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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 210 – Sapphists in Austenland

Saturday, September 18, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 210 – Sapphists in Austenland - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/09/18 - listen here)

It’s not that I planned to take a tour through iconic figures of English literature, but sometimes one idea leads to another. Last month’s Shakespeare episode inspired me to tackle a much more promising author when it comes to sapphic possibilities: Jane Austen. What? I hear you exclaim, That ultimate author of heterosexual romances? Setting aside the alternate literary theory that marriage is not the prize in Austen’s works, it’s the side-plot to socio-economic horror stories, we aren’t talking about the canonical texts today, but about the structures and relationships embedded in the books that offer a branching point. A place the story could diverge and become a same-sex love story seamlessly and naturally. In point of fact, there are same-sex love stories threaded throughout the books. It’s only that they step aside for the relentless imperative of heterosexual marriage.

There’s something about Jane Austen’s work that has inspired endless retellings, re-settings, and re-imaginings. Whether it’s a matter of telling the existing story from a different point of view, or extrapolating the experiences of the characters after the final page, or mapping the personalities and situations onto the modern day, there’s an entire industry dedicated to giving us more Austen. Given that, it’s somewhat surprising that we don’t see more lesbian interpretations. Interspersed with this discussion of the novels and their sapphic possibilities, I’ll talk about some of the original historical fiction that I’ve found that takes off with those possibilities. But let’s start with the ingredients we have to work with. I’m not only looking at the central characters of the stories, but at the whole range of characters and relationships that might serve as inspirations, as well as how the social structures of Austen’s period either enable or hinder women’s same-sex bonds.


The key questions here are: what types of bonds and connections exist between women outside the immediate family? Are they the intimate friendships of people of equal station and similar interests? Do they involve the dependency of an unpaid companion, marked by a difference in finances, social station, and perhaps age? Is it a mentor relationship, where a more experienced woman teaches and guides another woman into flowering?

Which of those connections are fertile ground for romantic potential? Here a certain amount will depend on what type of story is being written. Austen’s heterosexual characters do not always constrain themselves to pursuing the unattached. Historically, the social divide between male and female spheres has meant that women often formed passionate same-sex bonds in parallel with marriages with men. But while a man might easily distract attention from his same-sex interests with a marriage of convenience, women faced the problem that marriage put control of their money and property into their husband’s hands and had almost no recourse if a “husband of convenience” decided to rewrite the terms of the arrangement.

How are social bonds between women made? Women of the gentry and aristocracy weren’t supposed to form connections with random strangers. You didn’t even dance with someone unless you’d been properly introduced by a mutual friend. And the cases where this rule is broken—like when Marianne Dashwood encounters Willoughby over a twisted ankle—show the hazards of falling for someone whose background has not been properly examined. The first circle of connections is that of the extended family, including not only cousins but in-laws. And don’t get too squeamish about “kissing cousins”. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are first cousins. In Pride and Prejudice, we aren’t told the exact relationship between Mr. Bennett and Mr. Collins, but Collins is a close enough cousin that he’s the nearest male-line relative and will inherit the estate. In Emma, two sisters marry two brothers. So consider that your heroine’s entire extended family is fair game for romantic potential.

The next circle of potential is the existing friends and acquaintances of your relatives: business associates, long-time neighbors, people that they were introduced to by existing connections, school friends. And let us not exempt your heroine’s schoolfellows as a means of putting her in contact with new faces. Many of Austen’s heroines have been homeschooled, as was common for women of that era. (While their brothers would more commonly be sent away for formal schooling.) But in Persuasion Anne Elliott and her sisters went to boarding school, and that’s where she made a crucial friendship with Mrs. Smith.

Another means of making new connections, somewhat related to the previous, is the sponsorship of a related party who takes the heroine under her wing and moves her from her immediate family to a new household context. This might be social visiting among relatives, as when the Gardiners host Jane Bennett in London and take Elizabeth Bennett on a holiday tour with them. It might be a companionship arrangement, as when Fanny Price is taken into the Bertram household in Mansfield Park. Or it might be the sponsorship of a hostess to introduce a young woman into society, as Mrs. Jennings does in Sense and Sensibility, or Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey. The key element in all these avenues to meeting your future romantic partner is that they are mediated through people you already know.

And finally, what are the economic relationships and dependencies among the people in the story? And how do those change when you’re considering female couples as the end goal? Every Austen novel is, at heart, a horror story of women facing economic desperation and trying to navigate the least unpleasant way of avoiding it. Elizabeth Bennett is told that if she rejects the unpleasant Mr. Collins she may never get another offer of marriage and she only semi-jokingly faces the prospect of living in her sister’s household as an unpaid companion and governess. Emma Woodhouse is in the extremely unusual position of not needing to marry to have financial security, but every other woman in her social circle faced those choices. The Dashwood sisters are haunted by the effects their comparative poverty have on their future plans. Two women together only magnify the gender inequities. So in visualizing possible same-sex relationships within Austenian worldbuilding, we can’t avoid the question of how our heroines will live. Will they have family money that is under their own control? Will they be permanent guests in someone else’s household? Do they have the possibility of employment and how would that employment affect their domestic arrangements? A great many of the occupational options for middle-class daughters involved living in someone else’s household, and unless their romantic prospects can be realized there, they’ll have to choose between their heart and their job. (This is a point of consideration where the historical realities were very different between female and male couples, though male couples faced more serious legal issues.)

