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Saturday, June 1, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 288 - On the Shelf for June 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024-06-01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2024

News of the Field

New podcast-of-interest alert! I had a lovely time this month talking to Claudia Cox and Yasmin Vince, the hosts of a new podcast with a feminist take on period dramas. Here’s the podcast description: “Each episode, we break down how women are presented in a different historical film or TV show. A historian tells us how that period drama has changed our understanding of real women from that time period. Were corsets really as grim as TV tells us? Have the makers of Bridgerton ever opened a history book? Have the makers of Gladiator ever spoken to a girl? We shall discuss all this and more, while fangirling over Keira Knightley at any given opportunity.” They invited me to talk with them about the movie “The Favourite”—which long-time listeners may recall I discussed on this show, with guests Trystan Bass and Farah Mendlesohn. The new podcast is titled “Period” which makes for fun wordplay. I’ve provided a link in the show notes and I encourage you to check it out. The episode I’ll be in will come out sometime in the next month, I think, but I don’t have a link yet.

Another item you folks might want to check out is a limited periodical series titled “Lesbiantiquity,” which is publishing all the known classical Greek and Latin texts relevant to female homoeroticism, in both original and translation. The series is covering one author or work per issue, coming out weekly. The issues are available to read online for free, but you can also subscribe to support the project and receive notification of new issues. See the link in the show notes.

For the first time since the start of Covid, I went back in-person to the annual medieval congress in Kalamazoo. There was a wealth of papers on queer history, including a significant number on the Romance of Silence, a surprisingly modern-feeling gender-bending chivalric romance. Next year at the congress a group is presenting a stage version of the romance, so I expect there will be more papers on the topic as well.

Publications on the Blog

Still no new blogs covering books or articles – honestly, I don’t know where the time goes or how I ever managed to keep up before. And in the mean time, the new items to cover just keep piling up!

Book Shopping!

Speaking of which, the medieval congress has always been a hazardous book-buying experience for me, and this year was no different. Only three items were relevant enough to the Project that I’ve listed them in the show notes. I picked up another in Ian Mortimer’s “Time Traveler’s Guide” series, this one covering Elizabethan England. Books of this sort can be useful in grounding you in a period, before you move on to more specific research. I picked up a bilingual edition of Pompeo Colonna’s In Defense of Women, part of a genre of philosophical writings pushing back against the misogyny that was endemic in the European middle ages. And I received a book I’d ordered previously for my “women on stage” topic – a collection of papers titled Women Players in England, 1500-1660, edited by Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, which offers a good counter to the misapprehension that there were no female actors until the Restoration.

But in addition to those, I picked up several books on textile and clothing history, magical texts in Tudor England, medieval Welsh poetry , and the depiction in medieval art of King Balthazar (one of the three wise men) as a Black man. Oh, and also some fun Latin reading matter: an “easy reader” edition of a text on bird omens, a collection of tomb inscriptions giving glimpses into everyday lives, and a phrase book of “conversational Latin” illustrating everyday scenarios. Just in case you ever wondered what an amateur historian thinks of as “light reading.”

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But until someone writes a lesbian romance in ancient Latin, what we’re really here for is the new releases.

I found one more April book. Uncharted Waters (The Savages of Falcote) by Ally Hastings from Attwater Books, which is part of a connected family romance series, but I think the only book with a sapphic romance.

1816. A young widow, a marquess’s sister, and the year without a summer.

Sarah Fitzrobert has lost much. Her husband, her youthful optimism, and, she sometimes fears, her liking for other people. When she was first out in society she couldn’t wait to be a wife, and the months of her engagement had seemed endless. Now, only four years later, she is a widow with nothing to look forward to except tagging along on her siblings’ social engagements, the future as wide and flat as a calm sea.

Lady Mariana Sinclair, née Savage, has everything she ever hoped for. Enough money to dazzle society with her dressmaker’s daring creations, frequent visits to her family home, and an agreeable husband to whom she is only married in name. So why does she still feel as if there is something missing?

Staying at Falcote during a sunless summer, Sarah and Mariana hesitantly start to talk about their hopes and disappointments, and ask the questions they cannot ask anyone else. But they are not the only ones who are curious, and when one of the other guests sees something she shouldn’t have, the precious safety of Falcote is threatened…

I also found one more May release that I’d missed, a western:

Three Times Elspeth Harris Rode to Town by Becky Black from JMS Books.

There had never been as much excitement in the town of Ghostbrook as there was the day Elspeth Harris faced trial for shooting a man. But it’s a clear case of self-defense, and she’s soon free to attend a wedding, where she meets Rose O’Sullivan, the town’s only seamstress, and engages her to make some unusual alterations.

Rose knows Elspeth has a secret she is protecting, one Rose has only seen hints of. As a lover of dime novels and tales of adventure, Rose’s imagination runs wild. Could Elspeth be a government agent? An undercover lady Pinkerton?

When they meet again at another wedding and share confidences about their lives and the difficulties of being a woman alone in the world, Rose grows ever more intrigued by the mysterious Elspeth. What secrets lie behind her beautiful, but aloof exterior?

Rose will finally learn those secrets when the third wedding of the summer comes around and with it, a bold proposal.

The rest of the books will be June releases.

Lee Swanson finishes up his medieval series “No Man is her Master” with the fourth volume: She Serves the Realm from Merchant's Largesse Books.

At the conclusion of the third novel, Her Dangerous Journey Home, Christina Kohl learns of the death of Sir Edgar Baldewyne, the boorish and abusive husband of her beloved Lady Cecily. At last free to marry, Christina and Cecily lack only the permission of the king to fulfill their heart's fondest desire. This seems only a modest hurdle, as they both enjoy his favor. But in the turbulent times of Edward II's reign, he is much more concerned with making use of Christina's considerable talents than in bringing happiness to her life.

In She Serves the Realm, Christina is torn from her merchant trade and the woman she loves to become an officer of the king. She is placed in ever-growing danger as civil war seems all but inevitable; the Lords Ordainers demanding the banishment of the Earl of Cornwall, King Edward just as adamant to retain Gaveston by his side. Complicating matters further is the always present peril of her disguise being discovered, revealing her not to be Sir Frederick Kohl, but in actuality a woman.

With her mentor and friend Herr Ziesolf no longer by her side, Christina finds herself devoid of her staunchest ally. But she is not left to fight alone; the irreverent Reiniken, erstwhile Jost, and noble Sir Giles join her on her adventures, as well as others both old and new to the readers of the series.

Many of the popular sapphic pirate stories we’ve seen lately fall more in the realm of fantasy, a la “Pirates of the Carribean”, but Briony Cameron’s The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye, from Atria Books, is inspired by a relatively historic figure.

This epic, dazzling tale based on true events illuminates a woman of color’s rise to power as one of the few purported female pirate captains to sail the Caribbean, and the forbidden love story that will shape the course of history.

In the tumultuous town of Yáquimo, Santo Domingo, Jacquotte Delahaye is an unknown but up-and-coming shipwright. Her dreams are bold but her ambitions are bound by the confines of her life with her self-seeking French father. When her way of life and the delicate balance of power in the town are threatened, she is forced to flee her home and become a woman on the run along with a motley crew of refugees, including a mysterious young woman named Teresa.

Jacquotte and her band become indentured servants to the infamous Blackhand, a ruthless pirate captain who rules his ship with an iron fist. As they struggle to survive his brutality, Jacquotte finds herself unable to resist Teresa despite their differences. When Blackhand hatches a dangerous scheme to steal a Portuguese shipment of jewels, Jacquotte must rely on her wits, resourcefulness, and friends to survive. But she discovers there is a grander, darker scheme of treachery at play, and she ultimately must decide what price she is willing to pay to secure a better future for them all.

Jess Everlee has a historic romance series out from Carina Adores, with the series title “Lucky Lovers of London.” Volume 3 focuses on a sapphic couple in A Bluestocking's Guide to Decadence.

London, 1885

A lesbian in a lavender marriage, Jo Smith cuts a dashing figure in pin-striped trousers, working in her bookshop and keeping impolite company. But her hard-earned stability is about to be upended thanks to her husband’s pregnant paramour, who needs medical attention that no reputable doctor will provide.

Enter Dr. Emily Clarke, a tantalizing bluestocking working at a quaint village hospital outside the city. Emily has reservations about getting mixed up in Jo’s scandalous arrangement, but her flustered, heart-racing response to Jo has her agreeing to help despite herself.

There’s a world of difference between Jo’s community of underground clubs and sapphic societies and Emily’s respectable suburbs. Perhaps it’s a gap that even fervent desire can’t bridge.

But for those bold enough to take the risk, who knows what delicious adventures might be in store…

Short fiction is hard to summarize without giving away the entire plot, so the description of Her Runaway Bride by Brooke Winters is also short and sweet.

When Lady Rachel fled from her home the night before her wedding, she never expected to find happiness in the arms of another woman. In disguise as a maid, Rachel has never been happier. When her identity is discovered, her new life and love are threatened. Anne has always struggled with trust and when she finds out that her lover isn't who she says she is, her heart is broken and her trust shattered. Rachel is determined to win Anne back.

So I confess that if I read the cover copy for Tides of Captivation: A sapphic pirate tale (Daughters Under the Black Flag #1), by Eden Hopewell, without that pointer in the sub-title, I wouldn’t have known this for a sapphic book. But I’ll take the author’s word for it.

A gilded cage. A rebellious heart. A journey that will rewrite her destiny.

Isabella Montgomery, stifled by the constraints of 18th-century Virginia society and the expectations placed upon her as a young woman of privilege, dreams of a life beyond the confines of her gilded cage. She yearns for adventure, knowledge, and the freedom to choose her own path.

When an arranged marriage to the arrogant and controlling Lord Frederick Ashworth threatens to seal her fate, Isabella takes a daring leap of faith. She escapes the suffocating world of balls and social obligations by stowing away on a ship bound for the open sea.

But the ship, the Lady Liberty, is not the escape she envisioned. The captain, Nathaniel Reynolds, is a man of mystery and intrigue, but also of harsh discipline and hidden motives. As Isabella navigates the challenges of life at sea, she faces dangers from storms, pirates, and the unpredictable nature of the captain himself.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? Somewhat surprisingly, it hasn’t been all audiobooks this month—just two out of three.

I rather enjoyed The Witch King by Martha Wells, which is a twisty fantasy about human-demon politics and adventures of the sort I love, where the worldbuilding is back-loaded and you figure out what’s going on along the way. There was one point at the very end where I felt this structure failed me, and a plot twist felt like it had come out of nowhere without enough set-up. But on the whole I enjoyed it.

I was just a tiny bit disappointed in Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi, because I felt the advance copy had hinted at more sapphic content than it delivered. There is a background sapphic romance that is relevant to the plot, but given that I’d included it in the podcast listings on the basis of advance information, I did feel a bit misled. The story is a sort of Robin Hood re-imagining, set in the Holy Land during the crusades, with a slowly-accumulating band of misfits finding adventure and purpose while just trying to survive.

The last item I finished was in hard copy, which is why it took me almost 4 months to finish it. This is Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend by Emma R. Alban. I had a lot of interesting thoughts about the structure and voice of this book—which I’m planning to put in an essay doing a compare-and-contrast with several other historic romances that got me thinking along similar lines. What it comes down to is: there are historic romances that actually feel like modern people dressed up in costume. And that doesn’t automatically mean that I won’t enjoy reading the book. In point of fact, I definitely enjoyed Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. But only after I’d shifted gears and stopped reading it as a historical. At that point, the book has to stand or fall on the writing and characters. If a historic romance works for me as a historical, then it doesn’t have to work quite as hard on the prose and the characterization. It still has to work, but not as hard. But if it doesn’t work for me as a historical, then I find myself asking the question, “would I even be reading this book if I hadn’t been promised it was historical?” Anyway, Best Friend is allegedly set in Victorian England, and is something of a “Parent Trap” take-off in which two best friends (who develop romantic feelings for each other) are also trying to match up their widowed parents, which would completely solve the problem of being expected to get married to men.

If you’re interested in my overall thoughts on what I’ve found people are calling “wallpaper historicals,” it’ll probably go up on my Dreamwidth blog, because that’s where I’ve been putting my book reviews lately. It feels like a better separation between my personal opinions on books versus the boosterism I prefer to focus on in this venue. I’ve been working on getting caught up on posting about the last couple years of reading over there, so with the caveat that I may be more opinionated there, you can check out hrj on Dreamwidth.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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LHMP
Tuesday, May 28, 2024 - 08:00

Look! Look! I published a blog article!

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Cameron, A. 1998. “Love (and Marriage) Between Women” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 39, pp.137-156

Just as there arose something of an industry of scholars responding to John Boswell’s, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, there is an entire category of articles similarly picking apart the premises and conclusions of Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. In both cases, the establishment of historians specializing in early religious history felt that these authors were treading on ground they had no right to, and challenging long-held assumptions without an adequate contextual understanding of the texts they were working with. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of those attitudes, it remains that the naysayers give the appearance of holding Boswell’s and Brooten’s positions to a far higher standard of proof than more mainstream historic theories are held to.

I’ll note that Brooten is working on an updated version of her study. I was able to join a virtual roundtable where she presented some of her new work and had it discussed by fellow scholars. I look forward to seeing the results of that.

Cameron acknowledges that Brooten found more evidence for love between women in Greco-Roman antiquity than scholars had previously supposed was available. However, he then lays out his agenda that her arguments depend on four Greek texts, each of which he will challenge the interpretation of. In two cases, Cameron’s objection is that the verb “gamein,” when applied to two women, does not refer to marriage at all, not even metaphorically. [Note: Readers should make the connection between this word root and familiar terms like “monoGAMy" “GAMete” etc., although of course the sense a root has in neo-Latin technical terms doesn’t restrict the senses it may have had in classical writings.]

When applied to a male-female couple, “gamein” is used in the active voice of a man and the passive voice of a women. That is, a man marries a woman but a woman is married by a man. The word can also be used as a euphemism for “fuck,” with this same asymmetry.

Lucian and Clement both wrote at a time when “gamein” was used both for “to marry” and “to fuck” and Cameron argues that context will always provide a clear guide to which sense is intended. [Comment: The problem is always that scholars who use this type of argument inevitably presume “women did not marry women” as part of the context for interpreting the sense of the word.] He then provides a variety of examples of “gamein” in contexts where a sex act is a more likely interpretation than a marriage.

The relevant quotation from Clement is of the “world turned upside down” sort, complaining that “men suffer womanly things and women play the male role, getting married and marrying women contrary to nature.” Cameron argues that the inclusion of both the active and passive forms of the verb indicates that some of the women in question play a “male” role while other play a “female” role, which he concludes demonstrates that the word is being used in a sexual sense. [Comment: As an objection against understanding the action as marriage, this argument seems to overlook a likely cultural prejudice that views marriage as necessarily involving a male-coded partner and a female-coded partner. In contrast, I’ll note that this symbolic framework has been applied broadly throughout history, with female partners often being assumed to take on gender-contrasting roles, all the way up to the present day, when same-sex couples regularly get asked “but who is the man and who is the women?” So you’ll forgive me if I find fault with Cameron’s chain of logic.]

The Lucian text is from the Dialogues of the Courtesans when Megilla says, “I have been married [gamein] to Demonassa here for ever so long, and she is my wife [gyna].” Here Cameron argues that since the purpose of the conversation is for Megilla to explain to Leaena that Leaena has been hired to join a threesome with Megilla and Demonassa, that talking in terms of marriage, rather than in terms of sex, would not get the point across. [Comment: But if “gamein” could be understood as either “marry” or “fuck” in this context, then we can’t assume in which sense Leaena would have taken it. If Cameron correctly asserts that Megilla is trying to break through Leaena’s naivete about what women can do together, wouldn’t a less ambiguous word than “gamein” work better? “Gamein” implies sex specifically because marriage implies sex. So Megilla’s claim that she is married to Demonassa would inherently bring the implication that they’re having sex. But that’s a different matter from asserting that because the intent is to say “we’re having sex” that “gamein” could not possibly mean literal marriage here. In fact, one could interpret Leaena’s initial confusion specifically because she’s understanding the conversation to be about marriage rather than sex.]

Next there comes a discussion of a much later commentary on Clement, in which the reference to women “playing the male role” is explained as “tribades, whom they also call hetairistriai and Lesbians” These commentaries date from centuries later than Clement’s text and therefore don’t necessarily assume the same cultural understandings. Later commentary linking “tribades” to passages in which women “gamein” also appear in an edition of Lucian’s Dialogues, and a commentary on an erotic text attributed to Philainis also links “hetairistriai” and “tribades”. But, as Cameron notes, all three of these commentaries were written by the same 10th century scholar. Therefore, Cameron argues, the commentaries support only a single scholar’s knowledge of obscure classical terms and not, as Brooten suggests, “the existence of a cultural category of homoerotic women (and not just of individual homoerotic acts).”

This is followed by a deep dive into the path by which the (possibly fictional) Philainis became associated with knowledge about love between women. This leads, in a roundabout way, to a speculation that the commenter did not use the word “lesbian” in the sense of “women who have sex with women” (in which case it would be the earliest surviving example of that meaning) but is rather deriving that reference entirely from the line in Lucius “they say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women,” and that the gloss on Clement (which equates “lesbians” with “hetairistriai” and “tribades,” if you recall) is simply implying that there are tribades on Lesbos. [Comment: I think he’s working overly hard here to deny a semantic equivalence between the three words.] The 10th century commenter, Cameron concludes, is mostly interesting for his preoccupation with same-sex love between women and not for shedding light on social understandings of the phenomenon either in his own time or in that of the texts he’s working with. [Comment: Which…ok? But isn’t his preoccupation itself of interest regarding awareness of love between women as a possibility in the 10th century?]

The remaining texts to consider are an astrological text and the summary of Iamblichus’s Babyloniaka. The astrological text I’ll grant him, as it does seem that Brooten’s translation shifted the meaning from women referring to other women “as if they were their legal wives” to translating it as women referring to their female partners “as their legal wives.”

But Cameron’s discussion of Iamblichos returns to applying asymmetric standards to the translation of “gamous” in which the presumption that women do not marry women turns into the conclusion that the word is not used to mean “marry” when used between women. In this case, the proposed “correct” translation, rather than being a sex act, is “to hold a wedding feast.” Cameron proposes that rather than the conclusion of the story being “Berenike marries Mesopotamia,” the event is “Berenike holds a wedding feast for Mesopotamia to marry some other unspecified person.” To come to this conclusion, Cameron posits that Iamblichos has “blurred the distinction” between two formulas using the key word and that without the detailed text lost from the surviving summary “there is no way of being sure which sense he intended.” Keep in mind that it has been established in the story that Berenike loves Mesoptamia, so Cameron is left claiming that “Iambluchus’s purpose may have been to exploit the dramatic irony” of Berenike celebrating her beloved’s marriage to someone else (the prime candidate being a eunuch who has played a continuing role in the story).

Cameron then goes into a comparison of typical marriage practices in real life with the rather different tropes present in romantic novels such as the Babyloniaka…and then fails to notice that these literary tropes fail to support his rather convoluted interpretation of the relationships in the story.

[Comment: Once again, I feel that Cameron is working extra hard to devise an interpretation that fits the presumption that—even within a work of fiction—classical authors would not have envisioned the possibility that two women might marry. While it’s true that marriage between women isn’t such an ordinary thing that it’s the expected interpretation, in the case of the Babyloniaka, that possibility is well set up within the text, and therefore it’s a less natural conclusion that some other interpretation of “gamous” must be the preferred reading in the key passage.]

Cameron doesn’t deny that the Babyloniaka depicts a passionate relationship between two women—he simply objects to interpreting language including words meaning “to marry” as straightforwardly indicating that the women in the story got married. Similarly he notes that the astrological text presenting women who treated their relationship as if it were a marriage as being common enough to need explanation in terms of astrological influences, definitely suggests that female same-sex couples were a known phenomenon. But the overall thrust of the article is that if alternate possible explanations (even tortuous ones) can be found for each individual use of “gamein” and related words when applied to female couples, then even a collected body of evidence such as Brooten assembled, for the idea of woman-woman marriage in the classical world, can be dismissed as a whole.

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Saturday, May 18, 2024 - 18:35

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 87 – All the Historic Lesbianisms - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/18 - listen here)

Introduction

One of the things I’ve been doing behind the scenes with this podcast is to develop episodes that are contributing—ever so gradually—to the goal of assembling an actual book: a resource book for writing lesbian-like characters in historical fiction. Which was, of course, the original inspiration of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. For example, the trope episodes—in addition to being fun to do for their own sake—will end up being sub-chapters in a section on themes, motifs, and tropes. The various biography episodes will be sub-chapters in a section illustrating various “ways of being” for women who loved women. And some episodes are intended to slowly build up the philosophical structure for understanding and thinking about those “ways of being.”

Today’s topic is to explore the wide range of variables that can make up the ways in which individuals or societies understand and express love between women. “All the historic lesbianisms” as it were. When modern society turned its attention to trying to define and understand homosexuality across the last century, there has been a tendency to look for a single definitive answer. Is it a psychological condition? Is it a sin? Is it a genetic trait? Is it a revolutionary rejection of normative society? Is homosexuality a waystation on the path to dissolving all specific genders and orientations? Is it about sex or is it about love? And so forth and so on.

As regular listeners have probably picked up, my own personal take is that there are almost as many different ways of being a lesbian as there are people who identify as lesbians. (And, as always, this discussion invokes the broad definition of “lesbian” as the word has been used across history.) Both individuals and cultures in the past have reflected that diversity of “ways of being.” This doesn’t mean that lesbians in history are indefinable or indescribable, but rather that they are multi-faceted. There are usually multiple understandings or models co-existing at any given time, with specific models passing in and out of prominence. But those models do have a number of definable attributes, even ones that sometimes seem contradictory.

So what I want to talk about today is some of the attributes that have, in various times and places, contributed to the bundles of features that people understood as relating to love between women. In a given context, there might be distinct “ways of being” that we, today, would group together as “lesbian” but that were seen as distinct back then. The features might shift and the groups of features that were considered to align together might change. All this contributes to the impossibility of creating a unified model of historic lesbianism—that elusive goal of modern sexology.

For historic fiction authors, this isn’t a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means that you won’t always be writing the same type of character in every setting, or even within the same setting. Today’s discussion isn’t so much about categorizing exactly which “ways of being” existed in specific times and places, but to think about the palette of options that have resonances across multiple times and places.

Impetus of Desire

First, let’s tackle the features that I’ll put under the label “impetus or motivation of desire.” What is the understanding of what drives and directs the desires that we would call lesbian or sapphic?

The version that creates the most complications with respect to modern categories of gender and sexuality is the cross-gender or “opposites attract” model. Most historic western cultures had some version of an understanding that someone assigned as female might desire women due to some degree of essential masculine nature. Under this model, desire is kindled by contrast across a masculine/feminine gradient. The masculinity in question might be intellectual or psychological—having personality qualities that were coded as masculine at the time. It might be behavioral—identified by favored activities or preferred clothing. Or it might be understood as manifesting physically. This could be a matter of physical strength or stature, or particular facial features, or it could appear as differences in genital anatomy from what was assumed to be the feminine norm.

This model of desire can complicate the very idea of love between women as one way of viewing it is as assimilating apparently female couples to an underlying heterosexual norm via a transgender lens. Many historic cultures had no context for drawing clear distinctions between gender transgression and transgender identity—and viewed them as equally problematic. So understand today’s discussion, not as co-opting all such relationships as “lesbian,” but as a set of overlaid transparencies where the same picture can be defined and understood via multiple frameworks.

(The “opposites” model can also subsume desire involving an intersex individual, but that’s a rather different topic, which I’ll set aside for now.)

The cross-gender model does not always require a physical component. In some contexts, understandings of love between women will presume that one partner must be masculine to some degree and will assign that role to one participant, regardless of how well it fits. Similarly, within a culture that features this model, female partners may feel pressured to have one woman assume a masculine-coded role within the relationship, whether in terms of behavior or simply the roles taken within the household. And, of course, this model can reflect the self-identification of the participants, where one woman identifies with female masculinity while the other is attracted to it.

A different model of desire holds that like attracts like—that people (in general) will tend to connect emotionally with those who are similar to them. While this model lies behind positive images of femme-femme couples, it may sometimes be invoked to support class, religious, or racial barriers to romantic relationships, as well as being used to argue against mixed-gender friendships. So the consequences of “like attracts like” can be negative as well as positive.

When this “similarity” model of attraction is featured within a culture, there can be a general acceptance of emotionally intimate relationships between same-sex pairs. Even when same-sex erotic desire is not in the discussion, there can be an expectation that women’s closest emotional relationships will “naturally” be with other women, regardless of their social and legal relationships to men. The difference and similarity models can co-exist within a culture, combining with other features to generate social categories that are considered distinct, despite both involving two assigned-female persons.

But similarity and difference aren’t the only two models that cultures have identified for explaining love between women. Women—or people in general—may be viewed as having the potential to desire people of any sex or gender. That doesn’t mean that such a culture will consider all desires acceptable to act on. The question of whether one acts on a particular desire can be thought to be constrained by intellectual or moral choice, rather than being controlled by the presence or absence of an underlying emotion. When one of the cultural models is this “pansexual” desire, it will have implications for how people interact with each other and how they interpret affectionate or potentially erotic behavior. Is everyone a potential romantic or sexual partner or does society assume that only certain categories of people can provoke desire?

A subset of the pansexual model is one in which same-sex desire is viewed as a matter of “excess.” In this model, someone with typical or normative levels of sexual desire may be expected to direct those desires toward normative objects—that is, objects of the expected sex, age, class, etc. While someone whose level of sexual desire is excessive will fail to discriminate as expected in their objects and will pursue erotic objects that fall outside the norm, including same-sex partners, but also potentially including partners of an inappropriate age or class.

While a given culture may include more than one of these models of desire, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will embrace the idea that individual people may be motivated by different models. That is, there may not be an overt acceptance that one woman may lean toward female partners due to an inherent masculinity while another woman may prefer female partners due to similarity. Cultures rarely have complete coherence in their models of the world, and contradictions won’t necessarily change a world-view, either of an individual or of a society. But certain models may be more or less prominent in a particular time and place, and that mix will shape both internal and external understandings of desire.

Context of Desire

The next angle that I want to consider is closely related to the motivation of desire, but is something more like the cause or source of that desire. Or perhaps, the context in which the reason for desire is understood. This angle lies at the heart of the great Foucaultian debate: is same-sex desire a matter of behavior or of identity? But I’d like to break it down a bit more than just that binary choice.

One type of understanding is that desire—of whatever sort—is innate, something a person is born with. This view is so thoroughly ingrained in modern models of desire that it can be hard to step back and view it as only one option. In historic societies, the idea of innate desire may be tied to theories of personality based on astrology, or based on humoral theory, or caused by something the mother experienced while pregnant, though in general these theories view it as a divergence from the expected state. The innate model may align closely with ideas that physical masculinity causes desire for a female object, but this isn’t always the case.

The other pole of the Foucaultian axis is the understanding that same-sex desire is simply a matter of engaging in specific acts. This may include an idea that it’s a taste or preference in the same way that someone might prefer eating certain foods or wearing certain colors. But the idea is that lesbianism is simply a matter of choosing to perform in a certain way rather than a matter of being a certain type of person.

But these aren’t the only possible contexts that can cause the emergence of certain models of love between women. We can also consider socialization as a factor. Regardless of whatever desires or preferences an individual might have in a vacuum, if their culture presents certain models and patterns of behavior as being acceptable or even expected, that will shape individual behavior. This is the force we see behind patterns like Classical Greek age-differentiated relationships, or the several eras of female passionate friendships. For that matter, we can look at the ocean of normative heterosexuality that we all swim in and see it as a type of socialized orientation that influences people’s romantic and sexual choices regardless of individual feelings.

We can also consider a special case of socialized desire if it becomes a matter of fashion. Particular models of relationships may be valorized in a culture to the extent that people engage in them simply for the sake of status or inclusiveness. As an example of this, we might look at early 20th century girls’ school crushes, where participation in a specific type of romantic script might be considered essential for social acceptance. If a relatively broad definition of love between women is used, we may find all manner of examples driven by fashion.

Expression

The next category to consider when analyzing models of love between women can be thought of as the medium of expression. It can be simplest to fall back on the somewhat over-used Greek vocabulary of love, distinguishing eros from philia from agape, with some people tossing in storge. Eros is a physical attraction. When directed toward a person, it’s most often thought of in terms of sexual desire and involving genital stimulation (though this is not the purely philosophical version of the term). Philia is the bond between people who view each other as equals and partners, based on appreciation and respect. It’s most commonly characterized as the love between friends. Storge is the love that develops within a family based on shared experiences and traditions, and is often described as the type of love between parent and child. Agape is love for humanity in general—perhaps one might think of it as love that forms the basis of community.

I bring in this set of models because if we go looking for female same-sex relationships in history and we are focused entirely on eros, then we spend our time squabbling over “did they or didn’t they?” But if we integrate all varieties of love into our models then we can see how that expression—whether in terms of what the participants experienced, or in terms of how society understood their relationship—can represent a continuum of possibilities. And here we need to look at different types of expression both as viewed by society and as experienced within the relationship.

For example, societies might embrace and support women’s relationships if and when they were understood as involving philia or storge, but look askance at ones seen as involving eros, regardless of what happened between the women in private. Other societies might consider it expected that women might feel eros for each other (while also having strong opinions about how they act on it). Social models of love between women might expect the bond to rely on eros—an esthetic appreciation for each other—or on philia—an intense friendship—or on storge—a modeling of family relationships. And the couple themselves could have the same range of understandings. They might base their relationship on ideas of marriage, or on friendship, or think in terms of being sisters or even a mother-child relationship. (And I want to remind listeners that male-female couples have historically used the same types of symbolic models within their marriages. We aren’t talking about literal incest here.)

Physicality

When we’re looking at all the various models of love between women, one axis that we mustn’t ignore is how that love is expressed physically. And—once more—we can view this both in terms of how society imagines what’s happening, and how the participants in the relationship engage with it. As I regularly point out, when we’re discussing a wide swath of time and space, we can’t assume that there’s a clear, agreed-on definition of what constitutes “sexual activity” and what falls in some other category of erotic or sensual interactions. This topic needs a whole discussion to itself, but the key point is that the exact nature of the physical relations between two women could be a key factor in how their relationship was categorized and understood. So even if a society (or the women in a relationship) had clear opinions about women having sex, it also matters what sorts of acts they would categorize as “sex”. Is a kiss just a kiss, or do different types of kisses carry different meanings? Is cuddling and fondling considered sexual or simply pleasurable? Do social attitudes towards a female couple change based on what type of activities people believe they’re engaging in? I’m not going to set up some sort of menu or hierarchy here, but simply note it as yet one more facet of the variety of relationship models.

Multiplicity

When we look at how relationships between women are integrated into other social relationships, we must consider several possible expectations, especially in terms of how women’s relationships compare to mixed-gender relationships. Do women (or the society they live in) expect love relationships between women to have the same sort of exclusivity as is expected from male-female relationships? (Which isn’t to say that they’re necessarily exclusive, but simply are the attitudes towards exclusivity parallel.) Or are multiple same-sex relationships considered the equivalent of having multiple friendships—some may be more important than others, but having one doesn’t preclude others? Do women in same-sex relationships (or the society they live in) consider same-sex and different-sex relationships to conflict or to exist in parallel? That is, do the two types of relationships exist within separate spheres with different roles? Or are they considered to be in conflict and competition with each other? In models where they’re considered to be in competition, this can increase male hostility to love between women. Conversely, in models where the two types of relationships exist in parallel, the greater social and economic forces supporting male-female relationships can make it difficult to give both equal priority. And, of course, in contexts where polyamory is an accepted practice, these dynamics shift accordingly, although historically in Western culture, those contexts tend to be limited to radical social movements.

Social Evaluation

The final set of axes I want to consider here have to do with how love between women is evaluated in relation to social norms, both by the women involved and the cultures they live in. We can see these same evaluations still playing out today in different subcultures, which should remind us that people’s experiences are never uniform. One contrast can be whether a same-sex relationship is viewed as assimilating to social norms and patterns, or whether it’s seen as transgressing and conflicting with those norms and patterns, or—as another possibility—if it’s viewed as entirely apart from the norms of male-female relationships: not the same, but also not challenging them.

Is love between women viewed as somehow pure and elevated and “better” than male-female relationships? Or is it considered degraded and debased? For example, do we have a model like romantic friendship, or one like the image of prostitutes engaging in recreational lesbianism? Both views can co-exist and align with different relationship models present in the same society. Is love between women considered something that cultured and sophisticated women engage it? Or is it considered uncultured and common (in a negative sense)? Sophistication isn’t always considered a positive trait. In some contexts, love between women is considered the provenance of the aristocracy or of decadent artistic types, in contrast to more conservative middle-class values.

Conclusions

My purpose in laying out all these categories of variation is to think about a system for describing and classifying all the different lesbianisms that we find in history. It should be obvious that it’s impossible to come up with any definition that would fit them all—and we shouldn’t try to come up with that universal definition. But we can look at the evidence from particular times and places to identify the relationship models that were present—all the various models—and thus to understand what sorts of sapphic characters might exist within those contexts and how they would interact with their societies. And that is an essential part of creating believable characters in historical fiction, in the same way that a character should wear appropriate clothing and inhabit appropriate landscapes. Understanding these models is not a limitation, but rather an opening of possibilities.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Social models of women loving women
  • Variables and features of those models

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, May 4, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 286 - On the Shelf for May 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2024.

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those episodes that’s mostly stripped down to just the book news. I worry that people aren’t interested in episodes that are basically book catalogs, but I haven’t had the time and energy to set up interviews, or think about special topic book lists, or any of the other occasional content I include in these episodes. I’m going though one of those “maybe it’s time to wrap things up” periods. Injections of listener enthusiasm and feedback would be welcome.

I truly did mean to get some articles up in the blog this month to mention. I even started typing up the notes from one of the half dozen that I’ve read and highlighted. Then my brain shut down and I set it aside. The most momentous thing I’m doing related to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is that I’ve finally started thinning down my library of books I’m never likely to use for anything, so that—among other things—I can make space for all the gender and sexuality books without having to double-shelve them and leave piles on the floor. Making the choices to discard has been easier than I thought, but finding appropriate homes for them will be harder. They end up in three categories: books to give away, books that I’ll try to get store credit for at my local used bookstore, and books that have substantial resale value that I need to find a middleman for. All of which means that I’ll have boxes of books sitting around for months while I get things sorted out. But I’ve been meaning to thin out the library for quite some time and it’s good to have made a start.

Book Shopping!

And, of course, the new books keep coming in. This month’s addition is Women on Stage in Stuart Drama by Sophie Tomlinson. This purchase (and another related book that’s still in transit) came out of the inspiration to do a tropes episode on women in the theater. Searching through the books and articles I’ve already blogged and the “to do” list made me realize I had a bunch of reading to do before working on the theater episode, including several solidly relevant books that I hadn’t yet acquired. Women on Stage in Stuart Drama also contributes nicely to my background research for my Restoration-era series-in-planning.

And speaking of which, that series is no longer simply a talking point. In July, the first story from that project, “Bound in Bitterness,” will be published in the anthology Whispers in the Stacks edited by M.J. Lowe for Bella Books. The topic of the collection is “romance set in libraries” so I don’t know if any of the other stories will have historic settings. It feels good to see my Restoration ladies finally start to see the light of day. I have a second completed story in the setting that wasn’t chosen for the anthology I wrote it for, which is waiting for an appropriate venue to be published. And the romance of the central figures in the series is only waiting for my retirement. Which is now only one year out and can’t come too soon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

While Whispers in the Stacks is still a few months out, we can take a look at the May releases and a handful of books I missed in the last couple months.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that I often pass over vampire novels, even if the vampire has a deep historic background, because they don’t have the structure of historical fiction. But Unholy with Eyes like Wolves by Morgan Dante is an exception with what looks like a more solid historic grounding. The story blends the themes of the historic Countess Bathory and the literary Carmilla.

Noémie, a dishonored and widowed noblewoman in early 17th century Hungary, finds herself in an unenviable position: After grievous trauma and loss, her last chance to regain her honor comes when she must serve as Lady Erzsébet Báthory’s handmaiden. Báthory is stoic and imperious, and as Noémie struggles to acclimate and accept her present and future, she begins to have dreams about a mysterious woman. Worse, there are stories of disappearance and deaths in the castle, and Noémie might be next.

I really enjoyed a previous book in Annick Trent’s The Old Bridge Inn series, set in the late 18th century and focusing on ordinary working people in the context of social upheavals. This month she has a novelette set in the same series: Harvest Season (The Old Bridge Inn #3).

