Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 176 (previously 50c) - Book Appreciation: 17-18th century Stories in England and France - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/09/19 - listen here)
Between the books that I’m covering on the blog, and this month’s essay on 17th century poet Katherine Philips, I thought I’d complete the theme by looking at some sapphic historical fiction set in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve deliberately cut the list off before anything that has the flavor of a Regency romance, as that’s a distinct separate category. So these books start after the death of Queen Elizabeth of England and go up through the era of the French revolution.
I had about 30 possible titles in my database, although I may not mention them all. The 17th century is rather under-represented with only 5 titles, and only one of those from the first half of the century. But the remaining titles in the 18th century are fairly evenly distributed. England is much better represented than France, and most books set in France are revolutionary stories. A few of the books have fantasy elements or take place in an alternate fantasy version of the setting, but most are rooted in the real world. And when I started sorting them out into thematic groups, there were 5 obvious clusters and one group of “leftovers”. Biographical novels of real people, stories involving complex relationship tangles, stories involving pirates, stories involving highwaymen, stories set during the French revolution, and then the miscellaneous group.
Unlike the new book listings, I won’t be doing dramatic readings of the cover copy, but there will be links in the show notes for all the books I discuss—even the ones that are out of print, alas!
It wasn’t any surprise to me that Emma Donoghue takes pride of place in the biographical group. This is the era that is the focus of her non-fiction book Passions Between Women which, as always, I recommend highly. Neither of the books she contributes to this list can be considered romances, though Life Mask does depict the main character as attaining a happy romantic relationship. Life Mask is a detailed fictional biography of sculptor Anne Damer in the later 18th century. It’s full of a wealth of detail about society and politics of the time—perhaps an overwhelming wealth if you aren’t looking for that sort of read. The book’s strength is exactly that depth of knowledge about the historic period and the emotional lives of the people in it. It was definitely my kind of book; perhaps it will be yours as well.
I haven’t read the other Donoghue book on this list, Slammerkin. Set in roughly the same era, this is a darker story, of a working-class girl who longs to take hold of her own destiny and considers morals and respectability something of a handicap to that end. I should caution potential readers that the book definitely does not have a happy ending, but it’s a gripping and realistic tale imagining the inner life of a real woman.
Kelly Gardiner’s book Goddess, which follows the life of late 17th century French swordswoman, opera singer, and all-around libertine Julie d’Aubigny, defies categorization beyond being the story of a larger-than-life woman who loved both women and men passionately, if not wisely, and dared the world to try to slow her down. The novel is written in a somewhat eclectic narrative style, which may challenge some readers, but I loved the gritty depiction of d’Aubigny’s life.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson has the earliest setting of all the books discussed today. Set during the reign of England’s King James I, in the anti-Catholic wake of the Gunpowder Plot and amid the terror of witch trials, Agnes Nutter a wealthy gentlewoman becomes caught up in an infamous witch trial near Pendle Hill. Based on reviews, Winterson has mixed in a bit of real magic with the history, and there are disturbing depictions of torture—true to the times, but not always what people want in their fiction.
When you look at the lives of historical women in the 17-18th century who had romantic or sexual relations with other women, an aspect that modern readers of lesbian fiction can feel uncomfortable engaging with is the separation between people’s emotional lives and the social and economic pressures of marriage. Yes, there were many women who did not marry, and it’s always possible to design a story the dodges the question that way. But in a context where women didn’t necessarily expect to be in love with the man they married, then not being in love with men at all wasn’t an obvious reason to avoid marriage. And as the historical studies currently being covered in the blog point out, this was an era when people didn’t expect a clear-cut distinction between desire for men and desire for women.
This next set of books are ones that focus on women who have married or expect to marry a man, but don’t see that as incompatible with relationships with women. Again, I’ve only read one of the books in this group, so it’s possible that I’ve been misled by the descriptions.
The glittering court of Versailles is the setting of Saga Hillbom’s Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing. The protagonist, Adélaide is a young—very young—noblewoman, brought to court for an arranged marriage to the king’s grandson. As was often the case, personal fulfilment was not a priority in the marriage and she is caught up in court politics. But in the arms of the servant girl Colette, she may have found love at last. This is a realistic tale of court life, not a fluffy romance. And a romantic relationship with a servant was more likely to be considered forbidden because of class than gender. But the book looks to be solidly written and deserves a closer look. (I just wish her books were available outside of Amazon, since that’s a sticking point for me.)
Kim Finney’s Under the Microscope is about as opposite to court life as you can imagine. Set during the reign of King Charles II, Ezzabell Chetwood is set apart from the vibrant life of London, working as her husband’s assistant in the new scientific field of microscopic investigation and illustration. When her husband pressures her to take on the frivolous Thomasin Dansby as her companion, both of them need to find accommodation to their new relationship. An unusual premise for a historical novel but one with potential for exploring a very specific landscape and setting. I’ve had this one on my iPad since it first came out a year ago and look forward to moving it up my reading schedule.
The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer by Connie Valientis is much more in the fluffy romantic comedy vein. Lavinia is looking for a convenient marriage that won’t get in the way of her ongoing affair with Lady Georgia Suthmeer. But both Lady Suthmeer and Lord Suthmeer have their own reasons for interfering with Lavinia’s marriage plans, and her betrothed has inconveniently decided to defend her honor. The plot is more of an erotic romp than a conventional romance but highly entertaining. Alas the historic grounding is somewhat vague. I have it down in my data base as “maybe 1790?” on the basis of the clothing in the cover illustration, but honestly I have no idea exactly when it’s set.
There’s something of a mid-18th century Gothic tone to the description of L.S. Johnson’s Harkworth Hall. Caroline Daniels has no suitors she likes as much as her friend Diana, but one must marry after all, and Sir Edward Masterson is an acceptable solution to her financial problems. But Edward has also acquired the decrepit Harkworth Hall and its sinister secrets and Caroline may need the assistance from an unexpected new friend to get out in one piece. Note: The cover copy for later books in the series have some spoilers for what’s really going on, so if you dislike spoilers, you might want to just plunge in. Me? I just bought the three book series, so maybe I can tell you more about it sometime in the future.
Given that the 17-18th century form a core part of the so-called “Age of Sail” it may not be surprising to find a number of pirate-themed books in my list. One of these days I really do need to do a pirate-themed show. But for now, let’s focus on the three books in this group where the action sticks close to Europe, rather than those set in the New World. These all appear to be set in the early 18th century and focused around English characters. And they all have a clear romance core, whether or not they fit the exact shape of a classic romance novel.
Lara Zielinsky’s The Queen’s Gift looks like a romantic romp in which prospective lady in waiting Lady Anne Coleridge is sidetracked by an encounter with the pirate captain “Bloody Mary.”
The real-life characters of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade have inspired many a sapphic pirate romance. The one I picked to include here is Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade. Taking the point of view of young Mary as she disguises herself as a boy to run away to sea, we see the gritty side of the pirate life as well as the romantic one.
One of the tropes of the pirate romance, regardless of gender, is that experience of being swept away against your will—whether emotionally or physically—and having your future turned upside down. That happens to Ianna McClarrin in Jessie Gutiérrez’s Spanish Eyes. As her father escorts her to an uncertain future and an unwanted marriage, Ianna’s destiny changes in a moment when their ship is boarded by pirates.
When it comes to highwayman—or rather, highwaywoman—novels, I already did an entire episode on this theme, which I’ve linked in the show notes, including one of my all-time favorites in this genre, Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies. But let’s focus on a couple of books that I discovered after putting that show together.
Eleanor Musgrove’s The Highwayman reimagines the characters of the Alfred Noyes poem as a female couple—as have other works in this genre. It’s a fairly straightforward retelling in short-story form but turns the original poem’s tragic ending into one with hope.
The highwaywoman Alice Payne, in Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives (and its sequel Alice Payne Rides) only starts out in the 18th century, after which this time-traveling adventure takes off for other eras. So not exactly a true-to-the times historic novel, but a great deal of fun.
As the discussion on the blog shows, the French revolution is a time when sapphic themes became mainstream politics, whether in the accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting, or in the mysterious and almost certainly mythical Anandrine Society, said to be a hotbed of lesbian sex among aristocratic women and revolutionaries alike. Two of the three books included here have fantasy elements along with the historical adventure.
The very recent release Belle Revolte by Linsey Miller takes place in an alternate fantasy-France in which the aristocratic Emilie des Marais, who longs to study medicine, and the working-class Annette Boucher, who wants nothing more than to learn magic, swap places to realize their dreams on the eve of revolution. Although this is a queer story, be aware that it’s not a romance.
Kat Dunn’s Dangerous Remedy similarly has elements of magic, but is more solidly grounded in our own France. We are offered a rag-tag group of misfits, saving people from the guillotine in Scarlet-Pimpernelish fashion. But Camile, daughter of a revolutionary, finds herself torn between ideals and love when their latest rescue is a mysterious woman with strange powers. A central romance without being a romance novel, and possibly the start of a series?
Reflected Passion by Erica Lawson is a more traditional sapphic romance, with a bit of cross-cultural, cross-class longing. Widowed countess Françoise Marie Aurélie de Villerey was broken by her unhappy marriage and settles for sex without love until the encounters nouveau-riche Bostonian Dale Wincott, groomed for a promising marriage but trying out a sideline as a furniture restorer. That’s…an unexpected twist. Oh, wait, this one has a fantasy twist too. The two women are also from different times, and connect through a portal in an antique mirror. In a weird way, that makes the plot make a bit more sense. This could go in almost any direction with that premise. But it’s interesting that, in the end, all my revolutionary picks have fantasy elements.
There are three other books that didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories that I want to spotlight. The first two are out of print, alas, and like several other f/f historicals written in the ‘90s, I’d love it if someone arranged for them to come back into print. This is a duology by Jay Taverner: Rebellion and Hearts and Minds. I say “duology” though the cover copy doesn’t mention any overlapping characters. Let’s go ahead and give the full descriptions of them.
Rebellion is a lesbian love story. It's 1715 in Somerset, a feudal world of aristocrats, peasants and the remnants of religious freedom. But this is a year marked out for political violence on a grand scale, the first of the Jacobite uprisings. Hope, a gamekeeper's daughter, and the Lady Isabella are girls of sixteen when all around them a way of life is changing. Perforce, the teenagers of Rebellion learn as fast as they can about the perils of war. More importantly, they unravel the devious, loving attentions of class and family to find each other.
Hearts and Minds takes up where Rebellion left off, but is complete in itself. Into a far from peaceful English village comes the charismatic actor Mr Brown and his touring company. Lucy, a young black washerwoman, soon finds that Brown is not quite what he seems. But their snatched moments together will not keep her happy for long. As the atmosphere in the poverty-stricken village intensifies, charges of witchcraft and child murder lead to a series of tragedies and close escapes.
I read Rebellion back when it first came out in 1997 and would love to find time to re-visit it. Somehow I missed Hearts and Minds and now it only seems to be listed at collector prices. I’d love to find out if the reference to the touring actor “Mr.” Brown is actually gender-queer actress Charlotte Charke, who went by that name sometimes. When I did some research to see if I could track down Jay Taverner, it turns out it’s a pen name for a writing duo who are both now enjoying careers in academia. (Why am I not surprised?)
The last title I want to mention follows a classic gender-disguise trope. The book is Passing as Elias by Kate Bloomfield. In 18th century England, Elizabeth Searson must pose as a man to claim inheritance of an apothecary’s shop, but what happens when she falls in love? There are a lot of advantages to living as a man that she isn’t eager to give up. And, hey, there it is in the iBooks store! Bought! Having peeked at the ending, I can note that despite the gender-disguise trope the character identifies as a woman—something I usually want to represent accurately and which isn’t always clear from the cover copy.
So there you are: a small shelf’s worth of sapphic fiction set in 17th and 18th century England and France. But as you can see, there’s plenty of scope for more—especially outside these few favored tropes. It’s interesting to me that this list doesn’t deeply delve into the possibilities of the female-centered world of the salons, the Bluestockings, or the convenient proximity of a lady’s companion. So much scope! So many possibilities!
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online