So let’s take a look at the canonical relationships between women in Austen’s novels and the romantic possibilities they suggest, whether in terms of romance that could co-exist with the official story, or romance that could develop if the story takes a turn at key points.

I include only the briefest of plot summaries and I will rely on my listeners’ familiarity with the plots. If you need more details to orient yourself, there are links in the transcript to the Wikipedia entry for each book.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility follows the Dashwood sisters who have just fallen from a life of comfortable luxury into penny-pinching rustication due to the death of their father and the injustice of inheritance practices. Eleanor, the eldest, is the sensible “I’ll just keep all my feelings bottled up privately” one who falls in love with her brother in law but daren’t tell anyone because he hasn’t officially declared his intentions…which is because he’s already secretly engaged to someone even less suitable. Marianne is the flighty, emo, “I wear my heart on my sleeve” one who disdains the romantic interest of the stable, brooding, propertied neighbor for the fun of being courted by a spendthrift rake who will throw her over for an heiress.

The most relevant theme in Sense and Sensibility is the opportunities for mixing in society that the sponsorship of a hostess provides. The Dashwood sisters are given a chance to spend time in London due to the hospitality of Mrs. Jennings, a relative by marriage, who loves to make matches and provide social opportunities for young people. The Dashwood sisters fall only marginally into the role of companions to her—they are expected to provide company and an excuse for socializing, but their hostess doesn’t emphasize their dependence on her. If Mrs. Jennings were closer to the sisters in age, we might look for romantic potential within this arrangement.

In a parallel, but contrasting position, the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, have also been invited to be guests of Mrs. Jennings, but soon accept a different invitation that places them in a more classical companion situation in the home of John Dashwood, the half-brother of the Dashwood sisters, where they are expected to attend on Mrs. Dashwood, entertain her young son, and to flatter and toady to her.

The third strand of unattached female characters comes in the largely off-screen person of Eliza Williams, who is caught in a mother-daughter tradition of illicit love affairs and unwed motherhood. This places her in a very precarious position, but also removes her from the default expectations regarding marriage.

The strongest bonds between women in this book are between pairs of sisters, which is an unfruitful angle for same-sex romance. This is a story full of unusually solitary women without connections to non-familial equals. To create some romantic tension we could turn to an enemies-to-lovers scenario. Eleanor Dashwood and Lucy Steele are tied to the same man—a man who had no business attaching either of their affections at the time that he meets them: Lucy, because he was too young and dependent to make such a commitment, Eleanor, because he was already engaged to Lucy when they met. In the book, Lucy’s greed leads her to ditch her fiancé, thus allowing the passively patient Eleanor to step in. But what if there was a little more heat underlying their conflict? What if they came to a point of comparing notes and realized that wishy-washy indecisive Edward wasn’t worth their time and they made alliance together instead? Given that they both had familial ties to the wealthy Mrs. Jennings, whose own daughters were safely married off, the lack of financial stability that marriage might have brought could find a substitute by Eleanor and Lucy taking up a joint position of protégé-companions to Mrs. Jennings. There would be enough contrast of personalities between the three to provide useful conflicts in the plot.

Marianne is a bit more tricky—she’s so self-involved for so much of the story that there aren’t really alternate possible connections to build on. But there’s always the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret, who shows at least a few signs of independent thinking and adventurous spirit that might suggest a non-normative life path. And then there’s the new single mother, Eliza Williams, who is highly unlikely to achieve a respectable marriage, given her situation, regardless of the wealth and standing of her patron Colonel Brandon. Eliza is a solid candidate for being granted a financial allowance that would enable her to establish a quiet household with a female companion.

In the story “Margaret” by Eleanor Musgrove in the anthology A Certain Persuasion, we find just that arrangement. Margaret Dashwood longs for the joy of a female confidante and friend with whom she can share her doubts and uncertainties about the prospect of marriage. She finds that friend when she is solicited to lend respectability as a lady companion to the household of Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza (and her young son who bears a noticeable relationship to their neighbor Willoughby). And Margaret discovers that companionship can lead to love. I found this story to be a realistic study of the fine lines between respectable and scandalous for unmarried women of Austen’s era. I particularly appreciated that it presents a realistic picture of how women might broach the subject of turning companionship into something more passionate, without forcing modern attitudes and understandings onto the women.

And then, there is always the option of gender-flipping the canonical male love interest. But could it be done while remaining true to the social structures of the time? Edward Ferrars is the eldest son and thus his family sees his marriage as a dynastic matter, not to be left to individual choice. But the position he finds himself in, with a prospective spouse selected for him based on wealth and social standing, is in many ways more typical as a female experience. And the financial position he’s put in when disinherited is the expected reality for many daughters. What if it were Edith Ferrars, instead, who stubbornly resists her mother’s instructions to marry because of a pre-existing attachment of the heart? Before raising the objection that a same-sex commitment would be historically implausible to offer as a bar to marriage, this is very much the situation that Sarah Ponsonby was in when she eloped with Eleanor Butler. One could even retain the conflict between that foolish promise to Lucy Steele and a more passionate attraction to her sister-in-law Eleanor Dashwood. In an age when familial ties, however tenuous, were one of the most certain ways of meeting eligible prospects, the sister of a brother’s wife would be a natural candidate for a potential relationship.

Exactly this sort of gender-flipped retelling appears in “Elinor and Ada” by Julie Bozza, also included in the anthology A Certain Persuasion. There has been a certain reorganization of family relationships: instead of Ada being the brother to John Dashwood’s wife Fanny and to Robert Ferrars, she is a cousin of theirs and something of a family poor relation. She has been serving as governess to the Steele sisters (rather than being tutored by their uncle) and had formed an indiscreet connection with Lucy Steele, who now holds certain letters over her as earnest for a promise to have Mrs. Ferrars set them up with an independent household. With those alterations (and the eventual substitution of a position as village schoolmistress at Delaford rather than the ecclesiastical living that Edward was granted) the story otherwise follows the plot of Sense and Sensibility very closely. Rather too closely, perhaps, as it traces out the entire plot of the novel in the space of a short story, which makes for a great deal of summarizing and plot-outlining, as well as recycling significant chunks of text from the original story. (One feature of Austen retellings that I’m not always fond of, alas, is when authors re-use the existing text with only minor revisions.)

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the queen of the Austen novels, in terms of the number of times it has been adapted, reworked, reimagined, or spun off from. The clock is ticking for the five Bennett daughters, whose only hope of comfortable futures is snagging suitable husbands with only a pittance of a dowry to attract them, as their father’s estate will be passed to a male cousin. You have the pretty, modest, sweet-tempered one who falls in love with the jolly, easily manipulated man. You have the light-hearted, warm, judgmental one who clashes with the brooding, stiff, snobbish man. You have embarrassing relatives and tangled webs. Very tangled.

Relationships among the sisters give a taste of their potential for forming close bonds with women outside the family, and we see a lot of female friendships in this book. Two of the sisters (Mary and Kitty) are more or less ciphers but the rest have potential.

Elizabeth Bennett has a particular friendship with Charlotte Lucas—close enough to share their opinions of marriage and men, but fragile when the hard realities of those topics come between them. Charlotte concludes that independence from her family is far more important than loving—or even respecting—one’s husband. She sets about strategizing how to make what is for her a business arrangement function as well as possible. And that includes a lot of playacting and hiding her true feelings.

This is, of course, fertile ground for Charlotte to strategize other forms of emotional support that wouldn’t endanger the security of her marriage. This is exactly the situation explored in the novel Lucas by Elna Holst. Rather than redirecting the plot of Pride and Prejudice into an alternate timeline, it takes Charlotte Lucas, now Collins, past the end of the book and gives her a very passionate romance with a non-canonical character, all described in letters to her friend Elizabeth that she never dares send. And it was her earlier crush on Elizabeth Bennett that helped her recognize what she now feels. Lucas isn’t so much a classical romance—the two women have more of an insta-lust thing going on. But a great deal of the plot explores both the practicalities and social difficulties in how to turn stolen moments into something permanent. The financial questions are solved by making Charlotte’s new love an heiress. But how can Charlotte extricate herself from a stifling marriage and run away, without her choices having catastrophic effects on her family’s status and reputation?

Another author might find equal potential in exploring that alternate timeline in which Elizabeth convinces her not to throw away her hope of love for the security of Mr. Collins; in which Elizabeth never has the change of heart for Mr. Darcy; in which the two of them find some future together. It would be a difficult future indeed with no source of independent income on either side, and that problem would provide some excellent plot conflicts. They might find themselves eternally guests in the homes of relatives, either making a constant round of sequential visits, or settling in somewhere and trying to make themselves useful enough to be welcome. It would be a challenge to do so together. But it might be an interesting story.

The youngest Bennett sister, Lydia, for all her heedless self-centeredness, also seems to make friends easily. Her bond with the colonel’s young wife snags her a chance to spend time in Brighton and enjoy the freedom of separation from her family where she could form new connections. While it’s hard to imagine the canonical Lydia falling sincerely in love with anyone but her own self-image, I could easily imagine a spicy adventure in the militia camp at Brighton with Lydia having a sexual awakening with her female friend that spurs her decision to make a bold move to try to snare Mr. Wickham.

It's hard to imagine the canonical Jane Bennett straying from her fixation on Bingley, but let’s see if we can come up with some scenarios. A theme that comes up in a number of real-life 19th century passionate friendships is marrying your friend’s brother in order to establish a formal bond with the woman you love. What if Caroline Bingley’s interest in befriending Jane was more personal? Caroline might be seriously conflicted about furthering Jane’s relationship with her brother if she had a personal emotional stake in the matter. And the canonical Caroline’s interest in pursuing Darcy herself need not be removed from the equation. Caroline has family money that isn’t tied to property, and though one might guess that it wouldn’t be enough to maintain the high life she’s currently enjoying as her brother’s hostess, it would certainly be enough for a more modest independent establishment, if she were willing to make that sacrifice.

The established personality of Caroline Bingley offers a number of possibilities. Kate Christie’s Gay Pride and Prejudice builds on some of the parallels between Caroline and Darcy’s personalities and asks, “What if it was the prickly, sparring relationship between Lizzie and Caroline, rather than the one between Lizzie and Darcy, that developed into love? The author does a thing I’ve seen in a number of Pride and Prejudice pastiches, where she retains a vast amount of the original novel’s language and simply tweaks it here and there to make the building blocks tell a different story. I confess that it’s a technique I’m not fond of, and it made it hard for me to enjoy the story. I would love to have seen the romantic premise tackled in an original story rather than in this name-swapping fashion.

I said that the middle sisters, Mary and Kitty, are ciphers but that doesn’t mean we can’t see possibilities for them. What if Mary’s priggish disdain for the expected preoccupations of a young woman is cover for a deep discomfort with normative expectations? Without the conventional beauty and vivacity of her older and younger sisters—and given the family’s financial constraints—her marriage prospects must look dire. But what if that were a relief to her? And what if, after resigning herself to staying at home as her mother’s support and companion, she meets someone who encourages her to believe happiness is possible? There are the usual financial concerns. If she falls in love with a woman who has little more than pin money, the only realistic option may be for her beloved to move into the Bennett household. But if we look ahead to the day when Mr. Bennett dies and the remaining Bennett women must make other arrangements, perhaps a frugal establishment in Bath would serve. Frugal enough that Mary and her “friend” must share quarters, naturally. My imagination is already spinning away with that one. I’ve always felt that Mary deserved more sympathy than she gets in the original story.

Another unpaired woman whose circumstances offer her wider possibilities is Georgiana Darcy. As an heiress, she has many more options than the Bennett sisters have. And as an heiress, naturally she would be much sought after by male suitors. But her brother and guardian has already fended off one fortune-hunter in Wickham, and seems likely to take an over-protective stance toward Georgiana’s future. That could mitigate the social expectations for marriage long enough for her to find some nice girl to fall in love with. Maybe someone who could help improve her self-confidence and bring her out of her shell a little?

Anne de Bourgh is in a similar situation to Georgiana: an heiress in an overprotective household. But where Georgiana benefits from the loving protection of an elder brother and might be given space to discover her own desires, Anne is stifled and erased by an overbearing and autocratic mother—who, to be fair, takes the same attitude toward everyone in her orbit. Anne has never been given space to have her own desires in the least thing. And you can be certain that when Lady Catherine de Bourgh decides that her daughter will marry, Anne’s wishes will count for nothing. So setting Anne up in a potential same-sex romance has a lot of challenges that could make for a satisfying plot.

There are a lot of directions that such a story could go, and Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh tosses some additional challenges into the mix, such as a laudanum addiction, begun to quiet a colicky infant but continuing into young adulthood, leaving Anne sickly and sleep-walking through life. Once Anne decides to break free both of laudanum and her mother’s control, the first true friend she makes in London evolves into romance, though I would consider this more a literary novel than a romance novel by genre. The relationships and their difficulties are very realistically depicted (as is both the addiction and the process of escaping it). Greeley’s prose is gorgeous and well-suited to the story she tells. This one gets a high recommendation from me.

The most popular way to adapt Pride and Prejudice as a contemporary lesbian romance is a simple gender-flip on the Darcy character. But gender-flipping can be a lot trickier in a historic setting, if key aspects of the character are rooted in gendered social and legal structures of the time. A female Darcy in the early 19th century would be unlikely to be fabulously wealthy with an inherited estate such as Pemberley. The “entailments” that functionally disinherit the daughters of the Bennett and Dashwood families had the specific purpose of keeping real estate within the male inheritance line (however convoluted the connection), and keeping other wealth tied to the real estate for its maintenance. An Emma Woodhouse – as we’ll discuss in a bit – was definitely something of a unicorn. It would be easier to imagine Bingley flipped to a female character. His family made their money in trade and have no inherited estate—a significant plot point. Furthermore, Darcy’s solicitous concern for Bingley’s welfare might make more sense with a female Bingley, although one would need a different context for the friendship between the two. There are clear possibilities in that direction.

While it isn’t a direct mapping of Pride and Prejudice, Barbara Davies’ Frederica and the Viscountess borrows some recognizable motifs from the books with a gender-flipped Darcy equivalent. Davies has made it work by not aiming for a direct parallel of the canonical plot. While the protagonist Frederica, who fills the Lizzie role, is contemplating the unlikelihood of another proposal if she turns down her tedious suitor (who is clearly modelled on Mr. Collins), and while Frederica must beg the assistance of her love interest in rescuing her younger sister from the clutches of a seductive scoundrel (with elements borrowed both from Wickham and from Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility), that love interest—Vicountess Norland—rather than being a direct Darcy parallel, uses a trope belonging solely to sapphic historicals: scandalous, cross-dressing, devil-may-care, aristocratically-privileged, and just the person to entice our heroine to reach for her dreams. By not trying to create a female Darcy, the author has the freedom to provide a backstory that works for the times. The viscountess is married, but is believed to have deserted her husband, thereby making her both independent and outside the concerns of ordinary propriety. She is rich and aristocratic, thereby making it entirely believable that she might take on Frederica as a “companion” without any other need to justify the arrangement.

If gender flipping is tricky within the context of the Pride and Prejudice canon, gender disguise—that trope so beloved of sapphic historicals—is even more complicated. When you look at the circumstances of persons assigned female who transed gender before the 20th century, a strong theme is that of disconnection from the birth family and community of origin. It isn’t an absolute theme—there were rare exceptions where family and community were tacitly aware of the change, and either supportive or at least indifferent. But a major aspect of the tangled plotlines of Pride and Prejudice is the way in which everyone is connected to each other and has been so all their lives. Even a character such as George Wickham who trades on escaping from his past misdeeds by constant movement cannot avoid encountering people who know and recognize him and are willing to bring his past into the light.

This is why I was skeptical of the gender-crossing plot of “Father Doesn’t Dance” by Eleanor Musgrove in the anthology A Certain Persuasion. (The author indicates that it is intended as a transgender plot rather than a gender disguise one.) The premise is that the two Darcy sisters, with the support and assistance of their cousin, the future Colonel Fitzwilliam, decide to derail the entailment of Pemberley to a distant cousin by having the elder sister become her non-existent long-estranged brother Fitzwilliam. (Note that the Darcy siblings are related to Colonel Fitzwilliam through their mother, so he couldn’t be a beneficiary of the entailment.) From there, the story is projected to proceed much as the original, but with an additional reason for Mr. Darcy to be highly ambivalent about a romantic connection. But while an intriguing premise, I found the logistics to be implausible. There are entirely too many people who would know whether there was an actual older brother in existence. (The whole Lady Catherine de Bourgh plot rather falls apart.) There are ways to make gender-crossing plots more plausible. I point to the case of Mary Diana Dodds discussed previously on the blog and podcast. But they typically require a central figure who whose entire life history wouldn’t have been tracked by their family and community.

Mansfield Park

In Mansfield Park, poor relation Fanny Price is taken on as a charity case by her more fortunate relatives and never allowed to forget it. Saintly, long-suffering Fanny is exploited and taken for granted by everyone but her cousin Edward, on whom of course she develops a crush. In the end, everyone sees the error of their ways and comes to value Fanny’s virtues.

To my mind, the canonical characters and relationships of Mansfield Park highlight only one potential female couple. In Austen’s novel, Mary Crawford befriends and cozies up to protagonist Fanny Price with the dual goal of trying to disrupt any developing bond between Fanny and her cousin Edward (who is the target of Mary’s affections), and to manipulate Fanny into accepting the advances of her brother, Henry Crawford. But it would take very little adjustment to see the four characters much more entangled if Mary were also motivated by her own romantic attraction to Fanny. The self-involved and morally flexible Miss Crawford might well embark on a courtship of Fanny’s affections as a lark or a stratagem only to find herself genuinely attached. Success would, of course, require a Fanny who is a bit more willing to go against convention and stand up for herself. The canonical Fanny does this when refusing Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal—to the astonishment of all her relations. So it’s not impossible to imagine that she might do so out of attachment to Mary rather than to Edward.

The other available female characters are more or less limited to Edward’s sisters, who treat Fanny with condescension and disdain, so it would take a great deal of editing to develop an attraction there. A gender-flipped Edward offers possibilities (with an adjustment in which Crawford sibling is vying for whose affections). But there would be a challenge in finding an equivalent independent career to the clerical living that the male Edward anticipates. When looking across the entirety of Austen’s works, you’ll notice a strong pattern that the male romantic leads who do not have inherited wealth expect to make their living in the church. There’s no time to go into the whole socio-economic infrastructure of the Church of England in the early 19th century, but there was a significant amount of nepotism and patronage that could be manipulated to ensure that an unpropertied son could have a comfortable life and support a family. While women’s options for inherited wealth were much more limited, at least they existed. There was no equivalent of a clerical living that might be offered to a daughter to provide her with an independence.

Authors who have taken up the challenge of adapting Mansfield Park for a sapphic story seem to have settled on Mary Crawford as the character with the most potential, which makes a certain amount of sense given the canonical character’s daring and morally-flexible personality. Tilda Templeton’s erotic short story “Mary’s Secret Desire” comforts the post-rejection Mary Crawford with sexual escapades among a secret lesbian sex club masquerading as a Catholic order of nuns. I can’t really consider this an Austen spin-off, given that nothing much is borrowed other than the character’s name and a brief reference to her back-story. And the status of Catholicism in Regency-era England seriously undermines the premise that the pretense of a Catholic convent could provide cover to a sex club. The trope is, however, much in keeping with anti-Catholic English pornography of the 17th through 19th centuries, which considered convents to be a likely hotbed of lesbian activity.

There’s much more plausibility and more direct fabric taken from Mansfield Park in J.L. Merrow’s short story “Her Particular Friend,” once more from the anthology A Certain Persuasion. In this story, Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who has taken Fanny’s place as companion to her aunt Lady Bertram, encounters the now widowed Mary Crawford during a visit to Bath. Despite the family scandal that stands between them, they are drawn together. Mary is still playfully indiscreet, but Susan is not Fanny and is more receptive to her advances. Here we see a manipulation of the social dynamics that makes a romance possible. By turning Mary into a widow, the story gives her social independence and the right to have her own household. And Susan is given the opportunity to travel and encounter potential romantic partners by virtue of being companion to an older, wealthier, established matron. They’ll have a challenge in detaching Susan from Lady Bertram without repercussions, but it’s within plausibility.

Northanger Abbey

I’ve been going through Austen’s novels in their publication order, but at this point I’m going to save Emma for the finale, and move on to Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is Austen’s tribute to the gothic novel and the young women who love them. And like many of her works, it’s a tribute to the process of looking beyond superficial appearances to find happiness and security with a well-suited partner. Catherine Morland, like many of Austen’s heroines, comes from a family of comfortable but modest means and is given entrée into a wider world courtesy of a more wealthy neighbor couple who take her under their wing for a season in Bath. Once again, she fills a companion role, but more of a protegee, like the Dashwood sisters, rather than a dependent almost-servant, like Fanny Price. In Bath, she meets two sets of siblings who form the majority of the context for the story: Isabella and John, the children of her patroness’s friend; and the wealthy Tilney siblings, children of a cold and distant widowed father: kind, loyal Eleanor, handsome, clever Henry the love interest, and rakish Frederick the disruptive force.

Catherine forms close friendships with both Isabella and Eleanor, though Eleanor’s friendship is the more loyal and enduring. There’s some great story potential in a love triangle involving the three of them, where Catherine learns which of her friends truly returns her love. A happy ending in which Catherine becomes a long-term companion to Eleanor (rather than marrying her brother Henry as she does in the original) is structurally plausible, though it requires some management of Catherine’s past conflicts with Eleanor’s father if they are to gain a solid financial standing from that direction. Or maybe Catherine will become a successful author of gothic novels herself and the two can live comfortably in a modest establishment in Bath, as many such female couples did.

It's harder for me to come up with other sapphic scenarios from Northanger Abbey, perhaps because it’s the Austen novel I’m least familiar with. Isabella has some possibilities, I suppose. The canonical character is driven primarily by a desire of securing herself a wealthy husband, first pursuing Catherine’s brother James when she mistakenly believes that family to be wealthy, then succumbing to the seductions of Frederick Tilney who actually does have expectations of inheritance but, alas, no morals or intention of marrying her. Whether one follows the original story to its end, with Isabella’s reputation ruined, and then finds a different direction for her life, or perhaps branches the story off earlier and gives her a female rake to run off with instead, she does seem the sort to defy convention, given sufficient incentive.


Persuasion has a plethora of female characters to work with: the three Elliot sisters Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary; Elizabeth’s very special friend and companion Penelope—and there’s an obvious pair to rewrite as romantic; the Musgrove sisters (Mary’s in-laws) Louisa and Henrietta; and Anne’s now-widowed school friend Mrs. Smith with whom she clearly has a strong emotional bond. Of these, two pairings are the most obvious to adapt as romantic couples.

Elizabeth and Penelope are canonically framed as antagonists the to the central character, Anne, with a complex rivalry around strategizing for relationships that bring both personal security and access to the status of the Elliott title, which will go to a distant male cousin. (If a theme around inheritance is obvious in these summaries, it isn’t Austen’s theme but the rigid structures of English law. Primogeniture is a bitch and a glaringly obvious reminder of patriarchy in its most literal sense.) In canon, Penelope plays the role of companion to Elizabeth—the embodiment of the toad-eating dependent. She is also suspected of having her sights set on enticing the elder Sir William Elliott into marriage while settling for a less formal offer from the younger Elliott. The younger Mr. Elliott, in the meanwhile, is pursued by Elizabeth as a means of retaining her social status through marriage, as well as the usual goal of simple security, but he in turn has set his sights on Anne, a more congenial partner, with the aim of gaining leverage to foil Penelope’s ambitions, though presumably Elizabeth would have done just as well for that purpose. But what if, in the midst of all these plots, there were also a genuine romantic attraction between Elizabeth and Penelope? One that is greatly complicated by the practical considerations of their conflicting goals? If they were willing to settle for the status quo—at least for as long as Sir William survives—they’re well set up to do so. But either of them reaching for more conventional life goals would disrupt that balance and Sir William won’t live forever.

The canonical Anne Elliott is solidly fixated on what she believes to be her lost chance with Captain Wentworth, which is a bit hard to work around, even if we go into an alternate timeline where Wentworth carries through with what he believes to be his obligation to marry Louisa Musgrove. Would Anne, in that case, have a chance to find that her feelings for Mrs. Smith were more than friendship and the remains of hero-worship? Anne finds meaning in being needed, and Mrs. Smith is definitely in need. Their financial circumstances would be dire unless Smith’s property interests are sorted out and are substantial enough to support both. (There’s also an ethical issue for a modern author in that the location of Mrs. Smith’s property in the Indies strongly implies that any income would derive from enslaved labor. But that’s part of the landscape of Austen’s world.)

There are no clear candidates for same-sex romances for the Musgrove sisters, alas. But if we want to dig into back-story, one might also speculate on the obviously close bond between the late Lady Elliott and Lady Russell. An “intimate friend” the text says who “had been brought, by strong attachment” to move to live near the Elliotts, though it’s unclear whether this happened after she was widowed or before. Lady Russell’s attachment to her friend was of a nature that she considered herself a second mother to her daughters, yet also of such a nature that marrying Sir William was never on the table. Yes, one could definitely build a sapphic romance on those bones, if one were comfortable with it existing in the context of the women’s marriages.

If one chose, instead, to continue focusing on the Anne-Wentworth romance, by playing with gender, there are clear possibilities. A gender-flipped Wentworth would need an entirely different career than the navy. A situation where Anne wanted to set up housekeeping with a beloved female friend but was persuaded not to do so on the basis of the friend’s precarious finances and lower social status would work perfectly. How would they meet? In the same way as the original text: the enticing Miss Wentworth would be staying in the neighborhood visiting her brother the curate. The options for allowing Miss Wentworth to rise in the world, both in terms of status and fortune are more limited than they would be for a man. A strategic marriage and convenient death for the spouse would be the most plausible, but a legacy from a relative that was improved by clever investment is also possible, and more in parallel with the idea of someone who rose in the world by their own merits and effort.

A gender disguise plot brings up intriguing possibilities. The Regency was the tail end of the era when people assigned female were successfully enlisting in the British military while being read as male. Some were quite successful on a long-term basis, such as Dr. James Barry. Motivations were various: economic opportunity, gender identity, or as a means to enter into marriage with a woman. In military contexts it was common for such persons to engage in flirtations and even marriages with women, whether as a bolster to their male presentation or from personal desire. Such an adaptation of the plot of Persuasion would require either a disruption of the canonical Wentworth family structure or the knowledge and acquiescence of Wentworth’s relatives. (Would Admiral Croft know? Or would Mrs. Croft silently rely on the aura of her husband’s rank to deflect suspicion from her sister’s identity?) A gender disguise scenario would provide Anne Elliott with additional motivation to unwillingly disengage from their relationship if she thought her family’s hostility to Wentworth might put her secret in danger. And it would heighten the stakes when Wentworth’s flirtation with the Musgrove girls created the impression of a commitment. There could also be a belief on Wentworth’s part that Anne’s original susceptibility to persuasion was specifically because of the gender identity angle, rather than from protective concern. Yes, I definitely think something could be done here.


I’ve saved Emma for last, because it is both the most inherently queer of Austen’s novels as well as having substantial potential for queer adaptations. The Woodhouses are the most prominent family in their rural neighborhood, with the neighboring Knightley family a close second. The two families are joined by the marriage of the elder Woodhouse daughter to the younger Knightley son. The older generation of both families is now represented only by Mr. Woodhouse, an eccentric character who is overprotective of everyone he has influence over, including an assortment of secondary characters that includes the younger daughter, Emma’s, former governess and her new husband and adult step-son, and the impoverished Bates household, which includes the beautiful, talented, and destitute Jane Fairfax.

