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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 215 - On the Shelf for November 2021

Sunday, November 7, 2021 - 13:59

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 215 - On the Shelf for November 2021 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2021/11/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2021.

I need to start with a small apology. My neighbor is doing construction work involving power tools and hammering, and it’s likely that some noise may occasionally leak through. Just in case you hear odd noises in the background.

There are all sorts of interesting things to talk about this month. I don’t know about anyone else, but I just made my first serious venture out into the world since the start of the pandemic, to attend the Sirens conference in Denver, Colorado. It’s a book conference focusing on women and non-binary people in science fiction and fantasy, both as authors and characters. It’s a smallish conference with a lot of interesting programming approaches and it felt good as my first return to public life. It’s going to be a long time before I’m comfortable wandering around in crowds unmasked, and it was unsettling to see that the masking culture I’m used to at home was not always the norm elsewhere. But travel: I think I’m ready for that again.

2022 Fiction Series

The big announcement for the podcast is that we’re definitely doing the fiction series again next year. I’ve put the Call for Submissions up on the website—see the link in the show notes—and will be working on publicizing it widely. You can do your part by sharing the announcement and link around on social media. I know that the word gets out well beyond my personal social media circles, so you’ve done a great job on this in the past.

As a reminder, we’ll be buying four short stories with a maximum length of 5000 words. The setting must be an actual real-world place and time from before 1900, although the story can either be strictly historical or can incorporate fantastic elements appropriate to the historic setting. It must center on characters who identify as women and whose primary romantic or sexual attraction is to women, within the scope of the story.  But I’m not necessarily looking for romance stories, and if the story is a “girl meets girl” story, there should be something else going on in the plot as well. I’m looking for great writing, memorable characters and stories, and a diverse range of settings and plots.

Submissions are open during the month of January, so you have two months to get your work polished up to send in.

A Personal Announcement

And speaking of sending stories out into the world, on a more personal note, I’ve sold my queer fairy-tale novella “The Language of Roses” to Queen of Swords Press. It will be coming out in April 2022, so expect me to talk about it occasionally leading up to that. The basic premise is: what if an aromantic Beauty has to deal with an unredeemable Beast? But the complexities include lesbian secondary characters, themes of psychological abuse, chronic illness, and the continuing fallout of past dysfunctional relationships. With a happy ending, at least for some of the characters.

Other News of the Field

This podcast is mostly focused on books, with the occasional venture into movie commentary. But the other week when I was listening to the Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast, they mentioned an item more in the category of online game that might be of interest to my listeners. This is an interactive choose-your-own-plotline text game called If It Please the Court, that plunges you into the intrigues of 18th century Versailles and is specifically designed with a female or non-binary protagonist and all female potential love interests. Here’s how they describe the setting:

“You've been recruited from the slums of Paris into the Secret du Roi, Louis XV's league of covert emissaries and spies. As a spy for the court, you now have the power to change your life–and tip an unstable country toward transformation. It's one thing to lie for a living, but your love life demands honesty. And women all over Versailles are ready to lure your heart. Will it be the spymistress with a lifetime of secrets, the poet languishing in the shadow of the queen, or the double agent haunting your every move? No matter who you pursue, you'll have to survive a rival's hostile ambitions, and see that the crown doesn't crush yours. Love and loyalty are all that will be left when this house of cards falls. Who will you protect to ensure a better future, and who will you sacrifice? When your mask falls away, will anyone trust the person underneath?”

The game is written by D.E. Chaudron and is published by Choice of Games. There’s a link in the show notes. I’m not usually big on online games, whether text-based or video, but I bought this one and am looking forward to exploring it.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog finished up Emily Skidmore’s True Sex at the beginning of October then moved on to Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome, which I’ve very much been looking forward to.

One hope was that Boehringer would have turned up a few more bits of data than I’ve seen in other works on classical homosexuality, and there are some items I haven’t seen before. But much more than that, she does a detailed examination of the context of each reference and potential reference to love between women to tease out the meaning and implications.

When I blogged Dover’s (1978) Greek Homosexuality, I started off by quoting the author's own assessment: “That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers and artists on those topics.” But the "paucity" of material isn't the only factor at play here. The more focused one's topic, the more scope there is for uncovering meaning from a deep assessment of the context that material exists within. When a historian defines their scope of interest at a broader level, there is a tendency for the result to reflect the proportions of topics in the data, rather than aiming for a balanced coverage of the target subject itself.

In a sense, this is why the field of women's history and the field of queer history and especially the intersection of those two topics are so essential. A study of history that assumes that the past exists as a reflection of the proportions of subjects covered in the surviving artifacts is a study of history that perpetuates and amplifies the biases and erasures of past societies. While it's certainly been the case that historians have often been seduced into operating from the viewpoint of the voices that dominate their source material, a good historian recognizes that temptation and acts to counter it. Until all historians are self-aware enough to recognize and account for their own biases in this line, we need to treasure and cherish the works that begin from a principle that it is vital to put in the work of addressing marginalized topics. Boehringer's study is just such a work to be cherished--and I say that even not having read it in its entirety yet.

I'm finding Boehringer's approach delightful in its depth of analysis and in cutting through the layers of more recent scholarship to ask, "what does the text/material actually say to us?" For example, even if you view Alcman's partheneia poems as conventional, ritual expressions of civic performance, it still remains that they present the idea of female voices expressing the experience of erotic desire for a female object in a context that sees this as a normal, accepted part of society. And that, perhaps, says more than a poem that was clearly a depiction of an individual, personal experience of desire could ever say about the place of female homosexual desire in Archaic Greece.

The thing I find most impressive about Boehringer's work (and the thing most often lacking in general studies of classical homosexuality) is the meticulousness with which she sets up the cultural, literary, and textual context of each piece of evidence she examines.  She points out how many previous interpretations of references to f/f relations have taken them at face value, or as a genuine personal opinion of the author, or presented them without the context of the author's overall work. There is no way the blog can share with you the detailed analysis that builds up the foundations of Boehringer's conclusions. But whether or not you're interested in classical antiquity in particular, I highly recommend this study for the process and methods of analysis. It will rock your world.

Book Shopping!

Book shopping for the blog tends to come in boom or bust. There’s the occasional title that I pre-order when I first hear of it, of course. But since I’m rarely just browsing randomly in bookstores, most of my book buying happens when there’s an event like the medieval congress that sends me to comb through the academic press listings, or when I go online to track down a specific book and decide to go through my “want list” to see what might be available second-hand. The latter is what happened this month. I went online to track down some titles mentioned in Boehringer and ended up tracking down a number of older titles that happened to be available at reasonable used book prices.

In no particular order, the following items arrived in my mailbox in the last month.

Bridget Hill’s Women Alone: Spinsters in England 1660-1850 is part of a regular interest I have in the history of women’s lives outside of heterosexual marriage, particularly those who never marry. Although many women who loved women in past ages also married men, I think modern authors and readers are often more comfortable with stories where they don’t. And yet, the normative view of women’s history that we consume often gives the impression that unmarried women had few, if any, options. So I consider it an important part of the underlying purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to educate readers about the real options, regardless of whether the women involved were in same-sex relationships.

The motif of lesbian sex scandals in convents is a staple of pornographic literature, from the very start of the genre, which can make it tricky to sort out the realities of such dynamics. Hubert Wolf’s book The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal looks at one such episode in the mid 19th century.

Sometimes as I collect citations of specific articles to pursue, I realize that a particular collection includes enough relevant content that it’s worth picking up the book as a whole, rather than tracking down a library copy and photocopying. That was the case with Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. While only two of the papers touch on homoeroticism, the collection as a whole looks at a wide variety of ways in which women connected socially. Once again, it’s an approach that is a good counter to the popular view of history that often sees women as isolated and lacking in agency.

I’ve been trying for some time to track down a copy of Jill Liddington’s study of Anne Lister: Female Fortune: Land, Gender, and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833-36. I think it pretty much sold out during the height of the tv series Gentleman Jack. Rather than focusing entirely on the personal aspects of Lister’s life, Liddington takes a deep look at her place in the social, economic, and political context of the time.

The collection Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches edited by Ellen Greene, includes several papers that I’ve already covered, having turned them up in other contexts. But it made sense to get the collection as a whole for the other material.

The book that started this particular shopping expedition was the collection Ancient Sex: New Essays edited by Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand. Several of the articles in it feature prominently in Boehringer’s introduction. Somewhat unusually for a work on this era, the articles are nearly evenly balanced between male and female topics.

And finally, the brand new collection Trans Historical: Gender Plurality before the Modern edited by Greta LaFleur, Masha Raskolnikov, and Anna Klosowska revisits several of the gender-crossing people—both historic and literary—that I’ve discussed regularly, but from a specifically transgender lens.

