(Originally aired 2022/09/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2022.
Last month kicked my ass and I’m sitting here composing the September On the Shelf script with a brain that’s gasping for air a bit. Mostly day-job stuff – the sort that means you get a phone call from your boss at 7pm Friday evening asking you to log on again so you can participate in a live report-editing session with the Directors and VPs, and the session goes to midnight, and at the end of it the conclusion is that the report has to be re-written from scratch before Monday. It’s been a bit like that all month and has left me wrung out and not up to much else except trying to recover from each day before the next.
Underneath all that, has been preparations for attending the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention – Worldcon, for short – in Chicago, which is where I am at the time this podcast is going live. I have a fabulous schedule, with panel discussions and volunteer time and business meetings and book signings and seeing all manner of friends in person whom I mostly only see at Worldcons. And missing the ones who aren’t able to make it or still don’t feel safe traveling or mingling in crowds.
Even though I’m recording this in advance, I feel confident telling you that I’m having a wonderful time. One of the items I’m involved in is as one of the co-hosts for a LGBTQIA+ “Elders meetup” social gathering. When I saw that on the schedule as I was picking programming items I was interested in, I had a brief moment of thinking, “Wait, am I an ‘elder’?” But however much I sometimes question whether I feel part of a community, I’ve been doing this SFF fandom thing as an out queer woman for over 40 years now, so I guess that really does make me a queer elder.
I’m participating in several panel discussions that are very near and dear to my heart, and quite relevant to this podcast. One is “Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays,” where we’ll talk about using alternate history to challenge the dominant historical narratives and to center those who are often marginalized in the study of traditional history. Every single work of queer historical fiction is doing this work, alongside fictions that tackle the contexts of race, colonialism, disability, and other topics.
I’m moderating a panel discussion on gendered magic in historic fantasy (though we may broaden the scope of literature we discuss), which ties in very nicely to how gender and gendered characteristics have been perceived and policed across the ages. I’m involved in a couple panel discussions on podcasting in general: how to get started, and what it’s all about, plus a few other assorted items. If, by some chance, you too happen to be at Worldcon in Chicago, I’d love for you to find me and say hi.
On a more routine topic, this is your monthly reminder that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is doing a short fiction series again in 2023, so it’s time for you to be brainstorming story ideas and telling all your friends to do the same. A link to the Call for Submissions is in the show notes or on the website.
Publications on the Blog
During August and continuing on into September, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been looking at articles from the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. As usual, for collections about singlehood, there’s a wide variation in how relevant the articles are in application to imagining queer lives. But they also show the variation in attitudes and practices in the classical and early Christian eras. The detailed demographic data on pre-Christian Egypt is especially full of anecdotes that get my imagination spinning, particularly in contrast to some of the more rigid attitudes and practices in Rome proper.
This collection will see us through September, but after that I’m planning on doing an intersection of the blog and podcast around a particular primary source that I’ve been working on. I’ll save the details until I’m certain it’s on the schedule, but it’s a historic incident that interrogates the overlap between gender and sexuality in interesting ways—one that I’ve mentioned previously in several podcasts, but where I’ve only recently gotten my hands on the full original text to work with.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
With everything that’s been going on, it’s no surprise that I haven’t had time to shop for non-fiction for the blog, but we have a bumper crop of new fiction to talk about. I don’t usually reach back several months for the new book listings. If I missed something too much earlier, I just add it to the database and move on. But this June book looked too interesting not to include.
Mackenzy O'Rorke P.I.: In the Case of the Dangerous Dames self-published by Dee D. Matthews looks like a good old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. The cover copy is somewhat generic, but the book’s metadata indicates that we’re dealing with a lesbian PI.
1942, in the city of angels. Mackenzy O’Rorke was a one-of-a-kind P.I. For starters, she was a dame doing a man’s job and doing it with style. To be a successful sleuth, you had to be smarter than the average cop and 10 times that of the criminals. Mack, as her friends called her, was that and more. Her latest case was supposed to be a simple missing person but turned out to be bigger than a movie plot and more dangerous than the war the boys were fighting overseas. The clock is ticking, and lives are on the line. It’s up to Mack to keep three dames alive until they can sing to Uncles Sam.
There are three August books I haven’t covered previously. I’ve been trying to do a bit of sleuthing on the first one. The Lioness Queen by Elly Greys appears to be the same as the French book La Reine Lionne published in 2021 by Alexia Damyl. I’m a bit confused by the difference in author names, since both names have a presence on Amazon and Goodreads, but without any clear linkage for the couple of titles that appear to be different language editions of the same book. I tried reaching out to Alexia on Instagram to clarify that both names are her but haven’t heard back. I’m probably worrying too much, but you sometimes hear about scammers lifting entire books by someone else and republishing them under a new name, and I’d hate to discover that I accidentally supported something like that. The book has a rather unusual setting: Pharaonic Egypt.
Amanishaketo is the niece of the Nubian king Teriteqas. Disliked by her mother and denied by her brother, she ends up reconnecting with happiness in the arms of an exceptional woman. Cheeky and rebellious, she will have to fight to save the woman she loves and her entire country. Under the watchful eye of the god Amon-Re, will she succeed in going through all the trials that fate has decided to impose on her?
Another less common setting, with a touch of the supernatural, appears in Temis and Lofn by Mary Eicher from NineStar Press.
In eighth-century Ireland, the daughter of a nobleman is torn between two futures. Temis must either abide by her father’s plan to thwart a looming Viking onslaught or follow her heart and find the one to whom she believes she is eternally bound. Word of ever-closer Viking raids heightens the alarm of the villagers, and her father is forced to set aside Temis’s romantic notions to protect the village. Furious at the betrayal, Temis abandons the village to its coming battle and sets off to see where her heart might lead her. When the raiders attack, Temis rushes home, only to discover the village destroyed. Receiving a final message from her captured father, she sets aside her heart’s quest in favor of rescue and revenge for the destruction the Vikings have wrought. But the cruel invaders have brought something more than death. Within their number is the very person Temis has sought, the other half of a twin flame that has burned for millenia. It is left to a prescient Viking gothi to intervene and help determine if a timeless love can rise above violence and revenge.
I’m not sure how I missed advance knowledge about the release of the anthology Queer Weird West Tales edited by Julie Bozza from Libratiger, given that I know several of the contributing authors personally. While I don’t know exactly what the representation is in the individual stories, I feel confident asserting that we’ll see a good variety of characters in fascinating stories. Here’s the brief cover copy.
Frontiers have always attracted the Other - where they find that the Other is always already there. These 22 stories explore what happens when queer characters encounter weirdness on the edge of the worlds they know.
I found six September releases, starting off with another early medieval setting in Sigrid and Elyn: A Tale of Norvegr (Tales of Norvegr #1) by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.
Attracted by passion, repelled by war. Can two shieldmaidens navigate battlegrounds of the sword and their hearts? Pre-Viking Scandinavia. Sigrid the Valiant is legendary throughout the kingdoms of Norvegr, along with her twin brother, for their many heroic deeds, but her heart has not found a home. Now, racing on the heels of their father’s murder, a neighboring kingdom’s raids threaten to cause an all-out war. Elyn is a young shieldmaiden with a score to settle, fighting her own insecurities along with enemies who threaten her homeland, but she remains unconvinced all is as it seems. When the two clash on opposite sides of their shield walls in combat, sparks fly from both their swords and passions. Unable to forget each other, they meet a second time, and become trapped in a cave. With nothing to do but talk, the two fierce women begin to unravel a plot that has pitted their kingdoms against each other. Will Sigrid and Elyn get past their suspicions and differences to forge a relationship and uncover the villain’s scheme, or will the antagonist’s assassins end their search for the truth?
We seem to be experiencing a profusion, not simply of sapphic Regency romances, but of Regency series. The newest contribution, with the following two books in the series scheduled for the next several months is: Her Morning Star (Ladylike Inclinations #1) self-published by Violet Cowper.
England, 1807. Miss Melanie Bright longs to escape the shadow of disgrace. Still haunted by her parent’s mistakes, the shunned debutante seizes on a hopeful chance by sharing a roof with a well-respected noblewoman. But when her patron proves to be a beautifully reckless daredevil, she’s quickly seduced by the breathtaking promise of foreign escapades. Lady Evelyn Prynne hides deep wounds behind her madcap reputation. Determined to track down and expose a French spy, she refuses to let her gorgeous guest become a distraction. Yet as they face perilous gaming halls, Lebanese deserts, and gunfire side by side, she’s intrigued by the backbone of steel beneath her delightful new companion’s dainty exterior. Wondering if the ton’s favor is still her coveted goal, Melanie questions why she’s so desperate to please her tough benefactress. And even as Lady Evelyn revels in having found a confidante who can finally keep pace with her fiery nature, she continues to plunge them into darker dangers. Will they dare the wrath of convention and bring home the life-changing prize of love?
I often grouse about how plot summaries of books can be so cagey about queer content, so it can be a relief to see the cover copy casually refer to a character as “her girlfriend,” as we see in A Funeral for a Stranger by Eve Morton from Wax Lioness.
Harriet Mortimer knows the man is going to die long before her family agrees to let him accompany them on their wagon journey out of Independence, Missouri and towards California. Isaac is a tall, young, and forthright man--yet a miasma of illness follows him and marks him as one of the many Dead Harriet sees before they truly pass. She and her best friend (and girlfriend) Patrice take a liking to the young man, and become determined to see that he leaves the world a better man, and with the solace of their presence, at his side when the time comes to pass.
The Trunk by C.M. Castillo from Glass Spider Publishing uses two of the tropes that I categorize under cross-time stories. The “romance of the archives” where a contemporary character learns about a queer woman of the past by researching some artifact connected with her, and the “mystical connection across time” trope, where the two characters experience a supernatural encounter despite the separating years.
Simone Adan is living a lie. Engaged to a man she doesn't love and disillusioned with the hand that fate has dealt her, she knows she was meant for something more. Then, one day, everything changes when she stumbles into a magical antique shop and comes across an old steamer trunk. Adorned with faded stickers of its past travels-Madrid, Africa, Italy, Morocco-the trunk's timeless beauty is matched only by the mystery of its origins. When Simone buys the trunk and has it shipped to her home in Chicago, she has no way of knowing the extraordinary chain of events she has set into play. Meanwhile, one hundred years ago in 1923 New York, Vivian Oliver is on a similar journey. A brilliant anthropologist, college professor, and frequent party girl, Vivian decides she wants more out of life than champagne socials and one-night stands with beautiful women. Accepting a position on an archaeological dig in Kenya, she is determined to build a new future for herself. But on the way to Africa, Vivian's cherished steamer trunk disappears-taking with it her clothing, her dig tools, and her private journals-only to resurface a century later in a faraway place. Through a series of inexplicable dreams, and drawn together by the enigmatic trunk, Simone and Vivian meet. Each is trapped in their own timeline-Simone in 2023, and Vivian in 1923-but despite the hundred-year barrier between them, they forge a bond strong enough to bridge the gap across time and space . . . changing their destinies forever.
The Reads Rainbow website says that Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland from Balzer + Bray has a sapphic main character, so I’ll trust them, though the cover copy gives no hint in that direction. But Justina Ireland has featured queer characters in the past, so there’s no reason to doubt.
It is 1937, and Laura Ann Langston lives in an America divided—between those who work the mystical arts and those who do not. Ever since the Great Rust, a catastrophic event that blighted the arcane force called the Dynamism and threw America into disarray, the country has been rebuilding for a better future. And everyone knows the future is industry and technology—otherwise known as Mechomancy—not the traditional mystical arts. Laura disagrees. A talented young mage from Pennsylvania, Laura hopped a portal to New York City on her seventeenth birthday with hopes of earning her mage’s license and becoming something more than a rootworker. But six months later, she’s got little to show for it other than an empty pocket and broken dreams. With nowhere else to turn, Laura applies for a job with the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the US government dedicated to repairing the Dynamism so that Mechomancy can thrive. There she meets the Skylark, a powerful mage with a mysterious past, who reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice. As they’re sent off on their first mission together into the heart of the country’s oldest and most mysterious Blight, they discover the work of mages not encountered since the darkest period in America’s past, when Black mages were killed for their power—work that could threaten Laura’s and the Skylark’s lives, and everything they’ve worked for.
Groups of women working in non-traditional jobs during the 20th century World Wars is a popular setting for sapphic historic fiction, with WWI ambulance drivers and WWII munitions workers or codebreakers being popular favorites. The Killing Code by Ellie Marney from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers takes on the last setting.
Virginia, 1943: World War II is raging in Europe and on the Pacific front when Kit Sutherland is recruited to help the war effort as a codebreaker at Arlington Hall, a former girls’ college now serving as the site of a secret US Signal Intelligence facility. But Kit is soon involved in another kind of fight: government girls are being brutally murdered in Washington DC, and when Kit stumbles onto a bloody homicide scene, she is drawn into the hunt for the killer. To find the man responsible for the gruesome murders and bring him to justice, Kit joins forces with other female codebreakers at Arlington Hall—gossip queen Dottie Crockford, sharp-tongued intelligence maven Moya Kershaw, and cleverly resourceful Violet DuLac from the segregated codebreaking unit. But as the girls begin to work together and develop friendships—and romance—that they never expected, two things begin to come clear: the murderer they’re hunting is closing in on them…and Kit is hiding a dangerous secret.
What Am I Reading?
Once more, most of my own book consumption has been audiobooks. The amount of intense screen time involved in my day-job makes on-the-page reading feel exhausting, and I’ve been making very slow progress through a couple of ebooks or hard copies. But in audio I enjoyed the third volume in Olivia Waite’s Regency-era Feminine Pursuits series: The Hellion’s Waltz, with a complex heist-type plot involving textile workers and a musician searching for her lost self-confidence who also finds love. One of the highlights of this book is that both romantic protagonists not only have prior romantic experience with women, but also have supportive and accepting home lives in a way that feels true to the times.
I also enjoyed listening to the newly-released audiobook of my own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, which came out in early August. It’s fascinating to hear your own work being produced in a new medium and I hope this one does well enough that they go on to produce the whole series.
The two other items I consumed recently that I want to talk about are connected thematically in an interesting way. A couple of times I’ve talked about the importance, not only of seeing media that explicitly includes and centers queer lives, but of having a wide variety of media that depict stories in which queer people could exist, or in which they clearly exist even when not centered. The two items I want to talk about are the recent Netflix historic mini-series The Essex Serpent, based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry (though I’ll be talking about the tv show), and a rather fluffy British-set novel titled Miss Buncle’s Book, written in the 1930s by Scottish author Dorothy Emily Stevenson, writing as D.E. Stevenson.
It is, perhaps, less surprising that a fairly recently-written historic Gothic romance, set in Victorian times, makes clear nods to the homoerotic undercurrents in Victorian society. In The Essex Serpent, everybody loves recent widow Cora Seaborne, whose interest in paleontology gets her tangled up in the concerns of an Essex village where mysterious disappearances and deaths are blamed on a supernatural mythical sea serpent. Her surgeon friend who is looking for opportunities to practice Victorian-era heart surgery loves her, the village pastor whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and trying to set him up with Cora loves her, and her beloved friend and companion Martha, whose passion is social activism, loves her. But things get complicated because Martha also has a fling with the surgeon, and the surgeon ends up living with his very, very close male friend in what likely would be called a romantic friendship if they were women. The eroticized – though never overtly sexual – relationship between the two women is depicted in how they casually share a bed, and in the physical affection they share. Martha struggles with jealousy over Cora’s attraction to the two men, and over the recognition that society might grudgingly accept Cora’s disinterest in remarriage due to the unhappy nature of her previous one, but that society would not consider Cora and Martha’s relationship to be anything more than employer and employee, or at best friendship.
But within the context of this fictional depiction, other characters within their social circle do recognize that Martha has a place and a claim in Cora’s life, as illustrated by a scene where one of the men turns to Martha and says, in recognition, “You’re in love with her,” and Martha responds, “Aren’t we all?”
The story was never going to end with Cora and Martha as a couple, but it recognizes that they have an emotional bond that is as real as the various heterosexual connections in the story, and as Martha turns more and more to her social justice work, there is space to imagine her finding a new girlfriend there.
In some ways, the queer representation in D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is even more delightful, as it was written within the same era as the setting, and so cannot be accused of anachronism. I’m going to dive into this story in extensive detail because I think it tells us some useful and unexpected things about historic accuracy in fiction.
I became aware of this book (and the motif of interest) through a review by author and very prolific reader K.J. Charles. Written, set, and published in the 1930s, the story tells of Miss Buncle, a spinster living in the sort of small English village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, who tackles an unexpected decline in her income by writing a pseudonymous roman a clef about the people around her, but with a lightly supernatural twist in which a mysterious figure wanders through the village inspiring people to break out of their ruts and make drastic changes in their lives for the better. The story involves the reactions of her neighbors to recognizing themselves in the unexpected best-seller, their attempts to identify the mysterious author, and how the changes depicted in the book come into being, though not always as they did in the novel.
Among the many stock “types” in Miss Buncle’s village is a household composed of two unmarried women. Let’s look at several of the passages describing them.
Miss King and Miss Pretty dwelt in the High Street next door to Dr. Walker in an old house behind high stone walls. They had nine o’clock breakfast, of course, being ladies of leisure.
In this next passage, several characters are commenting on a tennis match and we get Barbara Buncle’s take on Miss King.
“It would have made a better game if they had had Dorothea Bold instead of Olivia,” said Miss King firmly.
“Oh, Miss King, how can you say such a thing?” cried Miss Isabella in horrified tones.
“Merely because it happens to be true. Dorothea is a more reliable player than Olivia,” replied Miss King firmly, and moved away.
“Horrid old thing!” said Miss Isabella to Barbara Buncle who happened to be sitting next to her. “It’s just jealousy, that’s what it is. She may dress herself up like a man, and talk and smoke like a man, but she’s nothing but a cat—that’s what she is.”
“I rather like Miss King,” said Barbara placidly, and she looked at Miss King’s tall commanding figure as it strode off across the court with some affection. Of course she was rather funny with her deep voice, and her short hair, and her strange habit of wearing tailored coats and skirts with collars and ties like a man, and very often she was to be seen with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and her hands in her pockets; but, after all, these little peculiarities did nobody any harm, and there was something rather nice about the woman. At any rate she would never say behind your back what she would not say to your face (like some people one could name). You always knew exactly where you were with her; she said what she thought without fear or favor.
As one of the other characters is reading through the novel and recognizing who the characters are meant to be, while being amused by the unexpected turns their lives take, she thinks,
In fact everyone did something queer, even Miss King and Miss Pretty (they were called Earle and Darling in the book but Sarah had got beyond troubling her head with such details) were seized with the spirit of adventure and decided to start upon an expedition to Samarkand. They each ordered a pair of riding breeches from Sharrods, and the book closed—very suitably—on that high note.
At this era, it’s plausible—though not a guarantee—that the word “queer” is meant to evoke something particular about Miss King and Miss Pretty’s relationship. Note that “everyone did something queer” is referring to a number of twists in decidedly heterosexual lives. But the potential ambiguity and evocation of same-sex relationships is there.
The village queen bee, quite unamused at how her fictional persona is treated, calls a meeting to discuss the matter (including, unknown to them all, the book’s actual author). We once again are told that Miss King’s defining attribute is her performance of gender transgression.
Miss King found her voice first. Perhaps it was the manliness of her attire that gave her confidence in her own capabilities, or perhaps it was her confident and capable nature which promoted the manliness of her attire. It does not really matter which, the important thing is that Miss King believed she was a capable sensible person and this belief was a great help to her in emergencies such as the present one.
Once Miss King actually reads the book and recognizes the characters meant to be her and Miss Pretty, she becomes anxious enough to go confront the publisher and demand retraction. Initially she describes the issue in general terms “it is causing a great deal of misery and trouble to innocent people.” The publisher (who, by the way, gradually falls in love with Miss Buncle), being accustomed to dealing with confrontations of this type, tells her she needs to be more explicit. Miss King, after some hemming and hawing, explains,
“So there we were,” she was saying, “both orphans, without anybody dependent upon us, nor any near relations. I had a house, larger than I required. Miss Pretty was homeless. We both possessed small incomes, too small to enable us to live alone in comfort. I was about to sell my house (for I could not live in it alone) when the suggestion was made that we should pool our resources and live together—what more natural? By this means we were enabled to live comfortably in my house. The companionship was pleasant, the financial problem was solved. There was a book some years ago,” continued Miss King incoherently, “it distressed us very much at the time, but it had nothing to do with us, and I decided to ignore it—this book is far worse—it’s all about us—it’s far, far worse—”
“You have misread the novel entirely,” said Mr. Abbott uncomfortably. “I assure you that you have misread it. There is nothing in it to cause you the slightest distress. The author is a particularly simple-minded—er—person.”
“But Samarkand!” exclaimed Miss King, trying to keep the sound of tears out of her voice. “Why Samarkand of all places?”
“I don’t know anything about Samarkand,” said Mr. Abbott truthfully, “but to me it has an adventurous sound, and I feel convinced that that was what it was intended to convey—”
“A dreadful Eastern place—full of vice and—and horribleness,” cried Miss King.”
She gets nowhere with the publisher, and later is commiserating with another villager who advises,
“Perhaps in time he will get tired of saying no. Come up and see him constantly—publishers love to have their mornings wasted for them—put off your visit to Samarkand for a few weeks, and sit upon Mr. Abbott’s doorstep.”
“Samarkand,” cried Miss King, goaded to frenzy. “I’m not going to Samarkand—why should I? What’s it got to do with you where I go? I shall go to Samarkand if I like—”
Now why should the reference to Samarkand – a city with deep historic roots located in modern Uzbekistan – bother Miss King so? Why should the associations of it be “vice and horribleness”? And what sort of vice and horribleness? It is located on the ancient Silk Road, and in the late 19th to early 20th centuries was caught up in the proxy wars between western powers, eventually becoming part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, which was its status at the time of this book. But one gets the sense that Miss King isn’t thinking of contemporary politics, but rather that Samarkand is standing in for the “exotic East,” a place where standards of behavior are quite un-English, and that the people who live there – or even simply visit there – are suspect in some way. One can’t help but think of the long history of how lesbian relations were projected onto Islamic societies such as the Ottoman Empire. (It’s hard not to be reminded of Anne Lister’s dramatic travels to that general part of the world that ended in her unfortunate fatal illness.) Taking a step back, it’s clear that Samarkand is standing in Miss King’s mind for sexual deviance, and that Miss Buncle’s Book, she believes, is accusing her and Miss Pretty of things she would prefer not to discuss explicitly.
But as life goes on, we learn that Miss Angela Pretty has some chronic lung problems, and her doctor raises the question with Miss Ellen King about a change of environment.
“I don’t like these continual colds,” he said. “I don’t like them, Ellen.”
These two were old friends. They had always lived next door to each other (for Dr. John’s father had been Silverstream’s doctor before Dr. John was born). Ellen and John had played together as children, and together had climbed every climbable tree in the two adjoining gardens. Dr. John had a great respect for Ellen King, and a great compassion; she was such a lonely sort of creature and ridden by a curious temperament. Her excellent brain had never been developed and turned to use. Ellen would have made a good doctor or lawyer (the stuff was there), but her father had abhorred clever women and had denied her the opportunity of a decent education.
“What do you mean, exactly?” she asked him anxiously.
“I don’t mean anything very much,” Dr. John told her. “In fact I mean exactly what I say—I don’t like these continual colds that Angela gets. Could you possibly go away?”
“Go away? You mean to Bournemouth or somewhere?”
“Bournemouth? No. I mean to Egypt. It is warm and dry there. Just for the rest of the winter, of course.”
“I suppose we could if it is necessary—I mean of course we could if it is necessary,” she amended in sudden alarm.
“I wouldn’t like to say it is necessary, but it is advisable,” he replied, choosing his words carefully.”
As Miss King and the doctor discuss this possibility, we encounter some hints of psychological stereotypes that associate same-sex relationships with personality weaknesses. The doctor dismisses these concerns, although he does so in a rather sex-stereotyped way.
“John!” she said suddenly. “Shall I let Angela go alone? I could take up some sort of work—no, don’t say anything yet—I believe I’m bad for Angela, John. I have begun to think she would be better without me. She depends upon me too much. Sometimes I think she is beginning to lose her identity altogether—”
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Dr. John furiously, taking a few strides across the floor and back again to his usual station in front of the fire. “What on earth are you talking about, Ellen? I thought you had more sense. Angela would depend upon anybody who happened to be there to depend upon. It’s her nature to—to lean—Angela is weak in body, and soul, and mind.”
“I know,” said Ellen, “I know all that, John, but I love her just the same. I love her too much. I fuss over her too much—I agonize over her—”
“Look here, we all agonize over people we love. But we mustn’t fuss—that’s the important thing. It’s difficult not to fuss, but we mustn’t do it, Ellen. I don’t think you do fuss over Angela. I think you’re very sensible with her.”
“I’ve begun to doubt it,” Ellen replied. “You don’t know how she depends upon me for everything. She can’t even decide what to wear without asking me what I think. That’s bad, isn’t it, John?”
“It’s the woman’s nature,” he said impatiently. “You’ve done such a lot for her; you’ve been wonderful to her, Ellen. Believe me it’s not your fault that she’s weak and vacillating—you’re not bad for her; it’s absurd and ridiculous to think so. As for her going to Egypt by herself, the thing’s simply unthinkable; I couldn’t countenance it for a moment. I’d rather she stayed here, infinitely rather. You must go and look after her; she needs you. For pity’s sake, don’t go and get a lot of foolish ideas into your head.”
“John, have you read that book?”
Miss King has recognized that Miss Buncle’s Book is depicting her relationship with Miss Pretty as queer (in the modern sense) and seems to be worrying that there is something unacceptable about the relationship that perhaps she, herself, hadn’t recognized. Or maybe she’s worried that everyone else will suddenly realize that they aren’t “just good friends” and it will destroy their lives. The doctor assures her, “It didn’t strike me as a satire, nor could I find anything nasty in it.” He reiterates the suggestion that Miss Pretty needs some time in a warmer climate, and Miss King concludes,
“Why don’t you send us to Samarkand while you’re about it?” she demanded, with a deep chuckle. “I believe you’re in league with [the author].”
Dr. John waved his hat at her. “Good! Splendid!” he cried. “That’s the spirit—that’s more like the good old Ellen King I know so well. Tell them all that you and Angela are off to Samarkand—and, Ellen,” he added in lower and more confidential tones, “don’t forget to order those riding breeches, will you? You’d look fine in them.”
Later on, the doctor’s wife is discussing the book with Miss Buncle (still unaware that Miss Buncle is the author) and we get the impression that perhaps Miss Buncle, while depicting King and Pretty dead-to-life is not consciously aware that their relationship is romantic.
“I can’t understand Ellen King at all; she’s usually such a sensible sort of person. I can’t see anything in the book for her to make a song and dance about—can you?”
“No, I can’t,” said Barbara. She had not intended to be hard on Miss King; she liked her. The fact was that Barbara had always been of the opinion that Miss King found Silverstream a trifle dull. There was little scope in Silverstream for Miss King’s energies and capabilities, and it had been with friendly intent that she had arranged an adventurous holiday for her in Samarkand.”
Towards the end of the book, though still before anyone knows the true authorship, Miss Buncle encounters Miss King.
“What horrid damp weather,” Barbara said, wondering what we would do without that safe topic of conversation. “And so warm and unseasonable, isn’t it? I do hope it will clear up and be nice and frosty for Christmas Day. I like Christmas Day to be frosty, don’t you?”
“It never is,” Miss King pointed out.
“I expect we shall have a cold spell later,” continued Barbara. “After all this mild wet weather we are practically bound to. Don’t you think so?”
“Well, it won’t affect me, anyway,” said Miss King blithely, “Angela and I are off to Samarkand next week.”
However we are meant to understand the self-awareness of Miss King and Miss Pretty, they are given their happy ever after. And they embrace and publicly acknowledge the depiction of their relationship in the book, as symbolized by choosing Samarkand as destination.
But much more to the point, the author D.E. Stevenson, who was born at the end of the 19th century, created a heartwarming story in the 1930s that included a female couple clearly meant to be understood as a romantic couple, living in peace and friendship with their neighbors in a small English village, who also clearly recognize them on some level as a romantic couple, but everyone just quietly accepts that and pretends they haven’t noticed. Not only do we need that type of queer representation in historic fiction, but we need to recognize that that type of queer representation is historically accurate – that stories set in the past don’t need to choose between being pure fantasy and being awful and miserable. Go ahead and write your characters pulling up stakes and moving to Samarkand with everyone being happy for them.
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