A major through-line of the story is Emma Woodhouse’s quest for intimate friendships with women. Those relationships are often framed as couples and Emma’s disinterest in marriage is emphasized for much of the book, only reversing itself somewhat unexpectedly at the last minute. First in her affections was her governess, Miss Taylor, who is described as follows: “less…a governess than a friend…. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters…they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached….” Emma recognizes the advantages to Miss Taylor of marrying but is rather devastated by losing “a friend and companion such as few possessed: intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers; one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault.”

Rewriting the story with a more solidly realized relationship between the two needs to deal with the implications of a connection that began when Emma was a child, even if romance isn’t depicted as developing until she comes of age. (Although for a real-life parallel of a similar relationship one might look to Katharine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field and enjoyed a marriage-like relationship.) I’ve found reference to one story that takes this angle: Kissing Emma by Gemma Harborne, but unfortunately the work appears to be out of print so I know nothing more than the basic premise.

Suffering from the loss of Miss Taylor, Emma casts about for another woman to become her companion and settles on Harriet Smith, a young woman of admittedly illegitimate birth—though evidently from a well-off family, who sent her to boarding school near the Woodhouses. Emma, though rather a bit of a class snob, convinces herself that Harriet must be of a good lineage and “had long felt an interest in [her], on account of her beauty. … She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired.” Harriet isn’t particularly clever or well-informed, but she has one very endearing trait: she worships Emma and is willing to be guided and advised by her. The canonical relationship between the two would be very reasonably described as romantic if it weren’t for the fact that Emma’s idea of patronage includes doing her best to set Harriet up in a suitable marriage—a task at which she fails spectacularly.

The most natural sapphic pairing, based on canon, would be Emma and Harriet. One can’t help but wish that Harriet might find a bit more independence of spirit and that Emma might lose some of her class prejudice, but in terms of expectations for a happy-ever-after, there are few structural barriers. Emma has no need to marry for the sake of financial security. She points this out to Harriet. “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. … Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield.”  Here is where one of Mr. Woodhouse’s flaws becomes Emma’s advantage: her father is very much set against her leaving the household and dreads the thought of her marrying. But for her to continue on as she is with an intimate companion for company? She would have his whole-hearted support on that point!

One of the stories in A Certain Persuasion takes this angle. “One Half of the World” by Adam Fitzroy depicts a delicate negotiation between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith regarding turning their friendship into a lifelong companionship like that of the Ladies of Llangollen (whom Harriet specifically references). I had some issues with it as a story—it was too talky and the romantic chemistry never seemed to gel. But it worked in terms of the social dynamics of the day.

The third natural pairing—and one might argue the one best suited for success—is between Emma and Jane Fairfax. Emma and Jane, by rights, ought to have been fast friends—as various of their acquaintance take pains to point out. They are both by nature intelligent and personable. Despite the difference in their economic status, they are from the same class, though at different financial ends of it. But Jane is Emma’s mirror-twin: poor where Emma is rich, dedicated to her accomplishments where Emma is a dilletante, secretive and self-controlled where Emma is open and spontaneous, expected to work for a living where Emma is a lady of leisure and provider of charity. And it’s clear that Emma resents Jane’s very existence as a rebuke of her own shortcomings. What better set-up for a rivals-to-lovers plot? In canon, Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, who in turn flirts openly with Emma to distract any suspicion from Jane. This nearly leads to a permanent break between Jane and Frank, until the convenient death of Frank’s aunt leaves him free to seek permission for the marriage. In the mean time, Emma has had some hard lessons about her behavior and is trying very belatedly to become closer and more supportive to Jane.

There is a potential crux available, where the break-up with Frank is never repaired, where Emma gains Jane’s confidence and trust, and this develops into love—a love more suitable than the rather awkward near-parental relationship that Emma gets from Mr. Knightley. A chance for Jane to escape the dire fate of being a governess by becoming Emma’s bosom friend and companion. I could swear that I’ve seen someone write that take on the story, but I can’t find it in my database. (It’s possible it was something I ran across on Archive of Our Own—I haven’t included fan fiction in my examples here, but goodness knows there are all sorts of pairings explored there, and this entire podcast is about fan fiction, by any meaningful definition.) I’d love to see someone take Emma down this alternative road. It would take so little divergence from the original.

If one goes into minor characters or gender-flipping possibilities, there are other ways to queer Emma, but since the canonical female relationships are so rich, let’s leave it at that. I hope I’ve demonstrated how sapphic romances can easily be constructed on the bones of the social and historical dynamics of the past, and how some of our favorite classic authors wrote stories that are already much closer to being sapphic romance than you may have thought.

This episode inspired me to do a special bonus fiction show. When I contacted author Eleanor Musgrove to find out whether her story “Margaret” had been republished after the anthology A Certain Persuasion went out of print, I impulsively asked if we could republish it in this podcast. That episode will be appearing next week. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: