(Originally aired 2022/07/16 - listen here)
“…and there was only one bed!”
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes—scenarios that evoke a certain dynamic or conflict or anxiety that gets us right in the feels. Some readers have specific favorites, other readers enjoy the whole box of chocolates. But have you ever stopped to think about how those tropes might play out differently in a historic context when your romantic couple involves two women?
I’ve been wanting to do a series of shows that ask that question. The podcast won’t be all-tropes-all-the-time for the duration, but expect that maybe half the shows will focus on this topic for the foreseeable future. Originally, I wanted to bring guests on to talk about their favorite tropes and how they apply to sapphic historical romance, but honestly, I’m really really bad about the process of hunting up guests for the show. So I decided I’d just charge ahead. If there’s some trope you’d love to dissect and explore in this context, I’d love for you to reach out to me, and there are a couple topics that people have expressed interest in that I may bring in as guests.
What Is a Trope?
But first off, what is a trope, anyway? The word comes from the Greek “tropos” meaning “a turning, a change”. The literary sense comes by way of classical rhetoric, where tropes referred to types of figurative speech used to explore and communicate ideas – things like metaphor and analogy. But in literary analysis, it has come to refer to a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, like the knight in shining armor; it could be a situation, like the moment when the detective reveals the murderer; it could be a mini-script, like “experienced mentor trains novice to be an expert.”
In the context of romance novels—and we’re looking more specifically at historic romance novels here—popular tropes can be any of these types. Especially popular as “named” tropes are ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
To brainstorm for this series, I went online and searched out popular historic romance tropes and came up with a list of about 50 topics to draw from, though I’ll be focusing primarily on tropes where the gender of the romantic couple changes the social understanding of how the trope works. In some cases, the trope dynamic is shifted due to the same-sex nature of the couple, and we might find parallels in how male couples and female couples both differ from mixed-gender couples. For example, all the tropes relating to marriage—marriage of convenience, fake marriage, political marriage—have similar considerations when considering pre-21st century same-sex romances. But in other cases, gender itself is a significant factor in how the trope applies differently. For example, if you’re writing a trope involving titled aristocracy, you need to pay attention to gendered rules about who can and can’t inherit titles in the specific setting you’re using. While my historic research focuses on female couples, I’ll try to include discussion of how the tropes play out for male same-sex couples if it seems relevant.
As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. But if you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, there’s even more need to challenge the assumptions and conclusions embedded in popular tropes.
Only One Bed
I thought it would be fun to start this series with a deep dive into the trope “only one bed.” Let’s take a look at the social context and assumptions that make this situation noteworthy in male-female romances.
A major context is the dual role in western culture of the bed as a location for both sleep and sex. This is a fairly universal connection across time. Accompanying this is the cultural assumption that when a man and woman are in the same bed, the potential for sexual activity is so overwhelming that one can assume it will happen or has happened. One can trace this assumption in accusations of illicit sex that rest entirely on sharing a bed, and in moral treatises that frown on unmarried men and women sharing a bed even when poverty or crowded conditions result in a distinct lack of privacy. (Cultural concepts of privacy around sex are also worth exploring.)
The expectation that mixed-gender bed-sharing equals sex is a special case of the long-standing western cultural assumptions that male-female interactions always inherently have sexual potential, and that when a man and woman are alone without the presence of a reliable chaperone, one is allowed to assume that sex has occurred. These attitudes contribute to the periodic emphasis on separate social spheres for women and men, or the belief that platonic friendship is impossible between women and men. These assumptions have nuances and variations depending on the exact culture, era, and the social class of the people involved, but they underlie a long tradition of cultural rules and expectations.
The set-up for the One Bed trope, therefore, is that a man and woman who do not have an existing licit sexual relationship find themselves in circumstances where they both need to sleep and there is only one bed available. Because this is a romance novel, there may well be a certain amount of pre-existing Unresolved Sexual Tension. The sexual potential of the situation will create anxiety and hyper-awareness regardless of whether they find a means to avoid sleeping in the same bed, or whether they agree to share the bed but intend to refrain from sexual contact. Sometimes proximity overcomes these precautions, resulting in a shifting of gears in the relationship. Sometimes it leads to an acknowledgment of mutual desire while still postponing consummation. In other cases, the rest of society assumes that sex has occurred (even if it hasn’t) and this forces certain resulting actions by the couple. In all cases, it’s a turning point in the plot.
Two Women, One Bed
Now let’s re-examine the historic cultural assumptions when it’s two women in bed together. Is there a cultural assumption that all female-female interactions have sexual potential? That would be a “no.” Is there a cultural assumption that putting the two women in the same bed changes this answer to “yes”? Generally, no, there isn’t. Although we’ll get into some of the ambiguities and edge cases in a little bit. So if two women who do not have an existing sexual relationship find themselves in need of sleep and with only one bed available, are they going to be anxious about the sexual possibilities, or about the assumptions people will make about them the following day? Highly unlikely. You could write this scenario and have them go their separate ways the next morning without any meaningful change in their relationship or circumstances.
OK, so no “only one bed” trope for female couples, case closed, moving on…
Uh, not so fast!
Let’s back up a bit and talk about three topics. Firstly, what was the range of cultural attitudes toward women sharing a bed? What were the contexts in which it might routinely happen? What meanings were attached to it?
Secondly, were there contexts where people did make sexual assumptions if two women shared a bed—or at least, did they allow for sexual possibilities?
Thirdly, how can bed-sharing be re-fashioned into a different type of trope when female couples are involved? One with a different framework, different anxieties, and different opportunities?
Even in the present day, cultural attitudes toward bed-sharing can vary widely, and they varied even more widely in the past. Ideas about privacy, whether in the bed itself or in the room where the bed is located, have been similarly variable. Expectations depended not only on the time and place, but very much on class or income, and on individual circumstances. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive survey across the scope of history, but rather anecdotal examples from various sources.
The question of whether you have a specific room designated as a sleeping room has always depended mostly on class and wealth. A poor family might live in a single room where all activities took place, including cooking, working, sleeping, and everything else. But with sufficient income and space, there was usually a priority on having a separate room designated as a bedroom. In households that included servants or other dependents, those of lower status might sleep in dormitory-like arrangements, sometimes in a room that was used for other purposes during the day. As early as classical Rome up through the 17th century or so, someone’s personal servants (of the same gender) might sleep in their bedroom or in an adjoining chamber, to be available at a moment’s notice—or, in the case of female servants, to provide some level of security against unauthorized or unwanted sexual encounters.
A trusted servant might even sleep in the same bed as her mistress, especially if she fell on the fuzzy line between servant and waiting woman or companion. In 16th and 17th century English records, we find it would be expected to share your bed with someone—a sibling, an unrelated dependent, a close friend, a visiting guest, or if you were traveling, perhaps even a random stranger. And this was probably the case in the medieval era as well.
But getting back to logistics, by the 18th century, it was becoming more common for servants to sleep in an entirely different part of the house. Another feature that changed ideas of privacy relating to the bedroom was a shift to the use of hallways to access rooms individually, rather than having each room simply open off the neighboring rooms. This feature began being included in house design in the 18th century but many buildings retained the older layout.
There’s another entire discussion to be had about what level of personal privacy people expected when engaging in sex, whether socially licensed or not. When we’re considering historic romance novels, we suspect that reader expectations will also be important!
The bedroom (and by extension the bed) both was and was not a “private” space. Servants and other inhabitants of the house might pass through, if that were the only means to get somewhere. But at the same time, the bedroom, when contrasted with the hall or the parlor (depending on era) was a place where one might expect solitude, or the company only of invited friends. It was a place where one expected to have some control over access, and might include a side-chamber referred to as a “closet” (not in the clothes-storage sense) that could be locked. The French salons of the 17th century and later were typically held in the hostess’s bed chamber, marking the close and intimate nature of the gathering, but also the public aspect of the space.
There was another aspect to privacy in bed, though privacy itself wasn’t the driving motivation. In the drafty environment of pre-modern houses, those lovely curtained four-poster beds served a very useful purpose of providing some insulation while sleeping. The curtains, of course, could also provide a certain amount of privacy from people moving through the room or the inhabitants of other beds in the same room. (Medieval records often list multiple beds located in the same chamber and it was common in many eras to have a movable truckle-bed for a servant as well as the main bed.) Another bed design that could afford privacy as well as insulation was the box bed – in essence a very large cupboard built into the side of the room with a bed inside. These can be found throughout Europe from the later medieval period to as late as the 19th century, and featured in some early North American house styles as well. The box bed was largely associated with rural houses, rather than homes of the well-to-do. And curtained beds were also correlated with wealth and status, both in their presence and in the richness of their appearance.
So, enough about the physical infrastructure, let’s get back to the question of who you might be sharing your bed with and why.
You might share your bed because you were poor and there were too many people packed into too small a space. This, alas, does not allow for the sort of privacy one might hope for in a romance novel. Groups of siblings, students, servants, or residents in charitable institutions might be expected to share beds as a general practice in a dormitory-like environment. Medieval inns typically lumped unrelated travelers together in the same room, and even the same bed, and this continued on in the early modern period for those who couldn’t afford to claim a private room when traveling.
But apart from necessity, sharing a bed was a sign of friendship, intimacy, and trust. In the early modern period, when you referred to someone as your “bed-fellow” it wasn’t a sly way of saying “sexual partner” but a marker of that close degree of trust and friendship. Bed was a place for private conversation and sharing secrets, for deepening or renewing personal bonds. The simple act of sharing a bed was a sign of affection, and it was a place where physical displays of affection were welcomed. This was, of course, true of the marriage bed as well. But outside of that situation, none of this is necessarily meant as a euphemism for erotic activity. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s look at some anecdotal examples.
In Spenser’s 16th century heroic poem The Faerie Queen, the woman warrior Britomart and the maiden Amoret, whom she has just rescued, share a bed while traveling where they share the stories of their past adventures and commiserate with each other.
Among the English aristocracy of a similar era, the social politics of whom among one’s ladies in waiting and relations one slept beside was deeply entangled in the creation and strengthening of political alliances. In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier, “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged. These are not secret diary entries detailing sexual liaisons, but letters to relatives and friends discussing the social politics of the household openly.
Among the “lady’s companions” of 18th century England, we find some references to sharing a bed, such as Elizabeth Steele, companion of professional courtesan Sophia Baddeley. (The two may also have been lovers, but the point is that the two relationships were not automatically assumed to coincide.) But the question of whether a companion might also be a bed-fellow probably depended on the specific relationship between the two women and the financial logistics.
In 18th and 19th century rural America, women’s same-sex friendships might be disrupted by marriage or other family commitments, with the women reconnecting through extended visits when it was typically expected for them to share a bed. There they would discuss their experiences while apart, share concerns and hopes, and express their affection with kisses and embraces. One woman, writing to her friend in the 1830s about an upcoming visit, promises, “I would turn your good husband out of bed and snuggle into you and we would have a long talk like old times in Pine St.” There was little self-consciousness and no expectation of guilt or secrecy. There was no social assumption that these arrangements involved what the participants would consider sexual activity. Which isn’t to say that it didn’t happen, only that it wasn’t part of the assumed script.
So we have extensive evidence throughout western history that there was no automatic assumption of sexual activity if two women spent the night in the same bed. This situation held well into the beginning of the 20th century until Freudian suspicions took hold.
We might pause for a moment to compare the situation for men. Many of the same social dynamics held for men sharing a bed the same as women. It could be ordinary necessity, or a sign of close friendship, depending on the specific social context. But there was generally a higher level of awareness of the potential for sexual encounters between men who shared a bed. It was more often a subject of ribald humor, or a potential accusation against one’s enemies. And with the shift in gendered stereotypes of erotic desire around the 19th century, men came in for greater scrutiny when expressing physical affection, not only because the social stigma against male homosexuality was greater than that against female homosexuality, but because the prevailing definitions of sexual activity were focused around the presence of a penis in the act. So while the social assumptions and anxieties about two men in bed were different from those for a mixed-gender couple, there could also be distinct differences from attitudes towards women sharing a bed.
But does that mean that people assumed nothing ever happened between two women in that bed? Or that nobody ever worried that it might? Well, no, not exactly.
Religious institutions seem to have been the most consistently anxious about the consequences of same-sex bed-sharing. Concerns about same-sex relations in convents date back at least to the time of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. Those concerns covered even trivial actions like hand-holding and terms of endearment, showing that some of the anxiety was for the formation of “particular friendships”, not specifically the possibility of sex. Nuns were not supposed to have emotional attachments to anyone but God—even though the records show that this expectation was regularly violated. But co-sleeping was a special concern in convents, and most religious regulations specified that two women should not have private sleeping arrangements together. This might involve single-person cells or communal dormitories.
In the secular world, around the 16th century, we begin to see anecdotes that connect bed-sharing by women with sexual relationships. Brantôme, in his salacious descriptions of lesbian sex at the late 16th century French court describes how “two very fair and honourable damsels of a noble house, cousins of one another, which having been used to lie together in one bed for the space of three years” ended up as a result becoming sexual partners.
During the sodomy trial of Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma in early 17th century Spain, we learn that the two women had been quite open about a long-term co-habitation—“eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed.” And that might not have triggered anyone’s suspicions if it hadn’t been for a maid overhearing them in the bedroom making suspicious noises and sharing love talk and sexual commentary.
English dramas of the 17th century were rife with sexual humor and innuendo, and we find repeated sly references to the sexual possibilities of women sharing a bed in works like Jasper Mayne’s The Amorous Warre and Henry Burnell’s Landgartha.
The early 19th century slander lawsuit of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie provides a bit of convoluted backwards evidence for a recognition of the erotic possibilities of bed-sharing. Woods and Pirie, who ran a girls boarding school, had been accused of having a sexual relationship by one of the students, with one part of the accusation resting on the fact that they regularly shared a bed. The judges in the case were faced with a dilemma. The woman Woods and Pirie accused of slander was a powerful member of the aristocracy and it would be awkward to bring in a guilty verdict. But if the judgment concluded that the accusations about sexual misconduct were true, it would rattle the official position that proper British women Didn’t Do That Sort of Thing. In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed, and which they did not deny—must be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. If, they protested, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered sexually suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?
A similar struggle to avoid the public legal acknowledgement that two women sharing a bed might be “up to something” occurred in the Victorian-era Codrington divorce trial, when Admiral Codrington alleged that the conflict in his marriage (which eventually led to his wife Helen’s adultery) had started with Helen’s close friendship with feminist activist Emily Faithful, including a preference for sharing a bed with Emily rather than her husband. The evidence in the trial gave this something of a wink-wink spin, but the suspicion of sexual activity between the two women was never stated explicitly in the trial evidence.
So, while pre-20th century western culture did not make a knee-jerk assumption that two women in bed together automatically meant hanky-panky was going on, there were still rumblings of unease on occasion. Sex might not be probable, it might be officially excluded as a possibility, but it was imaginable.
And this sets aside the question of what these cultures defined as “sexual activity,” given that cuddling, kissing, and affectionate language were within the range of unexceptionable activity. We’ll come back to this point in a bit.
While society in general might prefer to disbelieve, there are any number of solid examples of female friends sharing a bed openly, without question by other members of the household, where we also know that they were engaging in a sexual relationship. Ann Lister’s diaries from the early 19th century are full of visits to and from other women where it was expected that the visitor would share their hostess’s bed openly, and Lister records the sexual activity that followed.
19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman’s first serious love was Rosalie Sully, the daughter of a family friend. Cushman’s later diary entries indicate an intense emotional and physical relationship, and based on Cushman’s later life we can conclude it was sexual. Cushman’s diary notes the occasions on which they “slept together” with delight, though this was probably not meant as a euphemism for sex specifically. Through it all, Rosalie’s family was entirely supportive of her relationship with Cushman.
The family of a Russian woman, described in a late 19th century case study, similarly supported a close female friendship that included sharing a bed during visits, being unaware that the two were continuing a sexual relationship they had begun at boarding school together.
All of this brings us to the point of re-imagining the “only one bed” trope in the context of lesbian historical romance.
Re-making the Trope
What are the parts of the trope that don’t apply? Most importantly, there will be no social taboo on two women sharing a bed that would make them hesitant or anxious based on sexual expectations. There may be other reasons why your female characters might be hesitant or apologetic about needing to share a bed, depending on the specific cultural context, but we don’t assume it will be a sexual anxiety. Maybe one woman worries that she’ll be seen as a poor hostess if she can’t provide her guest with her own bedroom. Maybe one or both feel that they aren’t close enough friends yet to make sharing a bed a natural event. Perhaps they’re of sufficiently different social classes that they wouldn’t be sharing a bed as friends and we aren’t in an era when one slept in the same bed with a servant. Maybe the sleeping arrangements of multiple people have been rearranged and there’s the potential for social jealousy over the choice of bed-fellow.
Of course, if one or both of the characters is already aware of feeling erotic desire for the other, they might consider the prospect overly tempting and be nervous about that, but it’s a different dynamic than it would be with a mixed-gender pair.
Two women also don’t need to worry about their reputations being ruined if people know they slept in the same bed. There will be no need to keep it a secret, and no reason to reorganize their lives as a result of it. No public shame, no private guilt, no shotgun marriage. In short, the two primary reasons for a one-bed trope that apply to mixed-gender couples—negotiation around a taboo, and being forced into marriage for the sake of honor—do not apply.
Of course, if your characters need to share a bed and one thing leads to another and they do initiate an erotic relationship as a result, that can serve as the same sort of turning point in the romance that it would for a mixed-gender couple, but the stakes are lower and the potential for social trauma is less.
Now let’s look at the positive side.
Historic attitudes toward bed-sharing by women mean that Only One Bed is an excellent context for getting your characters to take the next step in their physical relationship. There they are, in close proximity, with a social expectation that bed is a place for sharing secrets, deepening personal connections, and drawing closer. There is no taboo—and perhaps even a positive expectation—regarding physical contact. A touch, a goodnight kiss, a casual accidental juxtaposition of bodies, these are not fraught with anxiety or expectation. Almost certainly, one or both of the women has shared beds previously with women that they were close to but not romantically interested in, and there will be a range of behavior that will seem natural to them and not weighted with meaning. Until the moment when it is.
So if you want to create a context where your characters can find themselves making out without having planned to, Only One Bed offers a wealth of possibilities. And if you want to toss in a bit of angst, they can worry about whether the other person is on the same page about what’s happening, whether they classify the activities they’re engaging in the same way, how they both understand the experience to change the nature of their relationship—or not.
What if we do want to add a bit of sexual anxiety into the mix as they discuss sleeping arrangements? Does one of your characters have a reputation (warranted or not) as a lover of women? How does the other character feel about that? What does she expect might happen? Is she worried what other people might think?
Is one of the characters sexually experienced with women and finding herself overthinking the whole situation? What happens if she finds herself the target of displays of affection and isn’t sure how her bed-fellow intends them? How do you begin that discussion? What are the concepts and language they have available to talk about it?
Let’s suppose something does happen. How far can it go before your characters need to recognize that this is more than the sort of affection that any two women might exchange in bed?
When the night is over, have they changed how they feel about each other? Typical social expectations would be that women who share a bed will become closer as a result. Do their feelings match what the people around them expect them to feel? If other people don’t see anything odd or unusual about them having shared a bed, do they take the same attitude or are they unexpectedly bashful or nervous about it?
The answers to these questions will depend on the details of the social context, as well as the personal histories and personalities of your characters. But the key take-away is that the One Bed trope should have significantly different dynamics in your sapphic romance than it would for a mixed-gender couple. And you can use those dynamics to your advantage.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online