Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 156 (previously 46a) - On the Shelf for May 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/05/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May in the Year of the Great Quarantine.
How are you-all holding up?
It’s a bit funny: on a day to day basis, the quarantine doesn’t make that much difference in my life. I don’t get out to do a lot of face-to-face socializing. It’s just me and the cats at home, although the cats have gotten a bit friendlier now that I’m in their face all the time. My day job and the podcast are still going full speed--I’m just doing it all out of my living room. The one thing that’s noticeably different is that I’ve had time to tackle a lot of garden chores and now that summer is descending on California, I’m having a chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor--literally, as soon as the berries start ripening.
But May is the month when I normally travel to a couple of conferences, so this is when things start feeling very different. One of my May conferences was postponed until the fall--and who knows where we’ll be in the fall. One has become an online event, which will be a challenge for me because it’s a conference I’ve never attended before. And while I know a lot of the people who will be there, I don’t have a sense of the normal rhythms of the event in the first place. I’m planning to take a week’s vacation around that conference even though I’ll be staying home. I need the change of pace.
The book world has been stepping up to the challenges of moving events online in a big way. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by all the opportunities. There are a number of ongoing “virtual conferences” and I hope you’ve had a chance to taste some of them. Curve Magazine has been running a virtual festival with panel discussions and readings and all sorts of things. My publisher, Bella Books, is hosting an ongoing series of author readings on their YouTube Channel. Bold Strokes Books held an online literary festival in April which, alas, is over already.
But there are also events of interest outside the genre fiction world. Catherine Lundoff tipped me off to this one. In England, Chawton House, associated with Jane Austen’s family and hosting an important library on women writers, is posting a blog series from their collections entitled “Man Up! Women who Stepped into a Man’s World”, about 18th and 19th c women who challenged gender norms.
If you know of any other events of interest to readers and writers of f/f historical fiction, drop me a note so I can include them. Especially online events that are accessible to the entire listenership.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog shifts topics going into May.
In April we finished up a series of articles on the general topic of women’s friendships and the ways they overlap and intersect romantic and erotic relationships. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” looks at the general dynamics of gender-segregated socializing and the ways in which they created and supported specifically woman-centered cultures. Martha Vicinus describes one specific culture among those: the world of all-female boarding schools, in "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships." A short article by Lillian Faderman takes a look back at her foundational work Surpassing the Love of Men and discusses reactions to it, and Faderman’s reactions to those reactions. And Evelyn Gordon Bodek tackles another woman-centered subculture in "Salonières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism."
In May, I shift gears significantly and start a series of publications on “female masculinity” to use Halberstam’s terminology. We start with Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, a general and somewhat outdated study on cross-gender presentation both as identity and as performance. Next is Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (pubished originally as Judith Halberstam) which tackles the question of what masculinity means when separated from being a property of male bodies. After that there’s an interesting literary study of cross-dressing motifs in a selection of modern lesbian fiction: "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction" by Anne Herrmann. And to close the month, a study of Victorian media reactions to a sensational case: "Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London" by Katie Hindmarch-Watson.
This month’s book shopping is a big haul. Last month I mentioned that I’d decided to support Powell’s Books by combing through the “to do” list for the blog and seeing how many titles I could pick up. The answer was “six”. (My to-do list is a lot longer than that, but most of the items are either individual articles or older books that I’ll need to get from the library.)
First up is Katherine Crawford’s European Sexualities, 1400-1800, which is part of the serious wave of works on historic sexuality that came out around the first decade of the 21st century. (Somehow phrasing it like that makes it feel more historic.) As a general work, the content on lesbian sexuality is small and mostly already familiar from the blog, but what can I say? I’m a completist.
Continuing my interest in women who never married as a useful spotlight on lesbian possibilities, I bought Amy M. Froide’s Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. I focus on this topic regularly to counter the prevailing myth that historic societies didn’t have any place for women who didn’t participate in heterosexual marriage.
Even more relevant are two books on women’s same-sex relationships. Elizabeth Susan Wahl’s Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment looks at contrasting social models for women’s intimacy in the 17th and 18th centuries, whether depicted as sexual or as non-sexual. In the same vein is Betty Rizzo’s Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women, which examines female companions of all types.
I picked up two general works on homosexuality in the last couple centuries. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski is what it says on the cover. Neil Miller’s Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present primarily focuses on the US and England, though with brief discussions of gay liberation movements in other countries. The pre-20th century material is scanty in both cases, and I’m going to expect my past experience to hold true that male-authored books on the general history of homosexuality are likely to be severely lacking in lesbian content.
I bought two books for deep-background research for my historical fiction: Dress in the Age of Jane Austen by Hilary Davidson, and The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer. I find that pop culture approaches to historic eras, like the latter, can be a very useful basic grounding in everyday life, as opposed to more academic works that tend to focus on politics and social movements. As long as they’re written by knowledgeable people, that is. There are also many awful ones that only promulgate ignorant historic myths as clickbait. This one is subtitled “A Handbook for Visitors to the Seventeenth Century: 1660-1700” and looks to be of practical use for a historic author.
Last of all, I bought a book by this month’s author guest, Janet Todd, entitled Women’s Friendship in Literature which would have been nice to include as part of my April blog series. I’m sure the topic will come around again! I’ll be interviewing Janet Todd about her new novel Don’t You Know There’s a War On?. It’s an atmospheric psychological novel about the claustrophobic lives of a mother and daughter in the mid 20th century. And rather than a book appreciation show with my featured author this month, I also enticed Todd to talk about her work as a historian, specializing in women writers. We touch on the process of writing historical fiction as a historian, and the challenges of investigating and defining the sexuality of people in other centuries.
For this month’s essay, I thought I’d reprise the episode on 17th century poet, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn which cleverly ties together Janet Todd’s work--she wrote a definitive biography of Behn that formed much of the basis of my podcast--and the second story in this year’s fiction series.
“Cardinal’s Gambit” by Catherine Lundoff is another story of pirates and spies in the 17th century that is part of the same world as “One Night in Saint-Martin,” the story that kicked off the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s fiction project back in 2018.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the new and recent books! As usual, I found some recent publications that somehow slipped past my attention before release, and then six books coming out in May. I’m also relieved that I already have several June books in the spreadsheet to talk about next month.
There’s a February book that I had listed previously but without a clear publication date. Then when a date finally popped up in my search it turns out it was published several months ago. This is The Storyteller by Jea Hawkins from Wicked Hearts Publishing.
In 1982, Jane Ferris couldn’t care less that Northern Ireland is crumbling all around her. Life is about drinking, loving women, and dodging her father’s former IRA connections. Her mother begs her to hold the family together, but Jane only wants distraction from the real world and she almost finds it with American journalist, Nancy Wagner. Nancy is in Belfast with an assignment and a dream: make her mark on the world by getting to the heart of the Troubles with her reporting. As the college graduate goes where few women journalists have ventured before, Jane sets out to make her another notch on her bedpost, but instead finds herself acting as both guide and protector. Dangerous circumstances push Nancy into Jane’s arms. While Jane knows it can’t possibly last, she resolves to make the most of their tumultuous time together and finds herself living a life she never dreamed possible with the woman she can’t seem to forget as their worlds collide.
There’s also a March book I missed the last two times around, which looks to be part of a time travel-ish series? Mary, Everything (The Flapper Convenant #1) self-published by Cassandra Yorke.
Courtney is a lonely undergrad at secluded Braddock College in 2004, working a drowsy summer job in the Archives. Assigned to a new project, she becomes haunted by a college yearbook from the 1920s - filled with familiar faces and memories of times she never experienced. A chance encounter with a mysterious girl named Sadie - dressed in long-outdated clothes - alters her reality. But if you were never meant to be born, that reality can expel you like an infection - or kill you outright. While Courtney struggles against forces she cannot comprehend, a psychopathic stalker smells blood and closes in for the kill. Sadie, now in 1921, races against the clock to save her friend, joined by some remarkable allies - an American combat sorceress and veteran of World War I, an enigmatic professor who specializes in piercing the veil between realities, and two young women who insist they’re Courtney’s oldest friends - one of them even claiming to be her truest love. Time is running out for Courtney, and a terrifying wilderness - haunted by the dead from centuries past - may hold the key to her salvation. But none who enter have ever returned.
There are two April books I hadn’t spotted previously. The first is part of a series that I know I’ve mentioned before, although it says it’s book 4 in the series and I don’t think I’ve found them all. Pieces of You A Desdemona Valentina Mystery: * Femme Fatale * (Desdemona Valentina Mysteries #4) self-published by S.L. Freake.
Detective Desdemona Valentina's lover is in a coma - or is she? You can never be sure with any of the many faces of Eden Benedict - but more dire - torso pieces are all awash in London! The Thames is afloat with the bloated and capillary ridden stumps of the unidentified and whores alike while, Dez and Graham battle this and more against worthier adversaries and those who won't be caught. Desdemona can't help but believe she taints those she loves and sheds light on.
The other April book is The Necklace and the Flame self-published by Heather Donnelly. The cover copy is not very descriptive but I double-checked to verify that it falls within my scope.
A queer romance. In the 1920s an unhappily married woman must face her dark past and in the process discovers a new romance with an old friend. A book filled with magic, dangers and mishaps as well as a fair amount of romance.
The rest of the books are coming out this month, starting with our author guest: Don’t You Know There’s a War On? by Janet Todd from Fentum Press.
The Second World War is over. England is losing its empire, world status and old elite values. The Empire strikes back with mass immigration, while the government soothes its people with welfare, the NHS, televisions and refrigerators. At the centre of the novel is the contemptuous Joan Kite, at odds with all the changes imposed on the country in the post war period. Shut up in a house with her only daughter, she refuses to compromise and adapt, pouring vitriol on anyone who seeks to enter their lives. After years of frugality, patriotism, service and excitement, she is angry at the contracted existence she’s been delivered and at the manner in which her aspirations to upper-middle-class culture have been thwarted. When her daughter is threatened, she begins a diary to investigate her past before and during the war. In it she gives rein to a flamboyant imaginary life and to an energetic loathing for the reality of a diminished England. During the freak hot summer of 1976, as water is rationed and ladybirds invade their home, the intimacy of mother and daughter intensifies. Their lives unravel within the claustrophobia of their semi-detached house behind closed velvet curtains.
There have been a number of anthologies of new queer short fiction in the last few years. This is Saundra Mitchell’s second venture into the field, Out Now: Queer We Go Again! published by Inkyard Press. It covers many different queer identities and it isn’t clear what the historic content may involve, but it’s worth checking out.
A follow-up to the critically acclaimed All Out anthology, Out Now features seventeen new short stories from amazing queer YA authors. Vampires crash prom…aliens run from the government…a president’s daughter comes into her own…a true romantic tries to soften the heart of a cynical social media influencer…a selkie and the sea call out to a lost soul. Teapots and barbershops…skateboards and VW vans…Street Fighter and Ares’s sword: Out Now has a story for every reader and surprises with each turn of the page!
This next book is a bit out of my usual line because it’s a polyamorous romance with two women and a man. I always think a bit about the edge cases before including them, but you folks can make up your own minds. It also looks to be on the spicy side, and is tagged as including BDSM themes. The book is Scandalous Passions by Nicola Davidson published by Entangled.
Scotland, 1504. Lady Janet Fraser didn’t earn her reputation as Scotland’s most notorious sinner by following the rules. A former mistress of King James IV, she’s content to live her life from pleasure to pleasure. Even if those pleasures—and people—are forbidden. People like Sir Lachlan Ross, given the moniker The Highland Beast, a man as intimidating in battle as he is in size. A beast she discovers secretly wishes to be tamed and submit to her dominance. Or like her new ward, Lady Marjorie Hepburn, a convent-raised virgin with a desire to be taught all the sensual secrets of the marriage bed. Things that Janet is fully willing to teach her, again and again. There’s much for her to learn. And forbidden pleasures like the three of them together in one bed. But Lachlan and Marjorie both have ties to the king. As wicked lusts are indulged and affection unexpectedly grows into love, breaking the rules this time could mean all of their undoing…
The next two are 20th century stories set in the two world wars. The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong, translated by Kristen Gehrman, from Transit Books, was originally published in Dutch.
When Bea meets Erica at the home of a mutual friend, this chance encounter sets the stage for the story of two women torn between desire and taboo in the years leading up to the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Erica, a reckless young journalist, pursues passionate but abusive affairs with different women. Bea, a reserved secretary, grows increasingly obsessed with Erica, yet denial and shame keep her from recognizing her attraction. Only Bea’s discovery that Erica is half-Jewish and a member of the Dutch resistance―and thus in danger―brings her closer to accepting her own feelings. First published in 1955 in the Netherlands, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking work in its time for its frank and sensitive depiction of the love between two women, now available in a new translation.
World War I is the setting for While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie from Bold Strokes Books.
Johanna Lennox, a working-class Scottish nurse, and Ellie Winthrop, a Volunteer Aid Detachment recruit from a wealthy British family, are thrown together in a general hospital in France during World War I. When Johanna’s mother dies unexpectedly, Ellie is there to offer the comfort she desperately needs, and their feelings for each other grow into an attraction neither can deny. Johanna is convinced they can’t have a future together and throws herself into her work to escape her pain. She volunteers to serve closer to the Front and almost loses her life before being sent home. When Ellie refuses to give up hope and goes to find her, will Johanna be able to trust that a love born amidst the horrors of the Great War can survive in a post-war world?
And the month finishes out with one of the occasional non-English books that turns up in my Amazon searches. This one is in French, titled Insoumises (Rebellious) by Kadyan published by Homoromance Éditions. It sounds like it’s more in the older tradition of bodice-rippers than following more current trends in historic romance. I’ve included the original French cover copy in the transcript, but here’s my translation with the generous help of Google Translate.
In 889, the Vikings terrorized Europe with their relentless raids. Hethna, daughter of a Viking chief, took up arms to replace her fallen husband. What could be more natural, during a raid in Ireland, to enrich her holding of slaves with this fierce young novice? Aileen is only sixteen, but she is determined to conquer the heart of the mother superior of the monastery before her father forcibly marries her off. She does not imagine for a moment that her life will change in a few moments. Captured by those she considers savages, she refuses to submit to her fate as a slave. Within the rhythm of attacks and everyday life in the Viking village, the two women will discover an attraction beyond their status as mistress and slave. But will they be able to overcome jealousy and prejudice to sieze their happiness?
An 889, les Vikings terrorisent l’Europe par leurs raids incessants. Hethna, fille d’un chef viking, a pris les armes pour remplacer son mari mort au combat. Quoi de plus naturel, lors d’un raid en Irlande, d’enrichir son cheptel d’esclaves avec cette jeune novice farouche? Aileen n’a que seize ans, mais elle est bien décidée à conquérir le cœur de la mère supérieure du monastère avant que son père ne la marie de force. Elle n’imagine pas un instant que sa vie va basculer en quelques minutes. Capturée par ceux qu’elle considère comme des sauvages, elle refuse de se soumettre à son destin d’esclave. Au rythme des attaques et de la vie de tous les jours dans le village viking, les deux femmes découvriront leur attirance au-delà de leur condition de maîtresse et d’esclave. Mais pourront-elles surmonter les jalousies et les préjugés pour conquérir leur bonheur?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading in the last month? My own reading is, alas, still fairly stalled at the moment. I did read Janet Todd’s Don’t You Know There’s a War On? And I keep meaning to find a place in the rhythms of my quarantine for more books, but at the moment I’m mostly treading water in terms of my reading. I hope you’re managing better than I am, because I have a lot of books stacked up on my iPad that deserve to get my love and I have a lot of sympathy for authors who are doing book releases in this time of distraction and stress.
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