean that understanding about it can’t be teased out of the material that has.

Now, don’t interpret that as me saying that everything and anything is possible in history and the absence of evidence for it means nothing. That’s not what I mean at all! But we need to look at the reasons for absences, for erasures, for gaps--whether it’s a matter of what gets published in history books or of what and who gets published in current fiction. Don’t assume that if you can’t find a particular type of story to read that it’s because it isn’t being written. The current fiction market is a maze of individual communities and ongoing discussions. I can’t count the number of times I hear people begging, “Why isn’t anyone writing X?” and then I turn around and see, “I want to keep writing X but everybody tells me it doesn’t sell.”

Before you take any of those impressions as fact, reach out and listen broadly across the world of books. You might hear some delightful things.

Publications on the Blog

So what have we been discussing on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog lately? In March, the theme was mostly 19th century people, with articles looking at author Eliza Lynn Linton who combined militantly reactionary social politics with some surprisingly sympathetic proto-lesbian characters in her novels. She’s a good example of looking beyond the superficialities to tease out an understanding of sexuality in the past. Another article looked at the sources that Anne Lister had for exploring and expressing her understanding of her own sexuality, with a challenge to theories that see only explicit namings of identity as true representation in the past. The article on Lord Byron’s sexuality was a bit disappointing, given that it invoked the slang term “Tommies” in the title. I’m going to explore the history of that term in the Ask Sappho segment later.

The last of the March blogs and the April entries don’t follow an identifiable theme. This is the inevitable fallout of coming to the end of the set of articles pulled off JSTOR from the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Having started off with almost 30 articles to consider, it was fairly easy to find thematic groups. But now I’m left with the handful that didn’t fall into a convenient grouping: another of Sahar Amer’s explorations of lesbian-like figures in medieval Arabic literature, a discussion of how the 12th century Renaissance examined gender categories, a couple of meta-commentaries on Carolyn Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (which has pointed out to me that I really need to move that book up in my reading list), an examination of secular-clerical interactions around accusations of sodomy (both male and female) within the church, and a look at gender-crossing figures in medieval French romances.

I’ll be finishing up the last couple of articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality in May, and then it’s time to go back to tackling some of the books that have been calling my name.

Book Shopping!

Speaking of which, I have a couple new acquisitions for the blog. One is A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, edited by Noam Sienna. While the relative male and female representation in the collection is predictably unbalanced, this is a topic I’ve been searching for material on for quite a while. I’ve also received a review copy of Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890–1918. The 19th century is full of intriguing correspondence between Romantic Friends that would no doubt provide interesting reading. In this case, that interest rises to the level of academic attention and publication because Rose Cleveland was the sister of US president Grover Cleveland.

It feels a bit odd to be offered review copies of works I can use for the blog. This is the second one I’ve received--the other hasn’t been blogged yet, though I reviewed it. Mind you, I’m not receiving them personally because of the blog, but rather through The Lesbian Review website. It makes me wonder whether it would make sense to reach out to publishers about review copies in the future. On the one hand, if I find a book useful as a personal reference, I really prefer to keep a hard copy. On another hand, this sort of non-fiction publication often comes with a painfully high price tag, though I’m usually willing to pay it. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m so backlogged in material already on my shelves to cover!

Author Guest

This month’s author guest is Molly Tanzer, who writes weird fantasies that straddle the line between historical and paranormal, sometimes with a touch of romance. We’ll be talking about a couple of her books: Vermillion and Creatures of Will and Temper as well as discussing her research.


This month’s essay will return to my mini-series on historic models and categories of gender and sexuality. This time I’ll be looking at the real-life stories of some specific people who stepped outside the norms for gender or sexuality of their day, and what the reactions of those around them can tell us of what those norms were. When someone doesn’t fit neatly into a culture’s gender and sexuality categories, what features of their life are considered most important in trying to classify them? How does their culture try to restrict or change their life to better fit those categories? And how do their reactions to those attempts give us information about their own internal identity?

When considering people in the past, there can be a temptation to take one of two extreme positions: either to try to match them up with our modern categories--to “claim” them for a specific modern identity--or to throw our hands up and say, “We have no way of knowing how they would identify.” Both extremes tend to ignore the admittedly scanty evidence we have of their own testimony and lives. We may not be able to know for certain how they understood themselves, but we can make approximations. And when we try to fit them neatly into the boxes we’re familiar with, how is that better than what their own contemporaries tried to do to them?

I hope you’re enjoying these philosophical musings. I may have one more show in the series before returning to more biographical shows.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Time for new and forthcoming books!

I’ll start with some books that came out back in February that I’ve only just found out about. I wouldn’t have known about this first one except for a reader’s mention that it includes a lesbian relationship.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn from William Morrow Paperbacks starts with the World War II story of the Russian “night witches”, female bomber pilots who have been captivating the imagination of a number of historical authors lately. The book’s blurb doesn’t mention the same-sex content, so I don’t know how extensive it is or which of the characters mentioned here is involved.

Bold and fearless, Nina Markova always dreamed of flying. When the Nazis attack the Soviet Union, she risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on the invading Germans. When she is stranded behind enemy lines, Nina becomes the prey of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, and only Nina’s bravery and cunning will keep her alive. Transformed by the horrors he witnessed from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials, British war correspondent Ian Graham has become a Nazi hunter. Yet one target eludes him: a vicious predator known as the Huntress. To find her, the fierce, disciplined investigator joins forces with the only witness to escape the Huntress alive: the brazen, cocksure Nina. But a shared secret could derail their mission unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it. Growing up in post-war Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride is determined to become a photographer. When her long-widowed father unexpectedly comes homes with a new fiancée, Jordan is thrilled. But there is something disconcerting about the soft-spoken German widow. Certain that danger is lurking, Jordan begins to delve into her new stepmother’s past—only to discover that there are mysteries buried deep in her family . . . secrets that may threaten all Jordan holds dear. In this immersive, heart-wrenching story, Kate Quinn illuminates the consequences of war on individual lives, and the price we pay to seek justice and truth.

There are a few other February books that I’m only now hearing about.

Sleight of Hand by Ilse V. Rensburg aka Jason Hes published by Sera Blue sets a supernatural story in the era between the two world wars.

Destroy the magicians. Destroy all unnaturals. New York City. 1926. Demento, a young magician with a sinister past, becomes the target of a secret organisation when a string of bizarre murders leaves the nation perplexed. Gwen Cavanagh, an agent of the October House, is sent to investigate the brutal crimes. She poses as an eager magician’s assistant, wanting nothing more than to relish Demento’s demise. What both ladies discover not only shakes the very fabric of their realities.  It could bring about the end of the world, as their journeys take them through the crumbling nickel empire that is Coney Island, to the ritzy ballrooms of the American upper-crust, glamorous theatre halls, and the soulless alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen.

