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Sunday, October 15, 2023 - 16:40

This weekend I rose at an ungodly hour of the morning to attend a 2-day online conference of research into Anne Lister and her world. Recordings of sessions (this year and past years) are available through the main conference web page. In the sidebar, under each year’s conference, select the “resources” tab to find them. I plan to check out some of the previous sessions when I have time—in particular, a session from last year on vocabulary that Lister used around sex, and other sexual vocabulary of the time. For those who might be interested, there will be an in-person Lister conference in April 2024 in Halifax (UK). I expect that there will also be future online Anne Lister Research Summits.

The following brief summaries of the talks are my own impressions. Any errors—either of understanding or of interpretation—are entirely my own and should not reflect on the speakers.

Bridging the Listerian Gap (Stephen Turton, Sarah Wingrove, Diane Halford, JY Jiang, and Livia Labate)

Panel discussion between 5 people approaching Lister research from different angles, handling different types of data, with different backgrounds and purposes. Emphasis on the benefits of this sort of collaborative community, e.g., the work of the many non-academic transcribers and “code-breakers” working on converting the diaries into accessible text, who support the work of academics using those transcripts. Treating essential functions such as transcription as equal partners and entitled to citation and credit.

How to create bridges between the “amateur” and academic participants? Issues around access to the data and results of research. Academics don’t always have control over making their work easily available, while non-academics don’t usually have institutional access to non-fee material.

Information flow goes in all directions: not the traditional “academics share their work with the public” but also non-academic researchers (who may be deeply engrossed in specific details and aspects) calling out topics with promise for a closer look.

Anne Lister’s Music (Lisa Timbs)

TImbs had an interest in Regency-era music, did in-costume performances of Austen-era music on period instruments. At Shibden Hall, she came across two notebooks of music in Anne Lister’s collection and began a project to explore and interpret the contents. She plans to make recordings at Shibden Hall (using her own square piano dating to the era). The music notebooks are personal collections of individual pieces of sheet music collected by Lister, then assembled by a book-binder.

Musical performance was expected to be part of a woman’s accomplishments, as music was a popular social entertainment (aside from public music performances, as for church).

The sheet music is printed, but includes pencil notations, e.g., for fingering, as well as some pressed flowers and foliage between the pages.

(A video is included of Timbs performing one of the pieces from the collection.)

The collections were made in 1806-1807(?) shortly after the time Anne was involved with Eliza Raine at the Manor School when both were 13 years old. After the two were separated, they communicated by letter, including the exchange of sheet music. Many of the pieces in the collection are songs with themes of love, longing, and separation, as well as songs about travel. An example is shown of a song from the opera Richard Coeur de Leon, written for the character of Antonio (a “breeches role”) in which Anne has hand-written an alternate ending to the love song. (A recording of the song is presented.)

The collection includes both formal “classical” music, but also popular music of the day, including folk songs, dances, ballads. No flute music, despite Anne’s later adoption of the instrument. The flute was considered “indecent” if played by a woman (similarly the violin and oboe). In 1808 Anne was teaching (probably the piano) to a Miss Alexander, and Timbs suggests that this may have been part of a program of seduction. The collection includes several piano duets.

Anne Lister’s Horoscopes (Cancelled due to presenter illness, but the time-slot became open discussion and I was able to find an excuse to plug the LHMP.)

Copyright: It’s Complicated (Ruth Cummins)

Basics of UK copyright law, especially as it applies to archives.

The Lister-Barlows: An early Rainbow Family (Jann Kraus)

Discusses the interpersonal dynamics of the period when Anne Lister was involved with Mrs. Barlow (accompanied by her daughter Jane Barlow) in Paris in 1824 and in later interactions. Begins with a discussion of the origins and use of the term “rainbow family” for an extra-legal association of people including at least one “queer” adult and an unrelated child. The speaker introduces the lovely German concept “etwas unselbstverständlich machen”, “to purposefully remove the notion that something is self-evident.” Can we problematize the assumption that concepts didn’t exist if there was no accepted language for them? (The example is: intersex people existed even in eras when there was no language for describing them.) Thus, can we better examine this interpersonal context by calling it (anachronistically) a “queer family” than by avoiding that label? The diaries regularly comment on Lister’s somewhat parental interactions with Jane, but as well Jane’s resentment and jealousy of Lister’s relationship with her mother. Barlow and Lister took some precautions about how intimate they are in front of Jane, but were somewhat open in front of her (as might be similar to a m/f relationship). Lister and Barlow openly discuss issues around gender performance, both in private and public. Their relationship lasted about 4 years, off and on, and continued in correspondence after they no longer met in person. Lister’s decision to break it off primarily due to distaste for some aspects of Barlow’s personality (and perhaps from Barlow’s side, discomfort with Lister’s ongoing relationship with Marianne), but it was a family-like relationship that needed to be overtly rejected, not one that could simply be tacitly dropped. Investigating this nexus speaks to larger questions of addressing queer history. In examining Lister’s relationship “failures” we see the larger and complicated context of what she was seeking and what she was able to create. Conclusions: to investigate “queer families” we need to embrace the concepts of “family” that were in place in the era we’re studying, which could include a broader scope than the “nuclear family”. If family goes beyond romance, marriage, and parenthood for non-queer people, it can go beyond that for queer people as well.

Decoding Anne Lister (Chris Roulston and Caroline Gonda)

This is a discussion about the essay collection Decoding Anne Lister: From the Archives to ‘Gentleman Jack’ (ed. Chris Roulston & Caroline Gonda, Cambridge University Press, 2023; ISBN 9781009280723), which ranges from academic work to popular culture reception. Topics include what inspired them to propose the collection and some of the logistics of finding it a home. There isn’t really a concrete through-line in this discussion, so I’m not going to try to summarize. (Note: Mentioned within the discussion – Chris Roulston is Emma Donoghue’s partner, which ties together some threads involving Donoghue’s recent novel Learned by Heart, about Eliza Raine, and Donoghue’s inclusion within the collection as interviewer of Sally Wainwright.)

“You Could Make Anything of Me”: Anne Lister’s Queer Metaphor (Cee Collins)

This is taken from the presenter’s undergraduate dissertation. It looks at how Lister uses metaphor to communicate and describe those around her in a way that both conceals and reveals thoughts about queerness. When one of the Parisian friends asks her “etes-vous Achilles?” (are you Achilles) we can see a coded way of exploring questions of gender presentation and desire, embedded in learned familiarity with history and literature that could be used as a code as secret as Lister’s “crypt hand.” The “queer metaphor” envisioned here is a two-way connection: not simply using a source domain to talk about a target domain (technical terms are from my own background in metaphor theory, not the speaker’s terms), but also to reflect things known about the target domain back onto the source domain. One of the speaker’s themes is how the use of classical themes metaphorically works to turn Lister’s contemporaries into (fictional?) characters, equated with the classical figures used to describe/refer to them.

“Unvarnished interesting tale”: Storytelling with historical resources (panel)

A wide-ranging conversation about the process of turning historical data into creative storytelling (primarily creative non-fiction, as the discussion focuses on history podcasts, museum exhibitions, etc.). As with other panel discussions, hard to summarize a through-line.

Learned by Heart: Emma Donoghue on interweaving Eliza Raine’s history with fiction (interview)

(Not able to take notes on this one. Very much all over the place Q&A discussion. Check out the novel!)

Cryptic Cycles: Anne Lister's 'Cousin' and 19th Century Menstrual Practices (Anna Clark, Leila Straub, and Elissa Stein)

Lister uses the euphemism “cousin” for her menstrual cycle, as in “my cousin has come to visit” and also used two dots (aligned horizontally) to indicate the start of her period in her diary. For Ann Walker, she refers to Walker’s period as “monsieur” or uses two vertical dots (i.e., a colon) to indicate the start. What did Lister know about the anatomy of menstruation? We know that she had and read a copy of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a popular marriage manual of the time, which promulgated various folk theories. The diary entries clearly show her awareness of periodicity (mentioning regularity or coming early or late), as well as considering that a “good flow” is healthy. Lister sometimes notes her period “came gently” which seems to indicate a light flow. They have tracked the frequency of both women’s periods during the period they were together (when data is available for both). Lister’s cycles were exceedingly regular, while Walker’s often had gaps, which are also noted in comments. Discussion of menstrual products include references to stockings, to papers (that were burned afterward), to washing or preparing cloths. She sometimes noted not wearing anything for the first day or so. (The panelists are discussing various garments that might be used to absorb. Lister mentions stockings and napkins but it isn’t clear that the other things they’re talking about are from the diary or speculative.) But for the most part Listed noted the existence of her periods and her preparations but felt little need to describe specifics. Periods were discussed in the context of sex, and genital sex seems to have been avoided during menstruation, but there are exceptions. When Lister was with Mrs Barlow, she notes being uncomfortable about Barlow calling attention to Lister’s periods, in the context of taking note of Lister’s femaleness. (Note: There are other similar comments indicating Lister had some gender dysphoria when a partner wanted to participate actively in giving Lister sexual pleasure. So this may be part of a larger pattern of being uncomfortable with being “womanized.”)

Searching for Ann 2023 (Diane Halford and Leila Straub)

A discussion of new information about Ann Walker and the process of researching the details of her life. Begins with a note from a young Ann Walker to Anne Lister (contained in the Lister archives) that also correlates with an entry in Lister’s diaries about some chemises that Walker sent her. The note was kept because Lister then used it as scratch paper for taking notes on her reading. With regard to the note, Lister records in her diary “I wonder if she likes me.” At the opposite end of their relationship, a letter between two of the Sutherland family noting that George Sutherland is traveling to Moscow and Teflis (Tblisi) to meet Walker after Lister’s death and escort her home. Anne Walker’s letter to the Sutherlands with news of Lister’s death arrives 7 days after the death. (I’m not going to detail all the items being discussed. Basically it covers data about the documentary evidence from Walker.)

Unpacking Gentleman Jack Season 2 (informal discussion about the tv show)

Anne Lister in the Garden (Dr Suzanne Moss and Lynn Shouls)

Starts with a high-level history of science in the 18th century and women’s participation in botany. Then a survey of famous gardens that Lister is known to have visited and a description of either projects she implemented at Shibden or plans she had that were never realized.

Waxing Lister-ical: A Journey into Wax Sealing (Steph Gallaway)

This is a basic introduction to wax seals and the practice of sealing letters (including live demonstrations). I’m going to skip taking notes on this one.

4 miles from Xtiania (Henriette Stensdal)

A detailed review of the 17 days that Lister and Walker visited Norway in 1839. A very creative presentation done as a travelogue with maps, documents, and on-location narration with a soundtrack. (The on-location recordings have some sound issues, but I love the overall concept.) You must check out this recording! Don’t miss how the presenter anonymized passers-by with overlaid images of historic portraits.

Suing Miss Walker: An analysis of Horncastle v Walker (Marlene Oliveira)

Convoluted details of a lawsuit over a land deal.

Lister's Web: Interweaving Personal Connections in Anne Lister's Social Circle (Shantel Smith, Marlene Oliveira, Kat Williams, and Steph Gallaway)

(I’m really interested in this session that looks at the interpersonal connections within Lister’s social circle. One of the valuable things her diaries make clear is that being an early 19th century lesbian was not an “isolated” experience. Her wide social circles included a significant number of women that she had erotic relations with (and who had erotic relations with each other).)  This discussion will only cover a limited subset of Lister’s community. The Belcombe and Norcliffe families had connections dating back before Lister was in the picture, including long-term visits among the young women. And Tib Norcliffe appears to have been the person who introduced Lister to Marianne Belcombe. Lister’s lover Vere Hobart also had familial connections to the Walkers. Even random women that Lister met in Paris are recorded as having distant family connections that link into the larger community she was familiar with. In this connection, the panel discusses how much Lister’s various lovers knew about each other. The Belcombe sisters give evidence of having various levels of awareness of each others’ relationships with Lister. When Lister is staying at Layton Hall with the Norcliffes, there are conversations recorded in Lister’s diary about various erotic relationships among their social circle. Sexual jealousy is a significant aspect of the discussions and commentary (all as reported via Lister), though there’s a sliding scale of concern whether it has to do with attention or sexual involvement. We bring up Lister’s conversations with Frances Pickford, in which there are delicately-negotiated discussions of f/f romantic connections. When Lister is in Paris, Pickford is with a different woman than the partner (Miss Threlfall) she was with in Halifax.


An entertaining and informative conference, blending the work of academics and independent scholars, with a variety of formats. The content very much highlights the work of the many people contributing to the transcription and deciphering of Anne Lister’s diaries and papers.

Major category: 
Saturday, October 14, 2023 - 14:09

Considering the significant presence of literature (and literary personalities) in the construction of "romantic friendship," no single chapter is going to give more than a teaser on the topic. After this, there are two more chapters that fall within the pre-20th century scope of the Project, then I'll probably have one final entry that simply lists the titles of the later articles. I'd meant to finish this up a bit more promptly, but the day-job has been grueling for the last couple weeks. (Out of an eight person department, we had three people out with Covid, and for a while I was picking up the slack for two of them. Hey folks: Covid isn't over and we're in the middle of another wave! Get those updated boosters if you can and put your masks back on.)

I'll also have a blog coming up that gives an overview of the Anne Lister Summit conference, which I'm attending virtually this weekend. This one is a virtual-only conference, but there's an in-person Anne Lister conference next April in Halifax that I'll include a link to when I post the conference notes. Now I'm going to go off and take a nap because the conference is on UK time, which meant I got up at 4am this morning.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Castiglia, Christopher. 2014. “Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 16 - Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities

The article begins by tackling the complicated question of the correspondence between 19th-century, intensely affectionate, same-sex friendships and current understandings of same-sex desire. Based on the emotional language (and domestic arrangements) of many 19th-century, same-sex pairs, the urge to identify these feelings and people as “homosexual” is strong. And (the question I always want to ask.) does it matter whether we can clearly categorize people in this way? As an article about literature, Castiglia focuses on authors, and how they expressed the range of intimate feelings – including love, sex, romance, friendship – in their writings. Is it correct – as Foucault asserts – to claim that such people cannot be considered “homosexual” until that category was invented by late 19th century, sexologists and promulgated into general knowledge? Or is it reasonable to see the range of earlier homoerotic experiences as representing a cultural phenomenon, one that can reasonably be labeled “queer” in modern parlance?

The article notes Smith-Rosenberg’s study of how women’s intimacies were accepted and integrated with marital expectations. In contrast, men’s same-sex intimate friendships went through a more drastic revision from the unselfconscious romanticism of the early 19th century (often expressed in terms of intellectual and emotional closeness, rather than sensuality) to the self-conscious anxiety around male-male relations, introduced later in the century.

One feature of these romantic friendships was the potential for feelings of loss and disappointment when social forces interfered with them. Emily Dickinson’s longing letters to Susan Gilbert are offered as an illustrative example.

The next section of the article looks at male cross-racial intimate friendships and the complex dynamics that race added to the mix. In literary examples, these cross-racial relations often depict the racialized character as ultimately harmed within the relationship, if only by the careless ignorance of the white character, although there are counterexamples. I the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick is examined. The intersection of m/m friendships in life and literature for Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman is explored.

Another, darker view of f/f, romantic friendship is explored in Margaret Sweat’s novel Ethel’s Love Life, in the form of letters from a woman to her male fiancé, which brings an element of voyeurism to the table.

The article concludes with an examination of the transformation of romantic friendships on an individual level, to a subculture of same-sex desire in the writings of Theodore Winthrop.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 7, 2023 - 18:55

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 269 - On the Shelf for October 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/10/07 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2023.

Publications on the Blog

Looks like I’ve gotten out of my blogging slump, thanks to doing preparation for last month’s gothic podcast. I didn’t manage to get my hands on everything that looked promisingly gothic—and some of what I read wasn’t particularly useful for me—but as my costumer friends say, “Done is Beautiful,” and I got that episode done.

The publications I blogged for it were:

  • Paulina Palmer’s promisingly-titled Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions, which focused in part on contemporary lesbian gothic novels, though “contemporary” was as of the 1999 date of publication.
  • Christopher Yiannitsaros’s article “’I’m scared to death she’ll kill me: Devoted Ladies, feminine monstrosity, and the (lesbian) Gothic Romance” in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies which I have to confess was not particularly pertinent to my purpose.
  • Sarah Parker’s article “’The Darkness is the Closet in Which Your Lover Roosts Her Heart’: Lesbians, Desire and the Gothic Genre” in Journal of International Women’s Studies, which focused on two specific 20th century titles.
  • And the gothic chapter in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, from which I’m now blogging the other chapters.

I’m not exactly on a regular blog schedule, but as you can tell from that list, I’m managing an average of more than an article per week, so let’s try to continue that. My returning energy also drove me to return to the U.C. Berkeley library for the first time since Covid, to renew my alumni library card and pull a dozen or so articles from my priority list.

Another place I got a lead on a paper is the relatively new social media site Bluesky, which I recently got an invitation to. Since I’m still settling in to the rhythms of Mastodon, I’d had some qualms about branching out into yet another venue—particularly one that has the same potential as Twitter to have a greedy and irrational CEO pull the rug out from under everyone. But the chatter suggested that Bluesky was where much of my previous book and research related social media community was reconstructing itself. And I have to say that in terms of sharing information and making chance connections, it’s already proving to be a more Twitter-like experience than Mastodon. That is, of course, part of the point: Mastodon isn’t intended to be like Twitter as a deliberate strategy. But there are aspects I miss that Bluesky is promising to give me again. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t actually deleted my Twitter accounts, but mostly I’m just posting Project promotional tweets for those who still follow me there.)

News of the Field

There’s an interesting online event coming up fast, but those who listen to the podcast promptly have time to look into it. This is a weekend online conference about Anne Lister. The Anne Lister Research Summit has presentations in a variety of formats covering a range from scholarly research to pop culture reception. It’s being held in two all-day sessions on October 14 and 15, in a time-frame that is a reasonable compromise for folks in the western hemisphere. (Here in California, the sessions run from 5:30 AM to mid-afternoon, while in Europe the hours are more from mid-day to evening.) Registration is free but you must register online to attend the Zoom sessions. See the show notes for a link.

Misc Notes

I wasn’t organized enough to have any interviews this month, though I have several leads in progress, including some very interesting non-book projects. And there are no new book purchases to tell you about this month either. Sometimes it’s feast; sometimes it’s famine.

This is your regular reminder that we’ll be running a fiction series again next year, with submissions open in January. By now, I assume you know the drill: tell all your author friends, polish up your own stories, and read the submission guidelines on the website to make sure your work has the best chance. Those who pay attention to the calendar might have noticed that we should have had a fiction episode last week, as September had 5 Saturdays. I had to reschedule due to narrator availability, but that episode will be coming out later this month.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

When preparing the new releases segment for this podcast, I was relieved to find that some of the broken aspects of Amazon’s search feature have gotten a little better. A request to see only books after a certain publication date seems to be working again, as is a request to order the results by publication date. But there are still some funky things going on with keyword searches.

For example, when I asked for books with the keywords “lesbian” and “historic”, Amazon claimed that there were only two titles—but if I added the requirement that the keywords include “romance” then they promised me 400 titles! That…isn’t how adding keywords works? In any event, when I added “romance” to the filter, the result was actually only another dozen titles, not the 400 I’d been promised.

Interestingly, I was getting much better success by using “sapphic” plus “historic”. For quite some time, there have been a few books that turned up under both “sapphic” and “lesbian” and a very few that only show under “sapphic”, while searching on “lesbian” was where the most titles turned up (including a great many in other queer categories that seem to have thrown every queer keyword into the mix, whether it applied to that book or not).

While it’s interesting that authors seem to be adding “sapphic” as a keyword more these days, I’m a bit suspicious of concluding that they’re dropping the use of “lesbian”. Knowing Amazon’s past bad behavior around disappearing queer books, I wonder if searches on the word “lesbian” are being suppressed, or if books with that keyword are being excluded from search functions. This is your regular reminder that Amazon is not an ally of the queer book community. You should always have other ways of promoting your books and finding books to read. And for historical fiction, please keep in mind that the most certain way to let people know about your lesbian and sapphic historical novels is to drop me a note directly.

And with that, what are the new and recent releases that I know about?

Edale Lane has a third volume in the Tales from Norvegr series: War and Solace from Past and Prologue Press. This is a Viking-ish fantasy series involving warrior women.

A battle-hardened shieldmaiden. A pacifist healer. Can the two find love amid the chaos of war? Tyrdis is a stalwart warrior raised to value honor, courage, and military prowess. When a traumatic injury renders the powerful protector helpless, she depends on the lovely, tender-hearted Adelle to restore her from the brink of death. Is it merely gratitude or true love that draws Tyrdis to the healer?

Defying cultural norms, Adelle despises violence and those who propagate it, but when her shieldmaiden patient saves the life of her beloved little girl, she must reexamine her values. Could Tyrdis be more than a stiff, efficient killer with an amazing body?

In a kingdom steeped in conflict with their neighbors and internal strife, shocking secrets are revealed, and both women strive to ensure justice prevails. Can they overcome their differences to safeguard their friends, end the war, and fall in love, or will fate prove to be a cruel sovereign?

Coming more from the literary fiction side, we have Cities of Women by Kathleen B. Jones from Keylight Books. Although it isn’t entirely obvious from the cover copy, this dual timeline story has a sapphic romance in the contemporary storyline.

Verity Frazier, a disillusioned professor of history, risks her career when she sets out to prove that the artist responsible for the illuminations in the medieval manuscripts of Christine de Pizan was a remarkable woman named Anastasia. As Anastasia’s story unfolds against the richly evoked 15th century backdrop of moral disaster and political intrigue, yet extraordinary creativity, Verity finds little evidence of the artist’s existence, while discovering the missing pieces to make her own life whole.

Pirate stories continue to be all the rage and we have two this month. First up is a historic fantasy, Let the Waters Roar by Geonn Cannon from Supposed Crimes.

Legend tells of a witch who can grant your every desire ... for a price. Your soul, taken upon your death and stored in a stone. Harriet Landau made the deal. Now the stone containing her soul has been discovered. Her widow, Clio Landau, current captain of the Banshee, has the chance to be reunited with the woman she loves. But they aren't the only ones who have discovered the witch's secrets. If Clio can't stop a vicious captain's reign of terror, Harriet's resurrection may be very short-lived... and this time the Banshee's crew may be joining her.

And just to confuse matters, the second pirate-themed book from Carolyn Elizabeth from Bella Books also involves women pirates in a ship named the Banshee: The Heart of the Banshee. It doesn’t look like this series has a series title yet, but the previous book was The Raven and the Banshee.

In an effort to put her vengeful past behind her, Captain Branna Kelly charts a new course with the help of the Banshee’s newest officer, Julia Farrow. Her first mission on the path to redemption is to restore order at a neighboring port. Julia’s new fighting skills are put to the test when they go up against the deadly Ferryman and her cutthroat captain, Isaac Shaw. She more than holds her own, both with and without a blade, and Branna is torn between supporting and protecting her. Even during occasions of relative safety, Branna and Julia discover the greatest peril may not be to their lives, but to their love. When faces from Branna’s past come back to haunt them and Julia seeks moments of peace in another’s company, suspicion and mistrust become a blade to the heart.

After delving into the gothic genre, Marianne Ratcliffe now has a Regency romance for us: A Lady to Treasure from Bellows Press. The plot is a bit reminiscent of classic Victorian-era American-heiress-goes-to-England plots, as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Buccaneers. But this time the twist is that the heiress is looking for a husband with money rather than a title.

Louisa Silverton is the daughter of a wealthy American businessman, brought up to believe a healthy profit is the only route to happiness. With the family company over-leveraged and in need of a capital injection, she travels to England to find a rich husband.

The Honourable Miss Sarah Davenport has no time for romance. The family estate of Kenilborough is mired in debt and only she can save it. Unconventional and outspoken, Sarah is dismayed that somebody as intelligent and attractive as Louisa is willing to sacrifice herself for financial gain.

As Louisa pursues her campaign, Sarah realises her objections to the project run deeper than mere principles. At the same time, Louisa finds herself captivated by Sarah’s independent spirit. Yet to indulge their unexpected passion would surely mean the ruin of both their families. Bound by duty, will they ever be free to follow their hearts?

Mary Shelley lived such a complex and varied life that it’s no wonder that she gets fictionalized regularly. In Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein, by Anne Eekhout from HarperVia, a friendship of her youth is portrayed as a romance.

Switzerland, 1816. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia envelopes the whole of Europe in ash and cloud. Amid this “year without a summer,” eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley arrive at Lake Geneva to visit Lord Byron and his companion John Polidori. Anguished by the recent loss of her child, Mary spends her days in strife. But come nightfall, the friends while away rainy wine-soaked evenings gathered around the fireplace, exchanging stories. One famous evening, Byron issues a challenge to write the best ghost story. Contemplating what to write, Mary recalls another summer, when she was fourteen…

Scotland, 1812. A guest of the Baxter family, Mary arrives in Dundee, befriending young Isabella Baxter. The girls soon spend hours together wandering through fields and forests, concocting tales about mythical Scottish creatures, ghosts and monsters roaming the lowlands. As their bond deepens, Mary and Isabella’s feelings for each other intensify. But someone has been watching them—the charismatic and vaguely sinister Mr. Booth, Isabella's older brother-in-law, who may not be as benevolent as he purports to be…

Western Blue by Suzie Clarke from Bold Strokes Books sounds like a rather violently traumatic Western romance, so we’ll hope for a solidly happy ending for the characters.