Lowri has spent the past month bringing in the harvest and daydreaming about her one-night stand with Eliza, barmaid at the Blue Boar. When the two women meet again, the spark between them is as strong as ever, but they cannot immediately act upon it: they must race against time to warn a group of weavers who face arrest for organising a strike.

Renee Dahlia breaks free of the pattern that historic romance series with a variety of types of couples will only have a single f/f volume. In the case of the Regency-era series Desiring the Dexingtons, so far 3 of the 5 titles have involved female couples. This one is The Summer of Second Chances (Desiring the Dexingtons #4).

Laudanum addicted Lady Hyacinth Walfingham is sent to the Soho Club to recover, but it’s not only the medicine that has harmed her. As she comes to terms with her old life, she slowly falls for her nurse.

Jane Bonklesford knows that life is tough, and she can only rely on herself. Her side hustle of making dentures forms a key part of her plan to get out of poverty. Working as a nurse at the Soho Club helps her keep her business costs low, and the last thing she needs is to fall in love with the beautiful aristocratic Lady Walfingham.

Can they overcome their assumptions and make a life together? Or will their class differences be too much of a hurdle?

The cover copy for 2 Screams 1 Sugar by Sula Sullivan makes it a bit difficult to untangle what genres it’s playing to. The text gives off the feel of maybe turn-of-the-century England, without providing any solid evidence of time or place. The solid elements are that it’s a mystery, it involves a sapphic romance, and—based on both the cover art and the author’s notes—both protagonists are Black. Since the author sometimes writes historic fantasy, I’m uncertain whether the reference to one of the characters as a “giantess” is meant to be literal or only figurative.

In the bustling streets of Whittlesham, where gas lamps flicker, and crime abounds, two young women find themselves drawn together after a chance encounter at a crime scene turned tourist attraction. Destiny is a plucky aspiring detective stuck in the murky world of low-ranking journalism, and Jada is a giantess artist who turns the macabre into money with her crime scene sketches.

Driven by insatiable curiosity and a mutual passion for justice, the two women embark on a journey that leads them to unexpected places, including the purchase of a derelict narrowboat. Working together, the duo transform the boat into a cozy shop where they serve coffee, gather clues, and concoct plans to establish their own detective agency.

As they navigate the treacherous waters of the lowest currents of Whittlesham’s society and unmask the secrets hidden within its dark alleys, Destiny and Jada must rely on each other's strengths to unravel the truth behind the crimes that haunt their city. Danger lurks around every corner. Can they stay one step ahead, or will they become the next victims in Whittlesham’s twisted history?

The Good Women of Fudi by Liu Hong from Scribe Publications is set in turn-of-the-century China, featuring two gender-nonconforming women. But this isn’t a straightforward romance novel, despite clear sapphic themes, and it’s probably best not to go in expecting the two women to achieve a happily-ever-after ending together.

Best friends Jiali and Wu Fang know that no man is a match for them. In their small harbour town of Fudi, they practise sword fighting, write couplets to one another, and strut around dressed as men. Jiali is a renowned poet and Wu Fang is going to be China’s first female surgeon. But when Wu Fang returns from medical training in Japan, she is horrified to hear of Jiali’s marriage to a man who cannot even match her couplets, and confused by her intense feelings of jealousy towards her friend’s new husband, Yanbu.

Ocean man Charles has arrived in Fudi to start a new life. He eschews the company of his fellow foreigners, preferring to spend time with new colleague Yanbu, his wife, Jiali, and her friend, Wu Fang. Over the course of several months, he grows close to them all, in increasingly confusing ways, but what will happen when he is forced to choose between his country and his friends?

As tensions between the Manchu rulers and the people rise, and foreign battleships gather out at sea, loyalties will be tested in more ways than Jiali, Wu Fang, Yanbu, and Charles can possibly imagine.

It feels like we’ve been having a wealth of Prohibition-themed novels in the last year or two, now including Adrift by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books.

Janeth Castro never expected to be the most prominent bootlegger in Southern California. After growing up in Central Mexico and falling into her role in the business, she’s torn between supporting her family values and living life on her own terms. The last thing she needs is a white woman protesting at her door.

Alice Covington is many things: a pickpocket, a drifter, and now a daughter of the Prohibition movement. Under her mother’s cruel eye, she follows the protests to a mysterious mansion by the sea. Determined to play by her parents’ rules—which include not falling in love with a woman—she is surprised to find the great house host to the most surprising, and attractive, rum smuggler in town.

Janeth and Alice are caught in storms that neither can seem to escape. Obligation, fear, and old guilt claw daily at their hearts, and their chance meeting leads to an unexpected romance that may be just what they need to find safe harbor.

This next book, My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna van Veen from Poisoned Pen Press, has a strongly gothic feel.

Spirits are drawn to salt, be it blood or tears.

Roos Beckman has a spirit companion only she can see. Ruth—strange, corpse-like, and dead for centuries—is the light of Roos’ life. That is, until the wealthy young widow Agnes Knoop visits one of Roos’ backroom seances, and the two strike up a connection.

Soon, Roos is whisked away to the crumbling estate Agnes inherited upon the death of her husband, where an ill woman haunts the halls, strange smells drift through the air at night, and mysterious stone statues reside in the family chapel. Something dreadful festers in the manor, but still, the attraction between Roos and Agnes is undeniable.

Then, someone is murdered.

Poor, alone, and with a history of ‘hysterics’, Roos is the obvious culprit. With her sanity and innocence in question, she’ll have to prove who—or what—is at fault or lose everything she holds dear.

I confess it gave me a bit of a jolt when I saw that A Liaison with Her Leading Lady by Lotte R. James is published by Harlequin Historical. Harlequin publishing lesbian historic romance! As much as I have concerns about the pitifully few big-press sapphic romances sucking all the attention away from the much larger, long-established small press field, it’s still something of a landmark.

Ruth Connell’s beloved theater is under threat! In desperation, she approaches reclusive playwright Artemis Goode. If Artemis can write a hit, Ruth can save her troupe from financial ruin. Yet it’s not just Ruth’s livelihood in need of saving, but Artemis’s shattered heart, too. As quickly as their personalities clash, their passion ignites! But while that leads their play toward success, it also leads Ruth closer to the end of her partnership with Artemis…

I think a theme this month is, “I have no idea from the cover copy whether this book falls within our scope or not.” Fortunately, for The Honey Witch by Sydney J. Shields from Redhook, advance reviews came to my rescue and confirmed this has a historic setting. (19th century was as specific as anyone got.) Otherwise, the book is much more on the fantasy side and is definitely following the trend of witchy books.

The Honey Witch of Innisfree can never find true love. That is her curse to bear. But when a young woman who doesn’t believe in magic arrives on her island, sparks fly in this deliciously sweet debut novel of magic, hope, and love overcoming all.

Twenty-one-year-old Marigold Claude has always preferred the company of the spirits of the meadow to any of the suitors who’ve tried to woo her. So when her grandmother whisks her away to the family cottage on the tiny Isle of Innisfree with an offer to train her as the next Honey Witch, she accepts immediately. But her newfound magic and independence come with a price: No one can fall in love with the Honey Witch.

When Lottie Burke, a notoriously grumpy skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, shows up on her doorstep, Marigold can’t resist the challenge to prove to her that magic is real. But soon, Marigold begins to care for Lottie in ways she never expected. And when darker magic awakens and threatens to destroy her home, she must fight for much more than her new home—at the risk of losing her magic and her heart.

Other Books of Interest

Three books go in my “other books of interest” category. In the case of Flight Lines (WASPS #2) by Jana Williams, one of the subject tags identifies it as LGBTQ+, but I couldn’t have guessed that from the cover copy.

Flight Lines picks up the WASP story after their graduation from training camp in Sweetwater, Texas. With their arrival at Moss Beach Airfield, California—their duty station, life as a professional flyer is about to begin. They quickly find it's a struggle to create a space for themselves on a military base. But their biggest challenge is getting a chance to prove their skills as pilots—pilots that are desperately needed for the war effort. Each woman finds a chance to shine despite the setbacks, buoyed by friendship and their shared passion for flying - they set their course and never look back.

For Pebble in the Pond by Alex Westmore (pen name of Linda Kay Silva), the uncertainty has to do with the historic context, though notes on the book indicate there are time-travel elements. I’m a bit more willing to rely on the coy language about “secrets” and “a price to pay for love” given the general trend of the author’s body of work. But, as usual, I offer no guarantees about the content of books I include in the “other of interest” group.

When bookstore owner and writer Ryan Kincaid stumbles upon an estate sale, she buys the whole lot of Catherine Van Wyck's massive library for a song...but the song those books sing reveals secrets Catherine would rather remain in the darkness...secrets that would upend her world and those of a granddaughter she has shielded from the truth for far too long.

But what is this secret buried between the pages of novels too old and too dusty for anyone else to care about? Did socialite Catherine Van Wyck lead a mysterious life before she married her long-gone husband, or is there something more menacing about a story she buried a lifetime ago?

Ryan is determined to uncover this secret...to unearth who the real Catherine Van Wyck is, who she was, and the life path she traveled before she became a millionaire philanthropist who is now nearly penniless.

What happened to her fortune?

What happened to her husband?

What happened to her finely constructed life?

And just what is this secret Catherine has protected all these years?

Ryan Kincaid is determined to find out...to unearth the story behind this fascinating woman; and in doing so, realizes there is often a price to pay for love, for loss, and for living with secrets too shallow to remain buried forever.

Books can change a lot between initial plans and release. I enter the data on books to include when I first run across it, but every once in a while the final book takes a different angle. The original cover copy for A Heart Divided by Angie Williams from Bold Strokes Books looked very much like US Civil War standard sapphic plot A, with a cross-gender soldier and a Maxon-Dixon enemies-to-lovers romance. But at the last minute when putting this episode together, I checked back on the publisher’s website because of an apparent inconsistency in the protagonist’s nomme-de-guerre. At which point I discovered that the book’s description had been revised to align the protagonist solidly as a trans man. So: potentially “other books of interest,” and I’m glad the revised description kept me from making incorrect assumptions about the characters.

Wanda Baker’s life was never the same after killing her abusive stepfather. With nowhere to hide, she steals a soldier’s uniform and falls in with a battalion of Confederate soldiers, redefining herself as Jack Logan. Even though done out of necessity, he soon realizes living as a man reflects his true self in more ways than just the clothes he wears. The world finally sees him as the man he knows he is.

After the war, Jack finds work on a horse ranch owned by the widow of a Union soldier, Emma Stevens. She’s the most beautiful woman Jack has ever seen, but being a veteran of the Confederate army that killed her husband isn’t the only thing keeping them apart.

Emma hates that she needs the enemy’s help to manage her husband’s beloved ranch, but with fewer qualified men left after the war, she's forced to accept she has no choice. She and her young son must place their trust somewhere, and Jack is her best hope of keeping the ranch and her husband's legacy intact.

Their differences are too hard to ignore, but only love can heal a heart divided.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? Mostly audiobooks, as usual. You may remember that Lucy Holland came on the show to talk about her novel Song of the Huntress. I found it lovely and heart-ripping and complex and deeply historically rooted. The complicated relationships between Queen Aethel, her husband the king, and her beloved, the warrior-woman cast out of time, are drawn with intense realism, while not overpowering the dynamics of the historic politics blended with deep magic of the land. A very “chewy” book as I like to call them.

Nghi Vo has continued her Singing Hills Cycle, set in an alternate fantasy China and featuring the non-binary monk Chih whose vocation is to collect stories. This installment, Mammoths at the Gates, still has the core focus on "what is the meaning and purpose of Story?" But this one didn't grab me quite as much as the previous books in the series, though it gives us a wider window on the sentient hoopoe birds that serve as a repository for the collected stories the monks seek out.

K.J. Charles has another winner in Death in the Spires, a convoluted murder mystery set in early 20th century Oxford. As usual there are lots of well-drawn and juicy characters. And the book will threaten to break your heart multiple times in multiple directions as the climax draws near. Although male homoerotic relationships thread through the plot, this is not a romance novel.

And finally, I always have a read in process that I call my “tooth-brushing book.” It lives on the bathroom counter and gives me a metric to make sure I brush my teeth for the requisite amount of time. For this purpose, it needs to be a book I can read in small chunks and then put down again. For the last year and more, this book has been The Time Travelers Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer. It’s a popular-oriented general social history of early 19th century Britain, with a very readable balance between covering the broad outlines and featuring interesting colorful tidbits. There is a very light background conceit that the reader is a potential time-traveler being presented with essential information in the form of a guidebook, but this motif isn’t taken to extremes and doesn’t get in the way of reading the book as serious history.

Several years ago, I read the same author’s The Time Travelers Guide to Restoration Britain. While books like this can be very useful to the writer of historical fiction to provide a general grounding in a particular period, they aren’t sufficient to be a sole source of research. Rather, they can provide a scaffolding onto which more detailed research can be attached. Or they can provide an idea of what sorts of stories are possible in that era and keep you from spinning plots that won’t stand up to a more in-depth fleshing out. One potential down side of this sort of high-level general history is that they often present only a homogenized, generic view of society—one that gets in the way of imagining the more diverse characters and stories that are equally true to life and more interesting to write. But Mortimer’s books are reasonably sound on that part, at least acknowledging the dynamics of racism, describing the realities of how different economic classes lived, and even touching a little on diverse sexualities.

And now I need to pick a new tooth-brushing book!

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Monday, April 22, 2024 - 07:58

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 285 – Poetry about Love between Women from the 19th Century - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/04/21 - listen here)

Introduction

This episode completes my tour of (mostly English-language) poetry about love between women across the centuries, bringing us up through the 19th century. When I compiled the earlier poetry episodes, I could be rather all-encompassing in my selections. I included almost everything I could find that had some relation to same-sex love, regardless of the gender of the author, whether they had any direct participation in same-sex relationships, and whether the theme of the work was positive.

But in the 19th century, we have such an abundance of material that I found myself being a lot choosier. One big difference is that more women writers are being published generally, regardless of genre. Poems that once might have had only small private audiences, and perhaps been lost to posterity, are now being published in magazines, anthologies, and personal collections. So for this 19th century episode, I chose to exclude male authors.

I also was able to prioritize poems by women who participated in same-sex romantic relationships, even though they may also have been in heterosexual marriages. Not every poet I include here falls in that category, but the majority do. I focus on poems that are fairly overt in their romantic or erotic themes—another shift in what posterity is allowed to see of women’s writing. For the most part I include only one work by each author.

While there were some clear shifts in theme and content across the course of the century, I’ve organized the poems thematically, first by content and the authors attitude toward it, and then finishing by looking at two “communities” of poets who addressed poems to each other or were romantically involved with each other.

Poems of Admiration

My first topic is poems of admiration—one woman describing or addressing another in glowing terms that verge on the romantic but perhaps are not explicit about it. In these two examples, we have no direct evidence that the poets had same-sex relationships, so we might take these works as establishing a baseline for the sort of language and imagery that was considered unremarkable.

Eliza Mary Hamilton was an Irish poet whose family connections intersected with poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She published several individual poems under her initials E.M.H. and a single collected volume came out in 1838. Her poem “A Young Girl Seen in Church” conveys that electric connection one may feel for a stranger, even if the matter goes no further than admiration.

A Young Girl Seen in Church

Was she an orphan? —can another grief
So wholly chasten? —can another woe
So sanctify? —for she was (as a leaf
Of hue funereal mid the Spring's young glow)
Robed in emphatic black: —the soul of night
Filled her rich simply-parted ebon hair,
And raven eye-lashes, and made her bright
With solemn lustre day can never wear.
Two younger buds, a sister at each side,
Like little moon-lit clouds beside the moon,
Which up the sky's majestic temple glide,
Clad darkly too, she led, —but music soon
Moved over her, and like a breeze of heaven,
Shook from her lips the fragrance of her soul, —
And then, the thoughts with which my heart had striven,
Spoke in my gaze, and would not brook control.
I bent upon her my astonished eye,
That glowed, I felt, with an expression full
Of all that love which dares to deify, —
That adoration of the beautiful
Which haunts the poet, —I forgot the sighs
Of whispered prayer around me, and the page
Of hope divine, and the eternal eyes
That look through every heart, in every place and age.
I gazed and gazed as though she were a star,
Unconscious and unfallen, which shone above, afar.—
But eloquently grave, a crimson cloud
Of deep disquietude her cheek o'erspread
With exquisite rebuke; —and then I bowed
Like hers my earnest looks and conscious head,
Ashamed to have disturbed the current meek
Of her translucent thoughts, and made them flow
Painfully earthward. But she veiled that cheek, —
Veiled even its sweet reproach and sacred glow,
Like those pure flowers too sensitive to brook
Noon's burning eye, and its oppressive look,
That shut, in beautiful displeasure, up
Each brilliant petal of their heart's deep cup.

Mary Russell Mitford was an English author and dramatist—a neighbor and acquaintance of Jane Austen, and at one point her writing was the primary financial support of her parents. She was a friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (though I haven’t included her in the later section of this show that covers Browning’s circle). She doesn’t appear to have married, perhaps due to the need to support and care for her parents. This poem from 1827, titled “Written in a Blank-Paper Book Given to the Author by a Friend” reflects the close friendship-circles that most literary women enjoyed, as well as the effusive language of those friendships.

Written in a Blank-Paper Book Given to the Author by a Friend

My little book, as o'er thy page so white,
With half-closed eyes in idlest mood I lean,
Whose is the form that rises still between
Thy page and me,—a vision of delight?
Look on those eyes by the bright soul made bright;
Those curls, which who Antinous' bust hath seen
Hath loved; that shape which might beseem a queen;
That blush of purity; that smile of light.
'Tis she! my little book dost thou not own
Thy mistress? She it is, the only she!
Dost thou not listen for the one sweet tone
Of her unrivalled voice? Dost thou not see
Her look of love, for whose dear sake alone,
My little book, thou art so dear to me?

Allusive and Playful

The admiration women were free to express towards each other could be playful or could allude to themes of marriage and partnership without being read as erotic or sexual. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems use language that is strongly romantic and sensual. Interpreted in the light of her close emotional bonds with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, modern scholarship generally accepts the categorization as love poems. I picked two of her verses—they’re short!—one somewhat melancholy as if the wedding it refers to ended sadly—and one full of energy and passion. Both were written in the early 1860s during her most prolific period.

Ourselves were wed one summer—dear—
Your Vision—was in June—
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied—too—of mine—

And overtaken in the Dark—
Where You had put me down—
By Some one carrying a Light—
I—too—received the Sign.

'Tis true—Our Futures different lay—
Your Cottage—faced the sun—
While Oceans—and the North must be—
On every side of mine

'Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine—in Frosts—was sown—
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens—
But You—were crowned in June—

This second poem provided the title for a rather delightful biographical movie about Dickinson.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

Louise Guiney was an American poet and essayist who lived primarily in Boston and Providence, but later in life moved to England. This poem “Private Theatricals”, written in 1884, evokes the playful, coded, “are they or aren’t they” game of women who have become self-aware that their desires aren’t entirely socially acceptable.

Private Theatricals

You were a haughty beauty, Polly
       (That was in the play),
I was the lover melancholy
       (That was in the play);
And when your fan and you receded,
And all my passion lay unheeded,
If still with tenderer words I pleaded,
       They were in the play.

I met my rival in the gateway
       (That was in the play),
And so we fought a duel straightaway
       (That was in the play);
But when Jack hurt my arm unduly,
And you rushed over, softened newly,
And kissed me, Polly! truly, truly,
       Was that in the play?

Partnership

The 19th century encompassed the flourishing and celebration of women’s partnerships, under the labels of “romantic friendship” or “Boston marriages” or other terms. When women’s aspirations lay in literary or academic fields, a female partner might understand and support those aspirations far beyond what one could dream of receiving from a husband. When both partners were poets, we get some fascinating glimpses of their emotional lives together.

My first choice for this section is by Emily Hickey, an Irish poet, author, and translator. After studying at Cambridge, she had a position as lecturer in English language and literature at University College London. Written in 1889, “For Richer, For Poorer” is packed full of religious imagery—Hickey was prolific on the subject, especially after converting to Catholicism. But it is also packed with marriage imagery while centering a bond between two women. The title comes from marriage liturgy. The inspiration is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the arrival of a bridegroom: half brought enough oil for their lamps while half had their lamps go out and missed the party when they had to go get more. And the final lines evoke Ruth and Naomi, who are often seen as icons of love between women. So whether Hickey intended this as a love poem, it can certainly be read that way.

For Richer, For Poorer

"Oh, give us of your oil, our lamps go out;
Your well-fed lamps are clear and bright to see;
And, if we go to buy us oil, maybe,
Far off our ears shall hear the jubilant shout,
"Behold the Bridegroom cometh, zoned about
With utter light and utter harmony. "
Then leave us not to weep continually
In darkness, for our souls' hunger and drought."

Then turned one virgin of the virgins wise
To one among the foolish, with a low
Sweet cry, and looked her, lovelike, in the eyes,
Saying, " My oil is thine; for weal, for woe,
We two are one, and where thou goest I go,
One lot being ours for aye, where'er it lies."

English poets and life-partners Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper merged their writing careers completely under the pen name “Michael Field”. Their poem “Prologue”, written in 1892, reflects this choice.

Prologue

It was deep April, and the morn
Shakespeare was born;
The world was on us, pressing sore;
My love and I took hands and swore,
Against the world, to be
Poets and lovers evermore,
To laugh and dream on Lethe's shore,
To sing to Charon in his boat,
Heartening the timid souls afloat;
Of judgement never to take heed,
But to those fast-locked souls to speed,
Who never from Apollo fled,
Who spent no hour among the dead;
Continually
With them to dwell,
Indifferent to heaven and hell.

Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields were among the many prominent literary women of New England in the later 19th century. Jewett’s early diaries and letters document a series of romantic relationships with women. She met Annie Fields perhaps in the context of her husband, James T. Fields being editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine and they two hit it off. After James Fields died, Sarah and Annie moved in together, exchanged rings and vows, and considered themselves married. I offer a poem from each of them about this relationship: Jewett commemorating their act of commitment, written in 1880, and Fields offering a tender, private contemplation of her beloved, 15 years later.

Love and Friendship

Do you remember, darling
   A year ago today
When we gave ourselves to each other
   Before you went away
At the end of that pleasant summer weather
Which we had spent by the sea together?

How little we knew, my darling,
   All that the year would bring!
Did I think of the wretched mornings
   When I should kiss my ring
And long with all my heart to see
The girl who gave the ring to me? …

We have not been sorry darling
   We loved each other so --
We will not take back the promises
  We made a year ago -- …
And so again, my darling
   I give myself to you,
With graver thought than a year ago
   With love that is deep and true.

To --, Sleeping

Beloved, when I saw thee sleeping there,
And watched the tender curving of thy mouth,
The cheek, our home of kisses, the soft hair,
And over all a languor of the south;
And marked thy house of thought, thy forehead, where
All trouble of the earth was then at rest;
And thy dear eyes, a blessing to the blest,
Their ivory gates closed on this world of care, --

Then, then I prayed that never wrong of mine,
That never pain which haunts these earth-built bowers,
If I could hinder, or could aught relieve,
Should ever more make sad this heart of thine;
And yet, dear love, how oft thou leav'st thy flowers,
Here in the rain to walk with me and grieve!

Jane Addams was one of the co-founders of Hull House, a “settlement house,” which was a sort of women’s community center of a type common in the eastern United States in the late 19th century. At a time when she had parted ways with her co-founder, a young woman named Mary Rozet Smith came to work at the institution. This poem recounts their meeting, looking back from 1895, when they had established a romantic partnership and considered themselves married. Some of the language feels a bit “cringe” (as the kids these days call it) talking about “when women attempt the things of men” but the conclusion seems to be that women are not required to choose between devoting themselves to good works and receiving love.

One Day I Came into Hull House

One day I came into Hull House,
(No spirit whispered who was there)
And in the kindergarten room
There sat upon a childish chair
A girl, both tall and fair to see,
(To look at her gives one a thrill).
But all I thought was, would she be
Best fitted to lead club, or drill?
You see, I had forgotten Love,
And only thought of Hull House then.

That is the way with women folks
When they attempt the things of men;
They grow intense, and love the thing
Which they so tenderly do rear,
And think that nothing lies beyond
Which claims from them a smile or tear.
Like mothers, who work long and late
To rear their children fittingly,
Follow them only with their eyes.
And love them almost pityingly.
So I was blind and deaf those years
To all save one absorbing care,
And did not guess what now I know —
Delivering love was sitting there!

Loss

Victorian literature is well known for themes of death, loss, and mourning. Though they aren’t the only era with that fixation. In the episode on 18th century poetry, I noted that there was something of a genre of women separated from their girlfriends lamenting that at least they might be united after death. But in the 19th century poems, they are more likely to be mourning the death or separation from someone they had successfully managed to share their life with.

American poet Katharine Lee Bates is, perhaps, most famous for penning the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” This poem, “If You Could Come,” was written in the years shortly after 1915 when her partner Katharine Coman died and expresses the desire to be reunited, not in heaven, but here on earth.

If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

When African-American teacher and correspondent Addie Brown added the poem “Alone” to an 1861 letter to her beloved, Rebecca Primus, they would still have years together, though often separated by economic and career necessity. (One of my earliest podcast episodes was inspired by their lives.)

Alone

Thou art not with me and the hours
All wearily go flitting by
A gloom is on my heart, and brow
That seeks relief in many sigh

I dare not dwell upon the past
Those joyous hours that knew not pain
I dare not ask the coming years
If we shall ever meet again

I only know thou art not here
And life has lost its sweetness to me
And though my lips may wear a smile
My heart is sad and all alone

Erotic

In poetry of earlier centuries, social attitudes towards what topics it was acceptable for women to write about meant that overtly sexual and erotic poems about female couples tended to be penned by men, with all that entails. But in the late 19th century, that barrier falls. Some erotic poems draw from the decadent tradition, depicting lesbian love as dangerous and doomed, others delight in sensual imagery.

It’s something of a theme in this episode to note that I’m not presenting an authors best known work. To some extent, that’s deliberate—why not introduce you to something you aren’t already familiar with? But to some extent it’s because the best known works may not be as overtly sapphic. In the case of American poet and activist Emma Lazarus, her best-known poem is probably “The New Colossus”—the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. But Lazarus was prolific on many subjects, as well as being active in economic and Jewish causes. Although her biographers note that she never married, most shy away from any suggestion that she might have had same-sex desires. But then there’s this poem, “Assurance.”

Assurance

Last night I slept, and when I woke her kiss
Still floated on my lips. For we had strayed
Together in my dream, through some dim glade,
Where the shy moonbeams scarce dared light our bliss.
The air was dank with dew, between the trees,
The hidden glow-worms kindled and were spent.
Cheek pressed to cheek, the cool, the hot night-breeze
Mingled our hair, our breath, and went,
As sporting with our passion. Low and deep
Spake in mine ear her voice: "And didst thou dream,
This could be buried? This could be sleep?
And love be thralled to death! Nay whatso seem,
Have faith, dear heart; THIS IS THE THING THAT IS!"
Thereon I woke and on my lips her kiss.

It may be no coincidence that the two poems that I present here in translation, are also among the most explicitly sexual. Renée Vivien was a British poet who wrote in French, along themes popularized by Baudelaire and other Parisian decadent writers. She had a series of romantic and sexual relationships with women, including American writer and salonnière Nathalie Barney. I’ve included the original French text of “Nocturne,” published in 1901, on the website, but here present Beth Archers translation from the anthology The Defiant Muse.

J’adore la langueur de ta lèvre charnelle
Où persiste le pli des baisers d’autrefois.

Ta démarche ensorcelle,
Et ton impitoyable et perverse prunelle
A pris au ciel du nord ses bleus traîtres et froids.

Tes cheveux, répandus ainsi qu’une fumée,
Légers et vaporeux, presque immatériel,

Semblent, ô Bien-Aimée,
Recéler les rayons d’une lune embrumée,
D’une lune d’hiver dans le cristal des ciels.

Le soir voluptueux a des moiteurs d’alcôve :
Les astres sont pareils aux regards sensuels

Dans l’éther d’un gris mauve,
Et je vois s’allonger, inquiétant et fauve,
Le lumineux reflet de tes ongles cruels.

Sous ta robe, qui glisse en un frôlement d’aile,
Je devine ton corps, — les lys ardents des seins,

L’or blême de l’aisselle,
Les flancs doux et fleuris, les jambes d’immortelle,
Le velouté du ventre et la rondeur des reins.

La terre s’alanguit, énervée, et la brise,
Chaude encore des lits lointains, vient assouplir

La mer lasse et soumise…
Voici la nuit d’amour depuis longtemps promise…
Dans l’ombre je te vois divinement pâlir.

# # #

I love the languor of our sensual lips
Bearing still the fold of yesterday’s kisses.
Your gait is bewitching;
And the calm perversity of your eyes
Stole from northern skies their treacherous, icy blue.

Your hair, wafting like smoke,
Vaporously pale, as though not material,
Seams O dearest love,
To cast the rays of a veiled moon,
A winter moon in a crystal-cold heaven.

The sensuous evening is moist with love;
The stars glance seductively
In the mauve-gray sky,
And I see reaching out, frightening and wild,
The luminous gleam of your cruel nails.

Under your gown, which glides with the rustle of a wing,
I discern your body – the glowing lilies of your breasts,
The delicate gold of the underarm,
The soft ample thighs, the legs of a goddess,
The velvet belly, and rounded loins.

The earth, now weak, grows languorous, and a breeze,
Still warm from distant beds, comes to smooth
The sea at long last daunted…
Here, finally, the long-awaited night of love…
In the shadows, I see you grow divinely pale.

Inspired by Sappho

In the later 19th century, newly discovered works by Sappho—as well as a broader acknowledgement among the literati of the homoerotic themes in Sappho’s work—led to imitations and inspirations, as well as new translations. I included American poet Mary Hewitt’s translation of Sappho’s fragment 31, published in 1845, in one of my episodes on Sappho’s legacy, but I’ll reprise it here.

Fragment 31 (trans. Mary Hewitt)

Blest as the immortal gods is he
On whom each day thy glances shine
Who hears thy voice of melody
And meets thy smile so all divine

Oh when I list thine accents low
How thrills my breast with tender pain
Fire seems through every vein to glow
And strange confusion whelms my brain

My sight grows dim beneath the glance
Whose ardent rays I may not meet
While swift and wild my pulses dance
Then cease all suddenly to beat

And o’er my cheek with rapid gush
I feel the burning life-tide dart
Then backward like a torrent rush
All icy cold upon my heart

And I am motionless and pale
And silent as an unstrung lyre
And feel, while thus each sense doth fail
Doomed in thy presence to expire

Hewitt was also inspired to write original poetry in the style of Sappho, including this one, published in 1844 under the title “Imitations of Sappho.” (This poem is also a reprise from an earlier Sappho episode.)

Imitations of Sappho

If to repeat thy name when none may hear me,
To find thy thought with all my thoughts inwove
To languish where thou’rt not -- to sigh when near thee
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

If when thou utterest low words of greeting
To feel through every vein the torrent pour
Then back again the hot tide swift retreating
Leave me all powerless, silent as before

If to list breathless to thine accents failing
Almost to pain, upon my eager ear
And fondly when alone to be recalling
The words that I would die again to hear

If at thy glance my heart all strength forsaking
Pant in my breast as pants the frighted doves
If to think on thee ever, sleeping--waking--
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

While Hewitt’s Sappho pastiche is filled with romantic longing, Gertrud Günther, Baroness von Puttkamer, writing under the pen name Marie-Madeleine, picked up Sappho’s catalogs of beloved young women and ran with it in a more sensual direction. This poem, titled simply “Sappho,” is from her first published collection in 1895 when she was aged 19. Marie-Madeleine wrote in German, often in the vein of Baudelaire’s decadent and predatory lesbians, though this one is more sweetly longing. The translation is by Brigitte Eriksson and Frankie Hucklenbroich. Marie-Madeleine’s career survived late enough to meet an unfortunate end in Nazi Germany, when she was involuntarily committed to a sanitorium under the guise of drug addiction and died there.

Sappho

Gently, the ocean waves
sing, their eternal dirge
and softly, the humid spring night
unfolds me. My soul
searches for you.

Oh, come, sweet flocks of girls!
I want to drink of your beauty.
Give your wild hair to the wind,
and drop your raiments
silently.

My pale child, give me your mouth, and feed
my own mad fires. How cool
your red lips are. You haven’t learned how love
feels yet.

And you, with your thick mane of red-gold curls,
flowing almost to your heels,
like waves of flame,
show me the fires that glitter and flicker
from your eyes. You must not ever leave me,
for you are as beautiful
as the glowing sun.

And you too shy and slender sisters
are pale as moonlight,
with your quiet, heartache
and your silent pangs of love.
With your limbs’ marble splendor
shining white as the waves’ glimmering foam,
and your hair the night,
you are more silent
than a dream.

Oh, bouquet of blossoms! Oh, flock of girls!
I want to drink of your beauty.
Give your wild hair to the wind,
and drop your raiments
silently.

I’ve bent the boundaries of the 19th century slightly on behalf of a few very iconic authors whose work fits with the themes present at the turn of the century. No need to introduce English author Radcliffe Hall or submit her lesbian bona fines. Her “Ode to Sappho,” written in 1908, spins off of Ovid’s myth of her doomed love for Phaon, and probably reflects Hall’s own somewhat tortured experience of love.

Ode to Sappho

If not from Phaon I must hope for ease,
Ah ! let me seek it from the raging seas :
To raging seas unpitied I'll remove;
And either cease to live or cease to love.

(Ovid's Heroic Epistle, XV.)

Immortal Lesbian! canst thou still behold
From some far sphere wherein thy soul doth sing
This earth, that once was thine, while glimmered gold
The joyous beams of youth's forgotten spring?

Can thine unfathomed eyes embrace this sea,
Whose ebb and flow once echoed in thy brain ?
Whose tides bear record of thine ecstasy
And thy despair, that in its arms hath lain?

Those love-burnt lips! Can death have quenched their fire?
Whose words oft stir our senses to unrest?
Whose eager ardour caught and held desire,
A searing flame against thy living breast?

Passion-wan Lesbian, in that awful place
Where spirits wander lost without a name
Thou still art Sappho, and thine ardent face
Lights up the gloom with love's enduring flame.

Oh! Goddess, woman, lover, all divine
And yet divinely mortal, where thou art
Comes not as cadence from some song of thine
Each throbbing beat that stirs the human heart ?

Canst thou forget us who are still thy friends,
Thy lovers, o'er the cloudy gulf of years?
Who live, and love, and dying make amends
For life's short pleasures thro' death's endless fears ?

Once thou didst seek the solace of thy kind,
The madness of a kiss was more to thee
Than Heaven or Hell, the greatness of thy mind
Could not conceive more potent ecstasy !

Life was thy slave, and gave thee of her store
Rich gifts and many, yet with all the pain
Of hopeless longing made thy spirit sore,
E'en thou didst yearn, and couldest not attain.

Oh ! Sappho, sister, by that agony
Of soul and body hast thou gained a place
Within each age that shines majestie'ly
Across the world from out the dusk of space.

Not thy deep pleasures, nor thy swiftest joys,
Have made thee thus, immortal and yet dear
To mortal hearts, but that which naught destroys,
The sacred image of thy falling tear.

Beloved Lesbian ! we would dare to claim
By that same tear fond union with thy lot;
Yet 'tis enough, if when we breathe thy name
Thy soul but listens, and forgets us not.

Communities

As I was compiling the content for this episode and looking up biographical information, I was struck by the circles of poets writing at least marginally homoerotic poems to and about each other. Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of George Sand; Dora Greenwell writes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Dora Greenwell writes of Christina Rossetti; Christina Rossetti mourns some unspecified woman; Isa Blagden writes a poem “To George Sand on her Interview with Elizabeth Barrett Browning” commemorating a meeting between those two in 1852, though the Blagden poem I’ve included is the more relevant one to an unknown woman named Alice. Not all of the women in this complex network had homoerotic relationships, but the themes intertwine through the whole.

Browning’s poem “To George Sand: A Desire,” written in 1844, does not touch directly on her rather isolated same-sex relationship, but rather addresses her gender transgression and masculine-coded presentation.

To George Sand: A Desire

Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,
Self-called George Sand ! whose soul, amid the lions
Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance
And answers roar for roar, as spirits can :
I would some mild miraculous thunder ran
Above the applauded circus, in appliance
Of thine own nobler nature's strength and science,—
Drawing two pinions, white as wings of swan,
From thy strong shoulders, to amaze the place
With holier light ! That thou to woman's claim,
And man's, might join beside the angel's grace
Of a pure genius sanctified from blame ;
Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace,
To kiss upon thy lips a stainless fame.

Dora Greenwell’s poems included here fall more in the “admiration” category than anything overtly romantic. Greenwell came from an English family of clergymen, and her poems are often on Christian religious themes. “To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in 1861” was written just after Browning’s death. (Greenwell wrote a previous sonnet “To Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1851” which both praises Browning’s talent and expresses how inadequate Greenwell feels beside her.) This elegy does not claim a close connection, but frames the loss in personal—though not particularly romantic—terms.

To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in 1861

I praised thee not while living; what to thee
Was praise of mine? I mourned thee not when dead;
I only loved thee,—love thee! oh thou fled
Fair spirit, free at last where all are free,
I only love thee, bless thee, that to me
For ever thou hast made the rose more red,
More sweet each word by olden singers said
In sadness, or by children in their glee;
Once, only once in life I heard thee speak,
Once, only once I kissed thee on the cheek,
And met thy kiss and blessing; scarce I knew
Thy smile, I only loved thee, only grew,
Through wealth, through strength of thine, less poor, less weak;
Oh, what hath death with souls like thine to do?

Greenwell’s 1875 poem “To Christina Rossetti” is similarly one of professional admiration. I include these as illustrations of the varieties of relationships among circles of poets.

To Christina Rossetti

Thou hast fill'd me a golden cup
With a drink divine that glows,
With the bloom that is flowing up
From the heart of the folded rose.
The grapes in their amber glow,
And the strength of the blood-red wine,
All mingle and change and flow
In this golden cup of thine,
With the scent of the curling vine,
With the balm of the rose's breath,
For the voice of love is thine,
And thine is the Song of Death!

I did an entire episode about Christina Rossetti’s ambiguous fantasy “The Goblin Market.” The poem I include here, “Gone Before,” written in 1856, reflects the romanticism of the Pre-Rafaelites, strong elements of Anglican spirituality, and the Victorian fascination with love, death, and loss. But as a verse in a female voice addressed to a female subject, it falls within our remit.

Gone Before

She was most like a rose, when it flushes rarest;
She was most like a lily, when it blows fairest;
She was most like a violet, sweetest on the bank:
Now she's only like the snow cold and blank
After the sun sank.

She left us in the early days, she would not linger
For orange blossoms in her hair, or ring on finger:
Did she deem windy grass more good than these?
Now the turf that's between us and the hedging trees
Might as well be seas.

I had trained a branch she shelters not under,
I had reared a flower she snapped asunder:
In the bush and on the stately bough
Birds sing; she who watched them track the plough
Cannot hear them now.

Every bird has a nest hidden somewhere
For itself and its mate and joys that come there,
Tho' it soar to the clouds, finding there its rest:
You sang in the height, but no more with eager breast
Stoop to your own nest.

If I could win you back from heaven-gate lofty,
Perhaps you would but grieve returning softly:
Surely they would miss you in the blessed throng,
Miss your sweet voice in their sweetest song,
Reckon time too long.

Earth is not good enough for you, my sweet, my sweetest;
Life on earth seemed long to you tho' to me fleetest.
I would not wish you back if a wish would do:
Only love I long for heaven with you
Heart-pierced thro' and thro'.

Isa Blagden was likely bi-racial, of Anglo-Indian parentage. She was a friend of the Brownings, Bulwer-Lyttons, and Trollopes and is included in this section of the podcast on the strength of her poem “To George Sand on her Interview with Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” commemorating a meeting between those two in 1852. But the 1873 poem I include here is addressed to an unknown woman named “Alice,” who may or may not be a specific real person.

Alice

In her golden chamber—
 Golden with the sun—
Where the roses clamber
 Breathless, one by one;

(O'er her casement creeping
 With their lavish grace,
Through her lattice peeping
 At her happy face,)

Sitteth fairest Alice
 Bending calmly there;
Roses, bear no malice,
 Ye are not so fair.

Bending o'er her missal,
 Alice sitteth there;
Shamrock, rose, and thistle,
 Carved in jewels rare,

Clasp the velvet cover,
 With a rare device;
Scrolls are blazoned over
 Gold and azure dyes.

Argent angels flying,
 Peacock's eyes and wings,
Martyrs bravely dying,
 Quaint and lovely things.

Rubies red, and glowing
 Pearls and emerald sheaves—
Sapphire rivers flowing,
 Glitter through the leaves.

I, a page, a servant,
 Alice as a queen
At my love so fervent
 Smiles, with pride serene.

All my love, my passion—
 All myself I give,
True to ancient fashion,
 Loving while I live.

Claiming nought from Alice,
 Knowing love is vain;
Wine poured from a chalice
 Flows not back again.

True love is a treasure
 Sacred and divine;
Without stint or measure
 Cast upon a shrine.

Alice is an altar
 Flaming with my love,
Where my prayers I falter
 As to heaven above.

Kneeling low before her,
 livery pulse and breath
Asks but to adore her,
 Faithful unto death.

The second social grouping who appeared in my working notes revolve around author Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Page) although I couldn’t find any relevant poems by Lee herself. Amy Levy wrote multiple love poems addressed to Vernon Lee, although it isn’t clear whether she was ever one of Lee’s several lovers. But the poem I chose to include here, “Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia),” written in 1884, can represent the flavor of her work. It’s unclear to me if Sylvia can be identified.

Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia)

My Love, my Love, it was a day in June
A mellow, drowsy, golden afternoon ;
And all the eager people thronging came
To that great hall, drawn by the magic name
Of one, a high magician, who can raise
The spirits of the past and future days,
And draw the dreams from out the secret breast,
Giving them life and shape.
     I, with the rest,

Sat there athirst, atremble for the sound ;
And as my aimless glances wandered round,
Far off, across the hush'd, expectant throng,
I saw your face that fac'd mine.
     Clear and strong

Rush'd forth the sound, a mighty mountain stream ;
Across the clust'ring heads mine eyes did seem
By subtle forces drawn, your eyes to meet.
Then you, the melody, the summer heat,
Mingled in all my blood and made it wine.
Straight I forgot the world's great woe and mine ;
My spirit's murky lead grew molten fire ;
Despair itself was rapture.
     Ever higher,

Stronger and clearer rose the mighty strain ;
Then sudden fell ; then all was still again,
And I sank back, quivering as one in pain.
Brief was the pause ; then, 'mid a hush profound,
Slow on the waiting air swell'd forth a sound
So wondrous sweet that each man held his breath ;
A measur'd, mystic melody of death.
Then back you lean'd your head, and I could note
The upward outline of your perfect throat ;
And ever, as the music smote the air,
Mine eyes from far held fast your body fair.
And in that wondrous moment seem'd to fade
My life's great woe, and grow an empty shade
Which had not been, nor was not.
     And I knew
Not which was sound, and which, O Love, was you.

Agnes Mary Frances Robinson, publishing as A. Mary F. Robinson, was definitely one of Vernon Lee’s lovers. Her poem “A Ballad of Forgotten Tunes” is directly addressed and dedicated to Lee. The poem’s theme is a take-off of the 15th century French poem by François Villon that catalogs famous women of history and myth and laments each one’s passing with the refrain, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Robinson’s verse is packed densely with historic and literary references, including one directly to Villon that you may catch in passing.

A Ballad of Forgotten Tunes

To V. L.
Forgotten seers of lost repute
That haunt the banks of Acheron,
Where have you dropped the broken lute
You play in Troy or Calydon ?
O ye that sang in Babylon
By foreign willows cold and grey,
Fall'n are the harps ye hanged thereon,
Dead are the tunes of yesterday !

De Coucy, is your music mute,
The quaint old plain-chant woe-begone
That served so many a lover's suit ?
Oh, dead as Adam or Guédron !
Then, sweet De Caurroy, try upon
Your virginals a virelay ;
Or play Orlando, one pavonne- 
Dead are the tunes of yesterday!

But ye whose praises none refute,
Who have the immortal laurel won ;
Trill me your quavering close acute,
Astorga, dear unhappy Don !
One air, Galuppi !  Sarti one
So many fingers use to play !-
Dead as the ladies of Villion,
Dead are the tunes of yesterday !

Envoy  

Vernon,  in vain you stoop to con
The slender, faded notes to-day-
The Soul that dwelt in them is gone :
Dead are the tunes of yesterday!

And that feels like a fitting end to our catalog of 19th century poetry. Where are the poems of yesterday?


Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • 19th century poetry
  • Connections and cross-references between women poets
  • Sources mentioned
    • In addition to being found in the following sources, the text of many of these poems have been taken from various online sources not mentioned.
    • Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
    • Domna C. Stanton. 1986. The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present. The Feminist Press, New York. ISBN 0-935312-52-8
    • Donoghue, Emma. 1997. Poems Between Women: Four centuries of love, romantic friendship, and desire. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-231-10925-3
    • Faderman, Lillian (ed). 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. New York: VIking. ISBN 0-670-84368-4
    • Faderman, Lillian. 1999.To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America – A History. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. ISBN 0-395-85010-X
    • Greene, Ellen (ed). 1996. Re-Reading Sappho: Recepton and Transmission. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20602-9
    • Griffin, Farah Jasmine. 1999. Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-679-45128-5
    • Johnson, Thomas R. (ed). 1961. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. ISBN 0-316-18413-6
    • Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, April 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 284 - On the Shelf for April 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/04/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2024.

I sit here writing the introduction to this episode and trying to think of what you-all might find interesting. There are times when my life currently feels like just counting down the days until retirement. (390 days as of the date this episode airs.)

The most exciting thing I’ve done in the last month was buy a recumbent tricycle—a rather fancy high-end machine that will keep me bicycling confidently for decades to come. Some nerve damage in one leg has meant that I’ve taken a few falls—rather embarrassingly, always when at a complete stop. The stability of the tricycle addresses that, while the mechanics of the recumbent configuration mean I still have the power and maneuverability of a good road bike.

It's always interesting to meet someone that you’ve only known through language—whether the written word or audio. Do you have that experience of: “Gosh, you’re…different from what I imagined”? Do you get images in your head of what an author might look like, based on their writing? Since I don’t have a good visual imagination for people, I’m often surprised to discover that I must have imagined what someone looks like—because when I meet them I have to readjust. It's something I struggle with when describing characters because I don’t always have a clear image of them in my mind. So I’m sometimes curious how listeners visualize me, based on the bits of my life I mention in these introductions. That is, assuming you don’t already know me in person!

Last week we aired the first fiction episode of this year’s series. I continue to be amazed at the quality of the stories people are willing to entrust to me. Every year it gets harder to choose just four stories, and I’m more able to design a truly diverse line-up. On the days that I’m tempted to say, “Maybe this is the last year for the fiction series,” I find myself thinking, “But what about that author that I encouraged to revise and resubmit? What about that author who never gets discouraged if I only buy one out of every three stories they send me? What about that author who wrote me a thank you for my feedback who might send me something totally amazing next time?”

In my secret heart, I wish I had it in me to start a publishing house specifically for sapphic historical fiction, but I know my limits and I know my competencies, and that isn’t one of them. But this small corner of publishing continues to give me joy. I only wish the stories I publish would get even more listeners and readers so my authors would get the acclaim they deserve.

Book Shopping!

Once again, I’ve gone a month without blogging any new books. And once again I promise not to beat myself up about it, though I wish I could figure out where I once found the energy to post a blog every day and produce a podcast every week!

But one of the books from this month’s shopping will probably pop up to the top of my reading list. This is Before the Word Was Queer: Sexuality and the English Dictionary, 1600-1930 by Stephen Turton. Thanks to the power of social media, I heard about this book when the author made a release announcement on BlueSky and was able to ask some questions that convinced me I absolutely needed this book. As the title implies, this is an exploration of the language used to describe and express sexuality in English over the last four centuries, and how that language has been described in dictionaries—as well as how it has been censored in dictionaries. I was delighted to discover that there is an entire chapter addressing the language of lesbianism that solidly demolishes the perennial claim that “we didn’t have a word for lesbians until the late 19th century.”

I picked up two other books that fall more in the deep background research category, although Emma Southon’s A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire does have one biography that discusses theories around the possible sapphic leanings of one woman, based on her writings. And I confess I do love the Virginia Woolf pun in the book’s title.

The third book is yet another resource for my future Restoration-era romance series. Like the other two books picked up this month, it’s a brand new release. This time I heard about it on the podcast “Not Just the Tudors.” The book is Pomp and Piety: Everyday Life of the Aristocracy in Stuart England by Ben Norman. I don’t expect there to be anything specifically on queer history—or at least not women’s queer history—but it takes many ingredients to cook a dinner and not all of them have to be the main dish.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But of course, books that do focus on women’s queer history are the meat and potatoes of this podcast, so let’s take a look at new and recent releases.

I first heard about Eliza Lentzski’s Lighthouse Keeper when it was in progress and she posted about it on social media. So I popped it into my spreadsheet and was delightfully surprised to find it out in the world.

In 1874, in the quaint coastal town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the ocean’s waves echo with tales of lost love. Lizzy Darby, a resilient young woman with a heart marked by past sorrows, seeks refuge in the familiarity of her parents' general store. Scarred by the loss of her first love to the unpredictable sea, Lizzy strives to find solace in the routine of her daily life.

Joana Maria Pascoal is a spirited immigrant from the Azores Islands. In her quest for a brighter future for her family, Joana adopts the guise of a man to secure a lucrative position as the town's lighthouse keeper. As Lizzy and Joana's lives become intertwined, an undeniable connection forms, one that transcends the boundaries imposed by their society.

Haunted by the wreckage of her past romance, Lizzy grapples with the fear of opening her heart again. Joana, trapped by a disguise that shields her from prejudice but endangers her livelihood, battles the urge to succumb to a forbidden love. Her dual identity hangs in the balance, a secret that, if exposed, could shatter the financial support crucial for her family's survival.

Clandestine meetings, stolen moments, and the heart's yearnings collide with the harsh realities of a world bound by tradition and familial expectations. Will the secrets that Lizzy and Joana harbor tear them apart, or can their burgeoning relationship overcome the circumstances that threaten a promising new love?

I know that I miss a lot of non-English-language releases, simply because my search terms aren’t attuned for them, or I can’t easily determine if they have sapphic content. But this month I ran across the German translation Eine Lady für die Diebin or A Lady for a Highwayman by Dani Collins (translated by Emma Schwarz). From the author’s website, it looks like the story was originally part of a collection of a dozen erotic Regency-era stories with a diverse assortment of romantic couples, but the German version appears to be a standalone of this sapphic encounter. The German cover copy is in the blog, but here’s the shorter summary the author provides for the English-language collection: “Robbed at gunpoint by a female highwayman, a young lady loses her locket but gains self-knowledge in a stolen kiss.” If you’ve been listening to the podcast long enough to remember the highwaywomen episode, you’ll recognize several of the stock tropes of sapphic highwayman encounters!

Als ihre Lippen sich berührten, hatte Annabelle das Gefühl, dass dies der einzige Ort auf der Welt war, an dem sie sein wollte. Genau hier, um diese süße Empfindung mit dieser Frau zu teilen.

Annabelle ist einem Adligen versprochen, obwohl sie sich viel lieber dem Studium widmen würde. Als sie mit den Eltern auf dem Weg zu ihrem künftigen Gatten überfallen wird, traut Annabell ihren Augen nicht. Denn der Wegelagerer ist eine Frau! Als die Diebin sie in einem unbeobachteten Moment küsst, wird Annabelle alles klar. Sie weiß: sie muss die schöne Diebin wiedersehen - und erneut küssen …

Teil der Lovers and Liaisons Regency Collection. Willkommen in der Welt glitzernder Bälle, geheimer Sehnsüchte und skandalöser Begierden! Zwölf fesselnde Kurzgeschichten laden ein zu einer unvergesslichen Reise voller Lust und Sinnlichkeit in die Regency-Ära.

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland from Dell looks at the darker side of selkie legends.

When a sharp cry wakes Jean in the middle of the night during a terrible tempest, she’s convinced it must have been a dream. But when the cry comes again, Jean ventures outside and is shocked by what she discovers—a young woman in labor, already drenched to the bone in the freezing cold and barely able to speak a word of English.

Although Jean is the only midwife in the village and for miles around, she’s at a loss as to who this woman is or where she’s from; Jean can only assume she must be the new wife of the neighbor up the road, Tobias. And when Tobias does indeed arrive at her cabin in search of his wife, Muirin, Jean’s questions continue to grow. Why has he kept his wife’s pregnancy a secret? And why does Muirin’s open demeanor change completely the moment she’s in his presence?

Though Jean learned long ago that she should stay out of other people’s business, her growing concern—and growing feelings—for Muirin mean she can’t simply set her worries aside. But when the answers she finds are more harrowing than she ever could have imagined, she fears she may have endangered herself, Muirin, and the baby. Will she be able to put things right and save the woman she loves before it’s too late, or will someone have to pay for Jean’s actions with their life?

Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkis from Transworld Digital combines gothic and paranormal elements.

Paris, 1866. When Baroness Sylvie Devereux receives a house-call from Charlotte Mothe, the penniless sister she disowned, she fears that her shady past is about to catch up with her. With their father ill and Charlotte unable to pay his medical bills, Sylvie is persuaded to reprise her role as a gifted medium, to perform one last con.

The marks are the de Jacquinots, a dysfunctional aristocratic family who believe they are being haunted by the ghost of their great aunt, brutally murdered during the French Revolution. There's rumours she buried some valuable jewels before she died: a fortune that would restore the family to their former glory. The Mothe sisters are tasked with finding the treasure and exorcising the poltergeist, for good.

The con gets underway, with the duo deploying every trick to terrify the family out of their gold. But when inexplicable horrors start to happen to them too, the sisters start to question whether they really are at the mercy of a vengeful spirit. And what other deep, dark secrets threaten to come to light . . .

Other Books of Interest

I have three titles in the “other books of interest” category, in all cases because the sapphic content is either very minor or is only vaguely implied by the available information.

Teach the Children to Pray by Rebecca Harwick from Kastanien Press is a rather uncompromising look at coming of age during the Thirty Years War in Germany.

1618. A witch hunt forces ten year-old Josefine Dorn and her father to the harsh, unforgiving roads of Germany. That same year, Bohemian Protestants throw the Holy Roman Emperor’s regents from a castle window, sparking a religious war that soon engulfs the whole Empire. Driven by misfortune and desperation, Josefine’s father enlists, and Josefine follows him into the army’s baggage train.

In the army, Josefine learns to survive, first as a child looking after her soldier father, and later, in the unlikely role of field surgeon, tending to the war’s broken and ailing.

Josefine’s story is interwoven with the ordinary people of Germany—men and women; Protestants, Catholics and Jews; believers and unbelievers—as they strive to hold onto what truly matters in spite of plundering armies and narrow-minded princes. Evocatively written and infused with warmth and humanity, Teach the Children to Pray brings to life a richly-drawn cast of characters through the eyes of its striking heroine and her extraordinary story of lost faith, forbidden love, and the search for peace in a time of endless war.

The description I received from the publisher for Grey Dog by Elliott Gish from ECW Press calls it a “queer awakening” story, but it appears primarily to be horror.

The year is 1901, and Ada Byrd — spinster, schoolmarm, amateur naturalist — accepts a teaching post in isolated Lowry Bridge, grateful for the chance to re-establish herself where no one knows her secrets. She develops friendships with her neighbors, explores the woods with her students, and begins to see a future in this tiny farming community. Her past — riddled with grief and shame — has never seemed so far away.

But then, Ada begins to witness strange and grisly phenomena: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. She soon believes that something old and beastly — which she calls Grey Dog — is behind these visceral offerings, which both beckon and repel her. As her confusion deepens, her grip on what is real, what is delusion, and what is traumatic memory loosens, and Ada takes on the wildness of the woods, behaving erratically and pushing her newfound friends away. In the end, she is left with one question: What is the real horror? The Grey Dog, the uncontainable power of female rage, or Ada herself?

The Final Curse of Ophelia Gray by Christine Calella from Page Street YA is tagged as LGBTQIA, but advance reviews seem to indicate that sapphic content is limited to some side characters and the title character is aro/ace.

After a lifetime of abuse at the hands of superstitious townsfolk, Ophelia Young, a bastard child of the notorious pirate queen, is tired of paying for the sins of her mother. Despite playing by the rules her whole life, she’s earned nothing but spite and suspicion. So when a naval officer saves her from the jeering crowd at her mother’s hanging, Ophelia hatches a new hope of enlisting in the navy to escape her mother’s legacy and redeem her own reputation for good. But Ophelia soon discovers that a life at sea isn’t as honorable as she hoped.

Betsy Young is as different as she could be from her half-sister Ophelia. She’s a nervous homebody who wants to keep her family safe and longs to be in love. So naturally, she’s devastated when the son of their family’s business partner rejects her hand in marriage and her sister joins the navy. But when her father contracts a life-threatening illness as well, Betsy has to bring Ophelia home to save the family business.

Unfortunately for the Young sisters, Betsy trying to get Ophelia recalled reveals that Ophelia enlisted fraudulently under Betsy’s name, a secret which Ophelia struggles to keep from crewmates who would kill her if they knew she was the pirate queen’s daughter. To save Ophelia from the naval authorities, Betsy will have to board a ship during hurricane season and brave all the dangers of the sea to get them both home safe.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? When a new book by Aliette de Bodard comes out, it immediately goes on my to-read list, though I’m a bit behind on the actual reading. But one of my two audiobooks this month was her Monte-Cristo-inspired adventure A Fire Born of Exile which gender-flips the main character (producing a central sapphic romance) and sets the story in her space-faring Xuya universe.

It was interesting to follow the plot knowing that this was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, because it meant that part of my brain was constantly working to match characters up with their originals and try to predict where the plot would go on that basis. I’d be interested to hear from readers who aren’t familiar with the details of the Dumas story. De Bodard’s version kept me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything would work out through a very layered and tangled plot. The emotional work of the novel was strong and the relationships all felt very real, within the context of the setting.

The second audiobook I listened to this month is quite a change of pace from my usual: John Scalzi’s Starter Villain about a guy who gets a surprise inheritance from a mysterious uncle and quickly finds himself out of his depth among international criminal conspiracies. Oh, and it’s a comedy and involves genetically engineered intelligent cats.

It feels a bit odd to call a book “light and fluffy” which it involves a fairly high body count, but it’s more in the realm of cartoon violence and you never worry that any character you’re meant to care about will be offed. And the twist at the end is both cleverly surprising and yet not at all unexpected if you’ve been paying close attention. All in all, I can’t say it grabbed me, but it was fun and I don’t regret listening.

So that’s it for the April books and now I need to brainstorm which historic romance trope I’m going to tackle in the next episode.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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Major category: 
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Sunday, March 31, 2024 - 17:08

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 283 – Daughters of Derbyshire by Daniel Stride - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/31 - listen here)

The first story for our 2024 fiction series, “Daughters of Derbyshire,” is set in 17th century England in one of the repeated outbreaks of plague that devastated that century. It’s hard not to think of the terrible toll of the Covid pandemic when reading it. For all that, this is a quiet, contemplative story.

The author, Daniel Stride, lives pretty much on the opposite side of the globe from his story’s setting, in Dunedin, New Zealand. He has a lifelong love of literature in general, and speculative fiction in particular, although this story is purely historical. He writes both short stories and poetry and his work has been featured in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Te Korero Ahi Ka. His first novel, a steampunk-flavoured dark fantasy, Wise Phuul was published in November 2016 by the small UK press, Inspired Quill. A sequel novel, Old Phuul, is due out in 2024. Daniel is an aficionado of chocolate and cats, and can be found blogging about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, among other things, at his blog A Phuulish Fellow, which is linked in the show notes. (https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/).

 Daniel Stride

I will be your narrator for this story.

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.


Daughters of Derbyshire

By Daniel Stride

 

The cart crept along the dirt road. Wheels splashed through the puddles left from yesterday’s rain. Kate sat beside the driver, clutching a cloth bag to her chest. She paid little heed to the creak and rattle of the wooden planks, nor to the clop of the hooves. The journey was not uncomfortable, and there was little rush. Billy Phillips’ donkey was a slow and steady beast, and would not hurry, though the armies of Satan himself marched behind.

Kate pondered the impending walk back to Tideswell.

Five well-known miles, past the glistening green of field and pasture, and through copses of shadowy oaks. Travellers often passed through her village, on their way to Sheffield, but she herself rarely journeyed further than this old and familiar road. Tideswell to Eyam, Dan unto Beersheba.

“More grim news from London,” said Billy. Gnarled hands gripping the reins, he stared ahead, lost in thought. The old folk of Tideswell said Billy had not been right since the wars, when he had lost his three sons in service to Parliament. “Fresh tidings reached the tavern last night. A rider on horseback.”

Kate frowned. “Have people sought to flee the city?”

“Always. Fear runs through the streets, for the great pits are full and grow ever-fuller. But by the Grace of God, the surrounding countryside turns back escapees, and even within London the dead are not left outside during the day.”

Plague and disease had stalked this land for years beyond count. Men, women, and children suffered and died. It was the way of the world, the reflection of a sinful race. Even so, this outbreak of pestilence in the capital sent terror through the hearts of all Englishmen. Even here, in quiet Derbyshire.

No. Especially here in quiet Derbyshire.

Death had reached out its cold and clammy hand to Eyam, and even now was tightening its grip. The Rector, William Mompesson, had decreed a cordon around the village. No-one entered Eyam, and no-one left, in the hope the plague might be contained here, and not spread across the countryside. At the boundary stones, the people of neighbouring villages left food-gifts and supplies, and in exchange Eyam’s locals left coins soaked in purifying vinegar. 

Billy Phillips, he of the white beard and distant stare, was making such a food delivery this very morning.

I’m making a delivery too.

Kate had finished her morning chores, mopped the floor, and chopped the firewood. She fetched the eggs from the hen house too, finding a bounty left among the straw. God smiled even in the midst of calamity. But she prayed the pestilence had not carried off Mary since their last meeting.

There is always God’s will. We must accept what He decrees.

Kate pulled the book from her bag. Not the family Bible. That remained on its shelf at home, and taking it upon a journey would have earned her the scolding of a lifetime. This was a bound collection of printed Psalms, for study in her own time.

Her parents had taught her to read, so she might comprehend the true and unalterable Word of God, without resort to papist blasphemies, or to the infamous errors of The Book of Common Prayer.

Kate opened the book at random, and mouthed the words to herself.

 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.


The boundary stone loomed beside the road, flat and grey in the noonday sun. It had been placed months ago, together with others like it. Past here, only the damned might pass.

Billy tugged at the reins. Donkey and cart halted.

“Be a good young woman, and fetch the coins,” he said. “I’ll unload the parcels.”

Kate hopped down onto the road. She left her bag on the seat.

The day was clear and quiet. No birds sang, and no wind rustled the trees. She and Billy may have been the last mortals left alive. Step by step, Kate approached the stone. She felt a vast unseen wall looming over her.

She might neither see it, nor touch it, nor smell it. But she could feel it. The wall ran across the road, in its grim and all-encompassing glory. Thus were the folk of Eyam cut off from the world of the living. Thus was Kate cut off from Mary.

Save for the Rector’s letter.

The rock had small holes in it. Kate picked out the coins. Soaked in vinegar, the coins had now dried, but the sparkle remained.

Pennies, ha’pennies, and farthings, all the poor villagers of Derbyshire could afford.

Kate laid them on her palm. The faces frowned.

Carolus Rex.

No quarrel with the King. These parts yet mourned Oliver Cromwell, a just and true man, but Charles had returned to rule his realm, and the days of the Commonwealth were over. Alas the King had acquired malicious advisers, who steered the realm away from God and towards sin. The pagan festival of Christmas was celebrated again in the land, the debauched theatres had reopened, and Kate’s own father now murmured that the pestilence showed God’s displeasure.

The righteous always suffer in this world. The whore of Babylon raises her foul head, so we must commit ourselves yet more strongly to the path of Christ.

Kate heard the scuff of Billy’s boots. She turned. The old man approached, food-parcels piled high.

“What have they left?” he asked.

“Little enough. Soon they shall rely only upon on our charity.”

The pair arranged the parcels around the stone, and Billy slipped the coins into a leather purse. The money would be divided upon the Rector’s table back in Tideswell. Kate knew there would be no complaints. This charity was freely given and pleasing to God.

Billy cupped his hands, and shouted across the green fields.

“We have brought fresh supplies, and now we leave.”

No answer. If any of Eyam heard, they hid amidst the shadows. Billy wiped sweat from his wrinkled brow.

“You desire a ride back?”

“No,” said Kate. “I shall walk. I am meeting Mary Famwell, so we might talk across the stones.”

“As you wish. But come not close to her, nor cross the boundary. Even for a moment.”

“I understand.”

“God is watching.”

 “God is watching,” Kate agreed.


Kate stuffed the cloth bag under her arm, hiked her petticoat, and trod across the fields. A creek lay near, brown and slow-flowing, home to frogs and dragonflies. Mary showed her this place, before the pestilence, when Kate’s father came to Eyam on business. Kate still treasured that day, as she treasured their first meeting at the Tideswell market, behind the clothier’s stall.

   This creek was also mentioned in the letter, cryptically, so none save God might spy upon them. She had persuaded Rector Merton to write the communication, and send it with the last load of deliveries. Thus might Mary hear of her coming.

I brought her bread. If she lives, she will eat well.

The trickle of water came to Kate’s ears. Her heart beat faster.

There it lay, past the chestnut trees, ale-brown and inviting. The creek gleamed in the noonday sun. Stones both smooth and rounded thrust up from the bed. The grass along the banks grew green and lush, dotted with clover.

Kate had last been here at the height of summer, and she and Mary had dipped feet into cool waters until their toes wrinkled. Today, the air hung humid, but not so hot. A pleasant day for luncheon.

But the creek also ran with foreboding. This was a boundary between Eyam and the world. That far shore stood distant as the Virginia colony, and the water might be the full width of the Atlantic Ocean.

The boulder sat where she remembered. Shaped like a moss-covered tombstone, to make a grim comparison. But when death ravaged the world, grimness became a decadent luxury. Kate thought it best to endure, to treasure the joys God deemed appropriate, until righteousness inevitably prevailed, and the wicked were cast down. The world lay within His hands, and even King Charles must tremble before His word.

Kate found a comfortable spot beside the boulder. Mary had not yet come.

But she shall.

A cloud covered the sun, and for a moment Kate shivered.

She opened the cloth bag, and pulled out her Psalms. She flicked to one hundred and thirty-seven, and read the words aloud.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

Then she saw the figure, across the water. Cloaked and masked, it had left the shadow of the trees, and came across the fields towards her.

Kate twitched in excitement.

The figure waved, and Kate leapt to her feet.

“Mary!”

God in His infinite mercy had seen fit to spare her.

Mary was of age with Kate, and in soul stood closer than any sister. In the time before the pestilence, they met at market, and ate apples while their fathers discussed wool prices and lead mines. Both had newly come to the flower of womanhood, and both shared a devotion to God and His word. Mary set Kate’s heart afire, and to hold her hand was the best thing in the world.

The other girls of Tideswell might titter over young men, and soon enough wed them, but Kate felt no such desires. Young men, in her experience, were universally fools or brutes, afflicted with much vice and little virtue.

Would that no husband separate her from Mary.

But I cannot see her face. Neither the sparkle of her grey eyes, nor the rosiness of her cheeks.

Kate could not look upon Mary’s face while the plague raged. Only the beaked mask, which warded the wearer from dreadful airs.

Might she ask Mary to remove the mask, just this once?

No. She could not endanger Mary. The plague and its airs lurked in strange places. Even on the quiet banks of this ale-brown creek.

And God is watching.

Kate contented herself with a smile.

“You live,” she called. “How goes it in Eyam?”

Mary reached the far bank, and settled upon the clover. She wore not merely cloak and mask, but also gloves that stretched to her elbows.

“Poorly,” she said. “Much death and disaster. Some are struck down as if with lightning from on high; others cling to life in agony for many long days, or lie in their beds delirious with fever until the end takes them. There is little rhyme or reason behind the suffering, and few who sicken live to tell the tale. By happy will of God, my own parents and brothers have yet been spared.”

“Your Rector survives?”

“Aye. Mompesson lives. And Stanley, our true Rector. Mompesson received your letter, and slid it beneath my father’s door with a note of his own. My father’s hands shook as he read it aloud, but it warmed our hearts to hear from you.”

“The folk of Tideswell will never abandon Eyam.”

“And we shall never abandon each other.”

“I have brought you a gift myself.”

Taking care not to hit Mary, Kate threw the cloth bag across the creek. The bundle landed amidst the softness of the long grass. A monarch butterfly fluttered away.

“A loaf of bread, and a lump of hard cheese,” she said. “So that you and your kin shall eat well, even in these dark days.”

Mary fetched the bag, and looked inside.

“Your charity lies beyond reproach.”

“I also have my book of Psalms. I thought to read the verses aloud, so we might bask in the glory of His word.”

Behind the beak, Mary laughed. A sweet laugh, one belonging to happier times.

“You know me well. I too have brought His word. But not merely Psalms.”

She produced a fat blue book from within the folds of her cloak.

Kate blinked. “The Bible? You brought your family Bible?”

“I have.”

“Your father will scold you! It is far too precious to take out here.”

A full Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, printed and bound. Worth many hours of toil and labour.

“He granted me permission. He considers it far too precious to leave upon the shelf.”

“You shall return it when done?”

“That was the agreement. He taught me to read. He sees fit that I should read this.”

“What if it rains?”

“I have my cloak.”

“Thieves?”

“On the very borders of the plague village? Where Death itself walks? Kate, the people of Eyam scare the worst bandits, and those seek money and not Bibles.”

Kate relaxed.

“I am sorry,” she said. “This is more than I ever expected.”

“I understand. But would you like to hear me read?”

“With all my heart,” said Kate.


Kate walked home that afternoon, the five miles passing as a dream. But the haunting remembrance of Ecclesiastes hovered beside her like a ghost:

For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Kate stopped, and looked back towards the trapped and hapless village. A place snared in an evil time, caught as with London in this net of terrible plague.

Would that Mary live to see better days.


Death found Billy Phillips the night of New Years Eve. A peaceful death, and not from pestilence, a better end than most in these times. He had known one Queen, three Kings, and the rise and fall of the Commonwealth, and yet he left no line or legacy, save his friends, of whom he had many. His wife died before the wars, his last son perished upon the battlefield at Newbury, and he had neither brothers nor sisters, nor even cousins. But he did not leave this world alone. Tideswell villagers mourned Billy as one.

But there was property. No sooner had he been buried – with difficulty, and labour, given the frosts – than Billy’s cottage and chattels were sold off by Rector Merton.

The donkey and cart fell into the hands of George Taylor, a man Kate’s father disliked for having once been found drunk in a ditch. On the Sabbath, no less.


The February snows had lessened, but even wrapped in her thickest wools, Kate shivered atop the cart. The weak and pallid sun gleamed through the clouds, and the trees stood leafless and barren, like so many skeletons.

George Taylor’s eldest son, John, held the reins. Large, muscled, and indisputably handsome, he had earned himself much admiration and notoriety among the maidens of Tideswell. Widow Butcher, old enough to know better, claimed his brown eyes might melt the iciest of hearts.

He did not melt Kate’s heart. Kate did not care much for John Taylor. But he had volunteered to drive the five miles to Eyam to deliver food parcels, and this was Kate’s first chance in months to see Mary again. She had little choice but to accompany him.

“Good news from London,” said John.

Kate said nothing. John went on. Scarfless, he did not seem to feel the cold.

“They say the plague has eased. King Charles shall shortly return to the city.”

“Hooray for the King.”

John laughed. “By my faith, Kate. You are a sour one. Let’s bottle you for vinegar.”

“My only hope is for the pestilence to depart Eyam.”

“Where London leads, Eyam shall follow.”

“As God wills, so it shall be.”

“And what does God will for Kate Pym?”

 She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You are no longer a mere girl, Kate. Your bosom is that of a woman, and your hips are ripe for childbearing. Why do you not seek a husband?”

“It is not my time.”

“Then when?”

“When God decides.”

John Taylor looked at her oddly. They continued in silence for the rest of the journey.


No coins in the boundary stone. The folk of Eyam had naught left to give.

Kate unloaded the parcels, grateful for the warmth of woollen gloves. Then she offered John a frosty farewell, and trudged out across the snow.

“You’re mad, woman!” John called to her.

She did not turn to argue.

Trees haunted Kate all the way to the creek. All shorn of leaves by the dreary season. Branches twisted and gnarled, and powdered with white.


Mary was waiting, a lonely figure in the desolation of winter. Once more, she stood enshrouded by a cloak, this time of thick grey wool. She wore leather gloves to the elbow, and that terrible beaked mask. But it was Mary. Kate knew her companion.

“You live!”

Such weight lifted from my shoulders.

“Aye,” Mary replied. “I am so fortunate. Thanks be to God.”

There was no sitting to enjoy each other’s company, not with the heaviness of the snowdrifts. Kate stood separated not by the trickle of flowing water, but by the harsh and immovable beauty of ice. The creek lay frozen between them, still and silent as the grave.

“I bring no loaf or cheese today,” said Kate. “Tideswell has gifted Eyam another cartload of charity parcels – all we can spare during the February snows.”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Eyam shall not forget. But in truth, we grow desperate. Since we last met, the pestilence has carried off both my mother and Thomas. Richard came down with those dark swellings, and wrestled with death for twelve terrible days, but at last survived. Others are not so lucky. The Thorpes have been wiped from the earth, and mothers bury their children in the cold soil, one by one.”

Would I could take you in my arms, and comfort you. But I cannot. God is watching.

“Your father?”

“He sits gloomily beside the hearth, and mutters of the end of days.”

“Perhaps his trials are ending,” said Kate. “The pestilence in London has eased. It will ease too in Eyam.”

“It shall ease when all lie dead. Pity the last soul, for he must bury the others.”

“Mary, place your trust in God.”

A bitter laugh from behind the beaked mask.

“I cling to Him as a drowning man clings to a raft. But Eyam rots before my eyes. The roofs and roads go unrepaired, the cows go unmilked. Stones chip and stores spoil. The Church gathers dust, for our services must be open-air, even in the whiteness of winter. Men flee one another, knowing at any time they or their children might be struck down. Each one of us waits for Death, Kate. It walks among us, sits at our tables, and sleeps in our beds. We cannot escape it. But I now wonder if madness shall come first.”

Kate shook her head.

“This world is the vale of tears, the place of sorrow. There is naught I can do, and naught you can do, save hold fast to our faith. Let us read His word, and take what comfort we can in the face of death.”

A pause. At last Mary nodded.

“You’re right, Kate. Sorry to have been so sour.”

“No apologies needed. I am not like you, trapped amid the walking dead in a Babylonian Captivity. My mother awaits me in our cottage back in Tideswell, and not beneath the earth. Did you bring your Bible again? If not, I still have my Psalms.”

“I brought it. But rather than Ecclesiastes, I planned something more hopeful…”

The gloom might eat away at her soul, but even amid snow and plague, Kate found warmth in the Gospels, and in the company of Mary. Would that she had the power of Biblical Joshua, to stop the passage of the sun across the sky.

Later, Kate followed her own footprints back over the snow. Beside a tree-trunk, she turned one last time. Mary still stood far-off, beak and cloak outlined against the white fields.

Kate waved.

The figure waved back.


The snows melted, and grass reappeared. Winter turned to spring, and spring to the heat of summer. John Taylor wedded a heavily pregnant Ruth Hadfield in July, and Kate could only shake her head.

News from Eyam suggested the pestilence still ravaged the village. Deliveries of food and supplies continued, but Kate had no chance to see Mary. Not when so much work was needed at home, and her own mother was ailing.

It was early September before Kate could again make the five-mile journey.


“Fire has devastated London,” said Sam. He sat in the driver’s seat, clenching the reins until his knuckles whitened. “St Paul’s Cathedral burned down. Everyone’s homeless.”

It was the third time he’d said this since leaving Tideswell. Kate herself had learned of the Great Fire yesterday. But she let him natter. The afternoon was too hot to yell.

Red-haired and squint-eyed, Sam Hipkins was not the comeliest lad to grace God’s green earth. Nor had God favoured him with brains, though if some mule had kicked him in the head, Kate had never heard. Worse, his family’s views of The Book of Common Prayer left much to be desired. Kate would not accuse Sam of papism – he wasn’t bright enough for that sin – though she did wonder.

The Taylors were dealing with childbirth, so it fell on Sam to deliver the parcels to Eyam. Kate would ensure the food got through. The cart itself… if George Taylor trusted this poor fool to return it in one piece, that was his business. She just pitied the donkey.

But sitting atop the cart meant she tasted a refreshing breeze. To live through this summer had been to endure the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar without divine protection. One sweltering day followed another, trees and grass turned tinder-dry, no-one able to sleep at night… small wonder London had ignited.

Truly, God tested His people.


The grass grew green and lush, and the creek ran as ever. Kate was relieved. She had feared the creek had dried up in the summer heat.

But though she longed to stretch herself out beside the waters, best to hide from the sun. An overhanging willow grew not far off, arching across the creek. Shade, within sight of the meeting-boulder. She trudged over, and nestled down amid the twisted roots.

Slipping off shoes and stockings, Kate dipped her feet into the creek. She found a nice deep hollow. The cool water ran over her ankles, and up to her shins.

So good. So fresh.

Mary had not yet come.

She’ll swelter in that blasted beak.

There was naught to do but wait, and trust that God had again delivered Mary from the plague. The disease had gripped Eyam for twelve terrible months… the end must surely be in sight. They had not been cursed unto the seventh generation.

Kate opened her copy of Psalms, and commenced reading from the beginning.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Dragonflies darted about. One even landed on the page, wings obscuring God’s word.

A flick of the fingers, and Kate chased it away.


Hours passed, and the heat grew less. But the shadows around the creek lengthened, and with them the dread grew in Kate’s heart.

She had talked with Rector Merton, of course. He had written her message as before, including the cryptic reference only Mary would understand. The message had been sent with an earlier delivery, and Kate had come on the appointed day.

So where was Mary?

The plague, you foolish woman. The plague.

Kate continued to read aloud from Psalms.

Her hands shook as she turned the pages. Nor was her mind on these words, for she pondered the verse from Ecclesiastes. The one Mary had read those months ago, as they sat upon the banks of this very creek.

“We have been snared in an evil time,” she whispered.

Tears in her eyes, she offered a desperate prayer to Him.

God is watching.


With the coming of November, the pestilence vanished from Eyam, and the villagers were finally freed from their torment. For fourteen months, the stalwart courage of this brave few had stopped the plague spreading beyond the boundary stones.

Kate knew this well.

Tideswell, as much as Sheffield, owed these people their lives. Eyam had endured in darkness, so that others might walk free beneath the sun. Herself among them.

But standing amid the Eyam cemetery, seeing the graves, row on row, as the dry husks of fallen leaves lay scattered about them…

A dagger in the heart.

Kate turned, and looked Mary in the eye.

“I cannot believe you survived. When you did not meet me beside the creek in September, I feared the worst. That you had followed your mother and brother…”

It was as before. Ere the coming of the pestilence, when all seemed right in the world. Mary was herself again, without that beaked mask. Grey eyes, and cheeks both pink and merry. The autumnal breeze ruffled her dark hair.

But a sorrow still hung over her, one harder to shed.

“I cannot believe I survived either,” said Mary. “I lay abed for weeks, fevered and sweating. Worse even than poor Richard, apparently, and Death shadowed my bedside. Only my father saved me. While Richard tended to the goats and hens, he tended to me. Dour and stubborn old man, he brought me water and broth, until I was well again.”

“He watched over you too.”

“Aye. He did.”

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

“Indeed.” Mary slipped her hand into Kate’s. “Indeed.”


Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Daughers of Derbyshire” by Daniel Stride, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Daniel Stride Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Sunday, March 17, 2024 - 20:43

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 282 - Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/17 - listen here)

Introduction

Last month, in the favorite tropes episode on Bluestockings and Amazons, I explicitly said I was not talking about the classical concept of Amazons, but specifically the use of the term for a “sporty” woman, especially one associated with equine activities. So when I was casting about for a topic for this month, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever done an episode on classical Amazons. So I’ll fill that gap now.

Amazons show up regularly in sapphic historic fantasy set in the ancient world, reflecting a modern association with homoeroticism. But when did that association begin? And why are Amazons a continuing theme across western history?

The mythic Amazons had two distinguishing features: they were warriors, and they lived in all-women societies, interacting with men once a year for the purpose of procreation, and raising only female children. When Amazons were taken up as a literary motif or an iconic image, one or both of those features might be emphasized, but the purpose for which those images were used shaped what other feature might be assigned to these women.

Classical Amazons

When we look back into history for Amazons, there are two layers to the evidence. One is the image of the legendary warrior women such as Penthesilea and Hippolyta, the other is the archaeological and cultural evidence that suggests what the legend may have been founded on.

 The more historic side is addressed by authors such as Adrienne Mayor in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, and Lyn Webster Wilde’s On the Trail of The Women Warriors. To sum up: there is strong evidence from the region around the Black Sea of nomadic, horse-riding cultures in which women had high status and participated in warfare. These motifs can be associated with the Scythians and Sarmatians, but similar finds can also be identified in a broader geographic area. While the motif of women warriors has solid evidence among these groups, there is no evidence for single-sex cultural units.

How did that motif arise? One can only speculate, but the supremely patriarchal Greek states must have been a bit traumatized by encountering groups in which women warriors were an ordinary phenomenon—traumatized enough that Amazons became something of an icon of wild peoples living on the fringes of what they considered the civilized world. In Greek art, these warrior women, dressed in trousers and jackets and mounted on horseback, represented the antithesis of Greek culture and must be shown to be defeated in battle to set the world right. (Later Greek art shifts to depicting Amazons in short chitons, similar to what Greek men wore—possibly to allow for showing a bit more skin.)

Still speculating, if you’re a Greek man in a patriarchal society, it might be a natural conclusion that the only context in which women could be warriors would be if there were no men around to put them in their place. In any event, it became a standard part of Amazonian myth that the women lived without men. They needed men to get pregnant, so the idea arose that they met periodically with men from a neighboring tribe—in some versions, men who also lived in a single-sex community—and from the resulting children, raised only the daughters. In some versions, they handed the boys over to their fathers; in a darker version, they killed the boys. Other misogynistic features of the legend are more clearly later additions, such as the idea that the Amazonian archers would cut off their right breast to make it easier to draw a bow.

One popular type of Amazon story in Greek literature was that of the male Greek hero who subdues an Amazon queen, as Heracles or Theseus does with Hippolyta. Or maybe it was Heracles and Melanippe. Or Theseus and Antiope. There are a lot of different versions. Another motif is that of the band of Amazon warriors showing up to participate in Greek wars, as Penthesilea’s band does in the Trojan war. Some of the more legendary biographies of Alexander the Great involve the Amazon queen Thalestris bringing a band of 300 women warriors to join him and having sex with Alexander in hopes of begetting a heroic daughter.

In addition to the legends of Heracles and Theseus, Homer’s Illiad, and the fictionalized Romance of Alexander, Amazons are treated as entirely historic in the 5th century BCE writings of Herodotus, and the 1st century BCE writings of Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. As we move into the common era, references more clearly locate Amazons in the distant past. Virgil brings them into his Aeneid, Suetonius says that the Amazons once ruled a large part of Asia, and many other writers mention them as an accepted part of history, including repeating references to specific named queens and lists of their companions. This fictionalizing tradition in which named Amazons are integrated in both historic and literary works continues on long after the classical era as we shall see.

But what is missing from classical stories about Amazons is any reference to female homosexuality. From one angle, this isn’t entirely surprising. As Sandra Boehringer takes pains to point out, male-authored classical Greek literature is for the most part uninterested in what women might do in bed together. To the extent that Greek writers considered the Amazons historic, it might not have occurred to them that a society of women would have any purpose for sex outside of procreation. And to the extent that Greek writers were telling fictional stories, the purpose of Amazon characters was to be subdued and sexually dominated by men.

It isn’t until later that writers start giving their Amazon characters same-sex desires.

Classical Amazons in Post-Classical Literature

Post-classical references to Amazons alternate between treating them as historical fact and using them as a convenient literary trope. John Mandeville’s highly fanciful 14th century travelogue describes, “Beside the land of Chaldea is the land of Amazonia, that is the land of Feminye. And in that realm is only woman and no man; not as some may say, that men may not live there, but because the women will not suffer men amongst them to be their sovereigns.” Despite the clearly fictional nature of many of Mandeville’s details, the book represents itself as factual.

In contrast, most of the Amazonian references in medieval literature are playing with motifs that, on some level, are recognized as part of a fictional tradition, interweaving them with mythic figures, legendary plots, and Arthurian characters.

Sarah Westphal notes that Amazon characters in medieval and Renaissance literature, rather than functioning as the uncivilized, anti-patriarchal Other of Greek depictions, served as an idealized chivalric figure, combining masculine military ideals with “feminine” characteristics of diplomacy and pragmatism, essential for statecraft. In these stories, we may see a contrast between characters identified as Amazons and those simply identified as female knights. The “lady knights” more often participate in heterosexual love stories—although they may feature as an object of desire for other female characters—while the Amazons represent an overturning of social norms.

A classic example appears in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A sub-story within the poem describes a country of Amazon warrior women, ruled by Queen Orontea that struggles with the hazards of accepting men. But the prominent “warrior woman” characters of Bradamante and Marfisa are not “Amazons” in the sense of belonging to a woman-only culture, even though it is common for them to be referred to as such due to their martial prowess. (On reviewing my notes, I see that in previous episodes I have referred to Bradamante as an Amazon, but on stricter review she doesn’t seem to fall in the strict definition.)  Bradamante does become an object of female desire by the Princess Fiordispina who initially mistakes Bradamante for a man. After this gender confusion is resolved, Fiordispina continues to proclaim her love for the warrior woman and express frustration and uncertainty on how to proceed until all is resolved through Bradamante’s convenient twin brother.

Another contrasting appearance of “lady knights” and Amazons occurs in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen where the virtuous (and hetero-romantic) Britomart is set in opposition to the Queen of the Amazons, Radigund, who has enslaved a number of male knights and degraded them by forcing them to do women’s work. But Radigund’s misandry is framed as the wrath of a woman scorned by a man. It is Britomart who—like Bradamante—unintentionally attracts female desire when taken for a man.

Often, medieval Amazon characters are borrowed from author to author across the centuries. Giovanni Boccaccio’s poem Teseida takes up the story of Hippolyta and Theseus, when the Scythian women break away from men and elect Hippolyta as their queen. Theseus sets out to rectify this situation, forcing Hippolyta to surrender and become his queen, also taking captive Hippolyta’s sister Emilia. Two noble prisoners of Theseus fall in love with Emilia (who only wants to remain single) and bloody tragedy ensues in the fight for Emilia’s hand. Geoffrey Chaucer takes up the story in The Knight’s Tale, following a similar storyline, in which the Amazon Emilia—who petitions the goddess Diana to remain single—becomes the prize in a vicious competition between two suitors. It’s only when William Shakespeare adapts the tale in Two Noble Kinsmen that Amazonian Emilia’s disinterest in her male suitors is hinted to be motivated by mourning the death of her beloved, Flavina. Once again she prays to Diana to allow her to remain unmarried…unsuccessfully. Given Shakespeare’s rather hands-off treatment of female homoeroticism, the intensity of the language used to describe Emilia’s devotion to the late, lamented Flavina is significant and can reasonably place this in the “lesbian Amazons” category.

The framing of Amazons as somewhat essentially masculine contributes to the Amazon romance theme in Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590), where a man disguises himself as an Amazon in order to gain access to his love object who is being secluded from men. The choice of an Amazon as the vehicle of disguise may reflect the idea that it would be less suspicious for an Amazon to act “manly” than for an ordinary woman. Flipping the script on Bradamante, where the maiden mistakenly believes the Amazon is a man and falls in love, in Arcadia, the maiden Philoclea gradually recognizes her desire for the supposed Amazon and struggles with accepting this non-normative romance. Only after Philoclea declares her love is the disguise revealed. Arcadia was adapted multiple times for the stage, as in John Day’s The Isle of Guls (1606) and James Shirley’s The Arcadia (1640) although neither plays out the homoerotic plot quite as satisfyingly.

Denise Walen explores the use of Amazons in 17th century drama to explore themes of praiseworthy versus condemned versions of female homoeroticism, contrasted within the same play. One example of this is The Female Rebellion (1657-59) which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. The spectator is left to draw the expected relationship between homoerotic desire and villainy, and the two chaste and noble Amazons are redeemed with marriages to Scythian men.

Madeleine de Scudéry’s History of Sappho vacillates between following the heteronormative Phaon myth and concluding that the only true form of love is based in female friendship. Her story concludes with Sappho escaping to a utopian land ruled by Amazons and with her male lover accepting the role of devoted female companion.

So we see that while lesbian themes begin to be interwoven in the larger context of Amazonian and pseudo-Amazonian themes, we are only introduced to the possibility of homoerotic desire among Amazons, rather than establishing it as an expectation.

Identifying with Amazons

The prevalence of Amazon imagery in literature made it available to apply to actual women who stepped outside of prescribed roles in similar ways. The Greek historian Niketas Choniates described European women accompanying the second crusade in Amazonian terms: “…riding horseback in the manner of men…bearing lances and weapons as men do…more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea….” Some historians interpret this as a reference to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Some of Joan of Arc’s defenders excused her cross-dressing with references to the legends of Amazons, as well as biographies of transvestite saints and biblical stories of heroic women such as Deborah and Esther.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when individuals assigned female who participated in the military as men were discovered, positive publicity might invoke comparisons to Amazons, while negative reactions leaned on religious prohibitions.

While the literary Amazons discussed previously have been authored by men, when we get to an era when women’s writing is more visible, we see them adopting the Amazon tradition for their own purposes. As Elizabeth Wahl points out, French women active in the Fronde conflict against King Louis XIV saw themselves as part of a tradition of Amazons, although reaction against them resulted in the Amazon becoming a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any sort of public intellectual activity. But images of all-female societies had symbolic meaning for many women intellectuals.

The fashion for—and anxiety about—secret societies in 18th century France was heightened when female societies were involved. One female Freemason lodge specifically titled its leader “Queen of the Amazons” and raised the specter of women forming communities independent of men—a specter that also invoked suspicions of homosexuality.

Extending the Amazon Label

For the most part, in this episode, I’ve been focusing on the image of the Amazon using that name. There is a larger context of individuals or groups of warrior women within patriarchal societies that aren’t directly connected with the Greek legends of the Amazons, but perhaps where westerners applied that label when encountering them.

While Amazons had been restricted to literature for many centuries, during the age of European explorations, imaginations were piqued by the possibility of discovering genuine colonies of women warriors. In an early 16th century sequel to the medieval romance Amadis of Gaul titled The Adventures of Esplandián, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo writes, “Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.” These Amazons were ruled by a queen named Calafia, who takes her army of women warriors, mounted on griffins, to join a battle at Constantinople.

Fiction and reality cross streams, for when Hernán Cortés and his men were poking around the west coast of Mexico, they mistook a long peninsula for an island and named it California after the mythic land. Although it doesn’t appear that Cortés encountered any female warriors, the situation was different when a 16th century colonizing expedition in South America led by Francisco de Orellana was attacked by a band led by women, resulting in the river there being dubbed Rio Amazonas.

Europeans encountering troops of fighting women in Dahomey and other places in Africa, were quick to label them “Amazons” as well, though without an assumption that the represented a gender-separatist culture.

A 17th century account of a Persian court tells that the shah’s harem “went hunting with him dressed as Amazons,” by which we might understand that they appeared to be dressed in masculine clothing for masculine-coded sports. There were traditions of warrior women in Arabic literature, similar to European literature. Both Sahar Amer and Samar Habib discuss the motif of the warrior woman within medieval Arabic literature, identifying the figures as Amazon-like, although the Arabic terms are different. These figures are sometimes depicted as rejecting men and desiring women.  They also often appear as non-Muslim, and the stories’ resolutions typically involve both a religious and sexual conversion to “orthodoxy”, similar to the heteronormative resolutions found in medieval European literature. An example of this character type appears in the story cycle of Dhāt al-Himma in the figure of Nūrā.

Amazons and Lesbians

While modern popular culture, in our more progressive age, tends to see the image of the Amazon as inevitably linked with the idea of same-sex relations, we can see that across history those motifs have played something of a coy dance with each other. Stories of separatist societies of warrior women did not necessarily interrogate the question of what that meant for sexual desire. And when Amazons did have homoerotic encounters in literature, there often seems to be an underlying explanation that it is due to their masculine natures. One book I wish I’d had time to read for this episode looks like it addresses those questions in more detail. This is Kathryn Schwarz’s Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. She notes, “Imagined as embodiments of female masculinity, Amazonian figures stimulated both homoerotic and heteroerotic response…[and] their appearance in narratives disrupted assumptions concerning identity, gender, domesticity, and desire.”

While modern Amazonian fictions such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Wonder Woman in many ways continue the long tradition of the Amazon as a disruptive figure in conventional action-adventure tales, they also bring in—with varying degrees of overtness—a much stronger assumption that homosociality breeds homoeroticism, and that women warriors aren’t necessarily just waiting around for that annual procreative meet-up with the men who are excluded from their society.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 281 - On the Shelf for March 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2024.

The On The Shelf episodes vary a lot in terms of how much content I have. I wouldn’t have predicted that the new book listings would be the one constant back when I set up this format—they weren’t even part of the template originally! But after a couple of bare-bones months, we have a lot to talk about this month.

First off is announcing the fiction line-up for this year. One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect! I haven’t sorted out the order in which they’ll appear, because that can depend on when I locate appropriate narrators, but in no particular order we’ll be publishing the following.

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (And I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

I’m going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators will be welcome!

News of the Field

Listeners are probably aware that I’m fairly active in the science fiction and fantasy community, and wow has the chatter been going at full volume in the last month. The very short version (for those who don’t read my blog regularly) is that the nomination data for the Hugo awards that were given out last year (when Worldcon was held in China) finally was released. And it was immediately apparent from the data that something very strange had happened. In fact, several different very strange things happened. And the people who knew the most about what happened—who, by the way, were non-Chinese members of the convention committee—were not providing much in the way of useful explanation.

Now, poking at strange data and trying figure out how it got that strange is not only something I enjoy, but is also much of what I do for a living. So along with a number of other people I started poking at the data and published a few blogs about what I observed, both on my own and in collaboration with another data geek. This has taken up a fair amount of my so-called free time in the last few weeks.

At this point, it’s clear that there were several types of data manipulation going on that not only resulted in some specific people and publications being removed from the Hugo ballot, but that appear to have systematically suppressed the number of Chinese publications and people from appearing on a ballot that should by all rights have seen them significantly represented. Needless to say, there are people working diligently on making sure that nothing like this can happen again.

Book awards can get an unwarranted amount of attention sometimes. There are always many more excellent books being published than there are awards to recognize that excellence. But if the awards are going to mean anything, the process needs to be transparent and reliable. And last year’s Hugos definitely were not. It will take a while for the community to recover from this. If you want to know more, there’s a link in the show notes to the article “Charting the Cliff” which covers many of the issues.

Publications on the Blog

Given all that, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for only blogging two publications for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project in the last month. One is the pop-history book I mentioned buying last month: A Short History of Queer Women by Kirsty Loehr. As I indicated previously, it’s light and fluffy and not very solid on the history, but it could be a fun read.

The second item was the article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” by Kirsti Bohata, which I read when I was working on the tropes episode about employment-based romances.

Book Shopping!

Shopping netted me one new book this month: The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: 1685-1712. These are the travel journals of a woman who traveled by herself through all the counties of England in the late 17th century. “By herself” meaning with servants, of course. I love this sort of source material for women who did things that run contrary to the historic stereotypes. Not necessarily women who are ”breaking the rules” or becoming social outlaws, but simply ordinary things that get erased from the popular view of women’s history. And, of course, this specific book will be added to the background reading for my planned Restoration-era series.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Speaking of writing, let’s look at the new and recent books. I found five titles from the last few months that I hadn’t identified previously, five March books, and then three titles that I’ll mention in the “other books of interest” segment.

First up we have an American West romance, Above Rubies by Fyn Alexander from JMS Books.

The year is 1885 and all May Jakobsson wants is a home of her own and a woman to love. Leaving behind her poor immigrant family, she claims her one hundred and sixty acres under the Homestead Act in Dakota Territory. Life on the farm is lonely and there seems no hope of meeting the right woman, or any woman with her inclinations. That is, until an itinerant seamstress arrives in town.

When wealthy Boston socialite Temperance Lowell decides to take her sewing machine and travel the rails staying in different towns, she is seeking adventure while escaping Boston where the woman she was having an affair with is getting married. The last thing she expects is to meet a tall, shy woman wearing men’s clothes to whom she is instantly attracted.

Not only does their attachment cause an uproar in the town of Livingstone, especially among the men who were already hostile to a woman like May, and were more than interested in the beautiful and elegant Temperance, but it confuses May who, in her own words, is “as common as the dirt I dig.” Temperance, a little older and very sure of herself, knows May is the woman for her.

Can they make a life together in a rough town among farming folk? Will their love survive the challenges thrown their way?

Next is another romance with a western setting: Silver Heels: Women of the Wild West by Olivia Hampton.

Sabrina was born into wealth and privilege, but after she’s forced to run for her life, she finds herself in the newly formed Colorado Territory, and in the town of Big Antler. Becoming Silver, one of the most popular entertainers on the stage of a seedy theatre named The Pearl was never going to be Sabrina’s first choice for an escape plan, but that’s exactly where she ends up.

Maddie’s spent most of her life in boomtowns. She’s always ready to gamble, just not with her heart. No woman can tie her down. No town can keep her interest for long. A past filled with scars and a need for adventure keep her on the run.

The masked and mysterious Silver, and her devastatingly sexy high heeled shoes, gets Maddie’s attention and fast. The sparks fly faster. But love is dangerous. So is the man hunting for Sabrina. Will they risk it all for love and each other or will they fold under the pressure of their pasts and secrets?

The cover copy for this next book feels a bit over-the-top, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite match the hype. Whispers in the Shadows: The Untold Story of a Love that Defied Convention by Haley Ruby

Step into the enthralling world of "Whispers in the Shadows," a captivating novel that transcends time and convention. This extraordinary tale, set against the backdrop of Victorian England, unveils the forbidden romance between Amelia, a woman of high society, and Charlotte, a spirited artist. Their story is a powerful testament to the enduring strength of love amidst societal constraints.

In the midst of London's rigid societal norms, Amelia and Charlotte's paths cross in a fateful encounter that ignites a passion both profound and forbidden. As they navigate the complexities of their hidden relationship, they confront not only personal conflicts but also the pressures of a society unwilling to accept their love. From secret meetings in moonlit gardens to the grand masquerade balls of London, their journey is one of courage, defiance, and unwavering commitment.

There’s an author’s advisory for Lies that Bind by Rae Knowles & April Yates from Brigids Gate Press that indicates it contains graphic sex and violence and potentially abusive situations.

Lorelei Keyes and Adele Hughes are content, if not entirely happy, running a sham séance business in the English tourist town of Matlock Bath. Lorelei's business savvy and Adele's gift for mimicry provide for their basic needs, but the customers are not the only ones deceived. With the arrival of a mysterious visitor, Viola, the couple finds their long-held secrets under threat of exposure and their quiet life upended. Viola pulls the pair onto a transatlantic crossing bound for Adele's homeland of New York, and the turbulent seas are nothing compared to the treacherous and tawdry happenings aboard the ship. Adele's gifts run much deeper than mimicry. Lorelei's past is more depraved than she lets on. The couple faces the end of their romance, and may stand to lose much more than that if they cannot discern Viola's true intentions before reaching their final destination. Not for the faint of heart, Lies That Bind challenges its readers as it investigates power dynamics, the nature of power, and the ways it can be expressed-whether by domination or self-acceptance; treachery or honesty.

It feels like there’s been a regular theme of sapphic historicals featuring female boxers in the last couple years. This one also tosses in some paranormal elements and is part of a series set in an alternate 1920s world with magic, but it’s the only sapphic entry in the series. Of Socialites and Prizefights (Flos Magicae) by Arden Powell.

When Deepa Patel rejects the wrong man, he curses her: every night, she will transform into a wild animal until her curse is broken by true love’s kiss. The problem is twofold. One: Deepa needs her nights to seduce shallow men into spending money on her—money she desperately needs to buy herself and her mother a better life. Two: she doesn’t believe in love. She’s never met a man she wanted to keep longer than a week, never mind forever.

She never considered her true love might be a woman.

Roz is unlike any of Deepa’s past suitors. She’s working class, with a nose that’s been broken at least once, courtesy of an underground boxing club. And she makes Deepa feel lighter and softer than she ever thought possible. But Roz can’t afford to give Deepa the life of luxury she craves.

Meanwhile, Deepa is posing as a wealthy nobleman's fiancée. There’s no love between them, but his lifestyle is everything she’s ever wanted. Caught between a real relationship and a loveless fake one, Deepa has to choose: give up on her dreams for a chance at true love, or make her dreams come true but stay cursed forever.

Due to the advance scheduling dynamics of indie books versus books from publishers, the March books are mostly the latter. First up is a historic fantasy from this month’s author guest: Song of the Huntress by Lucy Holland from Macmillan.

Britain, 60 AD. Hoping to save her lover and her land from the Romans, Herla makes a desperate pact with the Otherworld King. She becomes Lord of the Hunt and for centuries she rides, reaping wanderers’ souls. Until the night she meets a woman on a bloody battlefield – a Saxon queen with ice-blue eyes.

Queen Æthelburg of Wessex is a proven fighter, but after a battlefield defeat she finds her husband’s court turning against her. Yet King Ine needs Æthel more than ever: the dead kings of Wessex are waking, and Ine must master his bloodline’s ancient magic if they are to survive.

When their paths cross, Herla knows it’s no coincidence. Something dark and dangerous is at work in the Wessex court. As she and Æthel grow closer, Herla must find her humanity – and a way to break the curse – before it’s too late.

Pelican Girls by Julia Malye from Harper has that dancing-around-the-topic language that sometimes leads me to place a book in the “other books of interest” category if I can’t be certain of the sapphic content, but early reviews indicate that there’s a romance between two of the female characters. For those who keep track, this falls more in the literary genre.

Paris, 1720. La Salpêtrière hospital is in crisis: too many occupants, not enough beds. Halfway across the world, France's colony in the wilds of North America has space to spare and needs families to fill it. So the director of the hospital rounds up nearly a hundred female “volunteers” of childbearing age—orphans, prisoners, and mental patients—to be shipped to New Orleans.

Among this group are three unlikely friends: a sharp-tongued twelve-year old orphan, a mute ‘madwoman,’ and an accused abortionist. Charlotte, Pétronille, and Geneviève, along with the dozens of other women aboard La Baleine, have no knowledge of what lies ahead and no control over their futures. Strangers brought together by fate, these brave and fierce young women will face extraordinary adversity—pirates, slavedrivers, sickness, war—but also the private trauma of heartbreak and unrequited love, children born and lost, cruelty and unexpected pleasure, and a friendship forged in fire that will sustain through the years.

Stacy Lynn Miller’s “Speakeasy” series from Bella Books continues with a third volume: Last Barrel.

Three years after Whiskey War, Dax and Rose live the high life at the Foster House, running the poshest speakeasy on the west coast. Half Moon Bay is about to claim its place as the top tourist destination in Northern California, with a second club and the remodeled Seaside Hotel under Grace Parsons’s ownership and Dax’s management. Repeal of Prohibition is on the horizon with the prospect of making their illegal liquor businesses legitimate. Dax’s fractured friendship with Charlie Dawson is the only blowback from her battle with Frankie Wilkes. If she could fix it, her life with Rose would be perfect.

Or so Dax thinks until an election sweeps in Roy Wilkes as the new county sheriff. With the law behind him, he’s hellbent on revenge for the death of his brother in the wake of the whiskey war and puts everyone involved in his crosshairs. On day one, he wreaks havoc in Half Moon Bay with arrests and beatings. Nothing is off the table. No one close to Dax and Rose is safe, and they must leverage every resource to protect the people they love. How far will Dax go? Will beating Wilkes at his game come at too high a price? Who will survive to open the last barrel?

Another book in a continuing series is The Weavers of Alamaxa (Alamaxa #2) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager. This series is inspired by Egyptian history, although set in a world with fantasy elements.

The world is on fire...but some women can control it.

The Daughters of Izdihar—a group of women fighting for the vote and against the patriarchal rule of Parliament—have finally made strides in having their voices heard...only to find them drowned out by the cannons of the fundamentalist Ziranis. As long as Alamaxa continues to allow for the elemental magic of the weavers—and insist on allowing an academy to teach such things—the Zirani will stop at nothing to end what they perceive is a threat to not only their way of life, but the entire world.

Two such weavers, Nehal and Giorgina, had come together despite their differences to grow both their political and weaving power. But after the attack, Nehal wakes up in a Zirani prison, and Giorgina is on the run in her besieged city. If they can reunite again, they can rally Alamaxa to fight off the encroaching Zirani threat. Yet with so much in their way—including a contingent of Zirani insurgents with their own ideas about rebellion—this will be no easy task.

And the last time a weaver fought back, the whole world was shattered.

Two incredible women are all that stands before an entire army. But they’ve fought against power before and won. This time, though, it’s no longer about rhetoric.

This time it’s about magic and blood.

We finish up with a book in Portuguese, Julieta e Cinderela by Vicky Fiorez which blends the characters of Cinderella and Shakespeare’s Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, set in 19th century Verona.

Juliet Capulet is devastated when she discovers that her family arranged her engagement to Romeo Montague, with the intention of ending the bloody feud between the families. But on her first visit to the Montague house, she meets Cinderella, the family's maid who wins her heart with generosity. Divided by class and background, the two find connection, even as the engagement progresses. But the Montagues can be brutal when crossed… [Note: This is a paraphrase of a Google translation of the Portuguese cover copy.]

While we’re talking about non-English books—and I have a couple more on the list for the near future—I’ll mention that the French translation of my book Daughter of Mystery is also coming out in March, after being pushed back for production changes.

Other Books of Interest

I put three titles in the “other books of interest” section, not because there’s any question of the sapphic content, but because they appear to fall more in the erotica category than the historic fiction category. I tread a fine balance here. One of the reasons I generally exclude erotica is because, if I don’t set my search terms to exclude it, I end up wading through an awful lot of male-gaze content that has only the barest acquaintance with historic settings. Even when written for the lesbian market, erotica rarely has a solid historic grounding, tending to fall much farther into the fantasy side of the line. But three titles popped up in my search that some listeners might be inclined to check out further.

Coming of Age (Bintanath #1) by Joan Fennelly is set in the Egypt of the ancient Pharaohs and combines the supernatural with a lesbian relationship.

Jewels of the Harem: Love's Secret Treasures by Lucilla Leigh is set in the harem of the Ottoman palace of Topkapi. In general I’d be wary of orientalist harem fantasies if you’re looking for solid representation of historic cultures.

And the same author has released Victorian Passions: Lesbian Romance Amidst Historical Intrigue which is more or less what it says on the label.

What Am I Reading?

What have I been reading in the past month? One of the books that got caught up in the Hugo award shenanigans was R. F. Kuang’s historic fantasy Babel, about linguistic-based magic and 19th century colonialism. It’s a very powerful book with an ending that found the right balance between tragedy and grim determination. As a linguist, I really enjoyed the magical premise.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up another one of K.J. Charles’ backlist: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I always enjoy Charles’ work but this one didn’t grab me as much as many of her other books.

A different audiobook sale inspired me to get Courtney Milan’s historic romance The Duke who Didn't. I’m having some interesting thoughts about what does and doesn’t throw me out of a historic romance, due to listening to this while also being in the middle of Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. Both books are set in the Victorian period, both are very engagingly written, and both present characters that feel entirely like modern people dressed up in costume. Usually, that’s a “nope” for me. And…it’s sort of a problem for me in both these books? Except I enjoy the quality of the writing enough that I’m just pretending they’re actually contemporaries with a few quirks. But I’m not enjoying them as historic romances. I had a similar issue with Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower and Jane Walsh’s Her Countess to Cherish, except those two didn’t sweep me up in the writing and story enough for me to be able to ignore the modern attitudes and behaviors. And the non-sapphic historical mystery Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley had solid writing chops, but that didn’t make up for the character failing historic plausibility for me. (Although in that case it was slightly different from a modern character, simply one that didn’t make sense in her own time.) So I’ve been pondering the interactions of these elements in terms of which directions a book can fail me and still leaving me glad I’d read it.

Author Guest

We’ll finish up this month’s episode with an interview with Lucy Holland.

(Interview will be included in the transcript when it has been transcribed.)

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Lucy Holland Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, February 24, 2024 - 13:37

The analysis I did in two previous blogs (part 1, part 2) has been incorporated into a much broader and more detailed analysis by Camestros Felapton, and published under both our names (but be aware that he did a much larger proportion of the work). He introduces the report on his blog here, but the report and its associated data tables are being hosted by File 770 here.

While I sympathize with a certain sentiment that enough time and attention has been invested in hashing over "what happened" (to the extent we can sort that out), I feel there's still value in putting together a historic record of what we know and don't know for posterity. So I may be posting a few more, tight-focus discussions on the topic.

Major category: 
Conventions

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