So many books! And never enough time to catch up on reading them all! And speaking of which, let’s move on to the new and recent historical fiction listings.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Periodically, I give a shout-out to blogs and websites that are useful when I’m putting together the new books listings. Obviously if there were another resource that were already hitting the exact set of intersections I’m interested in, I wouldn’t feel I had to make my own list! But I can draw on new book listings that take slightly different angles and that may point me to titles that either don’t show up in my keyword searches or that I overlook because they don’t signal their content as clearly as I might like. One of those resources is the Reads Rainbow website which focuses on LGBT media in general. They do a new book release post every month, with titles grouped by genre and tagged by character representation. If you want a great round-up of new queer books with a much wider scope than simply historicals, I highly recommend following them.

So let’s look at seven new or recent sapphic historicals. I found one September book that I haven’t mentioned previously.

Stone Memory self-published by Aimée follows two parallel stories, one in the present time involving a scholar at Bristol University and the doctor who patches her up after an accident, and the other set in 1900 where a teacher at a women’s college in London encounters a pioneering woman doctor. The two couples and their developing romances intertwine across time.

The rest of the books are November publications. It turns out I made an error last month when I called Edale Lane’s book Missing in Milan the final book in her Nightflyer series. The series is, indeed, finished, but only with this month’s publication of the fifth book, Shadows over Milan, from Past and Prologue Press. Political intrigue, danger, and a near-fatal injury threaten the career of the Renaissance vigilante known as the Night Flyer. Worst of all is the threat to her future with the woman she loves.

The rest of this month’s books are set in the late 19th or 20th centuries.

Beulah Lodge by Cathy Dunnell from Bold Strokes Books has a Victorian gothic sort of feel, set in an isolated house in the Yorkshire moors. Ruth planned to stay with her strict and autocratic aunt only briefly before joining her fiancé in India. Eliza’s only plans are to keep her position as housemaid, no matter what she has to put up with. Both of their plans are derailed by the growing attraction between them.

Geonn Cannon’s steampunk fantasy series from Supposed Crimes hits its seventh volume in Trafalgar Versus Boone. Plot strands involving magical curses and secret societies come together in a crisis, but the two protagonists of the series have been torn apart and estranged. All that is about to change. I suspect there’s too much going on for new readers to enter the series with this book, but if you’re a series junkie and haven’t tried it yet, you might have a treat in store.

The last three books are all translations and, by some coincidence, are all fictionalized memoirs. The next title isn’t a recent book, as such, but is the first English translation of the 1901 French novel Idylle Saphique by the scandalous courtesan Liane de Pougy, translated as A Woman’s Affair by Graham Anderson, from Dedalus. The novel is based closely on de Pougy’s relationship with Natalie Barney and tells of the tempestuous and passionate affair.

Carla Guelfenbein’s One in Me I Never Loved, translated by Neil Davidson and published by Other Press is a collage of stories, combining fiction and memoir, that depict the personal lives of a wide variety of women, including several queer relationships, and blends them together to ask questions about the limits of freedom, love, and sex.

Finally, also from Other Press, is The Last One by Fatima Daas, translated by Lara Vergnaud, a coming of age story about a French-Algerian woman growing up in a repressed family in a Parisian suburb and her long journey to realize her identity as a lesbian.

So if you’ve been looking for something a little more serious and meaty to read, this month offers several possibilities.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? The non-fiction has taken up most of my time, but I did manage to fit in Stephanie Burgess’s Regency fantasy Scales and Sensibility which as you might guess is an Austenesque romantic comedy with dragons. The romance in this one is straight, though Burgess does occasionally write queer characters. I also did some light non-fiction reading with Susanne Alleyn’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths. The title amused me because I once presented a research paper on the topic of the symbolism of women wearing underpants in medieval art, so I was intrigued to see what Alleyn had to say. The book is entertaining, and even educational, but it can’t quite decide which of those it really wants to be. And although it presents itself as being a practical guide, it comes across a bit more as an insider gripe-fest where both author and reader are laughing at the silly mistakes that less knowledgeable people make. If I were a person who genuinely needed the advice in this book, I’m not sure that I’d be willing to sit through the snark long enough for it to be useful.

That’s always a hazard in historic education projects, which means it’s a hazard for this podcast as well. I’ve always had the most success, when educating people about history, by trying to infect others with the excitement and wonder I feel when I learn new things. I won’t claim that I’ve never participated in private snark over historical errors, but I certainly hope that the blog and podcast never come across as snarking at the people I want to attract as my audience. You’d let me know if I did, wouldn’t you?

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: