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Monday, August 21, 2023 - 08:19

To help with discoverability for the podcast (and make promotion a little easier) I've been setting up special topic indexes. The latest one is for the "Our F/Favorite Tropes" series. So if you want to check out our shows about how favorite historical romance tropes work differently for female couples, here's your list!

Do you have a favorite historical trope you'd like to have explored? It's probably already on the to-do list, but lots of interest could move it up in the queue.

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Saturday, August 19, 2023 - 12:19

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 266 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 9: Spies - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/19 - listen here)

Professions as Tropes

So far in the “Our F/Favorite Tropes” series, I’ve tended to focus on topics where gender is a functional aspect in how the trope plays out, such as marriage-based tropes or tropes that depend on assumptions about sexual tension. But many popular tropes simply feature aspects of the characters’ lives: their personalities, their life history, or their profession. With respect to professions (understood broadly) we definitely see gendered aspects in what professions are popular in fiction, or which are considered to have romantic potential.

There’s a motif that often comes up when discussing sapphic historical fiction that I’d like to tackle head-on, and that is the notion that women in history “weren’t interesting” and therefore that one either needs to manipulate them artificially into a male-coded profession, or go to the length of gender disguise in order to have at least one of your romantic protagonists be interesting enough to support the plot.

If you will excuse the vulgarity: bullshit!

It would be bad enough if I heard this notion from people who disparage the idea of woman-centered fiction in general, but too often I hear it from people who are fans of lesbian fiction as a rationale for why they don’t like historical fiction. Or from writers and readers of lesbian historical fiction explaining why they require at least one character to take on a male-coded role in the story. Or, for that matter, as a reason for why a fictional woman with an unexpected profession is considered “unbelievable”.

As a general booster of sapphic historical fiction, I do understand the attraction of adapting popular tropes, plots, and character types from heterosexual fiction and simply slotting one of the female protagonists into a traditionally male role. But as a historian and a feminist I find it immensely frustrating to see the implicit message, time and again, that women-as-women are inherently boring.

So in the trope episodes that explore professions, I’m not going to take the angle of “here is how you can have your heroine get around the problem that Women Didn’t Do This Thing” but rather to talk about the contexts and ways in which actual historic women Did The Thing.

To some extent, I kicked this off in the episode on Aristocrats and Billionaires by touching on ways in which women could become independently wealthy.  But today we’re tackling something a bit less ordinary: women as spies.

Espionage and Romance

Espionage creates a gloriously rich context for angst-filled romances. Not only is there a lot of potential for an enemies-to-lovers plot (as I mentioned in the episode covering that trope), but the inherent complexities of dissimulation, dishonesty, ulterior motives, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties lend themselves to a storyline in which the romantic conflicts and misunderstandings are solidly grounded rather than being trivial or artificial.

For same-sex romance plots, there is also the thematic parallel of being closeted in one’s profession as well as perhaps in one’s romantic desires. (Although, as always, I’ll note that modern concepts of being closeted or feeling a need to be covert about romantic or erotic attraction don’t necessarily map directly to historic experiences.) All in all, the life of a spy means that you are regularly trying to establish relationships of questionable sincerity, usually for a third party’s benefit, in contexts where being open and honest about your identity and desires could mean peril or death. I hope I don’t have to justify why having one or both of your romantic protagonists be a spy is guaranteed story potential!

Women in Espionage

So here’s the other side of the question: when and in what contexts in history were women engaged in espionage? What sorts of roles did they have and what types of actions did they take? And were those roles conducive to engaging in same-sex romances or would special pleading be needed?

Let’s first acknowledge that espionage has been a key aspect of politics and war since the earliest written records. The forms might differ, but the essential truth is that any time two cultures, states, or peoples come in contact with each other, people will be working hard to gather information on the other side while trying just as hard to keep information about their own side concealed. Any traveler, diplomat, or guest is a potential spy—and is often expected to be so by their own people. When the other party in a conflict comes into your territory, every ordinary person has the potential to become a spy, if they’re in the right place at the right time and paying attention.

The information being gathered might have to do with resources, technologies, plans, intentions, or actions in process. The spy may be purely an observer or may also be providing carefully selected information, either to affect the other side’s decisions or as a quid-pro-quo. Espionage may slide over into sabotage, either by the provision of false information or by acting against people or resources.

A spy may be motivated by loyalty or be a hired agent or a mixture of both. Or she might be playing all sides against each other, either for profit or personal power. Even when the arrangement was financial, bonds between spies and their handlers tended to be personal, rather than more anonymously administrative, which may explain continuing loyalties even when pay was scanty and infrequent. In the complicated politics of Europe, those loyalties were rarely as simple as basic nationalism, but followed lines of religion, family or marital allegiance, political alignment, or even simple charisma.

Spies came from all walks of life. Although our typical image of the official diplomat who doubles as a spy is male, it isn’t uncommon for women of the court—whether courtiers or courtesans—to fill a diplomatic role less formally. Female spies of the aristocracy often found themselves in that role to step in for a husband or father who had ben killed or imprisoned, or was in diplomatic service. All the way up through the 20th century, being a female member of the aristocracy often meant spending much of your adult life embedded in another culture, tangled in a complex jumble of allegiences.

But women of the middle and working class might be recruited or volunteer just as often, though their specific names are less likely to be recorded. All that was needed was access to information, the motivation to use that information, and a contact to pass it along to. Non-aristocratic women were more likely to act as agents in their home cultures, especially during wartime. But they might also become foreign agents if attached to the household of someone who traveled, or if engaged in commerce that involved travel.

In all these functions, women spies had significant advantages over men. Author Nadine Akkerman elaborates on this point in her book Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain. They were socially invisible. Men considered them less sophisticated, less astute, and less politically aware. They were often given a significant benefit of the doubt when acting suspiciously.  Nobody expected women to be involved in covert activities. And when they did come under suspicion, many women could leverage male courtesy. The same prejudice that leads us today to view espionage as a male profession served as useful cover again and again across the centuries, even in the face of the evidence.

Women were invisible in another way too, as providers of hospitality, goods, and personal services. In every army camp, every city, and every countryside, women came and went serving food, providing hospitality, doing laundry, cleaning living quarters, organizing social events, and so forth. A clever woman with even a smidge of acting talent could watch, listen, and read documents without being thought of as anything but part of the furniture. And that’s without taking into account the usefulness of manipulating male egos to boast of things better kept secret, if a woman is the one listening. We see this again and again in male commentary on secrecy and discretion—that the presence and access of women is dismissed and downplayed.

Another advantage women had in many cultural contexts was a hesitancy to perform rigorous searches of their person. Secret messages were concealed under clothing—or even sewn into the interior of garments—or tucked into elaborate hairdos, or hidden in jewelry or other household objects. This hesitancy to accost and search women, combined with the baseline lack of suspicion, offered a higher rate of success than males spies might expect. Furthermore, female spies, even when discovered, might be able to turn gender prejudice to their advantage, arguing that they had been duped, or were ignorant of the purpose they had been recruited for, or simply that they were deserving of mercy for their gender. This could be crucial in eras when unmasked spies might be tortured to reveal their contacts, and execution was a typical sentence.

The lack of suspicion extended to the objects and activities used to communicate information. There are stories in the 18th and 19th centuries of women using laundry as means of communicating signals and basic information, coded in the specific types and colors of garments hung out to dry. Secret messages might be written literally “between the lines” of ordinary correspondence using invisible ink (formulas for which are recorded as early as the 1st century) as well as being more obviously concealed with codes and cyphers. If a woman’s correspondence gave the appearance of concerning household and family matters, it might not be examined more deeply. Women gathering to talk in private are dismissed as “gossips,” not suspected of passing along intelligence.

Female spies might work alone, connected only to the “handler” that they passed information to. But from the 17th century onward, we also have evidence of women working together in organized rings that collaborated and supported each other.

A lot of the literature on women in espionage focuses on the 20th century and military contexts such as the two world wars or the Cold War. But we can identify female spies by name in Europe at least as early as the 16th century, and doubtless earlier if one were looking for them.

So let’s take a brief tour of some specific female spies, with a big nod to Wikipedia for having century-by-century indexes of people so categorized, starting in the 16th century.

The Spies

A Venetian woman named Beatrice Michiel, later known as Fatma Hatun, fled an unhappy marriage in Italy to join family in Constantinople, married a general of the jannissaries, and proceeded to send intelligence on the Ottoman court back to Venice during the reigns of two sultans. She was not the only female spy in the Ottoman court, and had regular alliances and conflicts with the others in trying to influence policy via the sultan’s mother.

When Catherine de Medici married the heir to the French throne at age 14 in 1533 she was thrust into a foreign culture with few allies. Even when she became queen she was expected to play second fiddle to the king’s mistress. But the king’s death when their three sons were still boys brought her into the middle of power struggles for influence. When her eldest son died, she was ready with her network of spies and influencers and ruthlessly took up the reins of power.  One of her tools was a group of beautiful female spies known as her “flying squadron,” skilled at extracting information from the men of the court.

Isabella Hoppringle, the head of Coldstream Priory located on the border between Scotland and England worked as an intelligence agent for England, aided by her personal friendship with Margaret Tudor, the dowager queen of Scotland.

Elizabethan England was rife with networks of spies, not only in direct service to the queen—or at least, to the queen’s spy-masters, but private individuals also had their own information networks, such as Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who with her husband had custody of the exiled Mary Queen of Scots.

Although it’s less commonly on the radar of historical fiction readers, the north of Europe was full of political turmoil in the early modern period. When Ebba Bielke’s father was imprisoned for supporting King Sigismund of Poland against King Charles of Sweden, Ebba took on the task of supplying her father with essential intelligence about the progress of conspiracies against Charles.

During the Thirty Years War, Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis was the de facto postmistress of the Holy Roman Empire, after the death of her husband, the hereditary holder of the office, and during the minority of her son. “Postmaster” was far from a boring administrative post—she had access to every piece of correspondence that traveled within the empire and employed a network of agents to systematically open, review, and copy the contents of anything important that passed through their hands. She was successful for a long time because even those who suspected their letters were being tampered with, found it difficult to believe that a prominent noblewoman could be directing the surveillance.

Across the centuries, there’s no context like a civil war for espionage to create opportunities for drama. I previously mentioned Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents, which covers much of the English Civil War and interregnum. The most familiar name to listeners of this podcast may be Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles II, but she was only one of many women on all sides of the conflicts of the mid-17th century who engaged in espionage, not only in England, but in France and the Low Countries.

Elizabeth Alkin was a newspaper publisher and Parliamentarian spy during the English Civil War who worked to identify rival Royalist publishers.

Elizabeth Maitland was Countess of Dysart in her own right (remember from the aristocrats episode how this is a rare possibility) and was Duchess of Lauderdale by marriage. Her father saw to it that she received a classical education, as well as learning the skills to run an estate. Her family were royalists and Elizabeth was active in the secret organization known as the Sealed Knot and passed along information to exiled followers of Charles II on the continent, even developing her own recipe for an invisible ink. The intelligence she provided came from close social connections with the parliamentarian side, including Oliver Cromwell, with whom she successfully interceded for the life of the man who would much later become her second husband. At the Restoration of the monarchy, she was rewarded for her work and loyalty with lands and a pension—a far cry from the scraps that many spies of less exalted position had to be content with.

Not all royalist spies were from the aristocracy. Jane Whorwood’s family had minor positions at the Scottish court, her mother a laundress and her father the surveyor of the royal stables. But they worked their way up in responsibility and prestige, her mother later marrying a groom of the bedchamber to the princes Henry and Charles who would later become Charles I. During the Civil War, the whole family was active in royalist causes, especially channeling funds from supporters. Jane’s husband had gone into exile on the continent but she remained with the court in Oxford, once personally smuggling nearly a ton of gold concealed in laundry soap barrels, and helping to create a network of intelligence contacts ranging from London to Edinburgh, as well as participating in an unsuccessful plot to help Charles I escape captivity from Hampton Court. Letters in cipher between Jane and King Charles indicate that she also became his mistress when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, which reflects the close access she had for exchanging information. Her labors, alas, went largely unrewarded and unrecognized after the Restoration, compounded by a violent and unhappy relationship with her long-estranged husband. At one point, she reflected, “My travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter.” I think we agree.

Wars between France and various coalitions, conflicts of interest and loyalty meant that family background or place of residence weren’t a predictor of loyalties. The French noblewoman Marie de Hautefort was a favorite of King Louis XIII, but although she benefitted from his friendship, her loyalty was to Queen Anne who was regularly under suspicion for her Spanish origins. Declining to spy for the king as an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, she instead spied on the king as an agent for the queen and assisted her in conducting secret correspondence with Spanish agents.

Queen Anne was surrounded by spies, working for different factions of the French and Spanish courts. When she first arrived in France, she was accompanied by Countess Inés de la Torre who had been planted in her household by the king of Spain to spy on Anne and report back on how well she supported Spanish interests, cooperating closely with the Spanish ambassador in France. Inés was replaced in Anne’s household by Marie de Rohan, duchess de Chevreuse who had her hand in more conspiracies and plots than it’s possible to detail here, resulting in regular periods of exile from France. Marie de Rohan features among the the female spies and intriguers fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Another woman in the orbit of Queen Anne was Madeleine du Fargis, who was placed in the queen’s household by Cardinal Richelieu in the expectation that she would be his agent there. Instead she befriended the queen and, after she was exiled to Brussels following a purge of the queen’s household sparked by plots against Richelieu, she became the queen’s agent there, engaging in secret correspondence to provide information on plots and alliances, as well as serving as a conduit for information gathered by others.

As an example of how tangled loyalties could become, we have the example of Swiss aristocrat Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl who spied on behalf of King Louis XIV of France when protestant sympathizers in Bern were planning an alliance with England. Katharina had picked up her allegiances as a young woman sent to the French court where she appears to have led a rather wild life. A conflict with a French noblewoman resulted in a challenge to fight a midnight duel with pistols on horseback, reverting to swords when it turned out that the pistols were not loaded. On another occasion, she shot a count who was annoying her during a hunt. Her fame led to an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden—yes, that Queen Christina—to join her as a lady in waiting, and isn’t that an alternate history that could have been very interesting indeed? When an exodus of Huguenots from France into Switzerland, due to religious persecution, resulted in Swiss sentiment against the French crown, Katharina was recruited as an agent by the French ambassador, trading on her local contacts and access. When her messages were intercepted, she was imprisoned and tortured, but escaped a death sentence thanks to family influence.

Toward the end of the 17th century, Anna Maria Clodt’s position as a trusted confidante of the Queen of Sweden gave her a chance to leverage her access for profit from those who wanted favors from the queen. But when she turned her hand to supplying information to foreign agents, such as the Danish envoy to Sweden, she crossed the line to espionage.

Another Swedish courtier who turned her hand to espionage for profit was Beata Sparre, whose position as lady-in-waiting to two successive queens of Sweden offered scope for influence peddling, which again crossed the line to spying when she acted as an agent for the French ambassador.

Moving on to the 18th century, we begin to have so many examples I’m going to pick and choose. Women were engaged in intelligence-gathering on both sides of the American Revolution. Women had access to information from opponents in the context of providing hospitality, goods, or services. Signals encoded in everyday public activities such as hanging up the laundry were beneath suspicion—a technique used by Anna Smith Strong to signal the timing and location of messages to be picked up.

Domestic activities required easy movement and casual interactions with neighbors and merchants, creating a context for passing information, and this was used by Lydia Barrington Darragh to report on the conversations of British officers quartered in her house.

When Emily Geiger was carrying messages on behalf of General Nathaniel Greene, she was captured but maintained the secrecy of the message by eating it while her captors were trying to locate a woman loyal to the British side to search her. With no proof available, Emily was released and later delivered the memorized message verbally.

The British side of the Revolution had their own share of female agents. Ann Bates was part of several intelligence networks and completed a number of expeditions into Washington’s camp, disguised as a pedlar, which enable her to eavesdrop on logistical conversations as well as taking inventories of troops and equipment. Her work was extensive enough that eventually she was regularly at risk of being recognized and exposed, having several narrow escapes by means of a network of loyalist safe houses. After the war she moved to England and successfully petitioned for a pension to repay her efforts.

The French revolution and the Napoleonic era afterwards caught up a number of women — especially women of the aristocracy — in intelligence gathering.

The English actress Charlotte Atkyns was recruited as a royalist spy in Paris at the outbreak of the revolution and was active in several plots to try to rescue the royal family.

Camille du Bois de la Motte slipped into the role of spy for France when acting as hostess and secretary for her father , who served as the French ambassador first to Spain and then to Sweden. In Sweden she became a close confidante of Princess Charlotte who would later become queen of Sweden and was accused of passing along government secrets that Charlotte shared with her to foreign diplomats at the Swedish court.

The Baroness d’Oettlinger was the nom de guerre of one of Napoleon’s agents, working in Germany to gather information on the activities of exiled royalists by presenting herself as an exile.

Etta d’Aelders was a Dutch feminist who encouraged the French revolutionaries to extend their ideals of equality to women. From being active in French and Dutch intellectual circles, she became a courtesan at the Dutch court and was recruited there by the French secret service, though her activities served a variety of political interests. She teetered on the line between diplomacy and espionage, reporting on attitudes towards leaders or situations and offering advice and arguments regarding specific actions, but she was eventually imprisoned at the Hague as a spy.

There were so very many women who mixed espionage with the more ordinary duties of a courtier that it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface.

Moving on to the 19th century, let’s stick to a brief survey of female spies during the American Civil War. The intertwined nature of the two sides provided many opportunities for women who were engaged in everyday activities to have access to conversations and information.

Confederate supporter Belle Boyd based her espionage operations in her father’s hotel in Virginia. In addition to eavesdropping from concealed locations in the hotel, she took advantage of the tendency of Union soldiers to boast and brag to a beautiful woman. She passed this intelligence on to Confederate officers concealing the messages in a hollow watch case. Her work was so effective that the Pinkerton agency assigned three men to track her down.

And speaking of the Pinkertons, at least two women worked as spies for the agency during the Civil War. Hattie Lawton and Kate Warne were involved in uncovering an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, among other more routine activities.

The women most at hazard when spying were Black women spying for the Union. Harriet Tubman had set up her extensive intelligence network for the purpose of liberating people from slavery, but when the war began she also used it to support the gathering of military intelligence, as well as more direct actions.

A woman whose name has not been recorded deliberately returned to where she had been enslaved after she and her husband had escaped to freedom so that she could spy on the Confederate officers camped nearby and pass messages to her husband on the other side of the lines by means of a code embedded in how she hung the laundry out to dry.

When the Confederate navy was building the ironclad ship Merrimack, Mary Touvestre, a free Black woman working as a housekeeper for one of the ship’s engineers, stole the plans for the ship and traveled secretly to Washington DC to deliver them to Union officials.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was part of a spy ring in Richmond organized by an eccentric socialite who arranged for Bowser to be hired as a servant at the Confederate White House. Taking advantage of the prejudice that assumed a Black woman would be illiterate and ignorant, she gained access to critical documents left out in the open and later reported their memorized content to her contact.


Can we identify any specific women who we know to have been spies and also to have been engaged in same-sex romances? With the aforementioned exception of Aphra Behn, perhaps not. But though many of the female spies in our brief tour found themselves recruited in the context of marriage to men (or other less formal arrangements), many others had careers where romantic relations with men were not a factor. The question feels like a red herring. As this podcast regularly points out, same-sex desire (in culturally-appropriate forms) is present throughout history. So an overlap between women who might experience that desire and women who might find themselves engaged in espionage is inevitable. And I would love to read more of those stories!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about women in espionage through the ages and why this makes a great context for romance

Sources mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Saturday, August 5, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 265 - On the Shelf for August 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/05 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2023.

Evidently the “on the shelf” episodes are currently leaning towards new books and interviews, with not so much of other types of content. Still on unofficial hiatus from summarizing books and articles for the blog. Still not much in the way of book shopping—at least not books that are relevant to mention here.

On the other hand, the interview schedule is looking packed! We have three interviews this month and I have several more already scheduled for the coming months. Rather than aiming for one interview per show, I figure I’ll air them as I record them unless there’s a reason to delay for publication schedules.

While writing the script for this show, I was reminded that I’d promised to get the updated submission guidelines up for next year’s fiction series. So that is available on the website now. (Link in the show notes, as usual.) Every year I’m delighted to find the selection process getting harder and harder due to the quality of what I receive. But don’t let that daunt you! Send me your best, most interesting work and you’ll have a good chance.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

The new and recent books cover quite a range this month. I’ll start with a book that I had originally left off the show because the cover copy was so coy about the content that I had no confidence that it belonged here. But consultation with a reader let me know that Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill from Harper does indeed have a sapphic relationship at its heart, so I’ve slipped it in a bit belatedly.

Mary is the great-niece of Victor Frankenstein. She knows her great uncle disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Arctic, but she doesn’t know why or how...

The 1850s are a time of discovery, and London is ablaze with the latest scientific theories and debates, especially when a spectacular new exhibition of dinosaur sculptures opens at the Crystal Palace. Mary is keen to make her name in this world of science alongside her geologist husband, Henry—but despite her sharp mind and sharper tongue, without wealth and connections their options are limited.

When Mary discovers some old family papers that allude to the shocking truth behind her great-uncle’s past, she thinks she may have found the key to securing her and Henry’s professional and financial future. Their quest takes them to the wilds of Scotland; to Henry’s intriguing but reclusive sister, Maisie; and to a deadly chase with a rival who is out to steal their secret.

I was commenting in one of this month’s interviews that there seems to be something about the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman” that particularly inspires sapphic adaptations. By Moonlight by Lisabet Sarai is a decidedly erotic entry in this highly specialized genre.

In her eighteen years on earth, Bess has never traveled more than twenty miles from her Devonshire village. The raven-haired innkeeper’s daughter has little time to dream of adventure as she labors from dawn to dusk to keep her abusive father satisfied.

Then, at the weekly market in Tavistock town, she meets a handsome dandy who claims her with a single stolen kiss. When the gallant gentleman makes a midnight visit to the inn, Bess learns that her new lover is none other than Kit Latour, a notorious French highwayman who has been boldly relieving the local nobility of their valuables. Well-aware of the risk she’s taking, Bess still offers herself to the seductive outlaw. Even Kit’s darkest secrets cannot quench the flames of her love.

Another specialized micro-genre—that of queer adaptations of Jane Austen—covers a wide range of approaches. Kate Christie’s previous title, Gay Pride and Prejudice, was a bit disappointing for me, as it was created with only minor revisions to the original Austen text. So I rather suspect the same approach has been used for her new book, Emma: The Nature of a Lady  from Second Growth Books. But if that approach suits your tastes, then check it out.

What if some among Jane Austen’s characters preferred the company of their own sex? In this new retelling of Emma, one of Austen’s most entertaining novels, this question once again applies. This time, Christie’s rainbow-hued pen takes on the characters–and storylines–of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, and certain other residents of Highbury. Kate Christie’s Queering the Canon series advances the proposition that everyone deserves a happy ending–or, at least, to be included in the Western literary canon.

When reading through historical records, every once in a while you stumble across a fleeting reference that suggests a deeper story. Perhaps there is an overtly queer clue. Perhaps it’s only a situation in which queer stories could have existed. The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby from Unbound Publishing is based on just such a hint.

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman – Mary Tyrell – is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service.

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge's laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past – convicts, servants, the rural poor – as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.

Eden Hopewell has a book coming out next month, but this month’s entry from her is a romantic short story: “Love in the Shadows.”

Love in the Shadows is a captivating tale of forbidden love set in 1877 Philadelphia. When wealthy Emily meets struggling painter Charlotte, they are drawn to each other despite the societal norms of the time. As they navigate their secret relationship, they must battle the shadows of their past and fight to protect the love they share. Will they find a way to overcome the obstacles in their path and build a life together?

The randomness of publishing schedules sometimes throws together accidental themes. Over the last few months, we seem to have gotten an unusual number of books set around early psychiatric institutions. These stories tend to be somewhat dark, purely due to the setting. This month, we have Behind the Red Curtain by Eve Morton from JMS Books.

Cassandra Lightman grew up making trinkets and toys. She was on her way to inventing a "flying machine" when she was committed to a sanatorium for hysteria. That's where Dr. Timothy Brown found Sandra and saw her promising intelligence. After Sandra shows Dr. Brown how to cure hysteria in women, she begins to work under him in his medical practice. Since Sandra cannot practice medicine and has no support from her family, she must carry on her position in secret. She goes into Dr. Brown’s office through the back door, speaking to no one, and always covering her face.

Sandra soon meets Bedelia Morten, one of her patients behind the red curtain. Bedelia Morten is an upper class wife with a banker husband and three children of her own. She suffers from insomnia and nightmares, which leads her to seek out Dr. Brown’s practice. Though Bedelia is initially skeptical of Sandra’s skill, she soon learns to appreciate Sandra’s talent and company.

When their relationship becomes too close, Sandra is encouraged by Dr. Brown to invent a "stand-in" for herself. Sandra goes back to her experimental roots and visits her idol-inventor Marlin Manchester. Sandra works many long nights in hopes of creating the first steam-powered vibrator. When Sandra’s invention takes off, she is forced to reconsider her role both in and out of the examination room, her future, and who she wants by her side.

I always like finding books with less commonly used settings. That was what led me to interview Lee Swanson about Her Dangerous Journey Home (No Man is Her Master #3) from Merchant's Largesse Books. The previous two books in the series detailed how Christina Kohl got into her current situation.

Posing as her dead brother, master sea merchant Christina Kohl is knighted by King Edward II in 1310 for her bravery fighting the Scots. Torn from the arms of the woman she is forbidden to love, Christina leads a perilous voyage north where she confronts the Baltic pirates who killed her father and brother.

The various media properties telling the life of Ann Lister focus on the era when she was an established landowner and courting women of her social circles. But Lister’s romantic journey starts much earlier as dramatized in Learned By Heart by Emma Donoghue from Little, Brown.

Drawing on years of investigation and Anne Lister’s five-million-word secret journal, Learned by Heart is the long-buried love story of Eliza Raine, an orphan heiress banished from India to England at age six, and Anne Lister, a brilliant, troublesome tomboy, who meet at the Manor School for Young Ladies in York in 1805 when they are both fourteen. Emotionally intense, psychologically compelling and deeply researched, Learned by Heart is an extraordinary work of fiction by one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Full of passion and heartbreak, the tangled lives of Anne Lister and Eliza Raine form a love story for the ages.

Other Books of Interest

This month, the “other books of interest” category functions more as I originally intended, with stories that diverge in different ways from the central prototype we aim to cover.

The Ghost Ship (Burning Chambers #3) by Kate Mosse from Minotaur Books (Pan Macmillan) features a romance between a woman and a character who may be a woman in male disguise or perhaps is non-binary. It’s unclear from how the character is described and the cover copy is typically coy about it. This is the third book in a family saga series, but it appears the previous books don’t have queer content.

Piracy. Romance. Revenge. Across the seas of the seventeenth century, two seafarers are forced to fight for their lives. The sequel to The City of Tears, The Ghost Ship is the third novel in The Joubert Family Chronicles from bestselling author Kate Mosse.

The Barbary Coast, 1621. A mysterious vessel floats silently on the water. It is known only as the Ghost Ship. For months it has hunted pirates to liberate those enslaved by corsairs, manned by a courageous crew of mariners from Italy and France, Holland and the Canary Islands.

But the bravest men on board are not who they seem. And the stakes could not be higher. If arrested, they will be hanged for their crimes. Can they survive the journey and escape their fate?

A sweeping and epic love story, ranging from France in 1610 to Amsterdam and the Canary Islands in the 1620s, The Ghost Ship is a thrilling novel of adventure and buccaneering, love and revenge, stolen fortunes and hidden secrets on the high seas.

Sometimes a book will end up in the “other books of interest” section because the sapphic characters are not the central protagonists, as is the case for A Lady's Guide to Scandal by Sophie Irwin from Penguin Books.

When shy Miss Eliza Balfour married the austere Earl of Somerset, twenty years her senior, it was the match of the season--no matter that he was not the husband Eliza would have chosen.

But ten years later, Eliza is widowed. And at eight and twenty years, she is suddenly left titled, rich, and, for the first time in her life, utterly in control of her own future. Instead of living out her mourning quietly, Eliza heads to Bath with her cousin Margaret. After years of living according to everyone else's rules, Eliza has resolved, at last, to do as she wants.

But when the ripples of the dowager Lady Somerset's behavior reach the new Lord Somerset--whom Eliza knew, once, as a younger woman--Eliza is forced to confront the fact that freedom does not come without consequences, though it also brings unexpected opportunities . . .

And finally we have a cross-time story where the characters literally cross time, in Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh by Rachael Lippincott from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What if you found a once-in-a-lifetime love…just not in your lifetime? Audrey Cameron has lost her spark. But after getting dumped by her first love and waitlisted at her dream art school all in one week, she has no intention of putting her heart on the line again to get it back. So when local curmudgeon Mr. Montgomery walks into her family’s Pittsburgh convenience store saying he can help her, Audrey doesn’t know what she’s expecting…but it’s definitely not that she’ll be transported back to 1812 to become a Regency romance heroine.

Lucy Sinclair isn’t expecting to find an oddly dressed girl claiming to be from two hundred years in the future on her family’s estate. But she has to admit it’s a welcome distraction from being courted by a man her father expects her to marry—who offers a future she couldn’t be less interested in. Not that anyone has cared about what or who she’s interested in since her mother died, taking Lucy’s spark with her.

While the two girls try to understand what’s happening and how to send Audrey home, their sparks make a comeback in a most unexpected way. Because as they both try over and over to fall for their suitors and the happily-ever-afters everyone expects of them, they find instead they don’t have to try at all to fall for each other. But can a most unexpected love story survive even more impossible circumstances?

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been consuming lately? Reviewing my log, I’ve started a fairly large number of things, but a lot of them are still ongoing in parallel. Here’s what I’ve finished since last month.

I listened to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman, which is something between a novel in three acts and a collection of three connected novellas. Two spinster sisters decide to rescue various imperiled women with the aid of a disinherited nobleman-turned-highwayman who of course turns out to be the love interest. More of a dark thriller than a romantic adventure, which was what I thought I was getting. And the dark parts can be very dark indeed to the point of unpleasantness.

I was far more taken with the audiobook of Celia Bell’s The Disenchantment, set in late 17th century Paris amid politics and suspected poisonings in the court. There is a central sapphic relationship though this isn’t a romance novel by genre. There’s a lovely author’s note at the end talking about the real women who inspired the story. Highly recommended and I’ll promise you that it’s not tragic—at least for the women.

Changing gears somewhat, I want to give my highest recommendation to the Netflix animated adaptation of the graphic novel Nimona by N.D. Stevenson. It’s a lovely if heartbreaking story about the struggle to be accepted for who you are, and not who other people want you to be, in the guise of an endearing and chaotic monster girl named Nimona. The darker aspects of the show may be a bit intense for pre-teens, but if you have a teenager working on identity questions, the story may hit home for them.

I started reading Edie Cay’s A Lady’s Finder, set in the world of 19th century female prizefighters, but it wasn’t hitting the spot for me (I guess you can consider the pun intentional) so I set it aside for now.

Among the stories I’m still in the middle of is Meredith Rose’s Sherlockian story A Study in Garnet, which I expect to give a strong nod to when I finish it. And speaking of Meredith Rose, she’s one of the three authors I’m hosting this month. The other two are Annemarie K.D. who gave us last month’s fiction episode, and  Lee Swanson, whose new book was mentioned previously.

Author Guests

First up is Annemarie K.D., whose story “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” aired last week.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

I’m so glad I happened across Meredith Rose’s website when looking up information about her book, because it convinced me I wanted to interview her.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

Lee Swanson has the distinction of being the first male author I’ve interviewed for this podcast. At least, the first author who was male at the time of the interview.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Annemarie KD Online

  • Annemarie does not have active social media at this time.

Links to Meredith Rose Online

Links to Lee Swanson Online

Major category: 
Saturday, July 29, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 264 - To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More by Annemarie KD - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/07/29 - listen here)

Seventeenth-century English playwright, poet, and spy Aphra Behn appears in this podcast startlingly often, in multiple guises. I recorded an entire episode about her. She gets discussed in my interview with author Janet Todd, who wrote the definitive biography of her. She’s a secondary character in one of Catherine Lundoff’s pirate stories. And now she is the primary focus of this month’s fiction episode: “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” by Annemarie KD.

The title is adapted from the title of Behn’s most overtly gender-bending poem: “To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.” Here it takes on new meanings, when Behn meets one who becomes her muse and opens new possibilities in her life.

The background of the story is Behn’s career as a spy for King Charles II in the Low Countries. We know relatively little about the details of that career other than the constant struggle to receive promised payments, and the names of a few other key players. Female spies were not at all uncommon in this era and I highly recommend researching the topic for those looking for interesting fictional settings. Too often, popular culture tells us that women in history could only have exciting adventures by aping men. But 17th century espionage was not a gendered profession and there are plenty of opportunities for danger and romance.

Another major thread here is the use of classical themes and reference, in particular the myth of Hermaphroditus, who combined male and female in one body. This is the central image of the poem referenced in the story’s title. The Clarinda of the poem is seen as attracting both male and female desire, and the poetic persona—whom we imagine to be Aphra—desires both aspects.

Annemarie KD was born under a gibbous Gemini moon, and has the eclecticism to prove it. She is, among other things, a librarian and a florist. Her librarian's proficiency and passion for research made seeking out and studying the histories surrounding this period in Aphra Behn's life a meticulous joy. It was her work and play and prayer with flowers, however, that gave her the confidence to return to authoring fiction after over a decade. Her writing is indebted to, and inspired by, the quietude, partnership, and beauty of senescence and rebirth inherent in creating with that vivacious medium.

Annemarie lives in the dappled shade of a beloved oak tree, with her dog and two cats. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the interplay of water and light. She dreams of a world in which liberation begets an equilibrium of pleasure and reciprocal, loving care.

The narrator for this story is yours truly, Heather Rose Jones.

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

To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More

by Annemarie KD

So this is what a year of playing at intelligencer in the Low Countries wrought?

Aphra had allowed herself to be carried hither on a tide of sighing memories: of flirtations lit by a youthful exuberance, exchanged with a man blithesome and droll.

The one before her now could hardly be the swain of her sun-stained recollections. He wore a hounded look, underlined by the shadows that clung below his eyes, mimicked by the glances he shot towards the door again and again.

“Do you have it, then?” His eyes shifted from the door to regard her, quavering.

“I was provided some small allotment; a promise of your full reward to come, I’m sure.”

“I need more than promises. I need certitude that my return to England won’t be to a courtroom and the Tower, or worse,” he hissed.

Then, seemingly growing conscious of the disagreeable impression he was making, he changed his approach. He leaned in and spoke just above a whisper. “You know the reward that was meted out for my father.”

She matched him in nearness and volume. “You’re no regicide, William. The King will reward faithful service.”

A wheeze escaped his lips, that poorly masked a bitter scoff. His eyes jumped once more to the door that led from the inn to the street beyond.

“There are too many ears pressing in on us here. Come.” He stood, and in a muted echo of the gallantry Aphra remembered from their former time together, extended a hand to her.

The coach they hailed certainly promised to banish the press of ears that had concerned Scot, though his countenance didn’t lighten. As they clambered in, his agitation seemed to set the compartment buzzing. He violently pulled the drapes near him shut, and leaned over her to do likewise on her side. She put a placating hand on his arm and took the curtain between her own fingers. A contrite smile drifted across his face, and he returned his hand to his lap.

She turned to cover the window, and as she did, she caught the dark shape of a man, standing alone, watching them. He wore a tall black hat, its brim turned up sharply all about it. Before she could focus on the vague figure’s face, however, the coach lurched forward.

“The pardon, Astrea.” Scot’s voice recalled her attention. She drew the fabric over the window. “I can do much for His Majesty with the confidences I’ve won here. But without that safe-guard, I cannot hazard action that would land me in a Dutch prison.”

Aphra was not without sympathy for him. She would entreat London for Scot’s pardon in her next letter, without fail. But she could little neglect her purpose, and catching wind of Scot’s crowing about “confidences,” she gave chase.

“If your wit has remained the same refreshing drollery it was in Surinam, I’m certain you’ve made no shortage of friends here.” She angled the bow of her lips in a smile towards him. “You can delight me with an abridgement of the most notable goings-on and players.”

“An accurate abridgement would be that they are all rogues, not a one among them to be trusted. The most inveterate villain of them all being my ‘Colonel,’ Bampfield,” Scot sneered. “Though he shall not have that over me much longer. I mean to quit his service soon, and go to the Hague. There I could be sharp eyes and ears for the King.”

Aphra tried to hide her irritation at all his equivocating. She armed herself with a tilted chin and dancing eyes, aimed to flatter. “Ah, as smart as your eyes and ears are, you have a mouth to match, and it’s that which has charmed me since first we met. So, Celladon,” she said, invoking their names for each other from their former, gauzy dalliance, “tell your dear Astrea, with that delightful tongue of yours, why should His Majesty beware of this Bampfield?”

The praise did little to soften Scot, who continued his ranting unabated. “He is treachery personified. Was once Colonel to the late King, you know, before he amassed his own regiment of dissidents in Holland. He hinders me at every step. Trails me, close as a shadow.”

A shadow. “I saw a man outside the inn as we set off. He seemed to be watching us. Wearing a tall hat, with a sharply upturned brim.”

“I pray it was not him. He is wary of me leaving his service for another. I must have protection before I’m at liberty to divulge all I know.”

It did not escape Aphra that this Colonel Bampfield had due reason to suspect Scot. Was not this coach ride proof of it? Her London correspondents, equally, would be wary of placing full credit in a man who had joined the King’s opponents in Holland.

“Then give the King what proof of fidelity you can. Something to aid me in my bargaining for the pardon you desire.”

Scot looked ahead with a spiritless expression, as if all other directions had been cut off, and hope of evasion with them. When he spoke, his voice sounded thickly.

“If I’m to sing, I shall require a drink to whet my beak.”

# # #

Aphra sighed to the darkness of her room. Scot, son of a man executed for regicide, may yet be redeemed. The same could not be said of Celladon, the object of Aphra’s youthful pastoral fantasies. That man, along with any attraction to him that might have once lingered, was lost.

She shrugged her coat from her shoulders, and slid her rings from her fingers. Carefully, she placed them in a small bag. She’d left London with £50 from her employers. After exchanging it in the Continent, only £40 remained. The day’s ride Scot insisted on had cost over £10 - not to mention the ales he quaffed. It had scarcely been a week since her arrival. How was she to manage the continued costs? She worried the muslin-swaddled rings between her fingers.

And what had she to show for it? Scot’s pledge that he would tell all when she came to Holland. The name of Bampfield, and of another Englishman who, Scot charged, was employing agents to spy on English merchants. Hopefully it would be enough to coax further support from London.

She nestled the bag of rings in her travel chest, inside one of her gowns. Fetching a candlestick, she resolved to write a letter to her correspondent, to send out with the next post. Then, to put out the light on this long, tiresome day.

# # #

The very day Aphra was to cross into Holland, news came that threw all plans into a tumult. English forces had set fireships among the Dutch merchant vessels crowding the Vlie channel. The conflagration was spectacular. Holland was in a state of high alarm, and Englishmen much more prominent than herself were being apprehended and questioned by Dutch authorities. Going into that country now would be walking herself into certain detainment.

She dispatched a letter to Scot, rearranging their meeting for two weeks hence, at a house a couple miles from her inn. She wrote her London correspondent of the change in plans.

There was nothing more to be done for now. Perhaps she would go into the city center. She might overhear something useful, herself. Her command of Dutch was meagre, but it was nonetheless greater than Scot’s, which was non-existent. He confessed to her never having bothered to learn, all his dealings being with English dissidents and exiles.

There was still the issue of funds, however. Wherever she might go, it would have to be without charge. She donned her coat and rings, and made towards the innkeeper’s desk, to enquire after places that met her criteria for cost.

As it happened, he informed her, the newly-established Academy, modeled after Paris’ own Academie Royale de Peinture, was open to visitors this day. It was housed in the Bourse - not too far by foot, he assured her, if she wished to avoid the price of a coach.

It was a welcome suggestion, as it promised a setting in which she could linger and observe without drawing suspicion. Having ascertained the way, she left the dim interior of the inn, and stepped out into the mild warmth of a waning summer.

# # #

Inspired by the Parisian Academie though it might be, so far, the feel was decidedly Netherlandish. Aphra stood in the Academy’s antechamber, in front of a regiment of portraits and paintings ranged together. The expected stern and solemn likenesses of a succession of aldermen and burgemeesters were in attendance, and several compositions depicting silver ribbons of water weaving among level expanses of green, all under great barrels of clouds. In total, the collection gave the impression of staid sureness; a conviction that the patrons of this guild were as inevitable, as rightful in their place as the land, itself.

Among the drab, larger-than-life city fathers and dark wood, however, one small stretch of canvas stood in contrast; not least because its diminutive size and its tones of mild blue, and of a gold like sand at daybreak, made it seem a portal onto another world entire.

Two figures crowded its foreground. Another stood off in the distance, strangely innumerable. The foremost scene would be recognizable to anyone: It was a struggle, between pursuer and pursued. A woman stood, her fierce determination to capture her quarry evident in the bend of her waist and the twist of her neck.

Where the arc of her figure spoke to her firm resolve, the carriage of her prize was all elusiveness. The hunted youth seemed to Aphra to be very difficult to pin down, indeed. He wore a look of pleading, but for what outcome? Even his gestures seemed uncertain in their purpose. Was he trying to pry the huntress’ fingers from his neck, or was he wrapping his palm around hers?

The scene in the distance was as inscrutable as the woman’s intent was plain. Two heads sprung up from two bodies joined into one. What had once been two pairs of legs were now enmeshed beyond disentanglement, beyond discernment as anything but a single pair. It was a perplexing form, difficult to capture in a description. If she were made to try in one word, it might be- -

“Queer, isn’t it? That figure being so distant. Almost as if to ensure it remains illegible to any but the most curious, the most knowing observers.”

A woman stood next to her. Though she was addressing Aphra, her gaze was occupied with studying the painting. She was finely dressed, in a gown of a blue so deep, it was near black. Her lustrous, wavy hair was just as dark. Aphra could not help but notice that she was strikingly pretty.

Suddenly, she turned a pair of glittering eyes on Aphra. “I’ve no doubt that you’re one.”

“It certainly tells a less obvious story than its neighbors,” Aphra said, looking back towards the somber portraits in hopes of masking her sudden thrill at the strange compliment.

“And more imaginative, too,” the woman said, a ripple of amusement in her voice. “Gossaert’s depiction of Ovid’s Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Do you know the tale?”

“The water nymph, and the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. I am familiar with it; in translation, at least. It is a great regret of mine that I have yet to master Latin - one that I hope to remedy before the end of my days.”

Aphra turned back to face the woman. She was still fixing her with that insuppressible twinkle lighting her eyes. My, but something in Aphra’s chest leapt, being shone on by those two beams.

The woman smiled. “I wonder what other desires you might regret failing to satisfy?”

# # #

The last two weeks would have been devastatingly bleak if not for Mrs. Jennings. Aphra’s meagre supply of funds from London had dried up long ago. She’d been reduced to pawning one of her rings, and skipping meals to save charges.

So if Cyrene (Mrs. Jennings insisted on the familiar), a widow - like Aphra - without children, a woman of quality English stock, who’d lived in Flanders for years, wanted to show Aphra some dearly appreciated hospitality in the Antwerp establishments she relished most, why should Aphra deny such kindness? Surely she was obligated to stretch out His Majesty’s coin with whatever means were appropriate?

It wasn’t as if she was neglecting her duties. Outings with Cyrene gave her pretense and means to observe goings-on in the city. She introduced Aphra to interesting people, useful people: merchants, and artists, and even one Edward Butler, Secretary to the Duke of Ormonde. And in all their conversations, Aphra hadn’t let her purpose slip. Besides, she had yet to receive news from Scot, all the time until this, the day appointed for their meeting.

That Cyrene was witty, and beautiful, only made her a more fitting companion to comfort Aphra in this strange place. And she was beautiful, wasn’t she? Dazzling, with an effect that Aphra was unaccustomed to, for she often found herself uncharacteristically slow in her replies, for all the dreaming she did in Cyrene’s presence. Sometimes it was wondering at the mind that produced some shimmering insight or turn of phrase…and sometimes it was wondering if her cheek would be warm and soft under Aphra’s hand, if the skin there would pink at the touch. If Cyrene’s lips would part with the faintest whisper of a breath as Aphra inclined her mouth forward…

An abrupt thump roused her, and Aphra looked up to see Scot already over the threshold, the door closed behind him. He sat and tossed a packet of folded papers onto the table between them.

“Were you followed?” Scot coughed out, glancing towards a window.

“I was the picture of discretion, Celladon.”

He turned weary eyes on her. “Do you have it yet?”

“Patience. I hope what you’ve furnished here will sway them.” She read the papers as she spoke. In addition to more querulous talk of Bampfield, Scot had spat out the names of at least five Englishmen - and one Englishwoman. Englishmen who, Scot said, were aiding the King’s enemies abroad. As he himself once had.

As she read, Scot rambled. He was begging her to ensure that her employers not prosecute one of these men in particular. Otherwise, he would know it was Scot who turned him in, and would send someone to enact retribution.

It was an unpleasant business, this betrayal of one’s countrymen. And by now, Aphra had noticed how readily Scot did it. She tried to delicately point towards another avenue.

“Whitehall seems keen to have word of Naval intelligence—”

Her distaste must have showed, however, because Scot set his neck low over his shoulders and rasped, “What England is most keen for, my dear Astrea, is that for which it has always thirsted: Blood. That is absolute, and it matters little if it be Royalist or Republican who offers up the sacrifice, so long as it is made. Or have you forgotten that ‘the land cannot be cleansed but by blood’?”

Aphra was momentarily stunned silent. She had been a mere child when the regicide happened, but she grew to understand how the cry for blood to answer spilt blood had sealed King Charles’ fate. Above the queasy twist of her stomach, she scrambled until she found the sure footing of her usual wit.

She rose from the table to head for the bar. “And I suppose what you thirst for, my dear Celladon, is a good ale.”

# # #

Taking in Sunday mass the next day at the Our Lady cathedral, the services were three-quarters over when Aphra realized that they had failed to make any lasting impression on her. Her thoughts had been occupied with what to make of Scot’s document, what to write to London…and how much more enjoyable this day would be if she were spending it with Cyrene.

She’d told her charming companion that she would be missing for the next few days, giving the excuse of a visiting friend, some wife of one of her late husband’s business partners. And so she was returned to whiling away her time in places where her entry was not barred by money.

As she left through the spacious central nave, she became increasingly aware of a persistent shadow, floating starkly against the white and rosy marble interior. She increased her pace, and the dark figure matched her for speed and direction.

She ducked swiftly behind a pillar and paused.  She tried to differentiate the various patters of footfall echoing off the stone, but between the multitude of congregants, and the hammering of her heartbeat in her ears, it was a complete cacophony. Peering around one side of the column, she saw only the russets, blues, and whites of the church-goers and clergy.

Then she wheeled around, right into that murky, leering mass.

“Thinking of converting?”

The man wore a heavy cloak, an odd match for the gentle weather. His features had certainly made him a handsome youth once, but they now bore evidence of hard use by pain and fear. Pockmarks riddled his sullen cheeks. Perched on the top of his head was a tall black hat, with a brim turned up all about.

“More, curious to learn how others serve our Lord.” She kept her eyes locked with his as she spoke, but surreptitiously edged towards the great hall.

“As am I, to learn about your devotions. I know of your trysts with that slimy villain Scot. Where is he?”

So this was the man she’d spied from the coach weeks ago. Was he the dreaded Bampfield? She steeled her nerve, resolved that this encounter should garner her some insight helpful to her mission.

“Surely this is no proper way to make your introductions to a lady. Mr…?”

“Corney. Doubtless that wretch Scot has told you of me. Unless, perhaps, he is too ashamed to reveal the base treachery he dealt me during our former acquaintance. Though I can scarcely imagine the rogue capable of even one whit of shame.”

“If this conduct is any measure of your character, perhaps there was reason for his harsh treatment of you.” She tipped her jaw defiantly at the space between them, narrow for how he crowded in on her. “Mr. Corney.”

He withdrew at that, and gestured for her to lead the way, cloak hanging from his outstretched arm like a streamer. She leveled her chin and walked past him. Immediately, he matched pace at her shoulder.

“And you are Mrs. Behn. You style yourself cunning, but know not the first thing of the man you keep council with. Your ignorance of me proves it.”

“My ignorance of you proves only my distaste for the company of impudent scoundrels. If you must prate on, kindly tell me something worth the strain on my ears.”

He choked out an affronted bark. “Then listen and take good heed, madam, because that man Scot is a traitor no better than his father before him. I had secured knowledge of the East-India fleet, intelligence that would have greatly aided His Majesty against the Dutch. Before I could send it, the cut-throat betrayed me to Bampfield. Moldering in that prison, I envisioned a thousand manners of death to inflict upon him, the vile, abject serpent—”

“Mind your setting, Mr. Corney.” She bowed her head at a clergyman walking towards them. They walked in silence until the holy man had passed, a drifting cloud of white robes. Reaching the entrance, Aphra turned to face Corney, taking large steps back.

“I shall take my leave of you now. God speed you, Mr. Corney,” she turned, and as she walked out into the late morning’s light, she amended, “to whatever end you’re due.”

# # #

Scot was pacing the small room without pause. “Aphra, I’m good as dead!” he howled.

“Celladon, please compose yourself. You should have seen Corney flee when I showed him my pass from Whitehall. He believed me a sparrow that he could harry, installing himself outside my inn these last two days. I gave him a shock when I turned the game on him.”

“It matters little if he’s aware that you’re here on the King’s business!”

“Surely it matters greatly,” she huffed, “if he’s the friend to the King he claims.”

“Don’t you see? I demonstrated to him how to play the field. It could be dangerous to imagine him above the same tactics."

"You mean he would betray me to the Dutch?"

"For your sake, my dear Astrea, I hope that he is still as much the unimaginative puppet as ever. I, however, cannot take such chances. I must make haste back to Holland. Have you received more money from London yet?”

“Not yet. I sent a request just before you arrived—”

“Aphra.” He grasped her hands and gave them a beseeching shake. “Please. If Corney finds out where I am, he will kill me. Swiftly, I beg, get me coach fare and send a messenger to bring it here.  Do not dare return, lest he follow you. Go. Now!”

# # #

“I have a surprise for you today.” Cyrene had led her to a small, unremarkable door, in a modest quarter of town. She doubted that anything behind the door would match the thrill of merely being with Cyrene again, but she allowed herself to be led by the warm hand on her shoulder.

In the center of the room was an easel, draped in a sepia cloth. Canvases were tucked into every corner of the space. A settee stood against one wall.

“Cyrene, do you paint?” Aphra stepped into the warmth of the bright, indirect light filling the space.

“Yes. This studio is not grand, but it’s mine.” Her hand drifted to the small of Aphra’s back, and she guided her towards the shrouded easel. She reached her other hand over them, lifting the fabric to reveal the canvas underneath. “I want to show you my current project.”

It depicted a woman, draped in layers of luminous silks that clung to her form. She stood in quarter profile, her back towards the viewer. She gazed up at her outstretched right hand, in which she held a mask.

“Beautiful,” Aphra murmured. “One of the Muses?”

“Yes, Thalia, Muse of pastoral comedy and wit.” Cyrene took a step back, flicking her eyes between Aphra and the canvas. “You remind me of her.” She took Aphra’s right hand in hers, lifted it to mirror the painted figure’s pose.

Aphra’s heart bobbed in her throat.

“You’re missing your rings.” Cyrene ran the pad of her thumb over the bare backs of Aphra’s fingers. “I haven’t seen you wear the ruby in some time, but you were never without your little golden band.”

“Ah, my friend…she had sudden need, and there was no time to send for money from home…” It was mostly true, save for the reversal of Scot’s gender. “I had hoped to save the gold band. It was the lesser of the two in value, but it was passed down from my mother’s side. Necessity triumphed over sentimentality, however.”

Cyrene brought the back of Aphra’s hand to her mouth. “So generous, Aphra.”

Aphra’s breathing grew shallow. It was becoming difficult to dismiss Cyrene’s touch, the warm breath on her fingers, as mere friendly gestures. “At the Academy, you said you had ‘no doubt I was one.’ Someone who could decipher what remained illegible to others. What did you mean?”

She prayed that Cyrene’s words meant she was one, too. Unless she had somehow discerned that Aphra was a spy? She could scarcely tell which possibility made her heart race faster.

“I suspect you know what I meant.” Her dazzling eyes held Aphra’s. One by one, she took each base of Aphra’s fingers between her lips, closing her eyes as she traveled the back of her hand with soft caresses of her mouth and tongue.

Aphra pulled in a sharp breath. She had been assigned the role of Hermes, the messenger, dispatched here to relay back what she learned, in code and cypher.

But could she not also indulge in the charms of Aphrodite, in pleasure and sensuality?

“Then I’ll give my answer to the question you posed when we met. That if I don’t kiss you now, I shall regret it for the rest of my days.”

And then all was surrendering: to the pull of Cyrene’s hand on her wrist, the crush of their lips meeting - and to the plush velvet cushions, beckoning from the settee.

# # #

For a while, the late summer days passed in a parade which had little to differentiate one from the other. Scot’s letters were interchangeable: a few names of Englishmen to pursue, his need for money and the pardon (of which her London correspondents—when, finally, she received a reply—had made no further mention). Aphra’s arrears to the innkeeper continued to grow. Corney hounded her at church and inn, boasting that she had no hope of rendezvousing with Scot, now that he’d warned everyone he knew in Holland.

Little to differentiate the days—except for her meetings with Cyrene.

Afternoons together in her studio, imbued with painter’s light and the warmth of Cyrene’s laughter, became a rare bright spot in Aphra’s hours of anxiety, waiting, and want.

Indeed, all anxiety, waiting, and want dissolved under Cyrene’s deft fingers and mouth.

The warmth of those afternoons seemed improbable, now that autumn had brought such chill: London had burned. She couldn’t imagine the ruin she’d return to, should she ever be able to return. Over a month had passed since she’d received any funds. Everything she had—save the clothes she wore—was promised as payment against her steep debt. And now, her mission lay in tatters.

Scot had been imprisoned.

Aphra laid the blame on only one man’s shoulders.

Her tattered sole pair of shoes felt ready to split with each brisk step towards the Bourse. The buffoon often bragged of his “perambulations” about that grand colonnaded square. He prated on about the poetic irony: he had been strolling Amsterdam’s Bourse when he was apprehended by the men Scot betrayed him to. She would give him something to trouble his memories of this place, as well.

Aphra perched against a column. The plaza was a sea of tall black hats and, now that the weather was turning, dark cloaks. She nearly despaired of finding him. Until a booming, odious laugh caught her ears.

“I wish it had been me who caught him!”

She followed the voice to its source. Corney walked towards her, though he didn’t seem to have spotted her. He was speaking to someone on his left. Someone wearing dark blue. Someone who, presently, glanced up—with a pair of glittering eyes that caught Aphra’s.

Aphra turned and fled.

# # #

“Aphra, please listen…”

“To you? Corney’s man?”

“You know I am decidedly neither.”

“I know you are a traitor. From the very first. Ours was no chance meeting, I see now.” The words were bitter on her tongue.

“It’s true that Corney sent me, but I’m no traitor. I did not betray the true allegiance of my heart—of which he knows not.”

“Then I am as woefully ignorant!” Aphra spat.

“My devotion is to beauty, and life. I suggest you ally yourself similarly, Aphra. Do you know that, to the last, Scot was meeting with informants for the Dutch?"

The revelation stung. Aphra attempted to brush off the pain. "You know not for what end. Perhaps he was gathering intelligence—"

"Aphra. Isn't it evident that the ‘end’ is always the same? These men hunt and eat each other, always looking over their shoulder for fear that they will be the next one consumed. Don’t you tire of fetching game for a master who fails to reward you with even the merest scraps from his table?” Cyrene gestured at Aphra’s room, miserably empty of all her possessions.

Aphra bristled at such low, hypocritical talk of the King's service. “And yet, you hunted me.”

“What we have been pursuing, dear Aphra, does not destroy. When we chase our ambitions—our desires—the hunt does not end in gluttonous blood and death. Instead, our senses feast: painting.” Cyrene clutched the fabric at her breast. “Poetry.” She held a hand towards Aphra. “Pleasure.” She took a step closer. “Everything mysterious and bright that makes life in this dreary, unimaginative world worth living.”

“Stay back. For all your high talk, the fact remains: you were false from the start.”

“No, Aphra—”

“I wish to never see you again!”

“Please.” Cyrene’s voice cracked to a whisper.

“Get. Out!”

# # #

A knock roused her. Aphra rose from the bed, drawing the blanket around her to keep off the deep winter’s chill. 

A voice sounded beyond the door. “Ma’am, shall I load your trunk on the coach?”

Was this some trick? Her belongings had been ransomed to the innkeeper long ago.

“Everything’s been settled, Ma’am…” the voice anxiously prompted.

“How?” Aphra’s voice rang in the bare room.

“A loan, Ma’am. From my master, Mr. Edward Butler.”

“I didn’t contact him…” she muttered, opening the door.

“Ah!” The young footman brightened. “I’m to give you this, as well.” He handed her a little package, wrapped in dark blue silk.

Aphra unwrapped the fabric, and opened the small box within. The gold of her little band winked back at her. And coiled in it, a note. She unfurled it, and read,

Darling Thalia,
Flee if you must. I remain;

“Ink and quill, please, and a scrap of paper.”

Being so furnished, Aphra replied,

Yes, I must away, but I shall heed your words.
I quit the game, but I shan’t give up the chase.

“See that Mr. Butler forwards this to Mrs. Jennings.”

“Understood, Ma’am. All set?”

Aphra inhaled, gathering strength for her next step. “Onwards.”

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” by Annemarie KD, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, July 25, 2023 - 19:07

Here are the updated submission guidelines for next year's fiction series. There are only a few minor changes from last year, mostly clarifying some standard practices that newer authors may not be familiar with, and explicitly stating a policy regarding Large Language Models.

Major category: 

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2024 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.

I strongly advise authors to review these guidelines thoroughly before submitting. If your submission doesn't meet the requirements, you will have wasted both of our time.

Technical Details

  • We will accept short fiction of any length up to 5000 words, which is a hard limit. We will be publishing four stories. (If we get some really great flash fiction, there’s the possibility of doubling up if the total meets the word count limit.)
  • We will be paying professional rates: $0.08/word.
  • The contract will be for first publication rights in audio and print (i.e., the story must not have appeared in either format previously) with an exclusive one year license. (Exceptions can be arranged by mutual consent for “best of” collections within that term.)
  • Instructions on how to submit are given below. NO SUBMISSIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED OUTSIDE THE SUBMISSION PERIOD OF JANUARY 2024.
  • Do not send us stories generated in part or in whole using Large Language Models such as ChatGPT, etc.

What We’re Looking For

  • Stories must be set in an actual historic culture--i.e., a specific time and place in history--and the plot and characters should be firmly rooted in that time and place. (No time-travel or past memories, please.)
  • Stories may include fantastic elements that are appropriate to the historic setting. For example, they can include fantastic or supernatural events or beings that people of that era considered to be real. Or stories may be modeled on the fantastic literature of a specific historic era and culture. The limits to this will necessarily be subjective.
  • Stories must be set before 1900. We love to see stories that reach beyond the popular settings of 19th century America and England unless you do something new and interesting in them. I try to balance a diversity of settings and if you aren't competing with the rest of the 33% of stories with 19th c Anglophone settings, you have an advantage. [Also: see sensitivity note below.]
  • Romance is optional, and romance stories should have some other significant plot element in addition to the romance. A developing romance tends to take up a lot of plot space and we've all read a lot of "girl meets girl but they're the only two lesbians in the world." There are great stories that could be done with existing couples, friendly exes, or networks of like-minded women, just for a change.
  • We are not looking for erotica. Sex may be implied but not described. (It’s difficult to include both erotic content and a substantial non-romantic plot in short fiction. I’d rather that stories focus on the plot and characters.)
  • Stories should feature lesbian-relevant themes. What do I mean by that, especially given the emphasis the LHMP puts on how people in history understood sexuality differently than we do? This is where we get into “I know it when I see it” territory. The story should feature protagonist(s) who identify as women, whose primary emotional orientation within the scope of the story is toward other women. This is not meant to exclude characters who might identify today as bisexual or who have had relationships with men outside the scope of the story. But the story should focus on same-sex relations. Stories that involve cross-gender motifs (e.g., "passing women," "female husbands") should respect trans possibilities [see sensitivity note below].
  • Stories need not be all rainbows and unicorns, but should not be tragic. Angst and peril are ok as long as they don’t end in tragedy.
  • Authors of all genders and orientations are welcome to submit. Marginalized authors are strongly encouraged to submit, regardless of whether you are writing about your own cultural background.
  • If you want a somewhat less formal discussion of what sorts of stories really catch my eye, I wrote a blog about that.

Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.

Submission Information

  • Do not send submissions before January 1, 2024 or after January 31, 2024. Submissions sent outside this window will not be considered (with allowance for time zones). Seriously. I had someone (twice!) send me submissions in mid-summer. I remember these things and you won't do yourself any favors.
  • And evidently I need to point out that you should not re-submit a story that has previously been rejected, unless you have prior approval to do so. "Prior approval" could mean "when I rejected it previously, I said that I'd love to consider it again if you addressed X, Y, and Z." It can also mean, "Before you send it to me, you email me explaining when it was submitted previously and asking if I'd like to see it again." It especially helps if you've worked to make it even better than it was before, because the overall quality of the submissions goes up every year and you'll have stiff competition.
    • Simultaneous submission (i.e., having the story out under consideration at more than one market) is ok, but explain that in your cover letter. My turn-around time for acceptances is short enough that it's unlikely to be a problem for me.
  • Send submissions to (previously we listed a different email address, but that address is no longer functional)
  • Submit your story as an rtf or doc(x) file attached to your email
  • The file name should be “[last name] - [story title, truncated if long]”
  • The subject line of your email should be “LHMP Submissions - [last name] - [story title]”
  • There is no need to provide a synopsis or biographical information in the cover letter.
  • By submitting your story, you are verifying that the material is your own original work and that it has not been previously published in any form in a publicly accessible context.
  • Submissions will be acknowledged within 2 days of receipt. If you haven’t received an acknowledgment within 5 days, please query.
  • Based on previous years, I will generally have the submissions read and responded to within the first week of February. If you haven't received a response by mid-February, please query as the email may have gone astray.


Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:

  • In addition to word count, please provide the date/era of your setting and the location/culture it is set in. (These can be in general terms, but it helps for putting the story in context, especially if it uses a very tight point of view where the time/place are not specifically mentioned in the story.) If you are including fantasy elements and think I might not be familiar with the historic background for those elements, a very brief note in the cover e-mail is ok.

If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here is a good basic format:

  • Use courier or a similar monospaced serif font, 12-point size
  • Lines should be double-spaced with paragraphs indented. (Use your word processor’s formatting for this, do not use tabs or manual carriage returns.)
  • Do not justify the text, leave a ragged right margin.
  • Margins should be at least 1-inch or equivalent all around
  • On the first page, provide the following information:
  • Your name (legal name, the name I’ll be putting on the contract)
  • email address
  • (standard formats generally require a mailing address but I don’t need one at this point)
  • word count (please use your word processor’s word count function, rounded to the nearest 100)
  • date/era of story
  • location/culture of story
  • Centered above the start of the story, include the title, and on the next line “by [name to appear in publication]”. This is where you may use a pen name, if you choose.
  • Please use actual italics rather than underlining for material meant to appear in italics.
  • Please indicate the end of your story with the word “end” centered below the final line.

As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)

Notes on Sensitivity

I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid exoticizing the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"

What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.

A note on transfeminine characters: I am completely open to the inclusion of stories with transfeminine characters who identify as women-loving-women. This is a complicated topic for historic stories, though, as this is not a motif with much known historic grounding before the later 20th/21st century. (In all my research, I've found only one possible, fictional example that was not presented as gender deception for ulterior purposes, and no non-fictional examples of any type that don't involve intersex persons.) If you're submitting this type of story, you may have to work harder than usual on making it work in the historic context.

Monday, July 17, 2023 - 10:15

Not my usual sort of book post! Those who have followed this blog for a very long time may recall that I've been posted edited versions of the Civil War diaries of Abiel Teeple LaForge, my great-great-grandfather. Hidden Gems: Margaret Getchell LaForge by Stephaie Forshee is about the amazing and talented woman who later married him: Margaret Getchell (LaForge), who was a top executive of Macy's Department Store.

Stephanie Forshee is creating a series of books aimed at young readers that focus on American business women who deserve to be more widely known. My family has supported her book about Margaret with documents, images, and leads on further information and we're delighted to see the final result. I wrote a foreword for the book, which is how my name comes to appear in a book review published in The Business Journals.

Later books in the series will cover Anna Sutherland Bissell (of carpet cleaner fame) and Maggie Lena Walker (the first African American woman to charter a bank and to become a bank president). If you know of a library or school that would appreciate books on pioneering American business women, point them at this series.

Major category: 
Saturday, July 15, 2023 - 14:14

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 263 – Lesbians as a “Third Sex” - transcript

(Originally aired 2023-07-15 - listen here)

I always enjoy getting inspiration for an episode topic from questions that people present to me. This show was inspired by someone on social media noting that they identified as lesbian but considered themselves to belong to a “third sex” – not male, not female, but if I understand correctly, not non-binary in the usual sense. (I’m referring to the person using “they” due to uncertainty—I can’t find the thread again to check preferences.) They asked if this was “a thing” historically, and my response was, “Well, it's complicated, but that would make a great podcast topic!” So here we are.


It’s also important to note that we’re concerned only with third-sex concepts that are defined in relation to sexual orientation, and not those that are concerned with social gender roles, such as the hijra of India or Native American third or fourth gender categories.

Given that, we can distinguish three spheres in which a third sex concept might come up.

One possibility is that an individual—like the person who raised the question—understands themself to be neither male nor female, but as belonging to a third (or at least a different) gender category, and describes their identity in terms equivalent to that. This doesn’t necessarily mean using the specific phrase “third sex” or “third gender” – and I’ll note that, historically, someone would be far more likely to use the word “sex” rather than “gender” in this context. It’s relatively recent for us to distinguish the two in any systematic way. But in the context of this conversation, I think the idea of being a third sex can be distinguished from considering oneself a mix of male and female, or as being intermediate within a male-female sliding scale, although these framings might be used at the same time. Within this context we can contrast a third-sex concept to the gender-performative concept of hermaphroditism—and here I want to emphasize that I’m not speaking of being physiologically intersex (for which the word is deprecated), but of the idea that certain mental, emotional, and behavioral characteristics are inherently gendered masculine or feminine, and that partaking of characteristics from both categories places a person outside of either category or perhaps situates them at an overlap of male and female. As we discuss the topic, it will be interesting to see if this distinction is articulated, and if so, when and by whom. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to invent the term “performative-hermaphrodite” for this concept, to make it clear that I’m not referring to intersex persons.

The second possibility is that people within a particular historic culture viewed people with same-sex desire as belonging to a “third sex” and expressed that category assignment by using language indicating some version of the concept. In many—indeed, most—historic eras, we are far more likely to have data available on this sort of outsider labeling, than we are to have evidence of how people viewed and described their own identities. Someone living within such a culture might reasonably adopt the concept and language for themselves, even if we have no direct evidence of them doing so. But it’s also possible that someone living in such a culture might reject the framing and the label and view themselves in a different way.

The third possibility is that modern scholars writing about theories of sex and gender may identify a historic culture as having a concept of homosexuals as a “third sex”, perhaps using the current differing definitions of sex and gender, regardless of whether people in that culture described their understanding in those terms. For example, Randolph Trumbach in his article “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” and expanded in his book Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, applies a modern lens to understanding ideas about sex, gender, and sexual orientation around the 18th century and makes some idiosyncratic definitions and distinctions in order to present his theories, without these definitions necessarily having been part of 18th century discourse itself.

Another thing to consider in addressing the question of whether we can find a concept of “homosexuals as a third sex” in the past is that in some cultures, questions of the object of one’s desire intersected with ideas about “active” and “passive” partners in sex. The culture might have identifiable categories for what types of partners an “active” person desired, while not considering it relevant whether a “passive” partner had preferences. So one type of “third sex” concept that we might encounter would be one where an assigned-female person who desires women might be considered to belong to a third sex, but the object of their desire was not.

I’m going to mostly side-step the question of whether—under a “third sex” concept—female and male homosexuals are viewed as belonging to the same category, or whether we’re really talking about four sexes. Just don’t worry about that detail for now.

So, you see, even setting out the ground rules for the present discussion involves a lot of complexity!

That said, how did I do the research for this episode? Honestly, I’m cutting corners a bit due to time constraints. I ran a search in the blog for the phrase “third sex” or “third gender” working on the assumption that if an article used those phrases, either from an academic point of view, or quoting original sources, it was likely to appear in my summary of the work’s content. So don’t take this as an exhaustive deep dive into the topic. I’m really only skimming the surface.

Continuums versus Boundaries

One of the studies that provides an overview timeline of concepts of sex categories in Western culture is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, in which he posits that there was a progression from a “one sex” model, in which sex operates on a continuum between male and female, with women often being considered “imperfect men”, shifting later to a “two sex” model in which men and women were viewed as being the equivalent of separate discrete species. Laqueur considered this shift to have happened around the 18th century—a reference point that we’ll come back to when we discuss Trumbach’s theories--but other scholars offer evidence that “continuum” and “discrete categories” models operated in parallel for a much longer period, often being deployed for specific purposes, depending on what suited the goals of the rhetoric. (I note that the index to Laqueur’s book doesn’t include any references to a third category.)

Within the context of today’s topic, it would appear that a pre-requisite for identifying a “third sex” would be a clear premise that there are at least two other sexes to contrast with. The idea of a third sex wouldn’t necessarily make sense within a one-sex continuum model. But another way to approach the question is to look for evidence that women who desire women were treated as belonging to a separate category from women who desire men.

Here, we might be tempted to harken back to the “divided being” myth offered up in Plato’s Symposium (setting aside the question of whether this oratorical exercise was intended to represent an actual belief). If heterosexual women derive from the division of double-bodied beings whose other half was male, while homosexual women derive from double-bodied beings where both were female, then these two orientations could be considered to represent distinctly separate types of beings. This is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of what is a rather complex philosophical model. Sandra Boehringer does a detailed dissection of the whole scenario and its implications. But we can certainly see the story as envisioning an interpretation of homoerotic and heteroerotic desire in women reflecting different categories of being. Interestingly, to the extent that the three categories of humans in the “divided being” myth represent gender categories, those categories are “heterosexual people,” “homosexual men,” and “homosexual women.”

Physical Category versus Behavioral Category?

In the article “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe,” Nederman and True argue that there is evidence for professional writings indicating an acceptance of a third sexual category, but this particular study is concerned with physiological ambiguity and so is not pertinent to our discussion. The 12th century discourse was primarily concerned with correctly assigning individuals to binary legal categories, even when recognizing a third physical category.

Authors in the later middle ages and Renaissance who touched directly on sex between women tended to frame it as an individual taste that could be experienced by any woman rather than arising out of a separate gender category.

When fascination with, and anxiety around, gender categories comes to the fore again around the 17th century, it is more focused on a performative-hermaphroditism that is viewed—though not necessarily labelled—as a “third sex,” based on personality, social behavior, and mixing clothing styles assigned to both male and female categories. Figures such as Moll Cutpurse in the 17th century (whether we are considering the historic figure or the fictionalization of her in contemporary literature) represented an “other category” that it was hinted might include bisexual leanings, but the fictional Moll suggests she is instead set apart from sexual desire of any type, in the same way that she is set apart from binary gender.

One context in which ideas about a “third sex” were recorded in the early modern period and later were cases of “female husbands” where people might speculate that a person assigned female, who had been inhabiting a male social role even to the point of marrying a woman, might have been driven by “possibly belonging to a third sex” but by this they generally meant some type of intersex condition, that is, that classification as female was a category error and explained any desire for women. By the 19th century, this idea was going out of fashion as an explanation or signifier of cross-gender behavior (including apparent female homoeroticism)

Randolph Trumbach’s Elaborate Chronology

Randolph Trumbach extensively uses the concept of a “third sex” or “third gender” in discussing his theory about a seismic shift in how European society understood the relationships between sex, gender, and orientation around the beginning of the 18th century. In this case, Trumbach is the one applying the label to what he sees as commonly-understood classifications of people. While I feel his model is weak when applied to women, the essence is that he considers that before the 18th century, people understood there to be two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female). A new sex category emerged, understood as being driven by biological indeterminacy, but where members were expected to behave according to male or female gender roles. (Note that this indeterminate sex category is actually seen much earlier, as in the article about 12th century examples.)

In this framework, same-sex acts were understood to exist within a hierarchy of power in which high-status men were the active participants in sex regardless of partner, while women and low-status men had those relations imposed on them without regard to personal preference.

Early in the 18th century, goes Trumbach’s chronology, the categorization of men shifted from a 2 gender/3 sex system (with the third sex being biologically intermediate), to a 3 gender/2 sex system, with the 3rd gender being “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation towards men.

An equivalent 4th gender role for women emerged later in the 18th century, represented by the mannish woman who had a sexual orientation toward women. This role emerged out of the remnants of the “third sex” category defined by biology.

All this was followed in the late 19th century by the collapse of these additional gender categories into the concept of homosexual orientation, in which we return to a “two sex” model that intersects with orientation options, such that one’s gender was no longer viewed as being defined by the object of one’s desire.

I will repeat that I have issues with his evidence regarding women and how he interprets it, particularly in terms of chronology. But one of his ideas is that the “third sex” role was a transitional state, intended to imply a biological basis for certain types of homoerotic desire, that were later subsumed into the concept of sexual orientation. This transitional “third sex” category originally included people assigned either male or female, but men were extracted from it earlier, leaving the category as “sort-of but not-quite women.” I have a fairly extensive discussion of Trumbach’s ideas in the blog, including a lot of critical comments, so if this all sounds a bit confusing, that discussion might help.

A Vain Search for Contemporary Citations

Usually, when we look for the rare instances of self-description around queer sexuality, Anne Lister comes to our rescue with her private diary entries, but although Lister does discuss feeling that she had both masculine and feminine qualities, I haven’t been able to identify any passages where she expresses identification with a “third sex” category. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t use it, because the available publications aren’t indexed on that level.

I also searched around in several of the 18th century novels that seemed most likely to have characters describe mannish women with homoerotic interests as belonging to a “third sex” but I haven’t found any citations yet. So we’re largely left with modern academics interpreting various ideas as representing a “third sex” in the context of homoerotic desire, but no solid evidence that people in earlier eras were using that phrase, much less of individuals describing themselves using that phrase.

The Third Sex of the Sexologists

It was around the turn of the 20th century, amid the combination of sexological theories and the rise of a more self-conscious community of women with homoerotic desires that we find clear examples of the concept of lesbians as a “third sex.” This is articulated in works like the 1901 German novel Are These Women? A Novel about the Third Sex by Aimée Duc, which explores lesbian identities sympathetically and has the characters identify as a “third sex.”

The novel contrasts with the more usual approach of sexological theories of the late 19th and early 20th century which framed third-sex concepts as something more like what we would consider transgender identity today. That is, a third-sex person was someone whose personality and desires aligned with a different gender than the one assigned to their body, and that misalignment included sexual desire. Thus, within this reasoning, a “third-sex” woman was one who was assigned female but had a male personality and desires, including sexual desire for women. In contrast, her female partner was not (necessarily) considered to belong to the third sex. (Remember that this is Trumbach’s “fourth gender” concept.)

Given this framing, a third-sex woman wasn’t necessarily defined by homoerotic desire, but could be defined solely by anything considered transmasculine performance, including an interest in male-coded professional and intellectual activities.

While psychologists who applied concepts such as “gender inversion” and “third sex” to people with homoerotic desires were, to some extent, concerned with being able to categorize people as “normal” or “abnormal,” thus the interest in defining femme partners as “normal women” and not part of the third sex category, individual women might adopt the terminology and ideas to understand and communicate their own identities, as author Radclyffe Hall did.

The novel Are These Women? was not typical in its sympathetic portrayal. More common are fictional depictions such as that seen in Eliza Lynn Linton’s 1895 novel The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure in which the lesbian-coded feminist character is specifically identified as belonging to a “third sex” of “manly women and effeminate men” for whom the author-insert character expresses horror.


As a commonly accepted social model, the notion of homosexuality as representing a “third sex”—whether applied to both partners or only one—appears to have had a limited run in the later 19th century and early 20th. As a universal explanatory mechanism for same-sex desire, it has a number of problems and erases the more fluid and amorphous experiences of many people—not only modern people, but also people in some past ages when same-sex desire was considered within the potential experience of all people. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a useful and explanatory identity for some who feel that their orientation does set them apart from the simple categories of male and female.

In some ways, the cyclicity of history has brought us around again to the idea that sexuality is an amorphous, undefined continuum and that everyone is free to set up their own circles to say, “These are the people whose experiences are similar enough to mine that I feel we represent an identifiable category.” Or not.

One of these days I’ll return to my favorite topic of cognitive category theory and how it helps me to integrate gender and sexuality data from the past. But until then …

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Historic contexts in which people conceived as lesbians as belonging to a “third sex”
  • Academic studies that use the concept of a “third sex” as a way of understanding historic models of gender and sexuality

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Saturday, July 1, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 262 - On the Shelf for July 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/07/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2023.

Not much in the way of an introduction this month—I hope everyone had a chance to celebrate pride month in a satisfying way. I’ve been rather buried under the day-job, but did make the time to get in two author interviews for this show. The garden has also been demanding my attention, with the cherry crop to get in, all the various berries turning ripe, and the beginnings of a massive crop of plums of several varieties. As predicted, the fruit trees are making good use of all the rain we got over the winter, though the unusually cool weather currently means that the tomatoes are very late to start ripening. This year it feels like California has flipped normal on its head, especially compared to the rest of the continent.

July is going to see me at two more SFF conventions: I’ll be sharing a table selling books at BayCon the weekend this episode comes out. Then later in the month I’m off to Winnipeg Canada for Pemmicon, the North American Science Fiction Convention that may be held in years when Worldcon is on a different continent. I won’t be going to Worldcon this year, breaking a several year streak. I just wasn’t feeling up to traveling to China, especially given some uncertainty over the convention logistics. So Pemmicon will wrap up my convention schedule for the year. As usual, if you’re at one of these events, I’d love for you to reach out and say hi. A fan of the show got up the courage to do that at WisCon in May and it meant the world to me.

Speaking of things that mean the world to me, I received a note from one of our fiction series authors who said the boost of confidence she got from selling a story to the podcast inspired her to set to work on a full novel, which she’s currently shopping around to agents. I’m delighted to have contributed in some small way to helping an author get started, and I hope that in the future I’ll be able to announce that novel in the forthcoming books listings.

For those of you who—like me—enjoy audiobooks, you might want to check out a collection of early LGBTQ+ short fiction complied by the public domain, crowd-sourced audiobook site LibriVox. Because Librivox only works with public domain material, these are all stories from no later than 1927. The collection includes stories of same-sex desire and transgender experience, though the queer themes are often implicit rather than explicit. But many of the authors represented here participated in same-sex relationships and wrote from their own experience. The collection is titled “Out of the Closet” and includes stories by familiar queer authors such as Walt Whitman and Sarah Orne Jewett, but also has many less well-known authors. The items that I can determine to have sapphic themes include Kate Chopin’s “The Falling in Love of Fedora”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Felipa”, Rose Terry’s “My Visitation”, Alice Brown’s “There and Now”, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Two Friends”, Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Martha’s Lady”, Octave Thanet’s “My Lorelei: A Heidelberg Romance”, and Sui Sin Far’s “The Heart’s Desire.” There’s a link to the collection in the show notes. I’m a major fan of Librivox for audiobooks of classic works, though the volunteer nature of the narrator pool means that the quality can be variable.

Publications on the Blog

The blog is still on vacation with regard to reviewing new publications. And no non-fiction shopping this month either. So we’ll go right on in to the new and recent fiction releases, of which there is an abundance.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

I turned up some previously unnoticed books as far back as March—which is a bit odd, because I set my search parameters to only show me things released in May or later. Amazon’s search feature is badly broken at the moment and is paying little attention either to limits on pub date or to sorting titles by date order. I am very very annoyed.

Up first is what looks like a rather spicy sapphic mash-up of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with The Phantom of the Opera. R.L. Davennor gives us The Hells of Notre Dame (The Phantom of Notre Dame #1) from Night Muse Press. The author notes that as the series continues, the central characters from this book expand to a broader and more diverse polyamorous circle of lovers, but the first book focuses on a sapphic romance.

One night was all it took.

I should have stayed away. I should have thrown away her scarf, banished Esmeralda from my mind, body, and soul, and never thought or spoke of her again. That would have been the best thing, the right thing.

But our Lord works in mysterious ways, and before I know it, the walls of Notre Dame become her prison as much as they are my sanctuary. And with temptation front and center, neither of us have the strength to resist. Our days become longing glances and coded whispers, our nights stolen kisses and caresses on borrowed time, because we both know the inescapable truth.

Our love can only end as it began—in fire. But as each day passes, and the more I fall under her spell, eternal damnation seems a small price to pay.

If Esmeralda is hell, I’ll go willingly.

Next we have a Victorian gothic horror story with what the author describes as a softly sweet conclusion—just in case you were worried where it was going. The book is Catmint's Moth by Laura Jean Mason. The cover copy seems to be following a new fashion for descriptive language that doesn’t entirely target the usual meanings of the words that are used. But here’s what it says.

When grieved prima ballerina, Catmint, is presumed drowned, but is rescued while drifting in the drowning boughs overlooked by the cliffside convalescent home by the practitioner, Moth, a handsome young lady of similar years who dresses in masculine clothing to present male for her profession—who is surgically skilled with delusions of blossoming cadavers—both of their curses interlace. During Catmint’s recovery, Moth is watchful of her practicing under the marred cottonwood. Catmint confidently initiates devotion to blossom into physical intimacy, sharing in a softly secretive courtship until the opera house comes to collect. The bargain is struck for Moth to come with as Catmint’s personal practitioner, while pursuing surgical internship in the city, but is soon blackmailed into participating in the production as well. Moth is tormented by a ghastly imitation of Catmint, which troubles the underground tunnels of the operating rooms, while the prima ballerina performs in deathly rehearsals of the bloody ballet. In the grips of vengeance or utter madness, Moth is consumed. Catmint worthy of coveting despite ruin. Until ultimately, she uncurls what waits under the opera house.