One of my favorite f/f fairytale retellings takes on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”. S. T. Gibson has tackled the same material in the self-published Robber Girl. The specific historic era of the setting isn’t clear from the cover copy.

In a Sweden wracked by war and haunted by folk stories so dark they can only be spoken of in whispers, Helvig has been raised by her brigand father to steal whatever treasure catches her eye. When her men ambush a strange girl on the road with hair pale as death and a crow perched on her shoulder, Helvig cannot resist bringing home a truly unique prize: a genuine witch. Drawn irresistibly into the other woman's web, Helvig soon learns of Gerda's reason for walking the icy border roads alone: to find the Queen who lives at the top of the world and kill her. Anyone else would be smart enough not to believe a children's story, but Helvig is plagued by enchantments of her own, and struggles to guard the sins of her past while growing closer to the other woman. As Christmastide gives way to the thin-veiled days when ghosts are at their most vengeful, the two women will find themselves on a journey through forest and Samiland to a final confrontation that will either redeem them or destroy them entirely.

My usual Amazon keyword search for lesbian historicals turned up A Vengeance of Spies: A WW2 Novella by Manda Scott, which is self-published. Although the cover copy doesn’t confirm the search-term results, I’ve read a number of Manda Scott’s previous mysteries and they often have queer female characters so I’m willing to trust on this one.

My dear Elsa— You are grieving and I am sorry, but there are things you need to know…  Because this is not only a confession. It is an accusation.  So, in case you get no further, here is the bald fact.  I killed your grandfather. War hides many secrets and some of them are better kept. But the secret of Hut Ten was never that kind: it could have been leaked and a life would have been saved.  One man could have made that difference. He didn’t - and vengeance has taken forty years to catch up with him. Set in the same world as, A Treachery of Spies.

The month of March gives us books from a variety of time periods.

A delightfully surprising entry into the field comes from Courtney Milan in the self-published Victorian novella Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure. This is part of an ongoing family saga series but can be read independently.

Mrs. Bertrice Martin—a widow, some seventy-three years young—has kept her youthful-ish appearance with the most powerful of home remedies: daily doses of spite, regular baths in man-tears, and refusing to give so much as a single damn about her Terrible Nephew. Then proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, a sprightly young thing of nine and sixty, crashes into her life. The Terrible Nephew is living in her rooming house, and Violetta wants him gone. Mrs. Martin isn’t about to start giving damns, not even for someone as intriguing as Miss Violetta. But she hatches another plan—to make her nephew sorry, to make Miss Violetta smile, and to have the finest adventure of all time. If she makes Terrible Men angry and wins the hand of a lovely lady in the process? Those are just added bonuses.

Diana Robbins has put out Liliana, a self-published novel set in late 19th century Hawaii. I can’t tell from the cover copy how the book handles the rather serious issues of colonialism at that period, given that we’re offered an upper class white Bostonian as our viewpoint character.

Liliana, a historical novel set in the year 1891, is the journey of Lillian Baldwin, a woman whose humble behavior is astounding for a lady so breathlessly beautiful. Her passion for the Hawaiian Islands catapults her into a brave decision; to leave Boston for the paradise she has only experienced through literary tales. It is there she meets an educated, handsome Hawaiian woman. The secrecy in which they must live is ultimately compromised with unimaginable consequences.

Usually these book listings stick to English language works, but the following title popped up in my search and doesn’t appear to have an English translation. I thought it looked interesting enough to include. Forgive my dreadful accent in German.

The book is Die Frau des Zuckerhändlers by Nathalie C. Kutscher from Telegonos-Publishing. The following is the German cover copy:

Bailee Winters’ Leben ist die Hölle. Gekettet an die Ehe mit einem grausamen Mann lebt sie in einem goldenen Käfig. Doch dann rettet die Bordellbesitzerin Jade ihr Leben. Zwischen den ungleichen Frauen entsteht mehr als nur Freundschaft. Es ist eine Verbundenheit, die tiefer geht als alles, was sie kannten. Schon bald überschlagen sich die Ereignisse und ein folgenschwerer Fehler zwingt Bailee auf eine gefahrvolle Reise nach Amerika.


A rough English translation might be:

Bailee Winters' life is hell. Chained in marriage to a horrible man, she lives in a golden cage. Then brothel owner Jade saves her life. Between the very different women, there arises something more than friendship. It is a bond that goes deeper than anything they knew. Soon, events overtake them and a momentous mistake forces Bailee on a dangerous journey to America.

No Man's Chattel self-published by Lee Swanson steps outside the more popular times and settings for lesbian historicals.

The thought of trading her subservient role in her father’s home for that of being the dutiful wife of someone she had never met caused her to shudder with revulsion. No, she thought to herself, what I crave is the opportunity to adventure across the sea, to behold strange and wondrous sights far beyond the city walls of Lubeck. To do that even once would almost be worth submitting herself to a loveless marriage based solely on familial advantage. But not quite, she admitted to herself. For if there was one thing of which Christina Kohl was certain, it was that she wanted her independence even more than adventure. Yet, these can only be childish dreams for a daughter of a wealthy merchant in 14th century Lubeck, Germany. Even at sixteen-years-old, Christina grudgingly accepts her existence is to be shaped and limited by the men who do and will control her life. When unexpected tragedies befall her family, however, she is presented with an unlikely opportunity to at last become her own person. The freedom of her new life is fraught with peril as she attempts to succeed in a role for which she is ill-prepared, all the while keeping secrets that, if exposed, will certainly bring shame, financial ruin, and perhaps even death. “No Man’s Chattel” is an exhilarating coming-of-age novel set in the medieval commercial centers of Lubeck and London, England. It is not so much a story of the societal norms of the era as of one young woman’s struggle to defy them.

The next book looks like something of a romp and has a rather awkwardly complicated title: *S h e r l o c k i a n * Desdemona Valentina - A Femme Fatale Mystery - 1 (Desdemona Valentina Mysteries) self-published by S.L. Freake. (If you’re reading along in the transcript, yes, the very odd letter spacing and punctuation is part of the title.)

Join sapphic, Private Detective/Civilian Consultant to Scotland Yard; Desdemona Valentina with her colleague and moon eyed friend on their adventures while sleuthing and ‘detecting’ hardened yet upper-crust, jewel thieving, sexy criminal Eden Benedict. Can Graham, Valentina’s colleague keep her out of the cat house long enough to solve a case? This girl’s got an appetite for solving crime and almost anything in a skirt! Get in on the blackmailing between a closet lesbian Princess, marrying for money and freedom and the cross dressing that some are driven to, to get ahead in a man’s world of 1888 London, England.

