Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 152 (previously 45a) - On the Shelf for April 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/04/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2020.
Wow, how are you folks holding up? I’ve been trying to speculate on how 2020 will be remembered in the history books and so far I’ve come up with “the year that was cancelled.” There have been some good historian jokes floating around on Twitter. Like the one where several historians in the future are talking about their specialties and one says, “I study the Renaissance,” another says, “I study World War I,” and the last says, “I study March 2020.” The first historian asks, “Wow, the whole thing or one particular week?”
The measurement of historic times is never static. When you’re living through it, it can be like time is standing still. This is only an instant and yet we’ve been doing this forever. When the event is past, it will seem at first to be a single comprehensible unit. But beneath that illusion is the impossibly complex reality of the failures and successes and the inexorable forces for which failure and success have no meaning.
History is always that complex. And it has different meanings depending on the point of view of the historian and what parts of the topic they consider most meaningful. That’s a truth that always comes out in the study of queer history.
As for me, the month of March was a perfect encapsulation of going from “normal” to “the new normal”. I think the last day when I had the illusion that life was normal was Sunday March 1 when we were having the last-minute hotel walk-through for the SFF convention I’m on the committee for. As we were checking on arrangements for the convention the next weekend, we got notification that one of our guests of honor had been advised not to risk traveling due to health risks. We briefly considered whether it was advisable or even possible to cancel the convention less than a week in advance and decided to forge ahead. We put in extra precautions, we did a lot of public advisories about handwashing and contact, we threw together the ability for our non-present guest of honor to participate remotely by video chat, along with several other remote participants. And we breathed a sigh of relief two weeks later when none of our attendees reported back sick. (In fact, with the extra emphasis on handwashing, we seem to have had an absence of the usual post-convention “con crud”.)
The day after the convention, my department at my day job was told to start taking our laptops home every night and be prepared to work from home, if asked. The next day, we were told that all personnel who could work remotely were instructed to do so until further notice. (I work for a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, so there’s a lot of hands-on activities and it’s an essential industry, but my particular job can be 99% done remotely.) As I’m writing this, I’m starting my fourth week of working from home. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly, once I’d beefed up my home office with a second large monitor and sorted out the ergonomics a bit. In fact, when this is all over I may see if I can get permission to work from home a couple-few days a week in ordinary circumstances. Better for the environment, better for my time management. But I do miss the casual office chit-chat--not something I would have expected!
In theory, I should be using that lack of commute time to plunge into my next fiction project, but concentration is only available in fits and starts, so instead I’ve mostly been doing yard work and reorganizing my kitchen cabinets. And baking. Evidently stress baking under lockdown is a universal?
In times like these, it can be interesting to compare the dynamics of our everyday lives--and thus the dynamics of our quarantine--to lives in history under similar circumstances. I never figured my most recent Alpennia novel, Floodtide, would end up having current relevance! But even more generally, look at the way people reach out and support each other, even when physical support is contra-indicated. Despite the modern myths of individualism and self-sufficiency, we’re all more connected than we sometimes admit.
I think that can be a feature of life in the past that can be hard to capture in queer historical fiction. We’re used to the idea that if you don’t fit in with your family or community of birth, you can strike out on your own and invent a new life for yourself. But in past ages, being part of a network of family and community connections wasn’t simply a matter of emotional health (or emotional risk), but was essential for maintaining a viable economic, physical, and social life. Family was one network--you might love them, you might hate them, but you always needed them. Friendships were another network. A way of building ties that strengthened and stabilized your place in the world. That gave you support in every possible way when other systems failed.
Publications on the Blog
This month’s blog posts continue on the theme of friendship and especially same-sex friendships and how those relationships overlap and blend into more particular emotional connections that can encompass romance and erotic connections.
March started off with Alan Bray’s monumental work on same-sex friendships across the ages, The Friend. Bray’s work primarily focuses on male friendships--indeed, he seems a bit oblivious to how the dynamics of female friendships worked when they weren’t direct parallels of the male experience--but he does a good job of exploring how the homoerotic potential of intense same-sex friendships was handled and viewed in other eras.
After that, we moved on to more woman-centered articles. Alexandra Verini looks at the ways female friendship is discussed in the works of the medieval writers Christine de Pisan and Margery Kempe. Carol Lasser looks at a particular symbolic representation of women’s friendships as being fictive sisters, and how that reflects the importance of blood-family relationships while admitting others into that close circle. Lisa Moore challenges the image of 19th century Romantic Friendship as being universally accepted and viewed as noble and virtuous, and points to evidence that the image of the chaste and harmless Romantic Friendship was a social tool wielded to contain the more dangerous potential for women’s friendships to include eroticism and challenges to gender norms.
Moving on into April, Caroll Smith-Rosenberg steps back from trying to interpret the “meaning” of specific Romantic Friendships and looks at the larger context of women’s homosocial relations in “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” The intense hot-house atmosphere of all-female educational institutions comes into focus in Martha Vicinus’s look at English boarding-school friendships, including the shifts over time in how schoolgirl crushes were viewed and discussed.
Back when I was blogging Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, I speculated on whether any of her views and opinions on the topic of Romantic Friendship had changed since the writing of the book. And I was delighted to discover that she had written exactly on that topic back in 1999. So while it isn’t an entirely up-to-date reconsideration, I got my answer. (Though, interestingly, the answer seems to be that Faderman is bewildered at why so many people took away the impression of her work that I ranted and railed about, which was that she drew a bright dividing line between Romantic Friendships as inherently asexual, and lesbian relationships which hadn’t been invented yet.)
Then April concludes with Everly Gordon Bodek writing on “Salonières and Bluestockings” and how the French and English versions of the women’s literary salon differed, and why. This is a topic very near and dear to the hearts of my early 19th century characters!
May will introduce a new thematic series in the blog and I’ll probably sum up an overview of the friendship material in a podcast at some point.
How about the book shopping report? Since the vast majority of my book shopping is online, staying home hasn’t affected it much. To support Powell’s Books while they aren’t able to have the store open, I did some systematic hunting for items in my to-do list, but I’ll talk about those in a later episode when they’ve arrived. Let’s keep this segment to the books that have arrived during the past month.
Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
The first book is Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. I do my best to emphasize that, when studying gender and sexuality in history, we need to be constantly aware of different ways in which concepts and identities are understood at different times. Most historical studies I’ve read about the category labeled “female husbands” -- that is, female-bodied persons passing as men and married to women -- come at it from a framework of lesbian history or women’s history. But it’s equally valid and important to think about these lives within a framework of trans history. Regardless of the evidence--or lack thereof--for how these individuals understood their own identities, it is undeniable that they are “trans gender” in the most basic sense. Someone who is performing a different gender than the one their body would assign them to. And that’s only when we’re sticking to a narrowly binary idea of gender. I’m looking forward to reading and blogging this study that explicitly considers “female husbands” as a transgender concept and category.
Clark, Alice. 1919. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., London. (POD edition by Scholar Select)
I’ve previously mentioned several books that I’m accumulating for deep-background research on later 17th century England for a historic romance series I’m poking at. Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century was recommended as a good resource despite being written in an era (the early 20th century) whose works don’t always stand the test of time well. In addition to discussions of women’s lives in different types of occupations and professions, it includes quotations from account books and descriptions of the era that give concrete substance to the dry facts. “In 1636...Susanna Angell, widow, and Elizabeth her daughter (an orphan) of the city of London humbly pray that they might by their Lordships’ warrant be permitted to land 14 barrels of powder now arrived, and also 38 barrels which are daily expected in the Fortune [a ship], they paying customs and to sell the same within the kingdom”. One of the characters I’ve already sketched out is a widow carrying on the merchant trade of her late husband. I love details like this.
Titley, Norah M. (trans). 2005. The Nimatnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan's Book of Delights. Routledge, London. ISBN 978-0-415-35059-4
There really aren’t clear dividing lines between the categories of non-fiction I buy. Since I’m doing this segment anyway, why worry about drawing distinctions? The previous book is tangentially related to a lesbian historic romance project, despite being an ordinary history book. But this next one is only related in being historic. I love collecting books on cuisine and dining from other eras and cultures, in part because food is such an important part of culture (and makes for fun scene-setting in a story), in part because at various times in my life I’ve enjoyed cooking meals based in other eras. The Nimatnama manuscript came across my attention somewhat randomly on twitter, and when I did a quick search, I found a second-hand copy at a price suitable for an impulse buy. This is a culinary manuscript from late 15th century India, with influences from Persian cuisine. The copy I found has a facsimile of the original, with color plates for the illustrations (which helps in imagining how the food was served). It isn’t a recipe book in the modern sense with clear instructions (although some items include measurements). Often there is just a list of ingredients and a title indicating the nature of the dish. There are also recipes for perfumes, and descriptions of medical treatments, though we should understand all these as falling a single cultural category of “delights”--which gives us yet another angle on understanding the culture.
This month’s author guest will be Edale Lane, talking about her Renaissance-era DaVinci-inspired superhero romance Merchants of Milan. I also expect to have another guest contributing to the Book Appreciation series, but I’ll leave that unspecified since I haven’t done the recording yet.
I also haven’t started writing this month’s essay and I have to be honest that the world is a bit distracting at the moment and I may end up reprising an older episode. So watch this space to see what I come up with.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned? Last month I was a bit worried that I didn’t have any April books listed in my spreadsheet yet, but some turned up, along with a couple March books that I hadn’t previously seen.
The first March book looks unusual and intriguing, being a “what if” story inspired by an Old Testament character: The Whoreson's Daughter by Celia Crotteau from Xlibris US.
Chapters 11 and 12 in the Book of Judges recount how a rash vow forced the military victor Jephthah to sacrifice his beloved only daughter. While scholars agree that she was sacrificed, for centuries they have debated the exact nature of that sacrifice. Some argue that Jephthah's daughter was ritually killed on an altar, her throat slit like an animal's. Others maintain that she forsook marriage and motherhood to devote the rest of her life to serving her god. Whatever occurred remains a mystery. But might the unnamed young woman's too eager compliance have disguised more than submission to her father and her faith? Did she stray beyond the accepted norms for her day? What forbidden passions did she pursue? In her own quiet way was she as reckless as her famous father?
Pioneer Vengeance: A Lesbian Western (Pioneer Hearts Book 2) self-published by Becky Harris is a sequel to a book that just came out a couple months ago and continues the story of the characters who met in that volume.
Belle and Jeane thought they had their happily ever after, but they should've known nothing is ever that easy on the frontier. They survived the elements and each other over the winter, learning to embrace feelings neither thought they'd ever enjoy again. Now that Spring is here it's time to head into town to resupply. Only they find trouble waiting for them in the form of Lenington. An underhanded crook who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and his path of destruction has run right through Belle's family. She never got along with her father, but when he dies at the hands of the town's newest outlaw she knows one thing: she will have her vengeance. The only problem with her brand of frontier justice? Jeanne isn't thrilled about her new love going on a quest for revenge that might get her killed. A quest for revenge. A relationship on the rocks. Will Belle be able to keep everything she's gained, or will her quest for revenge ruin her last best chance for happiness? Find out in Pioneer Vengeance, sequel to Pioneer Hearts!
The next book has an interesting mix of characters, including a mute woman who is one of the romantic couple. I’d be interested to hear opinions on whether the disability representation is solid. It’s hard to tell from the cover copy. The book is: All I See Is You by Lily Hammond from Sapphica Books.
The heart has its own language. Summer in January. Birds with unknown songs. People with strange accents. In 1932, Eliza Sparrow walks straight off the boat from England to New Zealand into a nightmare. Unable to speak or write, and with the death of her mother during the voyage, Eliza is alone, without any means, without any hope. Unless she meets someone willing to help her. Maxine and Ruth have opened their home to destitute women, sheltering those they can from the worst of the Depression. When they find Eliza, they are determined to aid and protect her. Never though, did they think they’d have to protect Eliza from their dear friend Clemency. Like them, Clemency loves other women, but unlike the happily ‘married’ Maxine and Ruth, Clemency is lonely, unable to find a lover she really connects with. When she meets Eliza, no one thinks it could be serious and Clemency would simply be taking advantage of the speechless Eliza, her attraction never possibly other than a passing desire. No one took into account however, that the heart has its own language, and it’s one that Eliza can speak perfectly well.
There are two April releases on my list. The first falls in the rather crowded field of Jane Austen spin-offs: Lucas by Elna Holst from NineStar Press.
In 1813, upon her marriage to Mr Collins, the rector of Hunsford Parsonage, Charlotte Collins née Lucas left her childhood home in Hertfordshire for Kent, where she is set to live out her life as the parson’s wife, in an endless procession of dinners at Rosings Park, household chores, correspondence, and minding her poultry. But Mrs Collins carries with her a secret, a peculiar preference, which is destined to turn all her carefully laid plans on their head. Lucas is a queer romance, a mock-epistolary novel, and a retelling and continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, teeming with Regency references and Sturm und Drang.
And we finish with a relatively recent setting for The Beginning of Everything: A Historical Lesbian Romance by Cara Malone from Lisbon Press.
A closeted secretary in 1960s Chicago. A fearless activist in San Francisco. A love so powerful it can change the world. Betty wants what everyone wants – happiness, security, and a quiet, good life. She’s determined to make that happen on her own, despite her mother’s fears that she’ll turn into a spinster if she doesn’t settle down and find a husband soon. Joan wants an important life – one where she gets to love who she wants to love, do what she enjoys, and will leave the world a better place when she’s gone. But what she is – a lesbian in San Francisco at the beginning of the LGBT+ civil rights movement – is criminal. When Betty comes to California for vacation, it’s love at first sight across a crowded bar in the Tenderloin district. She’s mesmerized by Joan and drawn to the homophile movement, but does she have the courage to come out for love and join the fight for equality? What began as a glance across a room turns into a hopeful, playful and heartwarming courtship across three time zones and four decades in The Beginning of Everything, a standalone historical romance by Cara Malone.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading in the last month? I’m going to confess that this stay-at-home thing has completely knocked my fiction reading for a loop because my most recent pattern has been to read fiction on my commute. No commute, no cue to rev up the e-reader. I have been reading a number of short works being put out as an open Patreon account: The Decameron Project. Just as Boccaccio’s original Decameron was framed as a group of people sheltering from the plague and telling each other stories to pass the time, this project organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton, and others present a new short story or novel excerpt every day, framed as two characters sheltering from Covid-19 in an empty library. Donations to the patreon raise money for an Italian charity and a number of well-know science fiction and fantasy authors have contributed works for it. Also some not quite as well-known because they accepted one of my unpublished short stories for it. So if you’re interested in reading my queer Arthurian story inspired by the Romance of Silence, check it out and consider subscribing.
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