There has been an explosion of interest in Sherlock Holmes re-framings in the last decade, perhaps in part spurred on by the entire Holmes canon moving into the public domain. Meredith Rose takes that canon in an intriguing new direction in A Study in Garnet (The Ladies of Baker Street #1) from Coedwig Books. If all goes as planned, look for an interview with Meredith Rose sometime in the next couple months.

January 29, 1881: Afghanistan ruined her body, but London has broken her heart.

Dr. Siân Watson longs to shed the male disguise she used to join the British Army, but when you look like a bloke, it’s easier to amputate a man’s leg on a battlefield than buy a dress in London. Undaunted, she heads to the Criterion Hotel to find help. But when a chance encounter with an old friend leads to meeting the mesmerizing Sherlyn Holmes, Dr. Watson’s plans are upended—faster than you can say “the game is afoot.”

Now, instead of going home to Wales, she’s moving into 221B Baker Street with Miss Holmes, whose piercing deductions are as thrilling as they are unsettling. Life with the world’s only consulting detective is powerful medicine, but as they hunt for whoever is murdering cab drivers across London, Watson fears her growing affection for Holmes might injure her more deeply than any bullet. As Holmes’s obsession with the case pushes Watson into risks she swore never to take again, she must choose: whatever respectability a woman doctor can earn—or Sherlyn Holmes. Both is not an option.

When their quest for justice lands them in trouble with the law, Watson fears she has survived one war only to fall in a different kind of battle—one that may destroy what’s left of her heart.

Our next offering is a historic fantasy with a somewhat vaguely medieval setting: A Field of Foxglove (Lavender and Foxglove #1) by Hilary Rose Berwick.

Prioress Emmelot des Étoiles loves her world of service and sung prayers, of community and opus Dei – and of secrets, both magical and intimate.

When a bedraggled woman stumbles into Emmelot’s church and is accused of murdering her master, Emmelot vows to save her. The accused, Ysabeau, is a dedicated Diplomat, stolen as a child and forced to serve the local lord with her magical ability to persuade others.

Aware she is falling in love, yet unsure if she trusts her new friend, Emmelot must discover who really killed Ysabeau's master... before the new lord reclaims 'his' Diplomat and Emmelot loses her chance for love.

The sapphic content of Boadicea: Bowed not Broken by Jana Williams is vaguely hinted at in the cover copy, but the subject tags suggest it more clearly.

Boadicea... warrior, mother and fully-trained Druid who readily admits her greatest teacher was the young slave woman she rescues when they were only eighteen. Tasked with a covert mission from her Druid master. Boadicea sets out on her first mission and immediately encounters trouble in the guise of a hapless slave girl about to be beaten. Boadicea grudgingly intervenes never suspecting the far reaching implications for her mission or her life.

I’m not quite sure about including this next title because it claims that it’s “part two” and I can’t find hide or hair of a “part one.” Furthermore, we seem to be very much coming in at this middle of a story. But for what it’s worth, here’s Northwoman: Part Two by M. Jeffrey.

Saxon woman, Wulfrun finds herself mixed into a new love triangle when Erik's ex wife, Loucia, and Revna's ex lover, Astrid, return from a long voyage. Finding ways to cope with the new romantic entanglements to her life, and preparing for the battle with her ex husband, Harold, in Saxon England, she befriends Juçe, a Spanish man who was brought to Lysbotn a slave and was now a free man struggling to find his own place in the world. Before her return to England, she must face one last enemy and prove to herself that she can withstand the upcoming battle.

Upon her return to England, she learns Harold has grown more sadistic and cruel and fears that the Gods have placed too much of a burden on her. Finding her old friend Tate, she gathers the courage to see her demons fall.

If the idea of a Regency romance crossed with a candy-store rom-com, with a gender-crossing love interest and a fake dating plot tickles your fancy, Sweet Nothings and Other Confections by Sula Sullivan may have been written exactly with you in mind.

Lucille Waters, a spunky but anxious aspiring artist, finds herself caught in a conundrum. Her parents want her to marry or become a governess. In order to avoid either fate, she needs a solution— and quickly. On a whim, she lies and tells her parents she is engaged to the reclusive Lord Fondant. When her mother calls her bluff, Lucille is forced to create an elaborate scheme that will hold up against the scrutiny of her parents. The only problem? It involves convincing Lord Fondant to pretend to be her fiance.

Unbeknownst to Lucille and the rest of the Ton, Lord Fondant isn’t Lord Fondant at all. She’s the newly minted Lady Fiona Fondant; Fiona is a renowned confectioner whose delectable creations have captured the hearts of the Ton. Despite Fiona’s success and wealth, she’s struggling to navigate her new role at the helm of the family business. It’s a lonely, physically demanding job that only exacerbates the chronic illness she must manage day in and day out.

Together, they agree to go through with Lucille’s charade that challenges both their hearts and expectations. As their friendship deepens, Lucille and Fiona find themselves entangled in a world of make-believe; the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, and an undeniably sweet chemistry simmers beneath the surface. But is their newfound friendship a recipe for disaster?

Ann's Angel (School of Enlightenment short story) by Maggie Sims is the newest installment in the growing body of “short sapphic romance spun off of a primarily heterosexual historic romance novel series.” I can’t tell whether you need to have read the main series to follow the action in this short story.

December 1812—London

Two courtesans looking to get out of the game…

Ann Dockree wants this Christmas to be her last as a courtesan, but learning that her latest investment did not return the expected funds crushes her. Especially since her dearest friend Mary Hale has enough saved to quit the life and leave London.

But when, only days before Christmas, Mary is hurt at the hands of her so-called benefactor, Ann must care for her. Touching Mary is its own sweet agony, torturing Ann with fantasies of what might be. If only Ann can summon the courage to confess she wants more than friendship with Mary before it is too late.

A warm bath, a compassionate touch, and an unexpected yet longed for taste of pleasure might inspire the Christmas gift that offers happiness to both.

If this next title hadn’t specifically indicated a sapphic romance in the publicity, I’d likely have put it in the “other books of interest” section along with several other titles that have only hints and coy suggestions in the cover copy.

Bunny by Annie Moon looks like it may also need some content warnings for experiences that the cover copy is equally coy about spelling out.

In the enchanting world of Edwardian England, where innocence and secrets intertwine, young Mary embarks on a poignant journey that will shape her understanding of love, devotion. "Bunny" is a deeply moving YA novel that unfolds through the bittersweet words of a dying woman, lovingly crafted for her daughter's eyes to discover.

Set against the backdrop of a bygone era, "Bunny" transports readers to a time of lavish gardens, grand estates, and hidden desires. Mary's idyllic youth is forever transformed when Bunny, a mysterious and troubled young woman, enters her life one fateful summer. Placed under the care of Mary's father's best friend, Rudy, Bunny's fragile state hints at a harrowing past, one marred by abuse and suffering— and something tells Mary that the present is not much better.

Driven by a blossoming affection and compassion for Bunny, Mary becomes her unwavering guardian. As their bond deepens amidst the turmoil of Edwardian country society, tragedy strikes when Bunny is coerced into taking a step with Rudy that she never thought possible. United by their shared experiences, Bunny and Mary find solace in a humble garden cottage, forging a sanctuary away from the cruelties of the world.

However, fate has more challenges in store for the young women. Rudy whisks Bunny away on a journey abroad, leaving Mary behind. When Bunny returns, a changed and haunted figure, the outbreak of World War I casts an ominous shadow over their lives. Working together in a convalescence home within the grand house, they face the harsh realities of war, only to uncover Bunny's hidden secret— one which will change their lives forever.

Ann Aptaker is starting a new mystery series with A Crime of Secrets (Donner & Longstreet Mystery #1) from Bywater Books

New York City, 1899—a city on the cusp of a new century. A city growing taller, faster, a city of new inventions, new ideas—and old dangers on its shadowy streets where crime, misery, and murder lurk. When Pauline Godfrey, a young woman embodying the coming modern age, is viciously murdered, her throat cut, private inquiry agents Finola “Fin” Donner and Devorah Longstreet must navigate a world of violence and passion, lust and betrayal, where duty is twisted into bitter obedience and love is soiled. Fin, a tough survivor of the dockside slums, and her beloved companion, the elegant, intellectual socialite Devorah, probe deep into the festering secrets of a family, the rot and corruption of the police department, and the sinister world of the city’s thieves, whores, and thugs to find the killer.

Another new series (based on the inclusion of a series name and number) is Devil's Slide (Speakeasy #1) by Stacy Lynn Miller from Bella Books.

High school best friends Rose and Dax each have a secret—they like the other in a way they shouldn’t in 1920s Prohibition Era California. After sharing a first kiss, they’re forced apart—each sent to a different city to account for their sin. Rose lands in the coastal tourist city of Half Moon Bay in virtual servitude, working for a distant cousin for pennies. Dax has an idyllic existence in San Francisco, living with her married sister. Then the fates change. Rose escapes her miserable circumstance and lives a full life after landing a job as a lounge singer at an underground speakeasy. Dax wears out her welcome with her brother-in-law, and she and her sister end up tending to inherited property—a restaurant in Half Moon Bay. After nine years, Dax and Rose cross paths again but is it too late for them? Lovers and past loves, greedy businessmen, whiskey, and the quest for a quick buck make it nearly impossible to pick things up where they left off. Will the lives they’ve led keep them apart? Or will Dax and Rose defy the odds and find a way to be together?

Her Forgotten Promise by Corin Burnside from HQ Digital is a cross-time story, uncovering a past romance through contemporary research.

A wartime secret. A journey to uncover the truth. After an accident leaves Claire’s aunt Margaret feeling frail, Claire is more concerned for her than ever: Margaret has started getting mixed up between the past and present and keeps asking after someone called Agnes. When Claire asks her aunt about Agnes, she learns that the two lived together during the war whilst working as WAAFs. They were best friends until Agnes started acting strangely, suddenly becoming secretive and distant. Then one morning, Agnes had gone and never returned home, leaving Margaret distraught. Keen to reconnect with her aunt, Claire promises to help discover what happened to Agnes. But apart from an old photograph of the two girls, Agnes seems to have disappeared into thin air. With Margaret’s memory rapidly fading, can Claire uncover Agnes’ story before it’s too late?

Other Books of Interest

The titles I’ve classified as “other books of interest” this month are all due to significant uncertainty whether the keyword search that implies sapphic content is accurate. In each of these, although the titles turned up in my search, the listing categories aren’t helpful and the cover copy only hints at things like “more in common than they knew” or “the girl she has come to love” or “romance and self-discovery”.

First up is The Dawn of Eternal Winter by Veronika Sizova from Life Rattle Press.

Saint Petersburg, 1905. Amid civil unrest, Margarita boards the train to Paris, escaping the claws of the Russian Empire's ruthless regime. At war with its neighbours, her homeland collapses, leaving millions of broken lives in its wake. Recounting her past to the woman who saved her, Rita takes the readers to the icy gates of Siberia, the colonnade of St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. A daring psychological thriller with romance, fantasy, and suspense, this text synthesizes past and present, beauty and terror, insurgence and war. Set in a fictionalized version of pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg, this tale of loss, grief, and betrayal becomes a window into the cold authoritarian world where love and freedom are against the law, but the fire of hope burns.

This next is a very short story with a somewhat idiosyncratic prose style (based on a look at the preview): Not Just Another to Bury by Cyan Vidales Nicoletti.

What would you do if a perfect stranger leaves you with everything?

A person you knew- saw- for a split second bequeaths all mortal possessions?

The year is 1349 and volunteer plague doctor, Lucrecia Mordor, has been thrown just about anything. Usually the mind-numbing task of detailing the information of any and all of the new fallen to the great sickness.

Till that day- where a woman named Mary Payne reaches out to Missus Mordor in her last moments of life, not letting go til her last breath. Minutes later Lucrecia is informed-

Miss Mary left her with everything...

Not Just Another to Bury is a story of self discovery, devotion, and of two women- who have more in common than either could have ever thought.

The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein from Ballantine Books looks like it may be fairly dark, and as it’s literary fiction rather than a romance, I wouldn’t make assumptions about how things turn out.

When Josephine arrives at the Salpêtrière she is covered in blood and badly bruised. Suffering from near-complete amnesia, she is diagnosed with what the Paris papers are calling “the epidemic of the age”: hysteria. It is a disease so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martine Charcot, the asylum’s famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the malady. To Charcot’s delight, Josephine also proves extraordinarily susceptible to hypnosis, the tool he uses to unlock hysteria’s myriad (and often sensational) symptoms. Soon Charcot is regularly featuring Josephine on his stage, entrancing the young woman into fantastical acts and hallucinatory fits before enraptured audiences and eager newsmen—many of whom feature her on their paper’s front pages.

For Laure, a lonely asylum attendant assigned to Josephine’s care, Charcot’s diagnosis seems a godsend. A former hysteric herself, she knows better than most that life in the Salpêtrière’s Hysteria Ward is far easier than in its dreaded Lunacy division, from which few inmates ever return. But as Josephine’s fame as Charcot’s “star hysteric” grows, her memory starts to return—and with it, images of a horrific crime she believes she’s committed.

Haunted by these visions, and helplessly trapped in Charcot’s hypnotic web, she starts spiraling into actual insanity. Desperate to save the girl she has grown to love, Laure plots their escape from the Salpêtrière and its doctors. First, though, she must confirm whether Joséphine is actually a madwoman, soon to be consigned to the Salpêtrière’s brutal Lunacy Ward—or a murderer, destined for the guillotine. Both are dark possibilities—but not nearly as dark as what Laure will unearth when she sets out to discover the truth.

We finish with another novel based on actual historic events and situations: Women of the Post by Joshunda Sanders from Park Row.

This story concerns the all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps who found purpose, solidarity and lifelong friendship in their mission of sorting over one million pieces of mail for the US Army.

1944, New York City.

Judy Washington is tired of working from dawn til dusk in the Bronx Slave Market, cleaning white women’s houses and barely making a dime. Her husband is fighting overseas, so it's up to Judy and her mother to make enough money for rent and food. When the chance arises for Judy to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the ability to bring home a steady paycheck, she jumps at the opportunity. Immediately upon arrival, Judy undergoes grueling military drills and inspections led by Second Officer Charity Adams, one of the only Black officers in the WAC. Judy becomes fast friends with the other women in her unit—Stacy, Bernadette and Mary Alyce—who only discovered she was Black after joining the army.

Under Charity Adams’s direction, they are transferred to Birmingham, England, as part of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion—the only unit of Black women to serve overseas in WWII. Here, they must sort a backlog of over one million pieces of mail. The women work tirelessly, knowing that they're reuniting soldiers to their loved ones through the letters they write. However, their work becomes personal when Mary Alyce discovers a backlogged letter addressed to Judy that will upend her personal life.

Told through the alternating perspectives of Judy, Charity and Mary Alyce, Women of the Post is an unforgettable story of perseverance, female friendship, romance and self-discovery.

I also want to add an update here. A book that was included in the April show as an April release under the title Her Female Husband evidently got changed at some point to a May release under the title The Poisoned Pen Pal and has a different buy link. I’ve included the new data in the show notes. I don’t usually bother with corrections—and it’s pretty common for me to discover that I missed a change of publication date. But in this case I was trying to figure out if this was a different book in the same series, confusingly also identified as “book 1” and figured it was worth a note, just in case someone tried to track it down.

What Am I Reading?

And what am I reading? After the abundance of May, I only finished two items in June. I found Elizabeth Norton’s non-fiction work The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women as an Audible free book and figured it would make good casual listening and deep-background research on women’s lives. I was a little disappointed that it implied it was focused on ordinary women’s lives but ended up centering largely around royalty and a few celebrities, with much less content on everyday lives sprinkled throughout.

It took me a while to read through Sixpenny Octavo by Annick Trent, but it was worth it. This is a sweet, slow-paced romance set in the late 18th century featuring working-class young women in London who get caught up in the political turmoil around “dangerous publications.” The historical grounding is excellent and the interior lives of the central characters are very believable and true to the setting.

Author Guest

This month we have two—count them, two!—author guests on the show. First we talk to Dee Holloway, whose novella Little Nothing comes out from Queen of Swords Press this month.

(Transcript of interview with Dee Holloway will be included when available.)

This month we also talked to Lianyu Tan whose gothic horror novel The Wicked and the Willing just won a Lambda Literary Award!

(Transcript of interview with Lianyu Tan will be included when available.)

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Dee Holloway Online

Links to Lianyu Tan Online

Major category: 
Saturday, June 17, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 261 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 7: Aristocrats and Billionaires - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/06/17 - listen here)

This installment in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s series on “Our F/Favorite Tropes” once again pairs two tropes that make an interesting “compare and contrast” set: titled aristocrats and billionaires. These two character-based tropes revolve around the premise that power and privilege is sexy, whether that power derives from a fixed social hierarchy or from extreme wealth. But these tropes intersect with gender issues in historic settings in very different ways, as we shall see.

What Is a Trope?

Let’s begin by reviewing what we mean by “trope.” In the context of romance novels, it means a conventional story element that is used regularly enough to have acquired a whole context of meaning that connects the story to others using the same trope. The trope may be a type of character—as in the current instance—or it may be a situation, or a sort of “mini-script” that the characters engage in.

In this series, we begin by examining the structure and assumptions around a trope as it typically plays out in male-female romance plots, and then reviewing how that structure or those assumptions change when a female couple is involved. The changes may depend on the specific historic and cultural context of the story. In general, I’ll be looking primarily at Western culture, and especially stories set in the British Isles, due not only to the way my research skews, but also because of the popularity of those settings.

The Aristocrat

Let’s put some cards on the table right off and note that when we’re talking about aristocrat romances, we’re talking about the fantasy of hot, young, wealthy, single aristocrats. Or at least three out of four. Within a male-female romance, the aristocrat is almost always the man (and we’ll get back to that topic in just a moment), while the female love interest is very often (though not always) not of the same class. A large part of the appeal comes from the “Cinderella” framework—a deserving woman of lower social status is given access to the world of aristocratic wealth and privilege via marriage to a duke…or whatever. Often, the plot tension comes from her rejection of the attraction of that privilege, such that the aristocrat needs to woo her on the basis of personality, rather than being able to leverage his wealth and social power to get what he wants.

In contrast to the billionaire (which we’ll get to later), there will be considerations of family status and lineage: he needs to think about producing heirs, he needs to maintain the honor and dignity of his name. These factors may either drive the plot directly, or may be explicitly violated. Or perhaps the aristocrat has taken advantage of his social privilege to get away with bad behavior and the love interest is either put off by this or is the one woman who sees through to the heart of gold within.

The romantic resolution in a marriage plot provides the love interest with two things that, in a male-female romance, come bundled together. She gets access to the social power and privilege that accompany her partner’s aristocratic title, and she gets elevated to his social rank and given her own aristocratic title.

How it Works (or Not)

But when we apply the aristocrat trope to a romance between two women, we need to separate out those two benefits because we run into two major obstacles: one merely inconvenient and one insurmountable.

The insurmountable problem is that, until very very recently, there is no social context for same-sex marriage to be a conduit for gaining aristocratic status. Now there’s a delightful emerging genre of queer “royal romance” novels that take advantage of the massive social changes in the last couple of decades. (And I’d be curious to know if there are any real-world same-sex marriages where one partner held an inherited aristocratic title, and how that was handled.)

But within the field of historic romance, it just isn’t possible. If you want to do that, you’re going to need to write a secondary-world historic fantasy, or introduce a gender-disguise element—which is a bit tricky for a character whose life will have been under the type of scrutiny that an aristocrat usually gets. I’ve been holding off on discussing how gender-crossing characters interact with tropes because I plan to cover that issue in its own episode. So forgive me for treating this as an absolute at this time.

For a same-sex aristocrat romance, the closest you can get to a marriage plot is the equivalent of an official mistress or favorite. And—mind you—some mistresses of aristocrats were de facto spouses, with a lot of power and privilege rubbing off on them. Royal mistresses might even be granted an aristocratic title for “service to the crown” though since the creation of new titles tended to reside at the top, this option wouldn’t be available for dukes and earls and whatnot. But what you can’t have is the romantic partner of a woman who holds an aristocratic title in her own right automatically being granted an equivalent title by virtue of that relationship.

The second obstacle, which is more nuanced, is the existence of your titled protagonist in the first place. The possibilities here will vary greatly by country and, to a lesser extent, by era. An aristocrat may acquire a title by inheritance, by marriage, or by grant.

Due to the sexist nature of Western history, it’s a fairly solid trend that only women acquire titles by marriage—an untitled man who marries a titled woman does not automatically acquire her title. (There are exceptions—evidently in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the husband of a titled heiress was given a courtesy title.) And, as we’ve noted, a same-sex partner can’t acquire a title by marriage in any case. If a romance heroine has a title by marriage, then either she has a living husband, which complicates the structure of the romance plot. (It’s perfectly historic for her to engage in a romantic liaison with a woman on the side, but that isn’t a classic romance novel plot.) Or she’s a widow. And if she’s a widow, then she will hold a dowager title by courtesy, but she will not be the primary holder of the power and status of that title. So again, we’re straying from the central prototype of the aristocrat trope.

The possibility of a woman inheriting a title depends strongly on country. For example, the custom in the German states excluded women entirely from inheriting titles. In France, it was hypothetically possible if there were no male heirs available, but whether this would be carried out in practice varied from region to region and from era to era. (I found a delightfully detailed study of this question in an article that I’ll link to in the show notes.) A woman inheriting a French title would likely have no siblings of either gender, and might be best served by having no uncles. Often it would also require a specific royal grant. And legal theories began pushing back even more strongly against these exceptions in the 17th century, upholding the principle that only men should inherit titles. I’ve found references to instances of women inheriting titles in some regions of Italy.

In the United Kingdom, which is statistically prominent in historic romance aristocracy, the question of whether a woman may inherit a title in the absence of male heirs depends on the specific title in question or on the process by which the title was originally created. The largest category that allowed this was “baronies created by writ, rather than by letters patent,” which is getting far too technical for this podcast, but be aware that it was extremely rare for the higher titles such as duchies and counties to have this allowance. For technical reasons involving female inheritance, a woman can only inherit the title (as opposed to the status) if she has no sisters. So if you’re setting up your heroine for this situation, she needs to be the only surviving child of her family.

Now the third way for a woman to gain an aristocratic title is for it to be granted to her directly, either as a title for life only, or as a permanent title that could be passed on to her heirs. These creations included titles of all ranks: duchesses, countesses, baronesses, marquesses. Some monarchs seemed to hand these out like candy, other created none at all. The reasons why a woman might be granted such a title don’t always work well for a same-sex aristocratic romance plot. Being the favored mistress of a king was a popular path to a title, either for life or as a permanent title (as in Barbara Duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II’s mistresses). Another motivation for granting a woman a title, especially in more recent centuries, would be to honor her deceased husband who had inconveniently died before being ennobled. Or, in an interesting dodge, to honor a husband who was a prominent politician in the House of Commons and would have lost that office if given a peerage directly. By granting the title to a widow or wife, she could then pass on to the man’s heirs. But there are occasional examples of women being granted a personal title, usually only for life, due to their own personal merit and service. Examples include being the mother of the king’s best friend, being governess to the princess royal, being a loyal courtier of the future Charles II during his exile, being the mother to prime ministers, or being a courtier and artist. I found no examples of grants of this type to a never-married woman, although often to widows. (Of course, in the 20th century and after, the creation of female “life peers” has become commonplace, especially as women have entered the highest levels of the government.)

So, as you can see, in order to end up with an unmarried woman holding a title in her own right, you need to do some social engineering, but it can be done. Now that you have her, what are the parallels and contrasts with a man in the same position? A common feature of aristocrat romances is the mandate to marry and produce heirs for the title. In a male-female romance, this mandate is aligned with the romance plot. But in a same-sex romance, the two are in conflict. Your titled heroine will be under perhaps more than that usual pressures to marry and produce children, but her romantic entanglement with a woman will be viewed as a distraction, even if the intensity of that relationship is not generally known. This provides useful plot developments. Rather than the marriage imperative being treated as the driver of a marriage of convenience, or as off-putting to a heroine who doesn’t want to be viewed as just a baby-maker, it becomes the obstacle course that our titled heroine needs to maneuver while trying to win the heart of her beloved. Or being won over against her wishes and perhaps even her better judgment. (And there are certainly historic cases of women who inherited titles and never married, thus leaving the legacy to a collateral line.)

So the elements of the traditional aristocratic romance that can be retained (within a suitable cultural context) are: one character with status and presumably wealth, a second character that lacks those features, the whole gamut of personality clashes that have to do with each of their assumptions and attitudes about that disparity, the usefulness of social status when flouting convention, and a resolution in which the less privileged character gains stability and protection from being associated with the titled character. It is hypothetically possible that your second heroine might be granted a personal title for her services to the state, thus elevating her to the same rank as her partner, but this approach requires a bit more suspension of disbelief unless she’s an ex-mistress of the king.

The Billionaire

When I talk about a “billionaire” trope, I’m not limiting it to a specific amount of wealth, but rather using “billionaire” to stand in for whatever resources represent complete freedom from economic constraints.

The typical heterosexual billionaire romance plot involves a character—most often the man—with extreme wealth, but who has discovered that (in the words of the Beatles song) “money can’t buy you love.” They may have a well-founded suspicion that potential partners are gold-diggers. They may have been so focused on managing their financial life that they have neglected to build personal relationships. They may simply represent a fantasy of luxurious living.

Most typically, the romantic partner contrasts greatly in financial status. They are poor—perhaps in dire need whether on a personal basis or for the sake of a family or organization. Or perhaps they aren’t desperately poor but simply of typical income, meaning that their financial life operates on an entirely different level. The billionaire represents either the answer to desperation, or access to a fantasy lifestyle. But at the same time there is a structural power imbalance that can contribute barriers to the romance.

There are variations within this structure. Does the poorer partner know about the other’s wealth? Is there a dynamic to the relationship above and beyond money that makes it difficult for the poorer partner to walk away, or for the richer partner to trust their sincerity? Do they begin with something resembling an employer/employee relationship that develops into romance? Or do they fall in love first only to find that the financial contrast causes problems? Is the billionaire’s money based on an inheritance or have they accumulated wealth on their own? (And in our current, culturally-sensitive age, we should ask how that wealth was accumulated. Are there factors that a reader might consider problematic or are we going to sweep those questions under the carpet?)

But because this is a romance, we know they work out their problems and achieve a personal merger, bringing the love interest into the world of wealth and the privileges it offers, while perhaps inciting the billionaire to achieve a better work/life balance.

My perception is that billionaire romances more typically have a contemporary setting, rather than a historic one. In historic settings, the wealthy protagonist is more often merged with the aristocratic one, unless set in a country with no aristocracy, such as the American Gilded Age or the like. But in a plot where the privileged character is female, the dynamics of wealth versus aristocracy become more relevant.

How it Works (or Not)

So using the aristocratic role as a contrast, how does a wealthy woman fit into a same-sex romance plot? A key difference is that wealth is less restricted than titles in how it is acquired and how it may be shared or transferred. If two women enter into a long-term romantic partnership, there are a variety of ways in which the wealthier woman can ensure her partner will enjoy financial benefits. While marriage may be the prototypical outcome of a heterosexual billionaire romance, it isn’t essential for the structure and function of the trope in the way that it is when a title is involved. Furthermore, while inherited wealth is universally the most common way for any protagonist to become wealthy—and while women tend to be disadvantaged under many systems of inheritance law—it’s still easier for a woman to inherit a fortune than to inherit a title, and it’s much easier for a woman to acquire a fortune through her own efforts than to be granted a noble title. So, to the extent that the aristocracy trope and the billionaire trope have strong thematic parallels for male-female romances, it’s easier for female couples to inhabit the one based on wealth.

Once we have a female billionaire (or at least, fabulously wealthy person), the dynamics of the trope can proceed in parallel as for a male-female romance. How they meet, whether the potential partner knows about the wealth from the start, what part it plays in the enticements and hurdles of the relationship, how they each feel about the disparity in their situations. The differences in the dynamics will be those present for any historic same-sex courtship as compared to a different-sex one: the lack of social expectations for marriage between them, but potential external pressures on them to marry elsewhere; the greater ease in social access to each other during the courtship; the question of how others view the nature of their relationship and whether the couple feel the need to mask it under a more acceptable non-romantic arrangement.

But we should return to the question of how our female billionaire acquired her wealth and how she maintains it, because these are issues that will be greatly affected by the specific culture and era of the setting. If she has inherited wealth, what sort of family background would be necessary for her to be a significant beneficiary? Has she inherited it from the direct line (in which case must she be an only child?) or is it a bequest from someone outside the immediate family (if so, who and why?). Or has she inherited it from a late husband? (See the episode talking about widows for this scenario.)

Presumably we want her to have personal control over her wealth, so what is necessary for this to be possible rather than having executors who have control of it. (A male heir might also have executors, especially if fairly young, but women were more likely to have only conditional access to their inheritances.) Keep in mind that when we’re dealing with an unmarried woman with significant fortune, she will probably need to deal regularly with men who see her as an ideal wife. But in many historic contexts, a married woman’s property goes under her husband’s control, so this trope doesn’t work well if you try to mix it with a husband on the side, regardless of how open-minded he may be. And for that matter, any relatives of hers who might expect to inherit from her will have a personal interest (though not necessarily a legal claim) in how she ties up her fortune to benefit a partner whom they see as a stranger.

This is yet one more situation where we can see many of the complexities play out in the relationship between Ann Lister and Anne Walker, in the specific context of England in the early 19th century.

If our heroine has earned the wealth through her own actions, what fields were open to women for this purpose? It was often much harder for a woman to establish herself in trade than for a man to do so, and often they were more restricted in what trades were available. Alternately, a business might (again) be inherited from a late husband and then managed directly by the widow. In many contexts, smart management of real estate was a path to wealth. When banking and lending became more acceptable as a practice, women could turn a small nest egg into a significant income through micro-lending among her community, thus gaining the capital to expand into other fields. Investments were always a hazardous field, with great chance of gain being balanced by risk of loss. Whether it’s investment in shipping cargos or building projects or—as previously noted—real estate, we can make allowance for our heroine to rise by a combination of luck and shrewdness.

All of these questions will be affected by the specific context of the story, or perhaps the context of the story must be tailored to make possible the particular backstory we want to give our heroine. The scope is too broad to offer more than vague outlines.


In sum, both the aristocrat trope and the billionaire trope can be adapted for female couples in historic romances, but the effects and constraints are different—more so than for male-female couples. The titled aristocrat trope suffers from the dual problems that it is far less plausible (though not impossible) for a woman to hold a title in her own right, and that it is impossible for her partner to acquire a matching title via their relationship. The billionaire trope is much more flexible and adaptable, if sufficient care is taken in setting up the source of her wealth. Both offer the opportunity to explore the romantic dynamics between a couple who have significant disparities of social status or income, while providing a wide variety of roads to that happily ever after. Even if it’s a slightly different ever after than a heterosexual couple could look for.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Sunday, June 4, 2023 - 15:32

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 260 - On the Shelf for June 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/06/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2023.

It’s Pride Month

Pride month rolls around again and it’s always curious to see whether we get higher numbers of queer books released in June. I’ve had a vague impression that this is the case, but when I looked at the actual numbers for the last several years, it doesn’t necessarily prove true. June was among the most prolific months in 2021 and 2022, but not in 2020. I don’t have the full numbers yet for this year, because it’ll be a couple months before I can pick up all the June books that didn’t have pre-release listings, but the June numbers look somewhat skimpy this year.

It occurred to me this month to leverage NetGalley as another source of information about upcoming books, but the advance review site has no way to do the complex search intersections I need. You can look at lists of LGBTQ+ books but there’s no way to filter that by genre—not even by fiction versus non-fiction—or by character representation. Or I can look at lists of historical fiction but can’t filter for character representation. And there’s only a single category for all romance, so I can’t even filter for historic romance.

I’m not sure why I keep bringing up the difficulties of book discoverability, except to emphasize both to authors and readers how important this aspect is to getting books in front of the eyeballs that most want to read them. This is particularly the case for a small, marginal category like the one this podcast covers. If you’re an author of sapphic historical fiction, it’s absolutely key to use your toolbox to communicate your book’s market position. And if you’re an avid reader of sapphic historical fiction, the best thing you can do to ensure a continuing supply is to help get the word out—not only about the small handful of books that already get the buzz, but about the more obscure titles, especially from indies and small presses.

Every year when pride month rolls around, we see listicles and promotions for queer fiction, but with the tardy expansion of the major publishers into the field, more and more often those lists focus exclusively on the “Big 5” publishers and ignore the authors and presses that created the viability of the field in the first place. So this is just to say that a good way for a bibliophile to celebrate pride is to buy, read, and publicly endorse indie and small press books.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I had quite the vacation from my day-job in May, taking off three entire weeks. (And—believe me—my co-workers were overjoyed to have me back this past week.) I didn’t quite have enough leisure time to get a preliminary glimpse of what retirement will be like, though I was able to get some advance work done on the podcast. The cornerstones of my time off were two science fiction and fantasy conventions: the Nebulas conference, which is the annual professional conference of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and WisCon which is a general convention focused on feminism and marginalized identities.

In addition to hanging out with my book peeps and participating in panel discussions, I had several delightful encounters relating to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. At the Nebulas, I was sitting around a lunch table with maybe 10 other people, discussing current projects and trading business cards (as you do), and it came out that fully half of the people at the table were already aware of the Project. And one author noted that they were hoping to submit a story to the fiction series at some point. (So I guess I should go ahead and commit to doing the fiction series again in 2024!) At WisCon there were a couple of times when someone came up to me out of the blue and told me how much they enjoyed the podcast, and in one case, how important the new book listings segment was for them. It’s hard for me to express how much it means to me when people tell me these things. I can keep going for quite some time on one unsolicited moment of appreciation.

So (ahem) take this as the official confirmation that there will be a fiction series in 2024. I’ll try to get the Call for Submissions post updated and posted on the website and update the various places where I can publicize it. It’s never too soon to start writing!

Publications on the Blog

With regard to the blog, I’m still in a bit of a slump with respect to posting publication summaries. I have the notes for several articles, but have gotten out of the rhythm of getting things written up and posted. Maybe this month!

Book Shopping!

But the book shopping is proceeding apace, boosted by my usual May shopping spree when all the academic presses run their sales in conjunction with the International Medieval Congress. (I skipped the Congress this year due to conflicts, but I never skip the book shopping.)

On the light-hearted side, I picked up a pop history book Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch. A look at women of the English Regency era who were far from the proper and respectable ideal. Of course I bought Jill Liddington’s new book, As Good as a Marriage: The Anne Lister Diaries 1836-38, that she came on the show to talk about last month. Somewhat less clearly pertinent, is Lucy M. Allen-Goss’s Female Desire in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance. The summary of this book indicates that it touches on same-sex desire, though my experience with Chaucerian scholarship is that studies often stretch a very little data into somewhat tenuous interpretations in that area. So we’ll see.

On the side of general women’s history that I expect to find useful, but without a specific homoerotic aspect, I picked up Sandra Ballif Straubhaar’s Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds. This collects up the sadly small corpus of Old Norse poetry that is attributed to female authors, either directly or embedded within sagas. I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance at it, but it sounds intriguing. And finally, I came across an older book, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, by Mohja Kahf which covers a wide timespan beginning in the middle ages. When an author with a western cultural background (like me) is writing characters that have been traditionally viewed as outsiders, it can be very useful to know about the relevant stereotypes and myths, in order to avoid perpetuating them. Books like this are part of my eternal project to try to decolonize my historical imagination.

I think there are a couple more books that I’ve ordered that haven’t arrived yet. If they seem relevant, I’ll include them when they show up.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

I’ve decided to try something a little different with the new and recent book releases. More and more often, I find myself dithering over whether a book can reasonably be classified as lesbian or sapphic if the gender identity of one or more characters doesn’t clearly align as a woman. I don’t want to misrepresent characters that can be perceived as female but are presented as non-binary or as falling more on the transmasculine side. And similarly, when dealing with historic settings that did not necessarily have social categories for trans men, there can be a fair amount of ambiguity between a woman choosing to pass as a man for pragmatic reasons and a trans man.

So in order to respect these ambiguities and uncertainties, I’m going to be presenting books in two categories: titles where the characters are clearly presented as women with lesbian or sapphic identities, and titles that I feel would be of interest to people looking for lesbian or sapphic books but where I feel less certain about applying that label. So in addition to the list of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I may have a second list of “books of interest.”

This is also where I’ll put books that aren’t technically historical but that may be of significant interest to readers who enjoy historicals, such as one of this month’s titles involving love in a historic re-enactment setting.

So let’s start with the lesbian and sapphic historicals!

I came across two books, which appear to begin an ongoing series, inspired by Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night. The author is Hannah Miyamoto, but the conceit of the books is that Miyamoto is editing a lost manuscript by a fictional early 20th century author “Lady Vanessa S.-G.” This was a bit confusing until I found a blog post in which the author discusses the series! The series title is The New Countess: A Story of Sexy 16th Century Sapphists of Shakespeare and book 1 is titled Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia. I’ve edited the cover copy to skip the bits about the fictional author.

Young, rich, and beautiful, Contessa Olivia di Castellamare has just announced that she will not marry for the next seven years. Why then, does she fall in love with the first boy she meets? Does she know that the boy she loves is really a girl? Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia retells the story of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night from the perspective of the three young women that the play leaves silent: Viola, the girl passing as a boy, Countess Olivia, and Olivia's faithful lady of the bed-chamber Maria. Transferring Shakespeare’s mythical Illyria to a real kingdom during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), this story conveys the fears, anger, lusts and loves of Countess Olivia, as she wields her kiss and her sword with equal ability.

The second book in this series is If I Should Tell my History .

Beautiful young Countess Olivia has just married Sebastiano by accident: She thought he was Viola, his twin sister, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. Meanwhile, Viola loves a man in love with Olivia, and Sebastiano’s friend is in love with him. The course of love has never run less smooth.

I don’t usually comment on the writing style of the cover copy that I include in this segment, but I have to confess that I’m confused by some of the word choices for this next item. I’m going to read the copy as-written, but it doesn’t always make sense. The book is Sicili and the Penniless Lad by Rachel C. Neale from Spectrum Books and it appears to be set in the English Regency.

Ivy Ferthing has been out of society for five years due to famous, engorged rumors that destroyed her reputation. Now, just shy of nineteen, she has promised to play the part of propriety for her mother’s sake, but Ivy is an outlandish force to be reckoned with, and her true nature knows no shame––especially when it comes to an answerless beauty like Sicili Windihill.

Sicili Windihill is answerless, and never more than in the presence of Grace, the defiant half-naked painting that haunted her childhood. Now, having returned to the gossiping county of Wiltshire after six years of living in London, she is once again at the mercy of her father’s scheming ways. No sooner is she reunited with Grace and the tumultuous feelings it brings up then she discovers her father is harboring a grand, obnoxious plan––one that involves a devastating ultimatum.

They meet at a ball. A tantalizing tryst of wit, courage, fear, and unspoken admiration are quick to follow.

Geonn Cannon has a new book that looks like it’s independent from any previous series: Do Unto Others from Supposed Crimes.

Professional grifter Tinker and her apprentice, Penny Chaplin, have been conning their way across America for the past five years. They rob from the rich and corrupt and give to the deserving: themselves. There aren't many rules to being a grifter. Don't get greedy. Always trust your partner. Never fall for a mark. In the summer of 1945, killing time between jobs in Albuquerque, they're going to break all three.

Books that blend the English Regency with magic are common enough to practically form their own sub-genre. Alexis Hall has an entry into the field with Mortal Follies from Del Rey.

It is the year 1814, and life for a young lady of good breeding has many difficulties. There are balls to attend, fashions to follow, marriages to consider, and, of course, the tiny complication of existing in a world swarming with fairy spirits, interfering deities, and actual straight-up sorcerers. Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into high society hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at a high-profile ball, a scandal she narrowly manages to escape. However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, Miss Mitchelmore must seek out aid, even if that means mixing with undesirable company. And there are few less desirable than Lady Georgianna Landrake—a brooding, alluring young woman sardonically nicknamed “the Duke of Annadale”—who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune. If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress. Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs. With the Duke’s help, Miss Mitchelmore delves into a world of angry gods and vindictive magic, keen to unmask the perpetrator of these otherworldly attacks. But Miss Mitchelmore’s reputation is not the only thing at risk in spending time with her new ally. For the reputed witch has her own secrets that may prove dangerous to Miss Mitchelmore’s heart—not to mention her life.

Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens from The Dial Press looks like it’s packed with all your favorite Wild West tropes, as long as you don’t mind a protagonist who takes up sex work.

It's the spring of 1877 and sixteen-year-old Bridget is already disillusioned. She's exhausted from caring for her ne'er-do-well alcoholic father, but when he's killed by a snakebite as they cross the Kansas prairie, she knows she has only her wits to keep her alive. She arrives penniless in Dodge City, and, thanks to the allure of her bright red hair and country-girl beauty, is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. Bridget takes to brothel life, appreciating the good food, good pay, and good friendships she forms with her fellow “sporting women."  Then Spartan Lee, the most legendary (and only) female gunfighter in the region, rides into town, and Bridget falls in love. Hard. Before long, though, a series of shocking double-crosses shatter the Buffalo Queen's tenuous peace and safety. Crushed by the devastating consequences of her actions and desperate for vengeance and autonomy, Bridget resolves to claim her own destiny.

There are some historic persons and events that attract fictional interpretations over and over again. Killingly by Katharine Beutner from Soho Crime is not the first treatment of its subject. Reviews and tags indicate that there is sapphic content, but it isn’t prominent. You may want to review content warnings on this one, too.

Based on the unsolved real-life disappearance of a Mount Holyoke student in 1897. Bertha Mellish, “the most peculiar, quiet, reserved girl” at Mount Holyoke College, is missing. One cold November morning the junior is spotted walking through the Massachusetts woods; then, she vanishes. As a search team dredges the pond where she might have drowned, Bertha’s panicked father and sister arrive at the campus desperate to find some clue as to her fate or state of mind. Bertha’s best friend, Agnes, a scholarly loner studying medicine, might know the truth, but she is being unhelpfully tightlipped, inciting the suspicions of Bertha’s family, her classmates, and the private investigator hired by the Mellish family doctor. As secrets from Agnes and Bertha’s lives come to light, so do the competing agendas driving each person who is searching for Bertha. Where did Bertha go? Who would want to hurt her? And could she still be alive?

The ”magical circus” is another theme that has its own micro-genre, and we get an entry with casual sapphic content in The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson from Tor Books.

Welcome to the Circus of the Fantasticals. Ringmaster – Rin, to those who know her best – can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. With the scars of World War I feeling more distant as the years pass, Rin is focusing on the brighter things in life. Like the circus she’s built and the magical misfits and outcasts -- known as Sparks – who’ve made it their home. Every night, Rin and the Fantasticals enchant a Big Top packed full with audiences who need to see the impossible. But while the present is bright, threats come at Rin from the past and the future. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their Big Top and everyone in it. And Rin's past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow Rin can’t fully escape. It takes the form of another Spark circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin's circus has something he wants, and he won't stop until it's his.

Moving to more recent history, we have what sounds like a mystery with a gothic flavor in The Gulf by Rachel Cochran from Harper.

In Parson, Texas, a small town ravaged by a devastating hurricane and the Vietnam War, twenty-nine-year-old Lou is diligently renovating a decaying old mansion for Miss Kate, the elderly neighbor who has always been like a mother to her. Mourning her brother’s death in Vietnam, Lou dreams of enjoying a more peaceful future in Parson. But those hopes are crushed when Miss Kate is murdered, and no one but Lou seems to care about finding the killer. The situation becomes complicated when Joanna, Miss Kate’s long-estranged daughter and Lou’s first love, arrives in Parson—not to learn more about her mother’s death but for the house. Her arrival unearths sinister secrets involving the history of the town and its residents . . . revelations that may be the key to helping Lou discover the truth about Miss Kate’s death and her killer.

Other Books of Interest

As it happens, after setting up the category of “other books of interest,” I don’t have any this month that fall in the category for gender identity reasons. But I thought people might be interested in a new book from Jenny Frame that plays with the idea of love in a historical style: Just One Dance (The Regency Romance Club #1) from Bold Strokes Books.

Taylor Sparks is sick of swiping left or right. Online dating, where a casual glance at a profile forms your opinion of a person, has no sparkle. She has a business idea to make dating special—the Regency Romance Club. Guests fall in love in the regency style, with grand balls and regency pursuits, while enjoying some of Britain’s most magnificent stately homes. Jaq Bailey is mourning the death of her best friend. She wants to feel every inch of the pain and guilt she deserves for their death. A professor of early modern history, Bailey has sequestered herself in her study writing books and articles. Life is lonely and unchanging, until her publishers ask her to meet with Taylor, who is looking for a historian to help with her new business. As they start working together, Taylor’s bubbly personality and Bailey’s guilty angst clash, but as Bailey gets dragged into the magical, regency romance world, Taylor’s sparkle brings hope back into her life. They’re working to help others find their true loves, but they just might find it for themselves too.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? When I checked my spreadsheet, I was surprised to see that I’ve finished eight books since the last podcast, all but one of them audiobooks. This is a bit less startling when you consider that my vacation travels included a road trip from the SF Bay Area down to LA and back, plus a plane and bus trip to Madison, Wisconsin. That’s a lot of time to fill.

I finally consumed The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, which is every bit as amazing as the series’ 3 Hugo awards indicate. I’d been putting this book off due to reviews indicating that it was dark and traumatic. Those reviews weren’t wrong, but the flavor of the darkness wasn’t the sort that booted me out of the story. The premise involves a world of massive seismic activity, whose inhabitants include people who can psychically control or manipulate that seismic activity and who thus become pawns or scapegoats in the politics of how to maintain civilization during the periodic ecological collapses resulting from quake and eruptions.

On a somewhat lighter side—if one can call murder mysteries “light”—a friend’s mention in their blog set me on the track of a new historic mystery series by Claudia Gray, with the premise that all of Jane Austen’s characters exist in the same story universe. The two titles so far are: The Murder of Mr Wickham and The Late Mrs Willoughby. Some very unlikeable canonical characters are murdered and two original characters—the son of Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy and Elizabeth, and the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry—team up to investigate. The mysteries are fun, though the writing is repetitive at times. The two central characters are engaging, leading one to root for their eventual romance. Young Jonathan Darcy is clearly—if sometimes clumsily—depicted as on the autism spectrum and Juliet Tilney’s cheerful acceptance of his “oddities” is refreshing. It’s not for me to say if an autistic reader would consider it good representation, but it’s an interesting example of how to do such representation in a historic context. (For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered Austen’s depiction of Mr. Woodhouse in Emma to be someone recognizably on the autism spectrum, though of course Austen had no diagnostic manual as guidance.)

My drive to LA was perfect for taking in a novella on each leg, which brought me Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, an homage to Chinese martial arts movies, with a fantasy twist, and T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride, a re-making of the Bluebeard story with a lot of fantasy and fierce feminism, and Kingfisher’s usual application of no-nonsense young women to knotty problems. Both books have background sapphic elements.

While I was at the Nebulas conference, I picked up Tempest Bradford’s middle-grade sci fi story Ruby Finley vs the Interstellar Invasion, which went on to win the Nebula award in its category that weekend. I don’t often buy middle grade books for my own reading, but I do buy them sometimes to put in my Little Free Library, which means I take the opportunity to read them first. This is the story about how a young girl with a scientific bent and a fascination with insects investigates a peculiar bug that turns out to be an interstellar visitor. Highly recommended for the young scientists in your social circle.

(Hmm, this reminds me of another middle-grade title I picked up for the same purpose, Ursula Vernon’s Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1) which is an utterly delightful and feminist fairy tale. Ursula Vernon is the same author as T. Kingfisher, but the Kingfisher name is for her adult fiction.)

I’ll finish this roundup with two lesbian historic romances. The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood was a bit hard to sort out. If I had to describe it, I’d say an allegedly Regency setting, tackling more Victorian-flavored social issues, with a modern thriller/caper plot and a side order of “here are some fun facts I learned from books about lesbian history.” There’s significant explicit sexual content, although in general the romance takes a back seat to the action. It didn’t quite hit my sweet spot, although mostly in being all over the map historically.

I was very impressed by An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera. This is part of the Las Léonas romance series, focusing on a group of young women, all Caribbean heiresses, attending the 1889 Paris Exposition together to further their individual personal goals and, incidentally, to find love. This is the second book and the only one with a sapphic romance, but I’ve enjoyed it so much I just might pick up the rest of the series too. The heroine has come to Paris for one last sapphic fling before the marriage that will repair her family’s fortunes and reputation. The central couple are the perfect mismatched-but-actually-perfectly-matched pair, and each came complete with a posse of fiercely loyal and non-nonsense friends. There’s some fairly steamy content starting around the mid-point, but I’ll note that while I’m usually fairly “meh” about sex scenes, the language was so lovely that I thoroughly enjoyed them.

This Month’s Essay

Thanks to my vacation time, I actually already have this month’s essay show completed. I’ve gotten out of the habit of announcing the essay shows in advance since I’m often scrambling at the last minute. The June show will be another episode in the “F/Favorite Tropes” series looking at romances involving aristocrats and billionaires. I’m having so much fun with the trope series and I hope you are too!

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: 


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