In 1868, Caroline Bluebonnet Hutching is forced to leave her Texas home and make a new life in Nevada. But the townsmen are against her, and she can’t get the help she needs. Undaunted, she advertises for female workers, only to find that each woman who answers her ad is as desperate as she is. And she’s entirely unprepared for the one who steals her heart.

When raiders attack Isabel Segura’s horse ranch and slaughter her family, she’s left with nothing—no home, no future, no hope. When she sees Blue’s ad, a new dream sparks to life. Determined to begin again, she sets out on a journey she never could have imagined. Heroism, loyalty, friendship, and love. The odds are against this unlikely group—but never underestimate women who have nothing to lose.

The age of suffragettes, in the years just before World War I, is the setting for a historical mystery by Sarah Bell, Deeds and Words (Louisa & Ada #2).

June 1913 Leeds, England. When a man is shot dead in an alleyway and a suffragette arrested for the crime, Louisa Knight and Ada Chapman are once more pulled into a case that hits too close to home. It’s not long before they're mired in both the investigation and their local branch of the WSPU. Amongst the suffragettes, they'll find dedicated women fighting to secure the vote through whatever means necessary, but also missing money, blackmail threats, and an unexpected familial connection. As questions arise and doubts surface, they not only have to face a difficult investigation, but a reckoning with their part in the suffrage movement.

Lovesick Blossoms by Julia Watts from Three Rooms Press tackles romance within a “beard” marriage of convenience in a ‘50s college town between two queer people. The cover copy took a little untangling in my head because the woman in the fake marriage is named Samuel and the man has a non-gendered nickname. I’m often bewildered by the percentage of fictional lesbians who have traditionally male names.

In 1953 Collinsville, Kentucky, a small college town, colleagues and neighbors of Samuel and Boots are more than willing to accept their married status, even though their official relationship is one of convenience that will never be consummated. Boots, an English professor at Millwood College for Women, has long had clandestine affairs with muscular men, while Samuel dodges questions about her disinterest in motherhood. But when Samuel meets a new professor’s wife, Frances, at a faculty party, she soon falls in love, and learns the difficulty of discretion in a town that doesn’t accept the idea of two women sleeping together.

Other Books of Interest

In the “other books of interest” category, we’ll start with Menewood (The Light of the World #2) by Nicola Griffith from MCD. This title falls in “other interest” because the queer content in the prior book, Hild, was fairly minimal and I don’t know how much there may be in this volume.

Hild is no longer the bright child who made a place in Edwin Overking's court with her seemingly supernatural insight. She is eighteen, honed and tested, the formidable Lady of Elmet, now building her personal stronghold in the valley of Menewood. But Edwin needs his most trusted advisor. Old alliances are fraying. Younger rivals are snapping at his heels. War is brewing--bitter war, winter war. Not knowing who to trust he becomes volatile and unpredictable. Hild begins to understand the true extent of the chaos ahead, and now she must navigate the turbulence and fight to protect both the kingdom and her own people. Hild will face the losses and devastation of total war, and then she must find a new strength, the implacable determination to forge a radically different path for herself and her people. In the valley, her last redoubt, her community slowly takes root. She trains herself and her unexpected allies in new ways of thinking as she prepares for one last wager: risking all on a single throw for a better future...

Unsettled by Patricia Reis from Sibylline Press gets the “other books of interest” nod because despite showing up in a keyword search for “lesbian,” the cover copy is extremely coy about whether there are queer elements. As usual, if you’ve read the book and can give me feedback on that point, I’d love to calibrate how well my book gaydar is doing.

As Van Reinhardt clears out her dead father’s belongings, she comes across hints of an unsettling family history, along with a request penned by her father prior to his death that sends her on a genealogical quest. Examining a 1900 family portrait of her German immigrant ancestors, Van’s curiosity grows about one of the children portrayed there.

In the 1870s, Kate is a German immigrant newly arrived in America with only her brother as family. Life changes for Kate when she and her brother split. When she returns, armed with a secret, nothing is the same, for her or her brother. Together they try to forge a life working for farmers in southwestern Iowa and at Kate’s urging, her brother takes the farmer’s daughter as his wife. And as that family grows, Kate becomes Tante Kate, isolated and separate from the rest of the family—almost a servant—not even appearing in the family portrait. Van revisits the town and the farm of her ancestors to discover calamitous events in probate records, farm auction lists, asylum records and lurid obituaries, hinting at a history far more complex and tumultuous than she had expected. But the mystery remains, until she chances upon a small book, sized for a pocket—Tante Kate’s secret diary—that provides the missing piece.

The queer elements in Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue by Christine Higdon from ECW Press are explicitly noted in the cover copy, but appear to be relatively marginal to the story, which has a male protagonist.

Four working-class Vancouver sisters, still reeling from the impact of World War I and the pandemic that stole their only brother, are scraping by but attempting to make the most of the exciting 1920s. Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is a story of love and longing ― but like all love stories, it’s complicated …

Morag is pregnant; she loves her husband. Georgina can’t bear hers and dreams of getting an education. Harriet-Jean, still at home with her opium-addicted mother, is in love with a woman. Isla’s pregnant too ― and in love with her sister’s husband. Only one other soul knows about Isla’s pregnancy, and it isn’t the father. When Isla resorts to a back-alley abortion and nearly dies, Llewellyn becomes hellbent on revenge, but against whom and to what end? What will it change for Isla and her sisters? For women? And where can revenge lead for a man like Llew, a police detective tangled up in running rum to Prohibition America?

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is immersed in the complex political and social realities of the 1920s and, not-so ironically, of the 2020s: love, sex, desire, police corruption, abortion, addiction, and women wanting more.

The last two books in “other books of interest” are marginal in terms of being considered historicals, since they’re both set in the ‘70s.

The first is A Glimpse into Your Soul by Char Dafoe.

1973, Peace River, Alberta, appears to be an idealistic place to live, rich with luscious land and a winding river that flows past the one-horse town where everybody knows everybody. Highschool sweethearts, Emma and Jillian McKinley grew up together in the small town and have loved one another for the past thirty years. Living out on the prairies, surrounded by nature and away from civilization, Emma and Jillian have had the freedom to live their true authentic relationship in peace. When a dark secret from Jillian’s past suddenly returns, threatening her marriage and upsetting the peace, Jillian takes it upon herself to tell her wife what really happened to her all those years ago.

Emma McKinley had always been a woman of action over words. Having lived her whole life in the solitude of her horses and her land, drama and danger never coalesced with her cowgirl lifestyle. When Emma discovers Jillian’s secret, the only thing on the cowgirl's mind is exacting revenge for her wife using the skills she has honed all her life—aim, shoot, leaving no trail behind.

And finally we have Songs of Irie by Asha Ashanti Bromfield from Wednesday Books.

It's 1976 and Jamaica is on fire. The country is on the eve of important elections and the warring political parties have made the divisions between the poor and the wealthy even wider. And Irie and Jilly come from very different backgrounds: Irie is from the heart of Kingston, where fighting in the streets is common. Jilly is from the hills, where mansions nestled within lush gardens remain safe behind gates. But the two bond through a shared love of Reggae music, spending time together at Irie's father's record store, listening to so-called rebel music that opens Jilly's mind to a sound and a way of thinking she's never heard before. As tensions build in the streets, so do tensions between the two girls. A budding romance between them complicates things further as the push and pull between their two lives becomes impossible to bear. For Irie, fighting―with her words and her voice―is her only option. Blood is shed on the streets in front of her every day. She has no choice. But Jilly can always choose to escape. Can their bond survive this impossible divide?

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been consuming in the last month? I finished up Meredith Rose’s sapphic Sherlock Holmes adaptation, A Study in Garnet. This one gets a strong recommendation from me. It’s very well written and tightly plotted. Meredith gets inside the psychology of her characters and explores the dynamics between two damaged personalities. This first volume in the series has a lot of delicious pining but no overt romance yet.

T. Kingfisher is usually an instant buy for me, and her new fairy tale fantasy, Thornhedge, got read in one sitting. The basic story is sleeping beauty, but the take on it is pure Kingfisher with an unexpected and eccentric protagonist and a semi-romantic adventure that ends up exactly where you hope it will go.

I listened to two audiobooks this month. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is a cross between the 1001 Nights and “let’s get the old team together for one last heist.” A female pirate captain gets blackmailed into taking one last job and discovers that going back to sea is both more seductive and far more dangerous that she wants to deal with in later life. No significant queer content, though one character discovers trans leanings.

The new K.J. Charles, A Nobleman's Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel is a loose sequel to The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, set in the Regency era among the smugglers of Romney Marsh. It’s a good, basic K.J. Charles male/male romance with complex and unique characters whose back-stories drive them into self-destructive behavior while pursuing a mystery. But since they both come from a place of good-hearted sincerity, they sort it all out in the end.

I hope you enjoyed as many good books this month as I did—hopefully even more than I managed!

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: 
Monday, October 2, 2023 - 07:25

OK, this is that weird out-of-order article on gothic literature from The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature. I posted it previoiusly as a simple blog item and now it's repeated as a regular LHMP entry. Sorry for the redundancy, but it's how I keep my life organized in systematic fashion.

And -- hey! -- yesterday I went off to the UC Berkeley library for the first time since Covid! Renewed my alumni library card. Failed utterly at figuring how to "wake up" the public access terminals in the reference section. (The ones I can download JSTOR articles from.) I mean, I know all the standard tricks for waking up a Windows machine that's gone into power-saving mode, but none of them worked. So I'll have to figure out when I can get back there when there's a human being on duty.

But I did go down into the stacks and pull a bunch of articles from books. This is made easier by the vast improvements in the phone-camera-to-pdf app that I've been using for around a decade. Back when I first started using it on books, you needed to hold the phone extremely still (while using your other hand to spread the book flat, and try to get the best light with no shadows), and the manually pull the frame around the edges of the page (so that it would de-skew the angle properly). Now the auto-focus and auto-frame-identification are vastly improved, and half the time the auto-shutter-when-the-image-is-right also works, so you can just hold the phone with the entire page in frame and it'll take the perfect image and you can move on to the next page. This is the same app I use for non-electronic receipts and it has a bunch of features I don't even use. Scanner Pro by Readdle -- highly recommended.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Bruhm, Steven. 2014. “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 15 The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia

Although this article is placed in the “Enlightenment Culture” section of the book, this survey article begins with references to several modern horror/gothic works that connect the themes of hidden supernatural terrors with hidden sexualities. But despite the modern recognition of how these themes are connected, and despite the graphic depiction of a wide range of “forbidden” sexualities featured in the historic gothic genre, male homosexuality is startlingly absent in historic gothic works (though not in historic pornographic works). Examining this problem, Bruhm notes that in 19th century gothic works, homosexuality is hinted at with innuendo or vague threat and is concealed under symbolic tropes. To illustrate this, he focuses on two works: Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.

In The Monk, the apparently pederastic desire between the head of a monastery and the mysterious, attractive young novice is resolved away from homoeroticism when the novice is revealed to be a woman in disguise, after which the story turns to more traditional heterosexual gothic transgressions when the abbot sexually assaults and murders a second woman who turns out to be his sister. The looming threat of male homosexuality is vaguely present, but never directly articulated, then is resolved by the gender reveal followed by the quite directly articulated heterosexual sexual transgressions. Homophobia inserts itself in the “unspeakability” of the (illusory) same-sex desire.

In Carmilla, by contrast, the looming threat is the vampire Carmilla who insinuates herself into the life and bed of the young woman, Laura, caressing her both in dreams and in reality, and stealing both her innocence and life by drinking her blood. Carmilla represents, not simply lesbian desire, but sexual liberation in general. Nor is she entirely unsympathetic, adopting gothic tropes of the orphan cast alone in the world on the kindness of strangers. But at the same time, Carmilla embodies the icon of the aristocratic, languorous predator who features in decadent literature largely as a male fantasy. Here, homophobia appears in the framing of Carmilla and Laura’s relationship as predatory (as well as in the opinions of literary critics who sometimes insist that the story’s lesbianism is not about lesbianism, but is a symbolic stand-in for something else entirely).

Time period: 
Saturday, September 30, 2023 - 18:30

Another chapter from The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature that gives only a passing nod to the existence of women as anything other than an adjunct to men't lives. I'd meant to push on more rapidly with these, but unexpectedly my day-job wanted me on-site for most of the week. And so it goes. Next up is the chapter on gothic literature that I already posted, which will be re-posted within the LHMP framework.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Tobin, Robert. 2014. “Bildung and Sexuality in the Age of Goethe” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 14 - Bildung and Sexuality in the Age of Goethe

This article has a consideration of the place of male homosexuality — activity, legal status, cultural attitudes — during the “age of Goethe” in Germany, and how m/m themes underpin various creative movements. The brief discussion of women in this context focuses mainly on the literary trope of the actively-desiring, sexually independent woman, who practices “free love” with desirable men. There is also a brief note about medical theories of lesbianism, in particular, the “enlarged clitoris” theory, as well as theories of gender “inversion.”

Time period: 
Monday, September 25, 2023 - 07:31

Hey, my blog, my rules. If an article in a collection is pretty much designed to ignore the existence of women, then I'm not going to spend a lot of pixels on it unless it's genuinely snark-worthy.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Coviello, Peter. 2014. “Homobonding and the Nation” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Part III - Enlightenment Cultures; Chapter 13 - Homobonding and the Nation

This article connects the rhetoric of manly same-sex bonds with the development of national identity and nationalism in the 18th century and later. This image of a tight-knit national brotherhood not only trivially excludes women in the history of its development, but more consciously excludes racial and cultural “others,” relying, as it does, on an image of unified identity and feelings. I’m honestly a bit confused at how it fits into a “gay and lesbian” collection, except in the thematic connection between (white) male political solidarity and homo-affective bonds.

Time period: 
Sunday, September 24, 2023 - 14:51

I thought a lot about my podcast series on favorite tropes while summarizing this article. Particularly about gendered tropes. I have several topics on the to-do list for that series that deal with pairings of character types such as "the rake and the wallflower" which feed nicely into the question of how such tropes work differently for female couples. There were a couple of references for this chapter that touch on the category of "female rake" that I'll need to track down for when I address that character trope in the podcast. And this article points out quite realistically how women who act like a libertine or a rake were viewed very differently in their historic era than men were. That doesn't mean that you can't change the rules when writing them into your own fiction, but it's something to stay aware of.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

O’Connell, Lisa. 2014. “The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 12 - The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy: Personae, Styles, and Affects

Libertine, rake, and dandy (LRD) are a sequence of persona types that emerged sequentially from the 16th to the 20th century, with overlaps, and blurring between them. They existed alongside other named character types, such as 18th-century, fops, macaronis, coxcombs, and coquettes. All are defined in relation to the “respectable” character types, such as the pious person, the bluestocking, etc. to name only a very few. The sexually-marked types of LRD don’t correspond directly to the modern concept of queerness, though some connections can be traced.

[Note: it’s also worth pointing out that LRD are all strongly male coded.]

For example, libertinism is associated with some practices that overlap with homosexuality, but is also firmly rooted in heterosexism. LRD existed both as stylized “media” images, but also as patterns of behavior that can be associated with specific men. And those specific men very often also participated in same-sex activity.

The L or D character types were, in many ways, culture-specific. The English libertine differed in some ways from the French libertine, etc. The author now acknowledges that while it would be wrong to say that the more that there were no female LRD, “Women who fit these types were derided, as whores,” rather than being, perhaps, uncomfortably celebrated as icons. Each of these roles could be split further into more specialized types. In general, these roles were strongly associated with the social elite, and lower class figures who followed similar behaviors tended to be treated with mockery. The upper class LRD represented an out of control indulgence in freethinking, sexuality, fashion, and luxury, representing the face of “modernism”.

Libertinage has its roots in the rise of pornographic literature, such as the works of Aretino, or the “dialogue of whores” genre, focusing on the use of transgressive sexual behavior, both for entertainment, and as satirical social commentary. As the social commentary function faded away, this literature settled into a purpose of sexual arousal, often using domestic settings, and the motif of sexual education, frequently of a naïve young woman, by an older experienced mentor. To the extent that these retained a satirical purpose, it was to mock the salons that upper class women held to celebrate learning, elegance, and wit. The emergence of this type of erotic literature in England included a good number of female authors.

In the later 17th century, a new form of libertinage evolved that focused more on a philosophy of the pursuit of pleasure and a rejection of religious morality. [The article here digresses into details of church history.] The Restoration court was a comfortable home for libertines, but the role came hand-in-hand with a sneering misogyny.

At this same period, the figure of the rake emerges. While the rake is similarly devoted to unfettered (and somewhat predatory) sexuality, rather than working from an inspiration of satirical or philosophical challenge to conventional morality, the rake’s persona is more about an aesthetic — a performance of nonchalant charm, wit, and irony. The rake is not rooted in heritage or profession, though he may hold to a masculine code of honor. He is usually a denizen of the city, moving among all classes of people, but evading engagement with social structures. The literary rake shuns marriage as lacking in romance.

With the passing of the Stuart dynasty in the early 18th century, the rake became less associated with courtly life, but held on as a literary trope through the end of the century, more often as an antagonist than an antihero. We see a rare example of a female rake in the character of Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who – like her male counterparts – seduces women. Some real-life rakes found their philosophies aligned with radical politics, but the more freewheeling attitudes toward male-male sex were having a harder time attracting even covert admiration.

The aesthetic and stylistic attributes of the rake migrated, in the Regency, to the figure of the dandy. Strangely enough, it’s also possible to trace origins for the dandy in the fop – who previously had been viewed as the antithesis of the rake.

The dandy – unlike these other personas – can also be traced to the inspiration of one particular man: Beau Brummell. Brummell establish the image of an arbiter (and curator) of sartorial style, with an intolerance of the ordinary and vulgar. The dandy was not a commentary on politics or philosophy, nor was he a challenge to order or authority. He is simply style personified.


Time period: 
Saturday, September 23, 2023 - 18:41

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 268 – Lesbian Gothics, Gothic Lesbians - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/09-23 - listen here)


I feel like I should have opened the episode with spooky music, because today I want to talk about gothic literature, both past and present. There are ways in which the gothic genre is a natural fit for sapphic stories. One might immediately think of works like Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, which introduces fairly blatant lesbian desire into a vampire story, but Carmilla isn’t necessarily typical of the gothic genre, and the sapphic potential has much deeper roots. When talking about gothic literature being written today, we need to consider how that label has expanded beyond its origin and what that means for identifying something as a “lesbian gothic.”

Like many fiction genres, the gothics existed before the genre was identified and labeled. Whether we’re talking about the earliest gothics of the late 18th century, or the later development which expanded to encompass horror and paranormal stories—before those split off to become separate categories—the essential feature of a gothic is “the vibes.” Gothic literature is about giving the reader a particular emotional experience involving mystery, fear, and being haunted by the consequences of the past.

The Origins of the Gothic Novel

The gothic genre is generally credited to have begun with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, but it quickly became associated with female authors such as Ann Radcliffe, among whose many titles are The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Dominant themes in the early gothics include characters who are haunted by the past—either by their own past experiences, or by a more distant family heritage. The past intrudes onto the present of the story in the form of ruined buildings, family ties and heritage, and framing devices such as lost manuscripts or fictitious histories. The supernatural is a presence, but not always a reality, as apparently supernatural experiences may be resolved by explanation. And over it all is the threat of everyday experiences being twisted into the unnatural or the forbidden.

The label “gothic” comes from common features of the setting, involving decaying castles, sinister monasteries, underground crypts, and other features of medieval architecture that represent the link to the past. The setting is often a foreign land—perhaps unspecified—with the action similarly displaced from the reader’s reality, though often nebulously. The atmosphere is claustrophobic—perhaps literally in the case of crypts and underground passages—but often due to the inescapable presence of figures with power over the protagonist. For female protagonists, the claustrophobia may be the threat of being trapped in marriage to an abusive man. This theme of claustrophobia may be echoed in convoluted and non-linear narratives that conceal understanding both from the protagonist and from the reader. Violence and the threat of it is a frequent motif: vengeance, imprisonment, murder, and rape or at least forced marriage. Other common tropes are character doubles and concealed identities including the revelation of hidden family connections, unnatural sounds and nocturnal landscapes or dream journeys. The motif of dangerous secrets may be present in the physical setting (with hidden rooms or secret passages) and reflected in the form of concealed information.

The Female Gothic

Although the early gothic novels written by male and female authors share many of the defining characteristics, some gendered themes emerge. Male authors often focus on male characters who break social taboos: forbidden sexual relationships such as incest or bigamy, and sometimes veiled hints of homosexuality.

Female-authored gothics can often be read as reflections of the claustrophobic nature of women’s lives, their lack of power over their own fates, and the risk that the domestic sphere—rather than being a place of nurturing and comfort—can become a source of danger especially from men who ought to be their protectors, such as fathers and brothers. The heroine may be abandoned and persecuted, fleeing from a villainous father-figure and searching for an absent maternal figure. The gothic novel became a context for critiquing male power, violence, and predatory sexuality. It created a context for the female protagonist to come of age and achieve a goal that—while it might include marriage—was not centered around marriage.

Furthermore, gothic novels offered a means for female authors to express extremes of emotion. Heroines are allowed to dread their situation – because the situation is removed from the everyday – in a way they would not be permitted to express toward everyday threats and suffering. In some ways, the heroine’s primary defining feature as a character is suffering and vulnerability. The familial structures she should be able to rely on are instead closed to her, and the women who should be her allies are either absent or dead.

Another gendered tendency among early gothic novels is for male authors to include genuine supernatural elements—hereditary curses, malevolent spirits—while female authors have their female protagonist eventually identify a rational explanation for what had seemed to be supernatural. The mysterious and supernatural is invoked to create a frisson of terror and possibility, which is then managed back into the knowable and rational. The vulnerable isolated heroine, cast into a mysterious and terrifying environment, is an exaggeration of women’s vulnerability in the real world.  In the end, the true threat to our heroine is rooted in the social systems and power structures of the real world. But her education and rationality enable her to resolve her fate.

Another curious theme in many female-authored gothics is the passivity of the putative male love interest with regard to how the dangers are resolved. Ambiguously threatening father figures overlap with the “demon lover” motif provoking a sense of sexual dread. The terrors and anxieties the heroine experiences are not a displaced erotic titillation, but a manifestation of realistic and genuine fears surrounding the situation of an isolated woman in a world of male predators. The “safe” hero—the prospective lover that the heroine must win through to, is absent, feminized, and envisioned by the heroine as being in similar peril to her own. In this way, an entirely different alternative is offered to capitulation to male threat in order to obtain safety.

In Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, the love interest spends significant periods offstage and irrelevant as the heroine escapes various threats. Time and again, the heroine saves him, first from illness, and in the final climax, from execution. Similarly, in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the putative love interest disappears while the heroine resists abduction, forced marriage, and imprisonment and has successfully escaped and reclaimed her proper inheritance while her lover has lost everything until reunited with her. One can see a similar theme in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

These gendered tendencies are not absolute, and just because female authors used gothic themes to critique the state of women’s existence doesn’t mean they felt able to change their heroines’ fates entirely.

Gothic Development in the 19th Century

The 19th century saw several developments in the gothic genre. Or rather, several expansions of the scope of gothics. Contemporary settings were added to the fictional geography, as we see in the works of the Brontë sisters. Genuinely supernatural elements become more of a feature rather than being given rational explanations at the end. The “ghost story” emerged as a genre. Vampires joined the cast of characters, though today vampire stories have emerged as an independent genre.

With the rise of decadent literature toward the later part of the century, supernatural elements combined with gothic themes tying together physical and moral decay. Rather than gothic heroines prevailing though virtue, courage, and rationality, now they might alternately embrace their “demon lover” and become a lesson in the consequences of depravity.

Lesbians as Antagonists

What place do lesbian characters have in this complicated history of the gothic novel? Only in contemporary writing do we find explicitly self-identified sapphic characters featuring as gothic protagonists, but we can expand to include intimate friendships that are not explicitly erotic. This allows us to trace two roles for the lesbian character: the suffering heroine and the threatening villain who makes up part of the menacing gothic landscape.

We can trace the origins of the sapphic villain in 18th century queer-coded characters such as Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who represents the lure of sexual transgression and immorality that the heroine must resist, along with what might be thought of as “henchwoman” figures assisting the sexually threatening male character while echoing his predatory aura, such as the housekeeper in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. If the gothic heroine’s primary peril is that environments that should be safe and nurturing have turned dangerous, then the female friend who offers sexual betrayal rather than allyship strikes close to the heart.

But as intimations of lesbian desire become more overt in the later 19th century, the threat to the gothic heroine can be made clearer—and we find it sharply in focus in Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla. Set in that favored gothic location, a solitary castle in a remote foreign location, our heroine Laura encounters supernatural peril in her own home and bed from the vampire Carmilla. In something of a turn-about, Carmilla has all the hallmarks of being the gothic heroine. She is stranded due to a carriage accident and left among strangers. But this is not her story. The motif of ancestral secrets being revealed manifests in an ancient painting that is an exact likeness of Carmilla, contributing to the discovery of her true nature.

One can see a gothic inheritance in a number of decadent novels that involve a woman’s struggle between the allure of a lesbian seductress and the male protagonist, though typically these fall in the “male gothic” tradition of focusing on transgressive sexuality and its consequences for men. One of the articles I read for this podcast identifies gothic themes in Molly Keane’s 1934 novel Devoted Ladies in which a female couple’s relationship devolves into a dysfunctional gothic mess when one partner takes up the role of “demon lover” as the other refocuses on a potential heterosexual relationship. The lesbian-coded gothic villain can appear simply as one of the options for oppressing the heroine, as in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the female protagonist is menaced, not by lesbian desire, but by second-hand jealousy.

As we move into the era of the pulps, the dynamic of a gothic heroine and a semi-predatory lesbian antagonist-lover begins to soften into sympathy, though publishing conventions of the time required something resembling a moral lesson to be retained. But in the later part of the 20th century, we can finally achieve gothic novels where a lesbian antagonist can provide conflict without being forbidden any other potential role in the story.

Lesbians as Protagonists

It's more difficult to find early examples of a sapphic gothic heroine, unless one chooses to interpret the “passive boyfriend” motif as a feminized love interest. Perhaps the closest one might come is Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 Ormond: or the Secret Witness which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself in order to be reunited with her beloved female friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for this friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. I’d love to find some more 19th or early 20th century examples of gothic heroines whose escape or rescue is enabled by a close female friend, where there is no marriage plot to elbow her out of the way in the end.

But when we come to contemporary publishing, we can find a wealth of gothic plots where the female protagonist faces down all perils and threats and gets the girl in the end. Given the focus of this podcast, I’ll be looking at books with historic settings—which is perfect for the gothic tradition, which always did like to set stories in the past.

In some ways, the structure of early gothic novels adapts itself easily to sapphic plots. The heroine typically finds herself in a hostile or dangerous domestic atmosphere. Either she is a stranger, or the familiar has been made strange by a change of relationships or personnel. Typically, she is under pressure by male figures to participate in an unwanted marital arrangement—or something less formal. She feels trapped and constrained. The female figures who she ought to be able to turn to for help are either disastrously missing or are allies of the antagonist. She sees peril all around her—a peril that may be denied or ignored by other characters. The heroine currently has no social, economic, or political power to aid her, but must rely on her wits and her ability to elicit the help of strangers—strangers who may turn out to be keys to her past and heritage, or may resolve into romantic connections or at least allies.

While the traditional gothic looks to the past and moves the protagonist past a dysfunctional and abusive family structure to re-establish her in a “proper” version of her ancestral family (via inheritance, being reunited with lost relatives, or marriage), lesbian gothics expand the possibilities to include the creation a new (found) family. And while the traditional gothic acknowledges the inherent constraints and hazards of patriarchal society, but finds resolution by enduring and outwitting them, the new lesbian gothic gives heroines permission not merely to resist toxic patriarchy, but to reject patriarchy in all its forms—a permission she may not always take, but one that is on the table. Furthermore, the new lesbian gothic allows sapphic characters to inhabit all the roles—the protagonist, the antagonist, the demon lover, the failed parent, the ally, the romantic interest—and, as desired, to bundle those roles into new combinations, instead of being predestined to play the roles assigned by heteronormative narrative structures.

Some Lesbian Gothics

And how are authors exploring those possibilities? This is the part where I talk about some books I’ve encountered that fit reasonably into the category of lesbian gothic. Some of them clearly embrace the gothic label, while others may fit the themes while playing somewhat with the structures.

One thing I discovered when pulling books for this section is that my spreadsheet of sapphic historical fiction doesn’t have a coherent way of identifying gothics. Relatively few use that word in the cover copy, and my thematic coding has been haphazard enough that only one or two got tagged as gothic. So I make no claims that this list is in any way comprehensive, or even necessarily representative.

Let’s start out with the earliest publication on my shelves: The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter, published by Naiad Press in 1981. Viewed from a distance, the story is somewhat awkward, trying to stuff too many tropes into too small a space. But like many early lesbian novels it has the joy of an author expanding into a literary space that hadn’t previously been friendly. A young (but not entirely innocent) convent-educated girl is hired as a governess by a dashing but chilly widowed marquise. There are secrets and dangers around the marquise’s castle, not least of which is the protagonist’s crush on her employer who appears to be otherwise attached. The air of mystery is maintained more by people simply not talking to each other than by genuine secrets and the major threat is external rather than being part of the domestic space. But the book sets out to be a genuine lesbian gothic and succeeds at that.

Stories that fully embrace all the tropes and motifs of the early gothic romance aren’t as plentiful as one might expect, but a classic example is Shadows of the Heart by Patty G. Henderson. A respectable young woman who has been orphaned in scandalous circumstances is connected with a post as companion to the frail and invalid wife of the bullying and indifferent Lord Blackstone in a sinister castle filled with old family servants of questionable loyalties. Someone—apparently—wants to do away with the invalid and our heroine must untangle the mysteries and dangers (both to her mistress and herself) before it’s too late. The heroine is presented with two potential romantic interests. Her mistress fills the role of the ineffective character-in-distress that was sometimes filled by the male romantic lead in early gothics. But there is also Lord Blackstone’s transgressively dashing and lascivious sister, who occupies the role traditionally given to a lesbian-coded antagonist. This being a sapphic story, being lesbian-coded doesn’t automatically make one a villain, so the plot structure doesn’t predict which romantic path our heroine will follow, but the climax includes the usual chases, escapes, and near-death experiences.

Jane Eyre is a classic gothic of the Victorian era, and for reasons that may be obvious, it’s popular in sapphic adaptations. The gothic motifs are obvious from the source material, and if one slightly shifts the protagonist’s romantic fascination from Mr. Rochester to the madwoman in the attic, then the possibilities open up. And once you view the imprisoned Mrs. Rochester through a sapphic lens, it’s easy to see that she makes a natural gothic heroine, following the theme of being trapped in a claustrophobic, decaying, menacing environment in which family connections are enemies, not allies, and psychological warfare is employed to make her compliant to patriarchal goals.

A truly superb example of this group is Rose Lerner’s The Wife in the Attic, which doesn’t flinch from depicting the titular wife as emotionally disturbed—though who wouldn’t be given what she has endured? The viewpoint protagonist, as in the inspiration, is a young woman employed as governess to a girl in the household—in this interpretation the legitimate daughter of the Rochester-analogues, rather than a girl of less regular parentage.  The book works the dual romantic attractions of our heroine’s employer and of the imprisoned woman, both of whom partake of the “demon lover” trope in their own ways. The claustrophobic atmosphere and sense of being trapped is present for both female characters. Our viewpoint character is constantly tormented by the unreliability of the versions of reality that are presented to her. And the climax, in some ways, only increases the feeling of looming dread. Lerner isn’t simply re-writing Jane Eyre, but rather borrowing the structure and adding several features of her own, including religious prejudice as an underpinning to the wife’s treatment.

Elizabeth Hart’s novel The Lily in the Tower takes the bones of Jane Eyre in a different direction. The parallels are lighter: the emotionally troubled character confined “for her own good” is not also encumbered by marriage, and the Jane Eyre analogue who is drawn to her appears to have no trouble choosing between this friendship and the questionable attractions of a male suitor. (I confess I haven’t read this one yet, so I’m working from the cover copy.) We see the traditional setting of an ancestral home in its decline, and a protagonist driven there by forces outside her control.

Betsy Cornwell’s novel Reader, I Murdered Him has the most direct connection with the source material. The playfulness of the title is misleading. This is definitely on the darker side of gothic, drawing in the themes of the threat of sexual violence and unwanted forbidden relationships. The protagonist is the young girl, Adele, from the original novel, now grown to a young woman and full of rage for the plight of her sex in a world where predatory men get a pass, leaving ruined lives in their wake. We see Jane Eyre after the end of her love story, resorting to denial and chosen ignorance to maintain her illusions of happiness, leaving Adele with no ally in her own quest for happiness and justice.

Many novels begin with the tropes of a young woman, cast adrift in the world in financial need, who travels far from the world she knows and what friends or family she may still have, to take employment in an isolated household, usually one decaying from a former grandeur, and then encountering mysterious and sinister people and events.

This is the framework we find in The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe, where the protagonist takes up a teaching position at a remote Yorkshire boarding school. Yorkshire is also the setting for Cathy Dunnell’s Beulah Lodge, where a young woman staying with relatives before her marriage finds mutual attraction with an orphaned housemaid, both suffering under the cruelty of the mistress of the house. In Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, the isolation is legal rather than geographic, as our protagonist finds herself sent by her brother to an insane asylum that seeks to strip away not merely her personality but her very identity, even as she clings to the one ally she finds there. I’ll note that I haven’t yet read any of these three books, so I’m absorbing the gothic vibes from the cover copy and—in the case of Marianne Ratcliffe’s book, from talking with her on the podcast.

All the previous books fall in the category of “explained mysteries” like many of the early female-authored gothics. But there are also stories that cross over to the true supernatural, such as Harkworth Hall and its sequels, by L.S. Johnson. The protagonist’s remote residence is her family home, not a place she has been sent, and the gothic figures that enter her life intrude on her territory rather than the reverse. The intruders have a peculiar interest in supernatural events and carry a sense of forboding menace. We have secret societies, strange hidden creatures, and potential romantic interest who partakes at least a little of the “dangerous demon lover” motif.

Another gothic with overt supernatural elements is Lianyu Tan’s The Wicked and the Willing. Here we have a literal demon lover in the vampiric mistress of the mansion, as well as the secondary figure of the loyal servant who might be expected to be hostile to the protagonist. But the heroine, who comes to the household as a lady’s companion, is drawn to them both. The author came on the podcast previously to talk about the gothic elements and how they play well with the colonial setting.

There are several other books that I thought fit reasonably well into the gothic category, though perhaps crossing genres a bit more. Molly Greeley’s Austen-inspired The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh sets her titular heroine in the claustrophobic and confining mansion of Rosings Park, where her day-to-day life is an opium-tinged dream with no chance of escape from her mother’s smothering concern. Many gothic trappings are present, but the plot strays a bit from the usual path. The story is less concerned with how the protagonist perseveres within her perilous situation, than in how she must escape that environment in order to have a chance of freeing herself form the physical and emotional bonds imposed on her.

Another book that intersects the gothic somewhat tangentially is The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence. The gothic tropes include an isolated and sinister manor house, mysterious prisoners, a convoluted family history that is key to the protagonist’s past and future, and a game of “is it or isn’t it” around the mechanical chess-playing device. Does the device have supernatural powers? Or is it an elaborate hoax?

The Ghost and the Machine reminded me greatly of two Sarah Waters novels that also partake of the gothic atmosphere: Fingersmith (about an elaborate inheritance scam) and Affinity revolving around the world of seances and spirits. Both could be analyzed from a gothic point of view, though they stray more broadly from the core themes.

I hope this show has convinced you that lesbians and sapphic themes are intertwined in the deep history of the gothic novel, as well as being a natural fit for more overt representation in recent historical fiction. If I didn’t have quite so many stories on my to-do list already, I’d be tempted to tackle one myself!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Sunday, September 17, 2023 - 19:50

Another pleasant surprise -- more focus on the appearance of female homoeroticism as a result of cross-dressing plots, when I expected the article would be mostly about the homoerotic potential of boy actors playing female roles. I was planning to put this blog off another day so I wouldn't release it on top of the podcast, but I've been sluggish about getting this weekend's podcast out and decided the world won't end if I release it next Saturday, since I've already committed to delaying the September fiction episode a month due to narrator scheduling. I always worry about letting my self-imposed podcast deadlines slide because--as we've seen witht he self-imposed blog goals--sometimes artificial rules are the only thing that keeps me from dropping the ball entirely. But I've finally written up the "lesbian gothics" podcast and need to finish the segment where I talk about recent books in the genre ("recent" being "within the last 50 years"). I realized that I have no easy or systematic way of identifying which books in my master spreadsheet could reasonably be classified as "gothic", so I'm not claiming any sort of comprehensiveness. At any rate, I've been meaning to do that episode for most of the year and will be glad to get it done. But I need a few more days.

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Full citation: 

Orvis, David L. 2014. “Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 11 - Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage

From the topic, one might think this chapter would focus primarily on the male homoerotic potential of boy actors dressing as female roles on the early modern stage, but the choice of plays that Orvis chooses to examine clearly bring in female themes as well. Specifically: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lyly’s Galatea, and Middleton and Decker’s The Roaring Girl—three plays involve cross-dressing, not simply in the staging of the play, but also within the performances themselves, with characters appearing in disguise as a different gender, creating comedic romantic interactions.

The male homoerotic potential of boy actors playing female rules cannot be overlooked. Orvis discusses a company of boy actors whose repertoire seems to have been deliberately designed to exploit homoerotic wordplay and the eroticizing of boy actors wearing women’s clothing. However not all transvestite theater focuses on this one dynamic. And there are plenty of examples where the playing of female roles by boy actors appears to have been entirely unmarked and without erotic implications. Theatrical cross-dressing came in for moral condemnation, but more in the context of a general anxiety around the blurring of boundaries regarding gendered clothing. The stage was not the only context in which playful cross-dressing was an accepted part of society.

The twins, Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night represent an almost ungendered concept of desire, where the two are identical in every characteristic that matters, except for presumed physiological sex. They become interchangeable objects of desire within the play. Viola, disguised as the page Cesario, desires the duke Orsino. This is simultaneously a female character desiring a man, character disguised as a boy desiring a man, and underneath it all a boy actor, desiring a male role played by a male actor.

Olivia’s desire for the disguised Cesario can be read as a woman desiring a young man (the disguise), or as a woman desiring the female character underneath the disguise. The ease with which Olivia transfers her affection from Viola to Sebastian suggests that the distinction is relatively unimportant.

The play simultaneously resolves all these attractions into heterosexual marriages within the script, while underneath the surface, all relationships within the play are interacted between male bodies. What if one focuses, not on the ultimate resolution of the play, but on the interactions throughout? The reality of homoerotic desire is thus made legible. And one might point out that the play ends before any of the weddings, with the characters from one viewpoint in their original state: Orsino with the page Cesario (who is really Viola), and Olivia believing she is marrying Cesario (who is really Viola), but actually accepting Sebastian.

These dynamics are further complicated—or perhaps further simplified—in Lyly’s play Galatea, for which one of the inspirations is Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe. In Ovid’s original, the cross-dressing and cross-gendered Iphis is transformed into a boy in order to marry Ianthe. However in Galatea, we have not simply one cross-dressed girl, but two—each believing the other to be a boy, and therefore a lawful object of female desire. But their desire persists, even as each begins to realize that the other person is the same as she is, a cross-dressed girl. The two women are attracted to each other specifically because of their likeness, and male-female relations are not depicted favorably within the play.

The “structural problem” that remains at the end of the play, i.e., that the loving couple are both female, is hand-waved away by the promise of a gender transition that is postponed until after the play closes. Paralleling the desire of the two main characters is Cupid’s meddling with Diana’s nymphs, shooting them with his arrows causing them to fall in love with each other, thus strengthening the theme of female homoeroticism within the play, while still marking it as a non-natural state.

The play The Roaring Girl features a character based on real-life gender transgressor Moll Cutpurse, who figures in the plot as the mechanism by which the frustrated lovers reverse parental opposition. The male suitor seeks to change his father’s mind about the girl he genuinely wants to marry by faking an interest in Moll in order to convince his father that his true beloved isn’t so bad after all. The dramatic character of Moll Cutpurse cross-dresses and indicates a certain disdain for male suitors, and at least the possibility that she has sex with women.

Moll is not the only character in the play to cross-dress. The female romantic lead does as well, though to avoid detection by her suitor’s father, thus setting up the context for the appearance of a homoerotic kiss between the two romantic leads. Moll represents a different type of transvestite character on the stage. She does not try to pass as a man, nor is she in disguise in order to spend time with the man she desires. Rather her cross-dressing is part of her rejection of standard roles, both those of gender, and in the context of marriage.

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Misc tags: 
Friday, September 15, 2023 - 07:07

It sort of figures that the second chapter of this book that solidly focuses on women is, functionally, a recap of a book I've already covered. I mean: it's a great book! But it means there isn't really anything new here in terms of the Project.

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2014. “How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 10 - How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World

This chapter begins with a discussion of historic terminologies for women who loved women and the eternal problem of whether to use the label “lesbian”. Should the historian look for specific acts, or for evidence of emotional intimacy? And as a literary historian, should one distinguish between literary, artistic, or dramatic depictions, and “non-fictional” content in the fields of law, medicine, and theology?

An example of these themes colliding is in envisioning, a performance of Pérez de Montalbán’s 1626 play The Lieutenant Nun (based on the real-life story of Catalina de Erauso) portrayed on stage by popular actress Luisa de Robles. How would audiences have received and understood that performance in which a favorite actress openly flirted with women on stage, when depicting a woman known to have been attracted to women?

The historic record that contains unmistakable evidence of women desiring women is overlaid by the evidence of “attempts to suppress, destroy, or tamper” with that evidence.

The article then goes into a brief summary of documentary evidence from legal, medical, and theological texts. All these tended to approach the topic of lesbian sex from a heteronormative viewpoint, focusing on penetrative acts “like a man with a woman.” But other texts focused on romantic attachments, such as descriptions of — or concerns about — “special, friendships” in convents. Lesbians might be identified by a certain “look” (i.e., a masculine appearance), but also by how they “looked” at each other, betraying desire.

For all that discussions of lesbian desire in Spanish literature show discomfort or our framed humorously, they provide evidence that people could imagine such things, and were openly discussing the possibilities. The article concludes with cases where a person assigned female at birth framed their desire and actions in transgender terms, rather than same-sex ones, complicating the historic record.

[Note: for many more details on the content of this chapter see, Velasco’s book Lesbians in Early Modern Spain.]


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