I have to confess I have something of a weakness for the late 17th century, so I’d be tempted to check out this next book if I could find a way to buy an epub version: Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing self-published by Saga Hillborn.

France, 1696. Adélaïde of Savoy is only ten years old when she arrives at the glittering court of Louis XIV to be married off to the King’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. Eager to please and charmingly youthful, she soon enchants both the aging monarch and the nobles--but it turns out her grand marriage is not everything she hoped for. As she grows older, Adélaïde discovers that rivalries and twisted conflicts lurk beneath the glamours surface of Versailles. Europe is rumbling, the most powerful nations are on the verge of bloody war. The people of France are divided; the commoners live in squalor, while the elite surround themselves with decadence. Colette, the daughter of a paint craftsman, has escaped her abusive home to become a servant at Versailles. When she encounters Adélaïde, both girls think they might have found love at last--but what could be the consequences of such a forbidden relationship?

Moving on to April books, we have a cross-time story Love’s Portrait by Anna Larner from Bold Strokes Books.

Newly appointed art curator Molly Goode is committed to diversifying her museum’s collection. When Georgina Wright, the museum’s aloof benefactor, asks for Molly’s help in identifying the provenance of a 19th century portrait of social activist Josephine Brancaster, Molly welcomes the opportunity, even if it means spending time with the standoffish financier. But passions soon flare as the women uncover the heartbreaking story of doomed lesbian love behind the watercolor painted by Josephine’s lover, Edith Hewitt. As their love blossoms, Molly is determined to display Edith’s portrait of Josephine and to tell their story in the museum, but she needs the influential Georgina to help convince the board. When an unforeseen twist in the painting’s provenance forces Georgina to confront her own painful past, will history repeat itself, or can Molly and Georgina’s love prevail?

The burgeoning field of lesbian pirate novels gets an addition from Bonnie Wormsley in The Cursed Heart from Regal Crest. The precise date and setting of the story is unclear from the cover copy.

Katherine Tanner is the captain of the pirate ship The Widow, which prowls the seas by night preying upon innocent ships. With her faithful tiger companion Saida by her side, Katie boards a ship one night with her crew to find something unexpected – a young blonde woman held captive in a filthy cell. She frees the young woman and brings her aboard The Widow. Katie soon realizes she has a strange attraction to the young woman, whose name is Hannah. When the ship makes port the next day, Katie thinks Hannah will leave. She is secretly relieved when Hannah decides to join her crew and allows the young woman to stay with her in her quarters. As the mutual attraction between them continues to grow, will Katie and Hannah be able to overcome their pasts and learn to trust and love one another?

There’s a tie-in novel for the upcoming BBC miniseries about Anne Lister titled Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, published by Penguin Books. This book and the series appear to be unrelated to the 2018 book of the same title by Angela Steidele, translated by Katy Derbyshire. When I talk in my blog about there being something of an Anne Lister industry going on these days, these multiple publications are the sort of evidence I’m working from.

Anne Lister was extraordinary. Fearless, charismatic and determined to explore her lesbian sexuality, she forged her own path in a society that had no language to define her. She was a landowner, an industrialist and a prolific diarist, whose output has secured her legacy as one of the most fascinating figures of the 19th century. Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister follows Anne from her crumbling ancestral home in Yorkshire to the glittering courts of Denmark as she resolves to put past heartbreak behind her and find herself a wife. This book introduces the real Gentleman Jack, featuring unpublished journal extracts decrypted for the first time by series creator Sally Wainwright and writer Anne Choma.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I can get ahold of the mini-series to review without having to subscribe to the BBC cable channel. I may have to make friends with someone who watches tv more than I do.

This next book sounds intriguingly different in setting. God's Children by Mabli Roberts is published by Honno Press.

'Kate Marsden: nurse, intrepid adventurer, saviour of the lepers or devious manipulator, immoral and dishonest?' As she lies on her deathbed visited by the ghosts of her past, who should we believe, Kate or those who accuse her of duplicity? Memory is a fickle thing: recollections may be frozen in time or distorted by the mirror of wishful thinking. Kate’s own story is one of incredible achievements, illicit love affairs and desperate longing; those of her accusers paint a very different portrait – of a woman determined on fame and fortune. The reader navigates a narrative as fractured as the Siberian ice Kate crosses in search of a cure for leprosy, and as beautiful as Rose, her lost love, as the full picture emerges of a life lived when women were not expected to break the mould.

Well, that’s it for this month’s book listings. If you have an upcoming release or know of one that you think I may not stumble over on my own, drop the blog a note and let me know.

What Am I Reading?

I’m always trying to think of new little regular features I can include in the On the Shelf show and it occurred to me that I could let listeners know what queer historical stories I’ve read recently. Of course, this means I’ll expose myself if I go through a reading slump! I try to review everything I read, but if you’re interested in those thoughts, check out my blog. I won’t be doing detailed reviews here, just mentioning titles.

So what have I been reading in the last month or so? First off was an anthology, Rainbow Bouquet edited by Farah Mendlesohn, from Manifold Press. This collection of queer stories includes both male and female protagonists, and about half the stories have historic settings. It’s a recent release and is probably a good introduction to some of the authors that Manifold Press publishes.

I also zipped through the brand new novella, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure, by the well-known historical romance author Courtney Milan, which was mentioned in the new books segment. Although Milan has included some lesbian--or lesbian-coded--background characters in previous books, I think this is her first foray into centering a story on a female couple.

At the moment, I’m I just finished reading Miranda in Milan, a historical fantasy novella by last month’s author guest Katharine Duckett. And I have recently started reading The True Queen, by Zen Cho, who will be appearing in a future podcast interview.

What historical stories have you been enjoying lately?

Ask Sappho

This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eden on facebook, who asks, “What’s the history of the slang term ‘tommy’ for a lesbian? And how is it connected to ‘tomboy’?”

This is an excellent question. If you’re familiar with the modern use of “tomboy” to mean a girl who behaves in ways stereotypically associated with boys, especially in enjoying active, outdoor pursuits, then it might seem natural to associate “tomboy” with the image of a young butch lesbian. But the connection, if there is one, is somewhat more muddled.

In fact, in the written record, “tomboy” has a much older lineage than “tommy” in the sexual sense. Using the Oxford English Dictionary as my source, in the mid 16th century we find “tomboy” used to mean “a rude or boisterous boy” as in the quote “Is all your delight and joy in whiskying and ramping abroad like a tom boy?” But not long after the earliest known application to men, we find is used for women, meaning “a boisterous woman” as in the following example from 1579, “Saint Paul meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboys, to be short, they must not be unchaste.” And more specifically, it means a woman who behaves like a romping, boisterous boy. So: a girl who behaves in masculine ways, especially in a wild, uncontrolled manner. This sense appears continuously up to the present. I know that I was called a tomboy as a child for enjoying things like climbing trees and for preferring pants to skirts.

There seems to be a connection here with the use of “Tom” for a generic male person or animal, much the same way that another common male name “John” gets used for the generic man. But a “tomboy” isn’t simply a generic boy, but one who has characteristics associated with an uncontrolled masculinity. And the transfer of the term to women again emphasized behavior that was considered both masculine and uncontrolled.

Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary has about 8 different senses for the word “tommy” but none of them are the definition of “female homosexual”. One could imagine several possible explanations for this. Perhaps they considered it a slang word rather than one in ordinary use. Or perhaps the compilers of the dictionary were uncomfortable with the sexual implications. In fact, there is documented evidence that the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary deliberately excluded language about female homosexuality. I even have a link about this in the show notes. The first edition of the dictionary didn’t even include the word “lesbian” at all, and it was deliberately excluded.

Fortunately, we can turn to other sources than the dictionary to find clear examples of “tommy” indicating sexuality. The earliest known clearly sexual example is from an English poem published in 1773 that reads in part:

“Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:”

In that same decade, a satirical poem addressed to sculptor Anne Damer, made extensive reference to Sappho and her homosexual proclivities, calling her “the first Tommy the world has upon record” in a context that makes it clear the term is equivalent to “lesbian”.

I can’t find clear evidence for how long the term was in common use. Sarah Waters uses “tom” in the same sense in her Victorian novels. But it would take a more extensive search through obscure literature to create a full map of the word’s usage.

In any event, the connection between “tommy” meaning lesbian and “tomboy” is unclear, except that they likely both derive from using the common male personal name Thomas to stand for generic masculinity, and thus to label gender-transgressive women.

* * *


Recent and Forthcoming Books

Major category: 
Tuesday, April 9, 2019 - 07:29

For a reader, the backstory and characteristics of a character should appear to be “just how things are”. But from the writer’s side, it’s a careful process of designing that character’s history, abilities, and skills so that they have exactly what they need to fit into the role they’re required to play.

I had to fine-tune parts of Roz’s backstory carefully to give her enough experience with dressmaking to have developed an ambition to learn more, and enough sewing skills to make up for starting an apprenticeship at such an advanced age (all of sixteen!).

The sewing skills were the easy part. It seemed quite natural that someone who had been trained (and had experience) as a laundry maid would have basic mending skills. And further, given her early training from her aunt in small-town environment, it was natural to expect that she’d have experience and training in the whole gamut of types of mending and basic sewing she might need. In a fully-staffed house in the city, more of the fine mending might be covered by personal maids and valets, but it would be plausible that Roz had had a chance to pick up a broader experience. For one thing Aunt Gaita wasn’t necessarily training Roz for the specific position she started in, just for an entry-level household position of some sort.

In the first draft of Floodtide, the prior interactions between Roz and Dominique were simply to give her a foot in the door. A basis for why--having found herself by chance on Dominique’s doorstep--she took the plunge and asked for work.

* * *

I’d been sent to the dressmaker’s shop when the maisetra’s gown needed making over, and then again when the young maisetras wanted ball gowns in a hurry and the dressmaker needed extra hands for the sewing.

* * *

But in that first draft, it didn’t occur to Roz to aspire to the dressmaking trade herself until she was in the middle of begging to be taken in off the street. It was after she landed her half-time apprenticeship that she fell in love with the work.

Among the feedback from the beta readers was a suggestion that it needed to be clearer that Roz had specific and deep-rooted aspirations in that field. An indication that landing a dressmaking career would provide her the same fulfillment that Celeste got from working on magic charms.

So now, when Roz has been wandering the freezing streets all night, and finds herself at dawn--by pure chance--standing in front of Dominique’s house-cum-shop, it becomes a cruel irony to remember that taste of creating beauty.

* * *

Oh the colors! And the feel of the fine fabrics in my hands! Watching cloth turn into something beautiful, even though I was only doing the plain sewing. All the lace and ribbon and buttons, better than sweets and bonbons. That week had been like being in heaven and I dreamed that maybe some day I could climb up from washing and mending to that kind of fine sewing. It came back to me now. Now that the dream was farther away than it had ever been.

* * *

And so, instead of the idea of becoming a dressmaker being presented as a spur-of-the-moment thought as she’s begging for work, it becomes a cherished secret, offered up in a moment of vulnerability.

* * *

There wasn’t any point in dancing around with her. I was tired of telling half-truths so I said it plain. “I’ve been let go. I’ve been starving and freezing and I don’t know what to do. I can work. I can sew, plain or fancy, whatever you need. Or I could scrub floors, if that’s what you need. I can cook a little.” It struck me that I hadn’t seen any sign of a housekeeper or maid of all work when I’d been here before. It was a tiny place that wouldn’t need much keeping, but you’d think they’d have someone to come in. “I want to learn to be a dressmaker.”

I heard Celeste make a rude noise but Mefro Dominique shushed her.

“You wish to learn to be a dressmaker,” Dominique said, looking me up and down again. ... “The thing is impossible.”

* * *

But this is a story of impossible things coming true.

Major category: 
Monday, April 8, 2019 - 07:00

The main focus of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is, of course, research on specific topics that fall within the historic scope of the Project. But the question of what gets studied, by whom, and in what context is affected by the trends, fashions, and politics of the modern academic community. Who is doing that primary research? Who are they in conversation with (or arguing against)? What topics will be accepted as appropriate to the scope of their academic careers and which ones can they only tackle if they have job security? What are the frameworks within which topics of queer history can be discussed? How does the existing academic language shape both what is studied and how it is interpreted?

These are all questions that play out in meta-discussions that sometimes are interesting enough on their own to make it into this blog. (Or, more often, appear in collections that also include primary topics, such as the wonderful The Lesbian Premodern collection that I had so much fun with.) Discussions like this one remind me that there are some foundational texts that I haven't covered yet, in part because they're so foundational that you can glean the gist of their relevant content simply from the way other authors react to it. But there are a couple other reasons why I've put off tackling some key works like Foucault, Boswell, Cadden, and Dinshaw. In some cases, it's because they were created before the major surge in queer historical writing and focus on issues that feel like they're taken for granted now. In some cases it's because they focus so heavily on male topics (or heterosexual topics, or both) that I know I'll spend a lot of reading time for very little relevant content. (And will spend a lot of time commenting on how the arguments and conclusions of the work unwarrantedly assume the centrality of male/hetersexual issues.) But maybe I should identify a couple months to focus on these foundational, theory-heavy texts and just get them out of the way.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2001. “Got Medieval?” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 pp.202-212

This, and next week’s article, appear to come out of a conference session inspired by Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Which I have not yet covered. In general, this article is meta-commentary on the topics of the book, rather than discussing new data or interpretations.

Dinshaw discusses the context in which she wrote the book, including as a response to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in conversation with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. A central theme is the search for an “affective connection” with history, not necessarily a mimetic identification.

In this paper, Dinshaw addresses three questions about queer history and community raised in the papers of the session. [The paper appears to be something of a cumulative response presented at the end of the session--a not uncommon format for such conferences.] 1. How do you write about the daily lives of women in history without erasing their particularity in the construction of a unified Other? 2. If queer historians are identifying and constructing a queer community across time, who gets to be in that community and who decides? 3. Where can this historic queer community be identified and “how can its power be unleashed?”

In addressing these questions of queer identity and community throughout the past, Dinshaw notes conflicting positions, interpretations, and evidence. Foucult tended to view queer men in the past as isolated and connected only by their exclusion. Boswell, in contrast, believed he had found positive, self-aware communities. But so much of this prominent theorizing was founded exclusively on male lives and male experience. What about the lives of medieval nuns that illustrate loving erotically-tinged relationships that were integrated with their religious communities? And what counts as “queer” once the concept expands from same-sex relationships? Who--or what--is queer in the context of queer history? (This ties in with Hollywood’s 2001 discussion of normative versus “natural” in the definition of queerness.)

The last part of Dinshaw’s essay is something of a call to action in how to use the concept of queer history and queer community across history as a force for developing a self-image that goes beyond the history of oppression and persecution.

As I say, meta-commentary, but interesting to see the discussion among those who are producing the literature I review here.

Time period: 
Saturday, April 6, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33a - The 100th Episode - Where My Heart Goes - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/04/06 - listen here)

I ran through a lot of ideas about what to air for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 100th episode. The fact that it’s episode number 100 isn’t obvious from how I label the shows. For the first year, I did one show per month, and when I switched to a weekly format, it was convenient to keep the numbering by month and use the letters to distinguish the individual shows, so I could keep track of the different episode types more easily. So you may have to trust me on the math.

As I say, I ran through a lot of ideas about content. In the end, I circled back to the reason why I started doing the Project in the first place: as research and inspiration for my own historical fiction with lesbian characters. It isn’t quite the case that all my published fiction falls in that category--in fact, I’ve published only two stories that are set solidly in history with no fantastic elements of any type, though a lot more that include fantasy elements. But the research I do for the blog and podcast always harks back to my long list of historic story ideas, and the more research I do, the more inspiration I get.

So today, to celebrate having kept this show up through 100 episodes, I’d like to share one of those stories with you.

“Where My Heart Goes” was originally published in the collection Through the Hourglass edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson. It was inspired by the real historical figures of Margaret Duchess of Parma, the bastard daughter of Emperor Charles V, who married into two of the most prominent families of 16th century Italy, and later in life served as Governor of the Netherlands, and by Laudomia Forteguerri of Siena, an intellectual and poet, who wrote a series of sonnets dedicated to Margaret, and disappeared from history after participating in the unsuccessful defense of Siena against the Holy Roman Empire and its allies. Their contemporaries praised the love and devotion the two women had for each other, and held it up as a model of female friendship. Later writers suggested that their friendship had not been limited to platonic ideals. The truth is hidden in silences and lost correspondence. My version of the story is one that can be fit into those silences and absences. If you want to know more about the historic facts, check out the podcast I did on the topic.

But for now, this is a possible truth, a possible history, a story that could have happened in those spaces and silences.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

* * *


by Heather Rose Jones

Copyright © 2015


Siena had fallen. The news spread quickly along the roads to Florence, to Milan, to Venice. It came to me in Parma on a pale spring morning with the clatter of a messenger’s hoofbeats in the courtyard. After I paid and dismissed him, I hurried across the piazza to the cathedral to pray, clutching the pendant with Laudomia’s portrait between my hands as if it were a holy relic. Mother of God, let her be safe; let her be alive. It had been nine years since we had spoken or written. Nine long years of my own making—I could admit that now. It was like the stain of sin on my soul that she might have died without forgiving me. Now all that was left to me was to wait and pray, but the only words that came to my lips were from that last poem she wrote for me: May it not please God that I should ever live without my treasure! Ah cruel fortune, will you not arrange for my body to go where my heart goes? And I remembered when we first met, twenty-two years before.

* * *

I never believed Laudomia Forteguerri when she called me goddess and praised my beauty. I knew what I was. I always remembered how they spoke of me as a girl in the Low Countries when I was still “the little bastard”, before my father the emperor recognized me and betrothed me to a Medici and I became Madama. After that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been hunchbacked or squint-eyed—though I wasn’t. I was only very plain, with a bit too much of my father’s lip and chin for beauty.

I never believed her when she said I was beautiful, but I believed her when she said she loved me, though I never knew why. It was easy to know why I loved Laudomia—everyone loved Laudomia. I loved her from that first day I saw her on the hot dusty road winding out of Siena as we passed Villa Olivia.

We should never have met. Rebellious Siena had not hung banners in my honor as so many towns had done on the road winding down from Verona through Mantua and on to Florence. I was tired—not tired of the gifts and fine gowns and being made much of. I was tired of sitting stiffly for hours before a crowd of strangers who spoke a tongue I couldn’t understand. I was tired of the constant presence of my betrothed: a man whose mercurial temper frightened me, though he always spoke me fair. Florence—that queen of cities that I would next enter as a bride—had welcomed me with cheers and song and endless banquets…and sidelong looks of pity, and whispers and glances toward my future husband that were filled equally of hate and fear. But he had stayed behind in Florence and now I was only tired. I saw no other fate before me. I was eleven years old.

* * *

We were still five days from Rome. Siena had fallen out of sight behind us among the winding hills when a splintering crack was followed by men’s shouts and women’s screams. The first wagon of our cavalcade had lost a wheel and driven a second off the road into a ditch. Madame de Lannoy drew aside the curtains of my traveling chair and said, “You needn’t fear, there’s nothing lost. But it will be some hours to repair the wheel and they need to unload the wagons to set them right. Would Madama like to take the air?”

I liked Madame de Lannoy, who had been set to teach me what I would need to know as Duchess of Florence—and even more as the emperor’s daughter. But a question from her was to be thought of as a command, and so I stepped down from my chair and looked to see where we had stopped. Just above the road stood a red-roofed villa, like many I’d seen dotting the hills all through Tuscany. Low walls spilled down towards the road showing glimpses of tall junipers and close-clipped laurel trees. In the stillness of the noonday heat, once the uproar of the accident had faded, I could hear the sound of music and laughter from the gardens beyond. And when the men in charge of the wagons returned from the villa in company with a wheelwright and smith to survey the damage, they were followed by a small crowd of bright-gowned ladies, peeking curiously through the side gate from the gardens.

I still remember how Laudomia looked to me then: tall and elegant, her dark hair braided up with pearls and her eyes bright with laughter. Only seven years older than me, but so assured! She spoke quickly with Madame de Lannoy in Italian—which I still stumbled to understand—then turned to me and opened her arms with a smile as bright and inviting as a statue of the Madonna. Madame de Lannoy said, “The Signora Forteguerri has invited you to take your ease while the wagon is repaired.”

Some said it was only one more move on the chessboard—that knowing who I was, Laudomia had calculated what my friendship might some day be worth. That was a lie. Every moment of that brief visit is burned in memory. They sat me on a chair beside the fountain, with my ladies and Madame de Lannoy standing by to make certain of the proprieties. Three girls were singing to the strains of a lute while another pair danced. Laudomia made me a garland of roses with her own hands and then a garland of poetry with her own mouth. And when two men began a jesting debate on the movements of the spheres, Laudomia bade them speak only Latin so that I might understand.

I had stepped outside the world into a garden of delights as only a painter could imagine, where no time passed and no cares could reach us. But all comes to an end, and at last my chamberlain came to tell us that the wagons were ready. I needed no prompting from Madame de Lannoy to give my thanks for their hospitality and welcome. And before Madame could think to protest, Laudomia had bent to kiss my cheek and said, “Write to me and I will send you the little verse I made for you.” From that moment my heart found a second home in Siena, wherever my body might lie.

She was beautiful—of course she was beautiful. But it was her soul I loved: that bright soul that burned like the Tuscan sun. And because of that, I believed her when she said she loved me too.

The Sienese villa faded like a dream when we arrived in Rome. But the pomp and splendor was left behind when we arrived at Naples. I became a girl again, with tutors and lessons and endless study. When I was set to learn to write in the Italian tongue, I asked Madame, “Would it not be proper for me to write to Signora Forteguerri to thank her for her kindness to me?” And Madame consented.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 18 August 1533—My most esteemed Signora Forteguerri, I hope you will not laugh at the mistakes in my writing. The time I spent in your garden made me very happy. I beg you please to send the poem you made for me as you promised. Your friend, Margaret of Austria.

* * *

I did not see Laudomia again for five long years. Can one fall in love only through the written page? She sent me that first poem, followed by others. I read them to myself in moments when I was alone. I knew the words by heart before my Italian had mastered their meanings. I never wrote to Laudomia about important things. My letters would be read by many eyes before they reached her. I didn’t tell her of my hopes when His Holiness died and it seemed the Medici marriage might be forgotten.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 2 December 1534—To the noble and wise Signora Forteguerri, It gave me great joy to hear of the birth of your daughter. I have sent with this letter a set of coral beads for her and hope that you will accept them. I have been reading the book you sent me of the Marchesa di Pescara’s poetry but I think that yours is better.

I said nothing when my father the emperor came to Naples or of the whispers that he would now marry me to the new pope’s grandson. I pretended not to hear the rumors that my betrothed Alessandro had murdered his cousin.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 15 June 1535—My most honored friend Signora Forteguerri, I thank you for the new verses you sent. It pains me to think that there is nothing I can write in return that would give proper recompense. As my own talents are so small, I send instead this small volume of Erasmus who, like me, comes to you from far to the north.

* * *

There was no need to tell her when I was wed to Alessandro de’ Medici, so I only described the beautiful red velvet zimarra I wore when I entered the gates of Florence at midnight with rows of blazing torches lining the roads, and how kind all the people were, and what they served at my wedding banquet. I didn’t tell her how one by one those around me were replaced by Alessandro’s creatures.

Palazzo Ottaviano, Florence, 28 October, 1535—My beloved friend Signora Forteguerri, I write to ask your advice on what may seem to you a small matter. Monsignore Giuliani has asked to dedicate a volume of poems to me. They tell me I should permit it to be polite, but I do not think he is a very good poet. It may be that you have spoiled me for any other verses than yours. What would you advise? I wish that I could ask Madame de Lannoy but she has returned to Naples. I long to have my friends about me and wish that I could see your face once more.

* * *

There were no letters to Laudomia in the confusion after Alessandro was murdered. She would not have expected that. I didn’t tell her how Cosimo de’ Medici kept me safe until my father the emperor removed my household to Prato and I could breathe again.

Palazzo Datini, Prato, 4 August, 1537—My dearest friend Signora Forteguerri, I have given thanks to God that you are again safely delivered of a daughter. We are settled comfortably here though we have not the elegant refinements of Florence. If you know of a musician who could lighten my days, I beg you will send him here. I long to see you again. We ride out hunting in the hills above the town and I sometimes wish to turn my horse’s head south and not to stop until I come to Siena. If only I could join you in your garden I think my heart could be at rest.

It was not Alessandro’s death that weighed on my heart but the question of my next marriage. An ordinary widow might use the black veil to turn away men’s eyes and thoughts but I could never be ordinary. There was a new Farnese pope, and popes have ambitious families. Once again, I was to be the bridge to Rome and this time the choice fell on Ottavio Farnese, the Holy Father’s grandson.

Palazzo Datini, Prato, 10 October, 1538—My beloved friend Signore Forteguerri, I am summoned to Rome at last. My noble cousin Cosimo de’ Medici will come to fetch me and I have begged him, as a sign of the affection he holds for me, that we might break our journey in Siena. Letters cannot take the place of your beloved face which I hold in memory as if it had been yesterday. Please write to tell me that I may come. There is so much I cannot write in these pages that I long to say to you.

* * *

She had not changed in my eyes—I think she could never change. And if I had still been a girl of eleven in her mind, I saw that fall away as she greeted me on the steps of the villa and quickly discarded the stiffness of Madama for the warmth of mia amica. Angelic beauty would not delight me more, she had written me, and she made me believe it. Villa Olivia was given into my hands for my stay, and I in turn sat Laudomia at my right hand and her husband at my left.

After that first day, we left formality behind. The olive-dotted hillside called to my restless spirit and we climbed up above the formal garden into the orchards. My ladies trailed behind and we settled on a marble bench with the entire countryside spread before us.

“You’re too young for widow’s black,” Laudomia laughed and twitched my skirts aside to sit as closely as clothing would allow. “Sixteen is far too soon to leave gaiety behind. Do you mourn Alessandro so deeply?”

“I rejoiced when I heard he was dead,” I said. Here there was no one to overhear. No need for anything but truth. “Alessandro was a monster and Ottavio is a brutish boy. If a black veil would keep all suitors at bay, I could pretend to a broken heart. But I am an emperor’s daughter, no one cares for my heart.”

“I care.” Laudomia took up my hand and pressed it to her lips. “You are the sun that graces these poor hills.”

I didn’t believe her, but I believed the longing that stirred within me. Words didn’t matter. I only knew that she had no reason to say them except for love. My answer stumbled in confusion, uncertain what I desired. And then my ladies finally came in sight on the path, panting from the slope and looking affronted that I had outpaced them. The moment passed.

“How old were you when you were married,” I asked Laudomia.

“Scarce seventeen.”

“And are you happy?” I knew it wasn’t a question one should ask. I had never looked to marriage for happiness.

“Marriage suits me,” Laudomia said, but that was no true answer. “I love my children and my husband is kind.” There was an empty space within her reply and she searched my face for something to fill it. I didn’t know what I might give and so I stood and we retraced the path back to the villa.

Laudomia’s friends came to Villa Olivia the next day. Like bees they descended on the garden: poets and philosophers, musicians and artists, learned men and beautiful ladies. Though the year was beginning to turn, we filled the space around the fountain with couches and cushions, and tables spilling over with fruit, and braziers to keep the hint of chill away. There was wine and witty conversation, games of chess and dancing. Laudomia sat at my side again and held her cup for me to drink and slipped sweet grapes and comfitted cherries between my lips until we giggled like girls. This was what I’d tried to build at Prato. Perhaps I would succeed in Rome.

“They’ve come in your honor,” Laudomia whispered behind her hand. I knew better: they came to bask in Laudomia’s sun. And like the sun, she bade them bloom and they obeyed.

“A poem!” one man entreated her. “We must have a poem from our Muse!”

“And which muse shall you have?” Laudomia answered playfully. “Shall I be Clio and recite histories for you?”

“It is for you to choose,” he replied with a bow.

“Then I shall be the tenth Muse for you—my own translation.” She turned to me and I felt her hand shake as she passed me the winecup. “I think he is a great man—like to God—who sits beside you.” She held my gaze and I felt her words like fingers on my skin. “Meeting you, I cannot speak, or see, or hear—I tremble and turn pale.”

And I, too, trembled.

Later, when the twilight turned to true night and the gardens turned chill, when the dishes had been cleared from the tables and the braziers were being put out one by one, Laudomia took my hand and said, “I have one more poem to offer you tonight, if I may?”

She led me to my chamber and our ladies unlaced our gowns and laid them aside and saw that the sheets were warmed and scented before retiring. Then she whispered verses closely in my ear—I know well that you left heaven only to show me divine things—and made poetry of her hands and lips playing across my skin, with even the finest linen of our camisias too great a barrier to allow.

The wind was chill the next day and we made our garden in the hall with dancing and playful debates. At night she came to me again and taught my tongue new words. All thoughts of Rome and Popes and marriages left me for days at a time. But time was a serpent in our garden. Too soon I was driven out of paradise.

“Write to me,” I begged as they repacked the wagons and the men of my escort crowded the courtyard on restless steeds. “Write to me in Rome and remind me that you love me.”

“I will tell the whole world I love you,” Laudomia whispered. “And when you are acclaimed the queen of Rome, do not forget your poor friend who longs for you.”

* * *

Villa Madama, Rome, 6 June 1539—Carissima Laudomia, It is a fine thing, I find, to be the first lady of Rome. Ottavio troubles me not at all and I trouble him even less. The Farneses are not well loved here and the people of Rome find it no fault in me to hold them at a distance. My father the emperor has named me Duchess of Camerino and Penne and given the governorship of Abruzzo into my hands. I am finally able to begin to order my life as I see fit. Your friend the painter Franzetti presented himself to me and I have set him to work on the frescos we discussed. In a year the gardens here will be worthy of the guests I hope will fill them. In everything I do, my dearest wish is to honor what you have seen in me.

Laudomia was true to her word. She wrote poems for me openly now, her passion couched in the ordinary praise of princes. Flow, ancient Tiber, and reflect the image of a brighter truer sun!

Villa Madama, Rome, 10 January, 1540—To my beloved Laudomia, I send the portrait you requested by this messenger. I would not have delayed so long except for the need to find a worthy artist. Would that I could send myself! In summer when I travel to Camerino, I will pass your way.

* * *

Villa Madama, Rome, 23 November, 1540—Mia Carissima Laudomia, I beg you will pay no mind to the news you have heard and will visit me here as you have planned. The Farneses have been badgering me about that silly boy Ottavio, but my father the emperor is pleased, I think, that I keep him dangling. I keep the golden chain with your portrait always close to my heart, but the image will be a poor substitute if I cannot have the substance.

And Laudomia came as promised. I held a great banquet in honor of the astronomer Piccolomini who had dedicated his books to her, but it was truly to honor Laudomia herself. The people of Rome smiled to see us ride out together and called us inseparabile. It was a golden season—but seasons turn.

* * *

Villa Olivia, Siena, 1 March, 1542—My beloved friend Marguerita who allows me the joy to call her so, When I heard of the terrible news from Algiers, the one consolation that remained to me was to think that now we would both be widows together. I rejoice to know the rumors were mistaken and you are not doubly bereft of husband and father. You may not think it, but life can be hard for a woman left alone and I at least have the comfort of my children. I pray for your continued health and that you may find some small space in your life to think of me. If you are able, I pray your steps will bring you to Siena soon. I know not when I may find myself in Rome again.

* * *

It was the next year before I was able to answer her plea. The gardens at Villa Olivia seemed to be in mourning themselves, the paths sodden with dead leaves and the branches bare, though it was only the late winter that made it so. We sat in her chamber with only a few ladies in attendance, listening to a mournful air. Laudomia was full of somber silences and I knew nothing of the cause until I asked what I hoped would lift her heart.

“Join me in Rome,” I urged. “Your life is your own now; share it with me.”

She shook her head. “My darling Ghita, it is impossible.”

I took her hand and warmed it against my cheek. “Nothing is impossible. Your daughters are married, your son is in the care of his grandfather, what is there left to keep you here? Who could need you as much as I do?”

“Marguerita, there is talk.”

And what of that, I thought, but she laid a finger across my lips.

“They say you are bewitched—that enemies of the Farneses have made unholy bargains to keep you and Ottavio apart. They look for a place to lay the blame…and we have made no secret of our love. For now the world holds us blameless: you are famed for holding yourself chaste from men and my love is praised as pure and noble. But what would they say if I came to you in Rome now?”

All my protests were in vain.

“Marguerita, you must be wise. Silence the whispers. Give your husband a child. It is long past time. And I…I will marry again. It is the only way.”

That night when we were alone I wasted the precious hours in rage and lamentation but she would not be moved.

* * *

In time it becomes a sickness, I think—the desire to turn every step into a bargain. All my life I had been bargained away to others and I learned to set my own price. I gave myself to Ottavio and gained nothing except a swelling belly. I paid my debt twice over, with twin sons quitting me of what I owed my husband. Should I not be rewarded with more? The Duchy of Milan was, perhaps, too much to ask. My father the emperor had turned his heart elsewhere. So I asked for something smaller. And I stumbled, not in the asking, but in writing to Laudomia before that gift too was denied.

Villa Madama, Rome, 24 February 1546—My dearest and most beloved friend, Soon, if my plans prosper, there will be no distance between us. My father is pleased to hear of my sons and I have asked him, in return, to grant me the governorship of Siena…

I had not thought what it might mean to her, beyond a chance to be together. I had not understood that every drop of blood within her veins was of the Noveschis, the founders of the Sienese republic who still clutched tightly to the dream of freedom. Laudomia’s reply cut like an icy wind.

Villa Olivia, Siena, 3 March, 1546—To her grace the Duchess of Camerino, Is my home no more than another pawn upon your chessboard? Come to Siena as friend and guest or not at all.

 Perhaps she should have made allowance. Perhaps I should have begged forgiveness. Perhaps and perhaps: the matter lay uncrossable between us, like the Alps in winter, for nine years. For nine years I neither saw nor heard from Laudomia, not when one of my sons died, not when I was finally confirmed as Duchess of Parma, not when we both found ourselves besieged by enemies.

* * *

All of Italy was suspended between the Empire and France like a bone between two dogs. But the bones had teeth. Siena was not the only city to cast their lot with France, and for that my father the emperor unleashed the Medicis who hungered to extend their reach south. And my foolish husband, thinking I could stay the worst if it came, made secret treaties with France that earned him only empty promises. We, too, had a greedy neighbor, and my father gave Gonzaga license to lay siege.

I thought of Laudomia throughout that ordeal, hearing how she had lent all her wealth to build fortifications, and had led a thousand women of Siena in defense of the city. The months dragged on and Gonzaga fumed outside the walls of Parma while my father gave him orders to let wagons through that I should not starve. I thought how Laudomia knew no such mercy and wondered if she went hungry. When the tide turned once more and Gonzaga was ordered back to his kennel, I wrote in secret to the leader of the forces outside Siena.

Palazzo del Vescovo, Parma, 13 June, 1554—To my beloved friend, Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, It has been long years since I knew your kindness in those dark months after Alessandro was murdered, but I have never forgotten. I beg you, if there remains anything in your heart of the love you felt for me, to show mercy to one I hold more dear than life itself. Within the walls of Siena there is a lady of grace and beauty and more perfection than can be imagined. Her name is Laudomia Forteguerri…

* * *

Siena had fallen and I waited, hardly daring to hope. The news came at last as I walked in the garden on a warm day in April. The walls shut out everything but the twittering of sparrows. When the messenger was announced I thought it must once more be news from Ghent where Ottavio had gone to make peace with my father. But then I saw the man wore Medici livery and my heart stopped.

“Madama,” he said, bowing deeply and holding out a sealed letter. “My lord the Duke of Florence sends greetings.”

My fingers trembled so that I could scarcely break the seal. I scanned the first few lines, passing over the empty salutations. For the sake of our friendship, I send you a gift that I found within the walls after the surrender. I read no further. “Where?” I demanded.

“In the wagon,” he said. “Madama, there are conditions. You should read it all.”

But I had picked up my skirts, heedless of dignity, and ran through the corridors to the courtyard to pull aside the curtains from the back of the wagon that stood there. Do not think that I would not have recognized her. I would have known her at the ends of the earth or the depths of hell. But I think she had been very near to the latter. The hand she reached to me was gaunt. I could feel every bone and when I helped her from the wagon only my arms kept her from stumbling. I buried my face in the hollow of her neck and could only sob, “Holy Mother of God be praised,” over and over again.

* * *

There were conditions.

“I am exiled from Siena,” Laudomia said as I plied her with comfits and fresh oranges and every dainty thing she had forgotten could exist on the face of this earth. “From Tuscany—from any place the Medici hold sway. I should have been imprisoned, he said. To make an example. But then he asked if I would swear to accept exile, and he brought me out of the city in secret at night and set me in a wagon…”

I took her hand and stroked it. “And your husband?”

She shrugged. “He fled to Montalcino with the others. Hope maintains them, but I think France will do so no longer.” Laudomia looked up at me, her hollow eyes full of uncertainty. “What is to become of me?”

I had asked the same question for myself so often in the dark of night, praying for guidance. Would she be willing to follow my path? “We are reconciled with my father once more, for the moment. He has traded peace in Parma for the custody of my son. I have been told to make ready to bring Alexander to him in Brussels. I have thought—” This I had not yet spoken to any mortal soul. “I have thought to remain in the Low Countries. God knows I cannot even see my own fate, but will you share it with me?”

She smiled, a thin smile like the winter sun striving against clouds.

* * *

A year passed before we set out: a cavalcade to rival the one that had brought me to Italy twenty years before. This time I shared my traveling chair, not with the stiff and formal Madame de Lannoy but with the lady of my chamber. As the roofs of Parma disappeared behind us I said, “There is a garden at the palace of Coudenberg, walled in with hedges of yew and eglantine. In the spring the paths are lined with crocus and hyacinth. The scent of apple-blossom from the orchards drifts through the air like angel song. In the summer, it will be filled with music and poetry. Will it please you, do you think?”

Laudomia nestled closely against me. Her arm curved about my waist and her lips brushed my neck as she whispered, “My heart goes there; it gives me joy to follow.”

Major category: 
Where My Heart Goes


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