(Originally aired 2021/08/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2021.
I’m getting to the point in the pandemic where I feel like I’m living too much inside my own head. All the days feel exactly the same. I’ve been doing a little more going out and about, but even now the thought of sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by unmasked people with who knows what sort of vaccination status still freaks me out too much. I’m not ready to go back to how things were in the Before Times, but I’m also not ready to decide that this is just how it is now. Well, except for the working from home part. I’m delighted that my employer is including a permanent work-from-home option. I hope the ongoing restrictions of the pandemic aren’t hitting you-all too hard.
I don’t know if it’s the pandemic malaise or what, but I’m still on something of an unplanned vacation from podcast tasks that involve outreach to other people. I still hope to do all of the interviews that I’ve contacted people about, so we may have some interview-heavy shows once I start getting caught up. The malaise has also affected scheduling of the fiction episodes. You may not have noticed, but last week there was a fifth Saturday, which should have been a fiction episode and I just…failed in terms of having my act together in the last couple months enough to get the stories out to the narrators for recording. There, too, we will cover all the planned material, but on a slightly adjusted schedule. Maybe I’m taking a tip from Simone Biles and adjusting what “winning” looks like.
I’ve been doing a couple of fun research things lately related to the blog. One was a request from a comedian for some examples of queer women from the European middle ages to use as inspiration for a routine she’s putting together. I really enjoyed putting together a list of mini biographies and resources, and eventually I hope to give you more information about the show when things get to that point.
The other fun research is perhaps my most ambitious primary source project for the blog so far, and it’s all due to the wonders of the world wide web. Several of the podcasts have mentioned an individual from 18th century France who provides a unique look into attitudes toward the intersection of sexuality and gender in that era. Anne Grandjean, also known as Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, was assigned female as a child, but during adolescence they experienced sexual desire for women and confessed this to their priest. The priest told Grandjean that if they desired women, they must be a man and instructed them to change gender presentation. This they did, with the full knowledge of their family and community. They courted several women, married one of them, and established a household. Then one of their ex-girlfriends, from unknown motivation, started making trouble about Grandjean “actually being a woman”. The court, having established Grandjean’s female physiology, charged them with “profaning the sacrament of marriage” by being a woman married to a woman. Grandjean was all “I’m just doing what my priest told me to do,” but that didn’t cut it. Fortunately, Grandjean got a clever and sympathetic lawyer who argued, in essence, that Grandjean was some form of intersex except in a way that was only detectable via their experience of sexual desire. Which, in a way, was a more medicalized version of what the priest had concluded: that a person who desires women must, to some degree, be a man. The lawyer’s argument, looked at from a different angle, could be seen as trans-affirming: that is, that it was possible for someone’s gender identity to be misaligned with their physiology and that this was not a sin or a crime, simply a “trick of nature”. The judge split the difference, to some extent, ruling that Grandjean was innocent of “profaning the sacrament of marriage” as the marriage had been entered into in good faith, but also ruling that Grandjean should return to presenting as a woman, the marriage would be dissolved, and Grandjean was not allowed to continue cohabiting with their wife. Not exactly the happiest of endings, but definitely not the sort of tragedy that happened to others.
The question of how Grandjean might have categorized themselves in modern terms is not at all clear, and I don’t have an interest in trying to pin down a definitive answer. It wasn’t so much that 18th century French society didn’t have a category for “a woman who sexually desired a woman”—that it did is demonstrable from other sources. But that wasn’t a category that a priest or a sympathetic lawyer was willing to place a respectable, well-meaning young woman in. And so Grandjean was pressured into several other categories in turn. But Grandjean’s story would easily and comfortably fit a trans narrative, and the lawyer’s arguments could be seen as applying equally to the transgender experience, even if couched in different language than we would use. I pass over the intersex option because there doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence for that interpretation, except as a conceptual framework for arguing the possibility of contradictory gender features.
In any event, getting back to the research question, I had previously read about Grandjean’s story through several articles discussing various aspects of queer history, and like any historian I wanted to take a look at the primary sources myself. I had questions that were different from what other people were asking and there’s nothing like going to the source. The original source for the information was a write-up of the court case, with additional background information. But I could find no evidence that it had ever been published in English translation. What I did find, was a Google Books scan of a 1765 edition of the work, and a moderately good OCR conversion of a slightly different edition of the work with some additional material (primarily some verses appended to the end).
That was a solid starting point. I wouldn’t have had the time to transcribe the scans myself (and the images would have needed a lot of cleaning up from OCR), but it was the work of a few hours to do a comparison of the scans to the existing conversion and clean up the errors: fixing lots of long-s’s that had been interpreted as f’s and so forth. So now I had a clean text of 18th century French. Um…I have never actually studied French, so where does that leave me? I mean, I’ve picked up enough reading familiarity from studying other Romance languages and from cognates and just from osmosis that I can figure out what a French text is about. But not enough to do a confident translation. I could have asked my girlfriend to translate it, since French is one of her languages. Let’s not talk about Google Translate – it can manage basic stuff, but I know from having run novel cover copy through it that it has some serious limitations. But my girlfriend turned me on to a much better online translation resource and it turns out to be perfectly happy with 18th century French (which evidently isn’t too far from modern literary French). That got me a solid starting translation, which I am now going through in more detail, looking especially at points where the alternation of gender reference may have confused the AI. By the time I’m done I just may have mastered a knowledge of French pronouns. Then I only need to work on the rest of the language! Once I’m done with the analysis, my girlfriend is going to check over the results and then I’ll put it in the blog.
I’ve done a few of my own translations for the blog before: German, Latin, Greek—though for the Greek I was using someone else’s translation as a start and just focusing on specific words and phrases. But this is the longest text I’ve ever tackled. The other source text that I have on my to-do list for the blog is a medieval Welsh love poem, written from one woman to another. Now, medieval Welsh definitely is something I’ve studied—it’s what I did my PhD on—but poetry is…hard. So that’s a challenge waiting for another day and a lot more time.
News of the Field
If you’ve paid attention to my annual publishing analysis, you know that all it takes to be “one of the most prolific publishers of sapphic historical fiction” is to put out at least 2 books a year in the field. So when I’m updating my spreadsheet of new books, I tend to pay attention when a previously unfamiliar publisher or imprint shows up a couple times in the same year. Given that, I wanted to take note of three publishers who just caught my attention in this way. They all have very different relationships to queer content, and especially to sapphic content. But at the very least, they show the growing normalization of women loving women characters among publishers of all sizes.
Kalikoi is a very new press that specializes in books about women loving women, whatever label the characters might use. They focus on a variety of genre literature and a delightfully high proportion of historical stories. I haven’t had a chance to read any of their output yet, but I strongly recommend that my listeners check them out and see if you find books to your taste. Because a new press can use all the encouragement they can get, and it would be nice to see them stick around and grow.
Entangled Publishing has been around since 2011 but my database doesn’t have any sapphic historicals from them earlier than 2020. They appear to be incredibly prolific and specialize in romance for both adult and YA markets. They have a number of specialized imprints for particular flavors of books and their website has a fairly powerful set of search filters. The filter for LGBTQ books doesn’t apply independently of genre, so there’s no way to search specifically for sapphic historicals. But on the other hand, there are only 32 books in that filter, so it isn’t too much to scroll through. Only one of their books in my spreadsheet is already out, so the selection doesn’t look like much currently, but that book was Diana Pinguicha’s A Curse of Roses, which was excellent, so I have high hopes for their future output.
Feiwel & Friends is an imprint of MacMillan, specializing in books for readers up to age 16. There’s no particular focus on queer characters, and the two books from them that I have in my spreadsheet for the upcoming year were both ones where I had to reach out to the authors to get confirmation of sapphic content. But the stories look fascinating and we can always hope that they’ll publish more like these – even if they don’t seem to care if the books are discoverable.
In focusing on these publishers recently entering the genre, I don’t mean to slight the presses that have been putting out even larger numbers of titles for a long time. But it’s always great to see a growing backfield of sources for the books we love.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog continued reading through Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History in July and will finish the book out in August. I have another book in the relatively recent set of studies on historical transmasculine identities that I’d like to cover while I’m on a roll. And the source material on Anne Grandjean will fit into the current theme nicely, so the blog looks like it’s set for a while.
No new books picked up for the Project this month. I have a couple newly on order, but I’ll wait to blog them when they arrive.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
That brings us up to the new and recent fiction. We have one June book to catch up with. I knew about it last month, but the website was unclear on publication date so I wasn’t aware it was already out.
A Lady's Fine Companion by Margaret K. Mac from Kalikoi is a short story with an unclear setting in space and time, but my guess is maybe late 19th or early 20th century? This is predicated on the central role of a typewriter in the protagonist’s career, plus her brother’s insistence that she have a female companion in her household. So…um…you can guess what comes next. A workplace romance of sorts. The description makes it sound fairly spicy.
There are two July books I didn’t spot earlier. Another short one from Kaliloi: All Manner of Hats by Elva Birch. This has a magical steampunk-flavored setting with two rival milliners, distracted from their business truce (and from the quest for a marriage of convenience) by the need to collaborate on a mystery…and on something more personal.
We also have the start of a series by J.E. Leak, from Certifiably Creative which appears to be the author’s own imprint. In the Shadow of the Past (Shadow Series #1) is a World War II romantic thriller with spies, night clubs, and a slow burn romance that continues on into the next installment.
I’ve found seven August releases at this point, all set in the 19th or 20th century. Let’s take them in roughly chronological order.
Jane Walsh has another Regency out from Bold Strokes Books. In Her Countess to Cherish, a runaway bride encounters a dashing rogue, but the rogue has another life as an upper class bluestocking. Both women have secrets that could destroy their growing attraction, and the problem of how to achieve their hearts’ desire while staying true to themselves. From the cover copy, it appears that this is definitely a gender disguise story, rather than a transgender story, with consideration of how the character understands her identity.
I’m not quite as certain on that point about Kate Hershberger’s self-published Blackpoint. In a wild west setting, the town sheriff is an outsider along multiple axes and doesn’t need the complication of falling in love with a beautiful runaway, fleeing an abusive home. But the town of Blackpoint has provided a haven for many people and maybe it can provide the two a place to be themselves and be together. The book is tagged as “lesbian romance” on Amazon, but the cover copy consistently uses male pronouns for one of the protagonists. So it’s unclear how the gender identity issues are handled within the story.
The Fiend in the Fog by Jess Faraday from Bold Strokes Books is something of a supernatural gaslamp adventure set in London that…well, this is complicated enough that I’m going to step out of my usual briefer summary and just read the cover copy.
Abigail and Gideon are under siege. Noxious fogs have been bringing their clinic waves of indigent patients with inexplicable symptoms, telling wild tales of a demonic presence in the fog. If that’s not enough, someone wants the clinic for themselves, and they’re using the force of law to get it. On the other side of town, heiress Meg Eisenstadt and her brother Nat live a life of well-intentioned aimless luxury. She dabbles in social justice causes and he pursues alchemy. And in a secret lab in the depths of Whitechapel, disgraced physician Jin Wylie attempts to rebuild his shattered life by performing dubious research for a shadowy cabal. They live in separate worlds on different trajectories until the mysterious fiend in the fog brings them together. Abigail and Meg discover a shared passion for social justice, and for one another. But where does that leave her plans with Gideon? And what of the future of the clinic? Gideon has his own monster. Can he keep it in check without Abigail’s constant presence? Does Dr. Wylie’s research hold the solution to Gideon’s problems, or is it the cause of them? And could Nat’s own dabblings be the key to defeating the vicious killer in the fog?
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go slightly out of chronological order and pair another “fog” title. In A.L. Lester’s self-published The Fog of War (Bradfield #1), Dr. Sylvia Marks is trying to find equilibrium as a village doctor after returning from a World War I field hospital. It isn’t just a matter of leaving the war behind; her lover disappeared while driving an ambulance and some strange events are making her question Anna’s fate. Will everything change with the arrival of another close friend from the field clinic? There seems to be a bit of mystery here—perhaps a supernatural one—as well as the potential for romance.
Backing up a smidge to the disastrous voyage of the Titanic, Charlotte Anne Hamilton’s The Breath between Waves from Entangled follows two strangers who are thrown together as cabin-mates on the doomed voyage. A shipboard romance helps them put aside the sorrows of what they left behind and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. And then…well, we all know what happens next.
Shifting gears from the more common romance fare, Shannon Carr’s self-published The Haunting of Meade Manor falls solidly in the horror genre. In 1933 England, Mary Meade has unexpectedly inherited her great-uncle’s manor house, complete with a lurking murderer and the spirit of the woman he killed. But there are more spirits inhabiting the house and one of them can cross back into the physical world. Can Mary find happiness in the arms of a woman who’s been dead for half a century? And what will it take to rid Meade Manor of the evil that is haunting it from both sides of the grave?
The last book for this month isn’t actually a historical novel at all, but is of tangential interest because it features two women working at a living history museum, portraying the Australian gold fields. The Commitment by Virginia Hale from Bella Books is very much a contemporary romance, with themes of marriage of convenience, unspoken pining, and the unexpected appearance of a not-entirely-ex girlfriend. I don’t know how big a part the historic re-enactment aspect plays in the book, but listeners might find it an intriguing setting.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading lately? I feel like I’ve slowed down a little since last month’s dam-breaking. I had a listener request that I include the books I mention in this segment in my show notes, so I’ll be doing that from now on. There was the pirate-themed short story “At Word’s Point” by Carolyn Elizabeth, which is a spinoff from her forthcoming novel from Bella Books. I’ve been listening to some SFF audiobooks as part of working on my Hugo Award ballot, since I can fit them into odd moments. This month’s books were volumes from the best series finalists: Network Effect by Martha Wells, Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire, and City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty. No lesbian content, alas. I also really enjoyed Gail Carriger’s non-fiction The Heroine’s Journey which dissects a deep-rooted story structure that exists in parallel to, and in contrast with, the “Hero’s Journey” promulgated by Joseph Campbell. I think my writing has strong elements of the Heroine’s Journey, but it’s also interesting to see how individual characters in an ensemble cast can be living out different journeys, and how that creates conflict within the story. I mean, in the Alpennia series, Margerit Sovitre is definitely on a heroine’s journey, but her partner Barbara Lumbeirt keeps trying to follow a hero’s journey and it definitely causes problems at times. Carriger’s book isn’t a “how to write” book. I have an uneasy relationship with books that feel like they’re telling me how to write. It’s much more of a “how to think about writing” book, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s analyzing things!
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