Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 23a - On the Shelf for June 2018

Saturday, June 2, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 56 (previously 23a) - On the Shelf for June 2018 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2018/06/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2018. It’s been quite a month for me what with the whole turning 60 thing, going off to Kalamazoo to get medieval, and finishing up with the BayCon science fiction convention. Oh, and I got a surprise birthday present when one of the administrators of the Gaylactic Spectrum awards tweeted me to say they’d just announced the book awards for 2016 publications at OutlantaCon, a queer science fiction convention, and my third Alpennia novel Mother of Souls was selected as Best Novel. As of the time I’m recording this, the official announcement hasn’t been posted online yet, but by the time you’re listening I assume it will be. And on top of that, my first novel, Daughter of Mystery has been the Lesbian Review Book Club book of the month. So I’ve been flying a bit high in several senses this month.

Publications on the Blog

Last month on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, the accidental theme was cross-dressing, especially in medieval Arabic contexts. Everett K. Rowson wrote about how both male and female cross-dressing at the Caliphal court of medieval Baghdad was focused around the erotic tastes of elite men and how, contrary to European traditions, female cross-dressing was not a context for women’s same-sex desire. This same theme arises in Remke Kruk’s look at a popular medieval Arabic epic adventure, involving a cross-dressing female Byzantine knight and her various love-hate interactions with a clan of Muslim warriors led by a fierce matriarch. The cross-dressing theme continues with Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey’s analysis of 13 legal records of cross-dressing women in 15th and 16th century London. Tucked in among those papers, due to appearing in the same collection as Rowson’s paper, was a look at homoerotic themes in the writings of medieval German religious women, studied by Ulrike Wiethaus.

The accidental theme for June’s blog will be primary sources. Most of the publications I cover on the blog are scholarly analyses of historic material. I’m not a trained historian myself--simply a very interested amateur. So most of the time I think people will get more value out of a professional analysis rather than the raw source material. But sometimes there are texts that appear again and again in the references and that are short enough to be manageable, and of course that are in the public domain, and it feels useful to present those in their entirety (with translation, of course, as necessary). So in June I’ll start off with an excerpt from the Chronicle of the Counts of Zimmern that gives the story of Greta von Mösskirch, the 16th century serving girl who was featured in the very first episode of this podcast. I’ll follow that with the section of Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies that deals with same-sex love. The last item in this group is an excerpt from a sourcebook on 17th century women’s lives in England that touches on sex between women and cross-dressing. But before that one, I’m doing something a bit special for publication number 200 in the blog.

Many of my listeners may not be aware of it, but one of my first and deepest historical interests is Wales--Wales as in Welsh, not whales as in sea creatures. In my decades doing historic re-enactment I focused on medieval Welsh history. My file drawer of novel ideas has half a dozen outlines for Welsh historical romances. So when I ran across Mihangel Morgan’s article on queer themes in Welsh literature from the middle ages to the 20th century, I knew I had to find a way to schedule it for publication number 200. After I’d determined that it actually had female content, that is.

It seemed natural to pair that with this month’s essay by finally talking in detail about the Ladies of Llangollen, two Anglo-Irish women of the later 18th century who eloped together, set up housekeeping in Wales, and became icons of the romantic friendship phenomenon.

Author Guest

Moving on to the rest of this month’s podcast content, our author guest will be Lise MacTague who has a steampunk novel coming out this month.


And given that June is a month with five Saturdays, of course that means we have a bonus show and will be featuring the second story in our fiction series: “Inscribed” by V.M. Agab, set in 15th century Venice. It’s hard to believe that three months have gone by since the debut of our fiction series! By the time the third story comes out in September, I’ll need to be thinking about whether I want to do another fiction series next year, so if you have opinions on that topic, be sure to make them known.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of new fiction, how about new and forthcoming books? We have four this month scheduled to be released in June, starting with Lise MacTague’s Demon in the Machine from Bella Books. The blurb reads: “At the height of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, steam power and magic join forces to create wonders the world has never seen. But those wonders have a dark side—one that will soon force a reckoning few could have anticipated. Half-demon Briar is content with her structured life as an archivist, a far cry from the chaos of her background and upbringing. Briar’s simple and predictable existence is rocked when she discovers something sinister powers one of the grand, new inventions of her era. Isabella Castel, the only daughter of Viscount Sherard, is far from the brainless socialite she pretends to be. Isabella is everything Briar is not: passionate, creative and impulsive, but with secrets to rival even Briar’s own. Two more unlikely partners should not exist, yet if the women cannot find a way to work together, they will lose far more than their reputations.

Moving backwards in time--for the setting, not the publication date, that is-- we have By the Wind’s Will by Nat Burns, published by Regal Crest. Here’s the description: “Fidelia Grace Nelson, nicknamed Foxy for her thick, red hair and wild nature, came to America in the 1700s to help populate the new settlement of Savannah, Georgia. Though disappointment reigned supreme in this new land, Foxy’s good nature as she grew buoyed everyone. Then, she fell in love with her best friend, Maggie. It was a difficult love, as a relationship between two women would not further their two families’ plans for success, but Foxy was determined to make it happen. But such a love was not to be. Foxy, brokenhearted, escapes into the wilderness of uncharted lands. This sets in motion a life of hard work, tragic love among the native Cree people and eventual prosperity. Her plantation, Trapper’s Folly, near the port of New Orleans, becomes well respected for its humanitarian ethics and excellent management. Though doing well, Foxy, middle-aged, realizes that she is lonely. To escape this, she travels back to Georgia to find everything very different than before. Will love be waiting there for her? This epic novel takes the reader to the early days of America and shares the adventures of a powerful frontier woman who summarily beats the odds and thrives despite adversity.”

Also from the 18th century, we have a fictionalized version of the two most famous female pirates. Miriam McNamara’s book The Unbinding of Mary Reade from Sky Pony Press, has this take on the matter: “There’s no place for a girl in Mary’s world. Not in the home of her mum, desperately drunk and poor. Not in the household of her wealthy granny, where no girl can be named an heir. And certainly not in the arms of Nat, her childhood love who never knew her for who she was. As a sailor aboard a Caribbean merchant ship, Mary’s livelihood—and her safety—depends on her ability to disguise her gender. At least, that’s what she thinks is true. But then pirates attack the ship, and in the midst of the gang of cutthroats, Mary spots something she never could have imagined: a girl pirate. The sight of a girl standing unafraid upon the deck, gun and sword in hand, changes everything. In a split-second decision, Mary turns her gun on her own captain, earning herself the chance to join the account and become a pirate alongside Calico Jack and Anne Bonny. For the first time, Mary has a shot at freedom. But imagining living as her true self is easier, it seems, than actually doing it. And when Mary finds herself falling for the captain’s mistress, she risks everything—her childhood love, her place among the crew, and even her life.”

Usually I stick to novels for this segment of the podcast, but I’d like to make an exception to plug a favorite. Back when Natasha Alterici’s graphic novel Heathen put out its first volume, I signed up for the online comics service Comixology simply for that one title and really enjoyed it. Now volume 2 is coming out. This series is in the realm of historic fantasy, dealing with Norse mythology. Here’s the description: “Aydis the banished viking sets sail on the open sea to reach Heimdall, the magical entrance to the land of the gods. She’ll need the help of a crew of worldly pirate women and man-eating mermaids to survive the dangerous journey. Back on land, the cursed Valkyrie Brynhild and the goddess of love Freyja are chipping away at Odin’s power, testing the god-king’s patience and tempting his wrath.”

Ask Sappho

This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Sophie Lennox on facebook. I’m going to paraphrase a bit and then expand on it. She asks, when did ‘coming out’ become a thing? I don't remember it from when I was younger. No one mentioned the word Lesbian above a whisper and being bisexual was rarely muttered. Even the word gay, was not really used, growing up in Australia.”

I’m going to expand this a bit to something I can answer for a period before the 20th century. Was there an experience equivalent to "coming out" for queer women in history? Do we have examples of women self-identifying as lesbian or expressing an orientation or identity? There are two layers to this question. One is, when did we shift from people viewing same-sex desire as an experience to viewing it as an identity. The other layer is: when people viewed same-sex desire as an identity, how would they talk about their own identities? Would they use specific labels or more descriptive phrases?

It makes a certain amount of sense to work backward through time, from clearer examples to more ambiguous ones. I can’t speak to the timeline in Australia myself, but in California when I was coming out in the 1970s, the vocabulary and practice of “coming out” was solidly established. I think at that time the phrase was more often used in the form, “coming out of the closet”, influenced by the language and imagery of gay male drag shows (though we now acknowledge that drag was often an expression of what we would now consider trangender identity). The “closet queen” was a man whose queer identity lived in his closet of drag costumes, only brought out in secret safe environments. “Coming out of the closet” was the act of making that identity publicly known and visible.

But the closet image was introduced to the phrase in the mid-century and before that, the use of “coming out” in the gay community was based on the language of debutantes and the celebration of entrance into society. The idea that naming and claiming one’s queer identity was an essential part of social and political progress originated with the writings of sympathetic sexologists in the later 19th century, who considered that the medical model of sexual orientation should remove the idea that there was shame or guilt attached to it.

Even when that identity was named and claimed, the labels might be completely unfamiliar to us. In Radclyff Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, the assertion of the main character’s sexual orientation and the validity of that orientation is a main theme, but the label she uses is “invert”, taken from medical literature, rather than from the vocabulary of popular culture.

Hall’s near-contemporary Marion “Joe” Carstairs identified herself with the word “queer”, with a meaning at least vaguely similar to the present use, and specifically noted that she did not identify as a “stomper” which seems to have meant something close to extremely butch. But her biography doesn’t give any information about whether she self-identified with anything specifically meaning “lesbian”.

I would need to do more digging to find out what terminology late 19th century poet Renée Vivien used to identify herself and her friends who openly carried out lesbian relationships in the salons of Paris, but I would be surprised if they didn’t use some sort of explicit label. Other French lesbian writers of the time identified themselves as “sapphists” in their own writing.

Going even further back, Anne Lister, in 1821, wrote: "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs." But although Lister clearly understood her same-sex desires and recognized similar desires in others, I’m not sure she ever used a specific label for herself or for others, even though such terms as “sapphist” or “tommy” were available. She would have been very unlikely to use the slang term “tommy” which was considered low-class, but even so she seems to have been resistant to the idea of any sort of public verbal acknowledgement of her orientation. She reacted negatively to others using a teasing nickname for her: “Gentleman Jack.” She usually referred to sexual orientation in descriptive terms.

In 17th century England, we can find written references to slang terms--sapphist, tommy, lesbian--but as labels used by others, not by women describing themselves. This may be simply due to an aversion to putting such a clear identity in print. And that speaks to the identification side: can one be considered “out” if one refuses to publicly claim the identity, even if it’s acknowledged in private?

As Harriette Andreadis notes in Sappho in Early Modern England, it was a feature of 17th century writing by English women with homoerotic interests that they spoke around the topic and found safety in discussing, but refusing to name, their desires. Was this purely a public strategy to avoid the risk to their reputation? Or was it a consequence of dancing around the recognition of those desires, even to themselves?

In any event, based on the reading and research I’m familiar with, we seem to have a loose boundary around the early 19th century. Before that, women might recognize their same-sex desires but seem disinclined to give themselves a clear label, even though others might be quite willing to label them against their will. The boundary for when women began recognizing same-sex desire as an identity rather than as a set of practices comes earlier but is hard to define. But since we defined the question of “coming out” as self-labeling, I think we can leave that earlier stage undefined.

Show Notes

Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: