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Saturday, June 29, 2024 - 14:08

This is a list of books on the history of sexuality or queer history (that I’m aware of) that include m/m topics. This will not include books that are solely about m/m queer history because they fall outside my scope of interest. This list was compiled to answer a query on social media (and was too long to post there in response). Because the question was focused around 12th century France, I’ve bolded the titles that have specific coverage of the middle ages.

I’ve linked to my coverage of these publications in the blog (if I’ve covered them yet), but of course my coverage will be focused on f/f topics in the publications. This list is far from exhaustive on the subject (and may not even include everything in my library, given that it’s a bit of a mess at the moment with books double-shelved for lack of space).


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Friday, June 21, 2024 - 19:58

Although I'm mostly focusing on theater-related publications at the moment, I'd read and taken notes for this one, so I'm getting it off the desktop. It's always hard to find good resources for non-Western cultures, and what's available is often focused on male homoeroticism. I wish I could do better.

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Full citation: 

Ng, Vivien. 1997. “Looking for Lesbians in Chinese History” in Duberman, Martin (ed) A Queer World. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8247-2874-4

A brief survey article discussing how the author came to study lesbian themes in Chinese history. Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese women studying in Japan formed a mutual support organization that also had feminist and nationalist goals. Leadership included the fascinating Qiu Jin, who transgressed gender in clothing and behavior. But the question arises whether such organizations and figures fit into lesbian history.

The author has published a study of homosexuality in Late Imperial China but it deals almost exclusively with men, but she has not been able to identify any corresponding female tradition, beyond some isolated 17th century female-authored poems that hint at the possibility of a homoerotic literary tradition.

Returning to Qiu Jin, Ng considers whether her formally sworn friendship with her friend the poet Wu Zheying is suggestive of a romantic relationship, and whether they poem Qiu Jin wrote to commemorate their vows to each other, titled “Orchid Verse,” relates to the Golden Orchid Society of marriage resisters in China. These organizations were described in the mid 19th century as involving young women in “close sisterhood” who resist marriage and, if forced into marriage, refuse to live with their husbands. Accounts of the time indicated that these sworn sisterhoods could include sexual relations. References to the sexual nature of such partnerships continue up into the 1920s, indicating that they did not simulate heterosexual couples but obtained gratification by “friction and/or mechanical means.”

Marriage resistance was a theme present in the women’s student group in Japan, and Qiu Jin  had divorced her husband when she left China to study. So while one can’t say for certain that she had lesbian relations, the themes and motifs present in her life are suggestive.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 - 17:57

No point in spacing these out when I'm on a roll. I've had half a dozen articles sitting on my iPad all read-and-highlighted waiting for me to write them up. I have one more of those to post, then 4 articles on theater to read and post. I'm about a third of the way through making notes from one of the two(?) books on women in theater that I have scheduled. Then I think I'll be ready to tackle the "women on stage" tropes podcast. I think it'll be a lot of fun. Who knows why I'm feeling energized to work on these blogs. I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.

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Full citation: 

Jankowski, Theodora A. 1996. “’Where there can be no cause of affection’: Redefining Virgins, Their Desires, and Their Pleasures in John Lyly’s Gallathea” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-55249-4 pp.253-74.

This article looks at the treatment of virginity and desire in John Lyly’s late 16th century play Gallathea, a mythological story in which two young women both cross-dress as boys to escape being a virginal sacrifice, and thus fall in love with each other. In this play, Venus (as the proponent of erotic desire) more specifically through the agency of Cupid urges all characters, including Diana’s nymphs, toward romantic love, while Diana (in theory supporting the position of virtue) valorizes virginity and chastity. Diana’s nymphs are somewhat caught in the middle, having been forced into desire by Cupid who specifically tricks them into falling in love with other women, while the protagonists, Gallathea and Phillida, not under the influence of Cupid’s darts, each initially falls in love with the boy she believes the other to be, while rapidly suspecting and accepting that she is actually in love with a woman.

Jankowski’s article looks specifically at the role of virginity in this plot, especially in the context of Queen Elizabeth I being among the audience, where one might expect valorization of virginity to be used to flatter her. But the situation is not quite so simple, as the play pits the maintenance of virginity in opposition to self-sacrifice for the good of society—whether that sacrifice is to the monster in the play or to the sexual economy of marriage.

Virginity, in Protestant England, is of social value until—and only until—a marriage is contracted (it no longer having a religious significance in the form of nuns). This creates a tension between the fetishistic emphasis on pre-marital virginity (which creates value in a young woman) and the expectation that virginity must be lost to become a fully-integrated female member of society (as a married woman). The “virginity narrative” assumes a progression from virgin to wife, potentially to widow. But there are two ways to stand outside this narrative: by non-marital sex (placing the woman in the category of whore), and by refusal to move from virgin to wife, either as a general principle, or by refusing a marriage arranged by one’s father. A variety of dramatic roles from early modern plays are adduced to illustrate these various alternatives. Thus we have several ways in which a woman may have deviant sexuality, one of which (lifelong virginity) is overlaid by the example of Queen Elizabeth.

This problematizes fictional depictions of non-marrying virgins, especially with respect to the question of desire and pleasure. A “good” virgin remains so because her bodily integrity matches her spiritual integrity: she does not desire and is not desired. In the default model, she moves first to being desired (by a potential husband) and only after marriage is contracted may she, herself, desire.

In Gallathea, an entirely different social space is opened in which virgins may create a separate society apart from patriarchal expectations in which women may construct desire and pleasure in ways that did not exist within everyday society. This is the fate of Gallathea and Phillida: the control their fathers exert over their fates (to remove them from the potential pool of sacrifices) places them in this woman-centered separate space where they are free to explore these other options.

Jankowski positions the virgin sacrifice of the play as equivalent to marriage: the virginal state is of value to society as a token in an economy of exchange (to the gods, rather than to a husband). This gives the virgin an exalted position that is of worth only in its destruction. The “trick” used by Gallathea and Phillida’s fathers preserves their lives (and their virginity) at the expense of their honor. Their state is contrasted oddly with the character Haebe, who is offered up as sacrifice instead but is rejected as she is not the “most beautiful” virgin. If virginity alone determined social value, she should have been accepted and fulfilled her social purpose. And here Jankowski returns to the specific context of historic performance. As a play intended to flatter Queen Elizabeth, there would be problems raised both by the message that the destiny of a virgin is death, and that the virtue lent by virginity is generic and interchangeable. Only one woman was special enough to be the Virgin Queen. Accept no substitutes. Only Elizabeth is honored for sacrificing the default life path of a woman for the sake of the nation. And in the play, the final outcome of the avoided and failed sacrifices is for the gods to abolish the practice entirely, in the face of the love between Gallathea and Phillida. (Which, in point of fact, woudn’t have happened if Haebe’s substitution as the sacrifice had been accepted.)

This leaves another inherent contradiction in the play: the patriarchal control exerted by Gallathea and Phillida’s fathers, while placing them under an obligation of obedience (whereas they were willing to be sacrificed), removes them entirely from that patriarchal control into the pastoral utopia of Diana’s band of nymphs. Here there is no marriage economy—indeed no relations with men at all. Lyly’s version of Diana’s world does not include overt same-sex eroticism—rather a non-sexual companionship and mutual loyalty. The two women hold an ambiguous position in that world: their male disguise would seem to exclude them from it, while their embodied femaleness, their virginity, and their avoidance of marriage/sacrifice gains them entrance.

Cupid’s meddling with the nymphs creates another ambiguity. He specifically intends to revenge himself on the nymphs, not only by forcing them to experience desire, but by forcing them to what he considers “vain” desire for other women. This transgressive desire is camouflaged by the gender disguise: the nymphs desire the male-disguised Gallathea and Phillida, and Gallathea and Phillida desire each other with the veneer of apparently desiring the male disguise of the other rather than the underlying woman. Thus, in contradiction of the usual rules, virgins both desire and are desired outside of the marriage economy.

Diana’s position (as presented in her speeches) is that love and desire are incompatible with chastity. But the nymphs are not your usual virgins as they were never part of the marriage economy in the first place. What does “virginity” even mean in that context?

As the disguise is revealed and the same-sex love between Gallathea and Phillida is proclaimed, we see a confusing resolution to the question of whether Venus or Diana has prevailed. There is a speech about how some love-knots are easily untied when driven by money, coercion or men’s lies, while others “made by a woman’s heart” remain fast, such as that between Gallathea and Phillida. But the platonic love between the nymphs also prevails—Cupid’s trick never sets them at odds with each other, even when they are coerced into loving the same “boy” (Gallathea).

Also, Gallathea and Phillida’s love is not a triumph of the heterosexual desire that Venus represents. Although removed from the structure of sacrifice/marriage to save their lives, they do not fit easily into the role of archetypal “virgin” as they are desiring and desired. They have entered a space where female same-sex desire can be imagined and even claimed. The two superficially accept the male disguise of the other, but they continue to recognize and acknowledge the love they feel even as they (internally) voice their suspicions that the beloved is not “other” but “same.” This is not the usual mistaken same-sex desire (as in Twelfth Night) where a woman desires another woman only for as long as she believes in the male disguise, but rather a desire that persists in the face of the revealed truth. Their love is not a concomitant of patriarchal contract negotiations, but stands in opposition to social pressures to conform to their assigned female roles. They are no longer “virgin” but neither are they wives or whores (no male intrusion into their sex lives). This despite a hint that they’ve engaged in some degree of physical expression (“transgresse[d] in love a little of [her] modesty” and “[go] into the grove and make much of one another”) that still leaves them in doubt of the other’s sex. They create a context for sexual pleasure that does not require genital knowledge, much less penetration, though we must always remember that the limits and nature of this encounter are created by the male author for a public audience. (To say nothing of acknowledging that the two characters are played by male actors both when disguised as boys and in the few scenes when dressed as women.) The article now digresses into similar dynamics in other of Shakespeare’s gender-disguise plots, as well as some of the social dynamics of this practice for the audience.

In sum, Gallathea allows f/f desire and love within a context that completely destabilizes ideas of both sex and gender. At the conclusion, the various divinities pass their several judgments on Gallathea and Phillida’s relationship. Diana is against desire in general. Neptune finds f/f love implausible—unable to imagine a “cause of affection” between them (where “cause” strongly suggests the necessity for a penis). Venus, triumphantly, says she’ll sort it all out. Here is where imagination fails, because her solution involves transforming one or the other of the women into a man. But this isn’t about internal gender identity, only about a forced conformity to the forms of heteronormative society.

But overall, the play embraces a new definition and image of virginity that revolves around bonds of affection and friendship between women that stand apart from any relationships to men and the marriage economy. This leaves an ambiguous opening when the play concludes by exhorting women to “yield to love” as it appear to include love between women.

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Sunday, June 16, 2024 - 16:38

Another article I read for my stage/drama/actresses trope topic. In an odd way, although the author's imaginative extrapolations align well with the purposes of the Project, they don't align well with my ideas about "doing history."

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Full citation: 

Jankowski, Theodora A. 2000. “ the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s Plays” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Dympna Callaghan. Oxford: Blackwell, 299-319. ISBN 0-631-20806-2

Jankowski examines Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale—and particularly the question of just where Hermione might have been hidden by Paulina during the period when she is presumed dead, and what they were doing there—to challenge traditional assumptions about the presence and extent of f/f eroticism in his plays, following themes of invisibility and hidden spaces. She takes as a premise that there “must have been women who desired other women and had erotic and/or sexual relations with them” in the early modern period and therefore looks among Shakespeare’s characters to find them. Another premise of the article is the “virtual invisibility of woman-woman eroticism” in early modern drama. [Note: in defense of the author, this article was written several years before Denise Walen’s detailed study on the topic was published.]

To develop this idea, Jankowski considers two types of conceptual “spaces” that functioned as women’s space with erotic potential: the development of the idea of “private space” within the household, and the “space” of the mistress-servant relationship.

The physical space includes two newly developed architectural developments. The first is the “closet” – not a small space for clothes storage, as we now use the term, but a “closed” space, an inner private space opening off the bedroom (which was more of a public space at the time). The closet combined functions of private leisure, dining, and entertaining those closest to the inhabitant, but also might be where personal servants slept on temporary pallets. The closet was an informal space where the inhabitants were not “on display” as well as offering privacy for reading and writing. This was aided by two functions: it could be locked by its owner, and it had only the one entrance, rather than being part of the more “flow-through” design of public rooms. (Corridors and hallways were a slightly later invention, and the normal pattern was for people to pass through even bedrooms to access other rooms beyond. This is one of the spaces that Jankowski identifies as having erotic potential due to these features: privacy, security, and intimacy.

As personal servants moved in and out of this room unremarked, and typically slept within easy access—either in the closet, or in her mistress’s bed—the space creates the potential for erotics within the employment relationship.

Another potentially private space within early modern domestic architecture was the “banquet” which, again, had a different meaning at the time than we understand today. The main meal of a feast would be held in the “hall,” a large public multi-purpose room. This would also be the location of dancing and other entertainments after the feast, which required the hall to be “voided” or “deserted” so that the meal could be cleared and the furniture rearranged. During this interlude, the more important guests would move to a smaller space called the “banquet” where they would enjoy wine and sweetmeats (the “desert” course).

In the early modern period, the creation of dedicated “banquet” spaces became popular, not simply a private chamber opening off the hall, but often a separate, dedicated building or structure separate from the dwelling entirely, or perhaps situated on the roof. Except for their occasional use for entertaining, banquets might be lonely, secluded places where someone (like Hermione) might hide out undisturbed.

Jankowski now digresses into an examination of the word “service” (as in, the service that Paulina does for Hermione) that emphasizes sexual meanings. [Note: Honestly, I feel like there’s quite a stretch happening here.] She points out that all of Paulina’s actions in the play are in service to Hermione in some fashion, and that she rejects the conventional role of obedient wife to maintain this dedication, even proclaiming that if she could she would defend Hermione’s honor by combat. Within the “removed house” that Paulina regularly visits during Hermione’s absence from the living world, Jankowski projects the “empty space” of lesbian possibility, though the resolution of the play reverses that possibility.

Several other mistress-servant relationships in Shakespeare that have erotic implications are offered up. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania’s late votress (mother of the child who generates the quarrel with Oberon) is clearly a close, beloved, and intimate servant. And Titania’s devotion to the child on her behalf suggests a closer bond than simple employment, even if only the equivalent of being a godparent.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia and Nerissa again have a much closer relationship than simple employment, and there is more evidence for an emotional bond between them than either has with her eventual spouse. Marriage is not expected to interfere with the women’s continued physical and emotional closeness. As a servant, Nerissa is able to remain in Portia’s household after marriage in a way that a friend of equal social standing could not.

A similar analysis is applied to Cleopatra and her maid servants, with an in-depth consideration of the line in which we learn that Iras and Charmian are “bedfellows.” Although Jankowski acknowledges that bed-sharing and the use of the term bedfellow reflects normal, unremarked sleeping practices in the early modern world, the reference is given a salacious interpretation, both in this play and in several other cited contexts.

Overall, while this article does some useful work (and work similar to the purpose of this blog) in identifying spaces and contexts in which f/f eroticism was not simply possible, but could be engaged in without comment, I feel that Jankowski goes beyond her evidence in suggesting that these hypothetical possibilities are somehow present in Shakespeare’s works themselves, rather than being projected onto them by an audience more attuned to those possibilities.

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Saturday, June 15, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 289 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 13: Mothers, Sisters, Daughter – Pseudo-familial Relationships - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/06/15 - listen here)

Introduction and the Elephant in the Room

Today we’re looking at romantic relationships between women that use the symbolism and language of familial relationships, either sisterhood or mother-daughter bonds. I debated about whether to put this topic in the tropes series, because it doesn’t strongly correspond to an established trope in male-female historic romance. But it does fall in the general category of “trope” in the sense of a structured framework for character relationships that affects the shape of possible stories and outcomes. It also gives me a context to talk about the dynamics of age-gap relationships as a trope.

But the elephant in the room for this topic is the question of incest imagery. If two women are framing their relationship as being a type of fictive sisterhood, how does that relate to the idea of biological sisters engaging in a romantic or even sexual relationship? If two women use the language of mothers and daughters for their partnership, is that problematic? And is it problematic within the historical context of a story, versus for modern authors and readers?

I feel the need to address this because I get a sense that some reading communities are going through a period of being highly sensitive to anything that could possibly read as incestuous, and yet the symbolic use of familial relationships—especially sisterhood—to talk about romantic partners is a strongly established historic practice.

So, to make clear, this podcast is not talking about romantic relationships between actual immediate biological kin, whether sisters or parent and child. What we’re talking about is the use of language and imagery of those relationships to construct models for social structures that had no concrete, authorized social reality.

Within this context, it’s important to keep two general practices in mind. The first is the broad use of familial language to talk about non-biological bonds. Members of a religious community or a social organization such as a craft guild might refer to each other as sisters or brothers, with those in positions of authority using the title of mother or father. Non-biological relationships created through marriage could confer both the label and social expectations of siblinghood or parental status.

Secondly, this type of language has regularly been in use between married male-female couples. Married couples might call each other “brother” and “sister” either within the context of community practice where these terms emphasized membership in a specific social group, or as a more individual practice to indicate a sense of closeness. Similarly, married couples might refer to each other using parental titles. Sometimes this is to emphasize the pre-eminence of parenthood as the purpose of marriage, for example, that a woman’s role as mother was viewed as being more important in the family than her role as wife. Sometimes it reflected a sense of power differential within a heterosexual marriage where a woman framed her husband as carrying the role of both spouse and parent with respect to her.

I’m not saying that such usage might not—in some cases—reflect problematic roles within heterosexual marriages, but the point is that women who used familial language and models to interact with same-sex partnerships were not doing so as a unique function of same-sex relations. Rather they were drawing on practices that existed more generally in society. So before we recoil from the specter of incest if a female couple talks about being sisters or if one partner assigns the role of “mother” to the other partner, consider if we would have a similar reaction if a married woman addressed her husband as “Daddy” which, in fact, is a practice I’ve encountered in my own extended family.

This is, perhaps, an overly long introduction, but given reactions I’ve encountered to the use of sisterhood language in my own writing, I wanted to put it openly on the table.

Why Use Familial Models?

Why use familial models for relationships at all? The simplest answer is that when human beings want to understand a new concept, they look for things it can be compared to—models that can be used to understand how to interact with it. If society does not present you with existing paradigms for a type of relationship, you look for paradigms that can be adapted for the purpose. Rarely have historic societies offered structures specific to same-sex romantic partnerships. So when two women looked for inspiration for how to behave toward each other and how to structure their lives together, they would usually look around to find concepts that felt similar in some way.

Marriage was one obvious existing model to borrow. Friendship was another obvious model. But if women felt that the closeness, familiarity, and mutual support of a kinship group came closest to what they were experiencing, then biology-based relationships between two women—specifically sisterhood and mother-daughter bonds—were another obvious option and could give them a way to anchor their partnership in familiar and socially-approved structures.

Even setting aside the question of romantic relationships, kinship networks have historically been essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the birth family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Marriage itself could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. Thus familial models for same-sex romantic relationships existed within a potential network of fictive kinship that served non-romantic purposes.

Such fictive kinship might be entirely informal, or it might have its own solemnizing rituals, or there might be formal structures in place to give the relationships legal weight. The available options will depend on the specific culture. This survey will be anecdotal, rather than trying for a comprehensive understanding of the options.

The Sister Model

The sisterhood model is supported by two pathways: the expectation that natal sisters will have a close emotional bond and will provide social and economic support to each other, perhaps including sharing a household, and the use of sisterhood as a model for close non-romantic relationships that share similar features. There are plentiful examples of women using the term “sister” to mark either the expectation or reality of a long-lasting interpersonal bond, to say nothing of the use of “sister” in religious contexts or charitable organizations to mark membership in a community. (I haven’t touched much on the intersection of love between women in convents with the use of sisterhood language because the two aspects would be difficult to untangle.)

The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In general society, sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the relationship.

Somewhat more rarely, we can find examples of sister-language that carry an implicit understanding of romantic desire, as in a medieval Welsh love poem where the female poet sends a love-messenger to the woman who was “like a sister to me” but whom marriage has now put out of her reach.

An unusually clear 19th century example of the way fictive sisterhood could embrace a clearly romantic and erotic relationship comes from the letters of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, who called each other sisters (though wishing they could use the language of husband and wife) and sometimes used the same surname, all while being accepted by their families as having a formal connection and behaving as natal family members would.

Formalizing Sisterhood

Fictive sisterhood could be formalized, in some cases. The simplest method would be for two women to swear some sort of informal oath to consider each other as sisters. We see this in Susanna Highmore Duncombe’s 18th century poem “To Aspasia” where she describes “In youthful innocence, a school-day friend first gained my sister-vows.

More formal understandings might be marked by traditional ceremonies. John Boswell, in his work on same-sex ceremonies, tentatively identifies some “sworn sisterhood” rituals in the early Christian period, alongside the better-attested sworn brotherhood rituals for men. He also cites a 17th century account from the Balkans of two young women formalizing a sisterhood ritual in church.

There are descriptions from the early modern period of Iranian rituals for women to make formal vows of sisterhood, involving elaborate “courtship” preliminaries and community participation.

One theme that shows up in 18th and 19th century records is of women formalizing fictive sisterhood through marriage—that is, one woman marrying the other’s brother, or perhaps both marrying a pair of brothers. Not, perhaps the ideal approach for sapphic history, but a solidly historic approach. A familiar example might be poet Emily Dickinson’s beloved, Susan Gilbert, marrying Emily’s brother, enabling their continuing close relationship.

Rejecting the Sister Model

And yet, women sometimes recognized that the sister model had its flaws when a lasting, exclusive relationship was the goal. In Sidney’s New Arcadia, the heroine Philoclea ponders how she might spend her life in a romantic relationship with the supposed amazon Zelmane. She considers sisterhood, but rejects it, as a sister might be parted by marriage.

The 18th century poet Pauline de Simiane complains to her female beloved that she doesn’t want to be kissed “like a sister,” recognizing a gulf between publicly-acceptable forms of affection and the more erotic version she desires.

The Mother/Daughter Model

Intimate friendships that involved a significant age difference might use the language and symbolism of a mother-daughter relationship, though parental imagery could also be used with smaller age differences, based on differences in experience or personality instead. Compared to sisterhood models that emphasized equality and reciprocity, a parental model could imply that the expected contributions to the relationship would not be symmetric, involving support and mentorship from the older partner, and devotion and loyalty from the younger. One might see a parental model being used in cases where the two women met when one was not yet independent or needed care-taking, but it might also be attractive in cases where it provided a “safety net” against the relationship becoming uncomfortably intense or exclusive. Occasionally, the use of mother-daughter language could reflect or encourage a view of the relationship as a transient, life-stage experience. And I have to say that some of the examples I found of parental relationship models can get somewhat messy.

Famed bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu took on a younger relative as a protégé, after being widowed, who functioned as something halfway between an adopted daughter and a supportive spouse. While there aren’t any clear indications that Montagu had romantic inclinations, she did seem to intend the young woman to serve as her “wife” for household purposes. The relationship—whatever its nature—foundered on Montagu’s refusal to formalize it by naming her protégé as her heir. The young woman subsequently considered marriage to offer a more secure future and left her.

One familiar example of a clearly romantic couple who used a parental model for their relationship was poets Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together under the pen name Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and—along with her mother (Edith’s grandmother) helped to raise Edith and her sister when their mother became an invalid. There was a 16-year age difference between the women. But after Edith began attending college, their relationship shifted to one of partnership, though it must have inescapably retained some hierarchical aspects.

The use of a parental model for relationships could sometimes partake of religious overtones, with the mother figure framing her love as spiritual, even when it included erotic encounters.

Composer Ethel Smyth had a series of romantic affairs and crushes on older women in whom she looked for something of the unconditional supportive and understanding love she does not appear to have received from her own mother. In some cases she found partners who supported the role-playing she sought, while in other cases the targets of her affection seemed to have accepted a motherly role as a means of holding off the possibility of an erotic relationship.

Actress Charlotte Cushman had a fairly extensive series of female lovers, often overlapping significantly as she juggled competing relationships. For the most part, her partners were of similar age and experience, but when she encouraged and indulged a crush from Emma Crow, the daughter of a business associate, she was 24 years older than the 18-year-old Emma, whom she addressed in letters sometimes as her “little lover” and sometimes as her “daughter”. Cushman was always a sucker for devoted admiration but Emma’s romantic pursuit of her pushed the more cautious Cushman into something of a managing parental role. In her bid to have her cake and eat it too, Cushman suggested that their cohabitation might be safely camouflaged by having Emma marry Cushman’s nephew, in a new variation of the “marry her brother to become her sister” ploy.

Mother/Daughter versus Age-Gap

I haven’t made direct comparisons of sisterhood and mother-daughter relationship models to parallel dynamics for male-female relationships, though such comparisons could certainly be worth exploring. As I mentioned at the beginning, these don’t necessarily fall in the usual category of “romance tropes,” although they can have connections to friends-to-lovers, among other tropes. But I thought I’d finish up with a consideration of a closely-related trope that we hear a lot about in lesbian romance circles: the age-gap romance.

By identifying age-gap relationships as a “trope” there is a certain implication that the unmarked default is for a female couple to be closely similar in age. This is another facet of the contrast between similarity and difference models in romantic attraction, but focusing on maturity and experience rather than gender polarity. Certainly not all age-gap relationships partake of a parental model, or even of a mentor-student model which is another possible framing. But there will be echoes of some of the dynamics: not simply a generational difference in age, but differences in life experience, perhaps in perceived social power dynamics, all of which will likely need to be addressed in some fashion within the relationship.

But when we compare the situation to male-female pairings within the context of historic romance, we can see that there isn’t really a corresponding trope because the defaults are opposite. The default for historic mixed-gender couples is an assumption that there will be an age gap: that the man will be older—sometimes even significantly older—and more experienced, without that being notable as a particular type of scenario. So it’s an apples and oranges situation: age-gap isn’t a trope that carries over from the more general world of romance fiction, but rather one that emerges within same-sex romance literature specifically because it creates an unexpected dynamic with respect to the assumed default.


So if your romantic couple are reaching for concepts and structures into which they can fit their emerging relationship, one possibility they might consider is to view themselves as becoming family, not in the shape of a marriage, but in the shape of slipping into existing familial roles that presume the sort of closeness, affection, and mutual support that they desire.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Relationships using the imagery of sisters and mother/daughter
  • Age-gap relationships
  • References
    • Babayan, Kathryn. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0
    • Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard Books, New York. ISBN 0-679-43228-0
    • Hansen, Karen V. 1995. "No Kisses is Like Youres" in Gender and History vol 7, no 2: 153-182.
    • Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
    • Levin, Richard A. 1997. “What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney’s New Arcadia” in Criticism 39:4 : 463-49.
    • Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
    • Merrill, Lisa. 2000. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-0-472-08749-5
    • Morgan, Mihangel. 2016. “From Huw Arwystli to Siôn Eirian: Representative Examples of Cadi/Queer Life from Medieval to Twentieth-century Welsh Literature” in Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales. Huw Osborne (ed). University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-7831-6863-7
    • Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
    • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” in Signs vol. 1, no. 1 1-29.
    • Vanita, Ruth. 1996. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-10551-7
    • Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
    • Wiethaus, Ulrike. 1993. “In Search of Medieval Women’s Friendships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Letters to her Female Contemporaries” in Wiethaus, Ulrike (ed) Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. ISBN 0-8156-2560-X

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Saturday, June 8, 2024 - 16:43

I've decided to power through my list of reading for my "actresses and the stage" episode of the tropes series. Maybe I can get it together for the August podcast so you'll have something nice and chewy while I'm off gallivanting around the UK.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Cheek, Pamela. 1998. "The 'Mémoires secrets' and the Actress: Tribadism, Performance, and Property", in Jeremy D. Popkin and Bernadette Fort (eds), The "Mémoires secrets" and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Despite the prominence of the word “tribadism” in the article title, it has only a small focus on this topic. The overall focus is on the public reputations and images of actresses in late 18th century French (especially Parisian) society, and particularly how those reputations and images had political overtones. Prominent actresses participated in a public economy of “pop culture” that would be familiar to people today, including the availability of souveniers and being the focus of gossip rags. Actresses were viewed as public “sexual property” in many ways, assumed to be licentious and unable to escape the requirement that they be the mistress of some prominent man or other.

Thus they were both a subject of fascination as well as being condemned as a symbol of immorality. They inhabited a liminal space, mixing with those of rank and wealth and free not only of traditional patriarchal control (whether of father or husband) but of ordinary restrictions over women’s sexual and economic autonomy. On the other hand, they were constantly scrutinized by the police and subject to legal control of their behavior, as well as being excluded from religious and social rituals. In essence, they fell entirely outside civic structures. In exchange, they received adulation for their stage talents and had significant agency in controlling the conditions of their work.

One continuing theme in accusations of immorality was that actresses (either in general, or by specific accusation) were “tribades” – a term which had a clearly understood meaning, per a dictionary of 1765, as a “femme qui a de la passion pour une autre femme” (a woman who has a passion for another woman). Prominent actress Mademoiselle Raucourt shows up regularly by name in such accusations, forming a curious contrast with the noble and virtuous characters she played on the stage.

(The article takes a deep dive into the implications of how actresses playing royal characters created an opportunity for critique and commentary on the actual royalty, while maintaining a sort of plausible deniable for the critics, but I’m not going to go into this aspect.)

The association of actresses with lesbianism also intersected their association with prostitution and pornography. Raucourt, as mentioned previously, was a popular target for this theme and stories circulated that she lead a “sect” of “tribades” or “anandrynes” [lit. “without men”]. (The same scandal sheets that spread rumors about the sex lives of actresses turned similar (lesbian) accusations on Queen Marie Antoinette.) This association had the dual functions of providing titillation and disapproval of women who controlled their own sexuality. One publication associated Roucourt and other actreresses with a secret society known as the “Loge de Lesbos” (lodge of Lesbos, suggesting parallels with masonic lodges). The pornographic literature that created the image of the “Anandrine sect” regularly returned to the trope of lesbianism as a standard phase in the sexual initiation of young women. When Roucourt fled Paris in 1778 to escape imprisonment for debt, the tabloids claimed that she and her lover Mademoiselle Souck were instead condemned for sexual crimes.

The motif of lesbianism could also be used in the tabloids for comic purposes, to mock men (or specific men) with the specter of being bested in bed by a female rival, when they find their prospective mistresses already occupied and satisfied by an actress. The use on stage of crossdressing as a plot motif plays into this comic approach, creating humor based on mistaken identities, sexual deception, and excuses to create homoerotic encounters. Female cross-dressing roles can be viewed as primarily for male consumption: exposing the shape of the actresses body, presenting f/f eroticism for a male audience, etc. but the purpose and function cannot be viewed this simply.

In essential ways, the actress’s agency places her in a socially “masculine” role, even as she is being turned into a sexual commodity, and this in turn allows her to slip between the roles of commodity and consumer.

Despite the hostility towards Raucourt during the revolution, both as a royalist and a symbol of immorality, she survived to become a director of the French theater in Italy under Napoleon and retired somewhat peacefully with a female companion, engaging in spats with neighboring landowners and participating in a local botanical academy. When she died, although her career as an actress led the church to forbid her burial, popular sentiment overturned this decision and she given a burial mass.



Time period: 
Saturday, June 1, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 288 - On the Shelf for June 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024-06-01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2024

News of the Field

New podcast-of-interest alert! I had a lovely time this month talking to Claudia Cox and Yasmin Vince, the hosts of a new podcast with a feminist take on period dramas. Here’s the podcast description: “Each episode, we break down how women are presented in a different historical film or TV show. A historian tells us how that period drama has changed our understanding of real women from that time period. Were corsets really as grim as TV tells us? Have the makers of Bridgerton ever opened a history book? Have the makers of Gladiator ever spoken to a girl? We shall discuss all this and more, while fangirling over Keira Knightley at any given opportunity.” They invited me to talk with them about the movie “The Favourite”—which long-time listeners may recall I discussed on this show, with guests Trystan Bass and Farah Mendlesohn. The new podcast is titled “Period” which makes for fun wordplay. I’ve provided a link in the show notes and I encourage you to check it out. The episode I’ll be in will come out sometime in the next month, I think, but I don’t have a link yet.

Another item you folks might want to check out is a limited periodical series titled “Lesbiantiquity,” which is publishing all the known classical Greek and Latin texts relevant to female homoeroticism, in both original and translation. The series is covering one author or work per issue, coming out weekly. The issues are available to read online for free, but you can also subscribe to support the project and receive notification of new issues. See the link in the show notes.

For the first time since the start of Covid, I went back in-person to the annual medieval congress in Kalamazoo. There was a wealth of papers on queer history, including a significant number on the Romance of Silence, a surprisingly modern-feeling gender-bending chivalric romance. Next year at the congress a group is presenting a stage version of the romance, so I expect there will be more papers on the topic as well.

Publications on the Blog

Still no new blogs covering books or articles – honestly, I don’t know where the time goes or how I ever managed to keep up before. And in the mean time, the new items to cover just keep piling up!

Book Shopping!

Speaking of which, the medieval congress has always been a hazardous book-buying experience for me, and this year was no different. Only three items were relevant enough to the Project that I’ve listed them in the show notes. I picked up another in Ian Mortimer’s “Time Traveler’s Guide” series, this one covering Elizabethan England. Books of this sort can be useful in grounding you in a period, before you move on to more specific research. I picked up a bilingual edition of Pompeo Colonna’s In Defense of Women, part of a genre of philosophical writings pushing back against the misogyny that was endemic in the European middle ages. And I received a book I’d ordered previously for my “women on stage” topic – a collection of papers titled Women Players in England, 1500-1660, edited by Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, which offers a good counter to the misapprehension that there were no female actors until the Restoration.

But in addition to those, I picked up several books on textile and clothing history, magical texts in Tudor England, medieval Welsh poetry , and the depiction in medieval art of King Balthazar (one of the three wise men) as a Black man. Oh, and also some fun Latin reading matter: an “easy reader” edition of a text on bird omens, a collection of tomb inscriptions giving glimpses into everyday lives, and a phrase book of “conversational Latin” illustrating everyday scenarios. Just in case you ever wondered what an amateur historian thinks of as “light reading.”

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But until someone writes a lesbian romance in ancient Latin, what we’re really here for is the new releases.

I found one more April book. Uncharted Waters (The Savages of Falcote) by Ally Hastings from Attwater Books, which is part of a connected family romance series, but I think the only book with a sapphic romance.

1816. A young widow, a marquess’s sister, and the year without a summer.

Sarah Fitzrobert has lost much. Her husband, her youthful optimism, and, she sometimes fears, her liking for other people. When she was first out in society she couldn’t wait to be a wife, and the months of her engagement had seemed endless. Now, only four years later, she is a widow with nothing to look forward to except tagging along on her siblings’ social engagements, the future as wide and flat as a calm sea.

Lady Mariana Sinclair, née Savage, has everything she ever hoped for. Enough money to dazzle society with her dressmaker’s daring creations, frequent visits to her family home, and an agreeable husband to whom she is only married in name. So why does she still feel as if there is something missing?

Staying at Falcote during a sunless summer, Sarah and Mariana hesitantly start to talk about their hopes and disappointments, and ask the questions they cannot ask anyone else. But they are not the only ones who are curious, and when one of the other guests sees something she shouldn’t have, the precious safety of Falcote is threatened…

I also found one more May release that I’d missed, a western:

Three Times Elspeth Harris Rode to Town by Becky Black from JMS Books.

There had never been as much excitement in the town of Ghostbrook as there was the day Elspeth Harris faced trial for shooting a man. But it’s a clear case of self-defense, and she’s soon free to attend a wedding, where she meets Rose O’Sullivan, the town’s only seamstress, and engages her to make some unusual alterations.

Rose knows Elspeth has a secret she is protecting, one Rose has only seen hints of. As a lover of dime novels and tales of adventure, Rose’s imagination runs wild. Could Elspeth be a government agent? An undercover lady Pinkerton?

When they meet again at another wedding and share confidences about their lives and the difficulties of being a woman alone in the world, Rose grows ever more intrigued by the mysterious Elspeth. What secrets lie behind her beautiful, but aloof exterior?

Rose will finally learn those secrets when the third wedding of the summer comes around and with it, a bold proposal.

The rest of the books will be June releases.

Lee Swanson finishes up his medieval series “No Man is her Master” with the fourth volume: She Serves the Realm from Merchant's Largesse Books.

At the conclusion of the third novel, Her Dangerous Journey Home, Christina Kohl learns of the death of Sir Edgar Baldewyne, the boorish and abusive husband of her beloved Lady Cecily. At last free to marry, Christina and Cecily lack only the permission of the king to fulfill their heart's fondest desire. This seems only a modest hurdle, as they both enjoy his favor. But in the turbulent times of Edward II's reign, he is much more concerned with making use of Christina's considerable talents than in bringing happiness to her life.

In She Serves the Realm, Christina is torn from her merchant trade and the woman she loves to become an officer of the king. She is placed in ever-growing danger as civil war seems all but inevitable; the Lords Ordainers demanding the banishment of the Earl of Cornwall, King Edward just as adamant to retain Gaveston by his side. Complicating matters further is the always present peril of her disguise being discovered, revealing her not to be Sir Frederick Kohl, but in actuality a woman.

With her mentor and friend Herr Ziesolf no longer by her side, Christina finds herself devoid of her staunchest ally. But she is not left to fight alone; the irreverent Reiniken, erstwhile Jost, and noble Sir Giles join her on her adventures, as well as others both old and new to the readers of the series.

Many of the popular sapphic pirate stories we’ve seen lately fall more in the realm of fantasy, a la “Pirates of the Carribean”, but Briony Cameron’s The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye, from Atria Books, is inspired by a relatively historic figure.

This epic, dazzling tale based on true events illuminates a woman of color’s rise to power as one of the few purported female pirate captains to sail the Caribbean, and the forbidden love story that will shape the course of history.

In the tumultuous town of Yáquimo, Santo Domingo, Jacquotte Delahaye is an unknown but up-and-coming shipwright. Her dreams are bold but her ambitions are bound by the confines of her life with her self-seeking French father. When her way of life and the delicate balance of power in the town are threatened, she is forced to flee her home and become a woman on the run along with a motley crew of refugees, including a mysterious young woman named Teresa.

Jacquotte and her band become indentured servants to the infamous Blackhand, a ruthless pirate captain who rules his ship with an iron fist. As they struggle to survive his brutality, Jacquotte finds herself unable to resist Teresa despite their differences. When Blackhand hatches a dangerous scheme to steal a Portuguese shipment of jewels, Jacquotte must rely on her wits, resourcefulness, and friends to survive. But she discovers there is a grander, darker scheme of treachery at play, and she ultimately must decide what price she is willing to pay to secure a better future for them all.

Jess Everlee has a historic romance series out from Carina Adores, with the series title “Lucky Lovers of London.” Volume 3 focuses on a sapphic couple in A Bluestocking's Guide to Decadence.

London, 1885

A lesbian in a lavender marriage, Jo Smith cuts a dashing figure in pin-striped trousers, working in her bookshop and keeping impolite company. But her hard-earned stability is about to be upended thanks to her husband’s pregnant paramour, who needs medical attention that no reputable doctor will provide.

Enter Dr. Emily Clarke, a tantalizing bluestocking working at a quaint village hospital outside the city. Emily has reservations about getting mixed up in Jo’s scandalous arrangement, but her flustered, heart-racing response to Jo has her agreeing to help despite herself.

There’s a world of difference between Jo’s community of underground clubs and sapphic societies and Emily’s respectable suburbs. Perhaps it’s a gap that even fervent desire can’t bridge.

But for those bold enough to take the risk, who knows what delicious adventures might be in store…

Short fiction is hard to summarize without giving away the entire plot, so the description of Her Runaway Bride by Brooke Winters is also short and sweet.

When Lady Rachel fled from her home the night before her wedding, she never expected to find happiness in the arms of another woman. In disguise as a maid, Rachel has never been happier. When her identity is discovered, her new life and love are threatened. Anne has always struggled with trust and when she finds out that her lover isn't who she says she is, her heart is broken and her trust shattered. Rachel is determined to win Anne back.

So I confess that if I read the cover copy for Tides of Captivation: A sapphic pirate tale (Daughters Under the Black Flag #1), by Eden Hopewell, without that pointer in the sub-title, I wouldn’t have known this for a sapphic book. But I’ll take the author’s word for it.

A gilded cage. A rebellious heart. A journey that will rewrite her destiny.

Isabella Montgomery, stifled by the constraints of 18th-century Virginia society and the expectations placed upon her as a young woman of privilege, dreams of a life beyond the confines of her gilded cage. She yearns for adventure, knowledge, and the freedom to choose her own path.

When an arranged marriage to the arrogant and controlling Lord Frederick Ashworth threatens to seal her fate, Isabella takes a daring leap of faith. She escapes the suffocating world of balls and social obligations by stowing away on a ship bound for the open sea.

But the ship, the Lady Liberty, is not the escape she envisioned. The captain, Nathaniel Reynolds, is a man of mystery and intrigue, but also of harsh discipline and hidden motives. As Isabella navigates the challenges of life at sea, she faces dangers from storms, pirates, and the unpredictable nature of the captain himself.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? Somewhat surprisingly, it hasn’t been all audiobooks this month—just two out of three.

I rather enjoyed The Witch King by Martha Wells, which is a twisty fantasy about human-demon politics and adventures of the sort I love, where the worldbuilding is back-loaded and you figure out what’s going on along the way. There was one point at the very end where I felt this structure failed me, and a plot twist felt like it had come out of nowhere without enough set-up. But on the whole I enjoyed it.

I was just a tiny bit disappointed in Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi, because I felt the advance copy had hinted at more sapphic content than it delivered. There is a background sapphic romance that is relevant to the plot, but given that I’d included it in the podcast listings on the basis of advance information, I did feel a bit misled. The story is a sort of Robin Hood re-imagining, set in the Holy Land during the crusades, with a slowly-accumulating band of misfits finding adventure and purpose while just trying to survive.

The last item I finished was in hard copy, which is why it took me almost 4 months to finish it. This is Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend by Emma R. Alban. I had a lot of interesting thoughts about the structure and voice of this book—which I’m planning to put in an essay doing a compare-and-contrast with several other historic romances that got me thinking along similar lines. What it comes down to is: there are historic romances that actually feel like modern people dressed up in costume. And that doesn’t automatically mean that I won’t enjoy reading the book. In point of fact, I definitely enjoyed Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. But only after I’d shifted gears and stopped reading it as a historical. At that point, the book has to stand or fall on the writing and characters. If a historic romance works for me as a historical, then it doesn’t have to work quite as hard on the prose and the characterization. It still has to work, but not as hard. But if it doesn’t work for me as a historical, then I find myself asking the question, “would I even be reading this book if I hadn’t been promised it was historical?” Anyway, Best Friend is allegedly set in Victorian England, and is something of a “Parent Trap” take-off in which two best friends (who develop romantic feelings for each other) are also trying to match up their widowed parents, which would completely solve the problem of being expected to get married to men.

If you’re interested in my overall thoughts on what I’ve found people are calling “wallpaper historicals,” it’ll probably go up on my Dreamwidth blog, because that’s where I’ve been putting my book reviews lately. It feels like a better separation between my personal opinions on books versus the boosterism I prefer to focus on in this venue. I’ve been working on getting caught up on posting about the last couple years of reading over there, so with the caveat that I may be more opinionated there, you can check out hrj on Dreamwidth.

Show Notes

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

Major category: 
Tuesday, May 28, 2024 - 08:00

Look! Look! I published a blog article!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Cameron, A. 1998. “Love (and Marriage) Between Women” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 39, pp.137-156

Just as there arose something of an industry of scholars responding to John Boswell’s, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, there is an entire category of articles similarly picking apart the premises and conclusions of Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. In both cases, the establishment of historians specializing in early religious history felt that these authors were treading on ground they had no right to, and challenging long-held assumptions without an adequate contextual understanding of the texts they were working with. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of those attitudes, it remains that the naysayers give the appearance of holding Boswell’s and Brooten’s positions to a far higher standard of proof than more mainstream historic theories are held to.

I’ll note that Brooten is working on an updated version of her study. I was able to join a virtual roundtable where she presented some of her new work and had it discussed by fellow scholars. I look forward to seeing the results of that.

Cameron acknowledges that Brooten found more evidence for love between women in Greco-Roman antiquity than scholars had previously supposed was available. However, he then lays out his agenda that her arguments depend on four Greek texts, each of which he will challenge the interpretation of. In two cases, Cameron’s objection is that the verb “gamein,” when applied to two women, does not refer to marriage at all, not even metaphorically. [Note: Readers should make the connection between this word root and familiar terms like “monoGAMy" “GAMete” etc., although of course the sense a root has in neo-Latin technical terms doesn’t restrict the senses it may have had in classical writings.]

When applied to a male-female couple, “gamein” is used in the active voice of a man and the passive voice of a women. That is, a man marries a woman but a woman is married by a man. The word can also be used as a euphemism for “fuck,” with this same asymmetry.

Lucian and Clement both wrote at a time when “gamein” was used both for “to marry” and “to fuck” and Cameron argues that context will always provide a clear guide to which sense is intended. [Comment: The problem is always that scholars who use this type of argument inevitably presume “women did not marry women” as part of the context for interpreting the sense of the word.] He then provides a variety of examples of “gamein” in contexts where a sex act is a more likely interpretation than a marriage.

The relevant quotation from Clement is of the “world turned upside down” sort, complaining that “men suffer womanly things and women play the male role, getting married and marrying women contrary to nature.” Cameron argues that the inclusion of both the active and passive forms of the verb indicates that some of the women in question play a “male” role while other play a “female” role, which he concludes demonstrates that the word is being used in a sexual sense. [Comment: As an objection against understanding the action as marriage, this argument seems to overlook a likely cultural prejudice that views marriage as necessarily involving a male-coded partner and a female-coded partner. In contrast, I’ll note that this symbolic framework has been applied broadly throughout history, with female partners often being assumed to take on gender-contrasting roles, all the way up to the present day, when same-sex couples regularly get asked “but who is the man and who is the women?” So you’ll forgive me if I find fault with Cameron’s chain of logic.]

The Lucian text is from the Dialogues of the Courtesans when Megilla says, “I have been married [gamein] to Demonassa here for ever so long, and she is my wife [gyna].” Here Cameron argues that since the purpose of the conversation is for Megilla to explain to Leaena that Leaena has been hired to join a threesome with Megilla and Demonassa, that talking in terms of marriage, rather than in terms of sex, would not get the point across. [Comment: But if “gamein” could be understood as either “marry” or “fuck” in this context, then we can’t assume in which sense Leaena would have taken it. If Cameron correctly asserts that Megilla is trying to break through Leaena’s naivete about what women can do together, wouldn’t a less ambiguous word than “gamein” work better? “Gamein” implies sex specifically because marriage implies sex. So Megilla’s claim that she is married to Demonassa would inherently bring the implication that they’re having sex. But that’s a different matter from asserting that because the intent is to say “we’re having sex” that “gamein” could not possibly mean literal marriage here. In fact, one could interpret Leaena’s initial confusion specifically because she’s understanding the conversation to be about marriage rather than sex.]

Next there comes a discussion of a much later commentary on Clement, in which the reference to women “playing the male role” is explained as “tribades, whom they also call hetairistriai and Lesbians” These commentaries date from centuries later than Clement’s text and therefore don’t necessarily assume the same cultural understandings. Later commentary linking “tribades” to passages in which women “gamein” also appear in an edition of Lucian’s Dialogues, and a commentary on an erotic text attributed to Philainis also links “hetairistriai” and “tribades”. But, as Cameron notes, all three of these commentaries were written by the same 10th century scholar. Therefore, Cameron argues, the commentaries support only a single scholar’s knowledge of obscure classical terms and not, as Brooten suggests, “the existence of a cultural category of homoerotic women (and not just of individual homoerotic acts).”

This is followed by a deep dive into the path by which the (possibly fictional) Philainis became associated with knowledge about love between women. This leads, in a roundabout way, to a speculation that the commenter did not use the word “lesbian” in the sense of “women who have sex with women” (in which case it would be the earliest surviving example of that meaning) but is rather deriving that reference entirely from the line in Lucius “they say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women,” and that the gloss on Clement (which equates “lesbians” with “hetairistriai” and “tribades,” if you recall) is simply implying that there are tribades on Lesbos. [Comment: I think he’s working overly hard here to deny a semantic equivalence between the three words.] The 10th century commenter, Cameron concludes, is mostly interesting for his preoccupation with same-sex love between women and not for shedding light on social understandings of the phenomenon either in his own time or in that of the texts he’s working with. [Comment: Which…ok? But isn’t his preoccupation itself of interest regarding awareness of love between women as a possibility in the 10th century?]

The remaining texts to consider are an astrological text and the summary of Iamblichus’s Babyloniaka. The astrological text I’ll grant him, as it does seem that Brooten’s translation shifted the meaning from women referring to other women “as if they were their legal wives” to translating it as women referring to their female partners “as their legal wives.”

But Cameron’s discussion of Iamblichos returns to applying asymmetric standards to the translation of “gamous” in which the presumption that women do not marry women turns into the conclusion that the word is not used to mean “marry” when used between women. In this case, the proposed “correct” translation, rather than being a sex act, is “to hold a wedding feast.” Cameron proposes that rather than the conclusion of the story being “Berenike marries Mesopotamia,” the event is “Berenike holds a wedding feast for Mesopotamia to marry some other unspecified person.” To come to this conclusion, Cameron posits that Iamblichos has “blurred the distinction” between two formulas using the key word and that without the detailed text lost from the surviving summary “there is no way of being sure which sense he intended.” Keep in mind that it has been established in the story that Berenike loves Mesoptamia, so Cameron is left claiming that “Iambluchus’s purpose may have been to exploit the dramatic irony” of Berenike celebrating her beloved’s marriage to someone else (the prime candidate being a eunuch who has played a continuing role in the story).

Cameron then goes into a comparison of typical marriage practices in real life with the rather different tropes present in romantic novels such as the Babyloniaka…and then fails to notice that these literary tropes fail to support his rather convoluted interpretation of the relationships in the story.

[Comment: Once again, I feel that Cameron is working extra hard to devise an interpretation that fits the presumption that—even within a work of fiction—classical authors would not have envisioned the possibility that two women might marry. While it’s true that marriage between women isn’t such an ordinary thing that it’s the expected interpretation, in the case of the Babyloniaka, that possibility is well set up within the text, and therefore it’s a less natural conclusion that some other interpretation of “gamous” must be the preferred reading in the key passage.]

Cameron doesn’t deny that the Babyloniaka depicts a passionate relationship between two women—he simply objects to interpreting language including words meaning “to marry” as straightforwardly indicating that the women in the story got married. Similarly he notes that the astrological text presenting women who treated their relationship as if it were a marriage as being common enough to need explanation in terms of astrological influences, definitely suggests that female same-sex couples were a known phenomenon. But the overall thrust of the article is that if alternate possible explanations (even tortuous ones) can be found for each individual use of “gamein” and related words when applied to female couples, then even a collected body of evidence such as Brooten assembled, for the idea of woman-woman marriage in the classical world, can be dismissed as a whole.

Time period: 
Saturday, May 18, 2024 - 18:35

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 87 – All the Historic Lesbianisms - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/18 - listen here)


One of the things I’ve been doing behind the scenes with this podcast is to develop episodes that are contributing—ever so gradually—to the goal of assembling an actual book: a resource book for writing lesbian-like characters in historical fiction. Which was, of course, the original inspiration of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. For example, the trope episodes—in addition to being fun to do for their own sake—will end up being sub-chapters in a section on themes, motifs, and tropes. The various biography episodes will be sub-chapters in a section illustrating various “ways of being” for women who loved women. And some episodes are intended to slowly build up the philosophical structure for understanding and thinking about those “ways of being.”

Today’s topic is to explore the wide range of variables that can make up the ways in which individuals or societies understand and express love between women. “All the historic lesbianisms” as it were. When modern society turned its attention to trying to define and understand homosexuality across the last century, there has been a tendency to look for a single definitive answer. Is it a psychological condition? Is it a sin? Is it a genetic trait? Is it a revolutionary rejection of normative society? Is homosexuality a waystation on the path to dissolving all specific genders and orientations? Is it about sex or is it about love? And so forth and so on.

As regular listeners have probably picked up, my own personal take is that there are almost as many different ways of being a lesbian as there are people who identify as lesbians. (And, as always, this discussion invokes the broad definition of “lesbian” as the word has been used across history.) Both individuals and cultures in the past have reflected that diversity of “ways of being.” This doesn’t mean that lesbians in history are indefinable or indescribable, but rather that they are multi-faceted. There are usually multiple understandings or models co-existing at any given time, with specific models passing in and out of prominence. But those models do have a number of definable attributes, even ones that sometimes seem contradictory.

So what I want to talk about today is some of the attributes that have, in various times and places, contributed to the bundles of features that people understood as relating to love between women. In a given context, there might be distinct “ways of being” that we, today, would group together as “lesbian” but that were seen as distinct back then. The features might shift and the groups of features that were considered to align together might change. All this contributes to the impossibility of creating a unified model of historic lesbianism—that elusive goal of modern sexology.

For historic fiction authors, this isn’t a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means that you won’t always be writing the same type of character in every setting, or even within the same setting. Today’s discussion isn’t so much about categorizing exactly which “ways of being” existed in specific times and places, but to think about the palette of options that have resonances across multiple times and places.

Impetus of Desire

First, let’s tackle the features that I’ll put under the label “impetus or motivation of desire.” What is the understanding of what drives and directs the desires that we would call lesbian or sapphic?

The version that creates the most complications with respect to modern categories of gender and sexuality is the cross-gender or “opposites attract” model. Most historic western cultures had some version of an understanding that someone assigned as female might desire women due to some degree of essential masculine nature. Under this model, desire is kindled by contrast across a masculine/feminine gradient. The masculinity in question might be intellectual or psychological—having personality qualities that were coded as masculine at the time. It might be behavioral—identified by favored activities or preferred clothing. Or it might be understood as manifesting physically. This could be a matter of physical strength or stature, or particular facial features, or it could appear as differences in genital anatomy from what was assumed to be the feminine norm.

This model of desire can complicate the very idea of love between women as one way of viewing it is as assimilating apparently female couples to an underlying heterosexual norm via a transgender lens. Many historic cultures had no context for drawing clear distinctions between gender transgression and transgender identity—and viewed them as equally problematic. So understand today’s discussion, not as co-opting all such relationships as “lesbian,” but as a set of overlaid transparencies where the same picture can be defined and understood via multiple frameworks.

(The “opposites” model can also subsume desire involving an intersex individual, but that’s a rather different topic, which I’ll set aside for now.)

The cross-gender model does not always require a physical component. In some contexts, understandings of love between women will presume that one partner must be masculine to some degree and will assign that role to one participant, regardless of how well it fits. Similarly, within a culture that features this model, female partners may feel pressured to have one woman assume a masculine-coded role within the relationship, whether in terms of behavior or simply the roles taken within the household. And, of course, this model can reflect the self-identification of the participants, where one woman identifies with female masculinity while the other is attracted to it.

A different model of desire holds that like attracts like—that people (in general) will tend to connect emotionally with those who are similar to them. While this model lies behind positive images of femme-femme couples, it may sometimes be invoked to support class, religious, or racial barriers to romantic relationships, as well as being used to argue against mixed-gender friendships. So the consequences of “like attracts like” can be negative as well as positive.

When this “similarity” model of attraction is featured within a culture, there can be a general acceptance of emotionally intimate relationships between same-sex pairs. Even when same-sex erotic desire is not in the discussion, there can be an expectation that women’s closest emotional relationships will “naturally” be with other women, regardless of their social and legal relationships to men. The difference and similarity models can co-exist within a culture, combining with other features to generate social categories that are considered distinct, despite both involving two assigned-female persons.

But similarity and difference aren’t the only two models that cultures have identified for explaining love between women. Women—or people in general—may be viewed as having the potential to desire people of any sex or gender. That doesn’t mean that such a culture will consider all desires acceptable to act on. The question of whether one acts on a particular desire can be thought to be constrained by intellectual or moral choice, rather than being controlled by the presence or absence of an underlying emotion. When one of the cultural models is this “pansexual” desire, it will have implications for how people interact with each other and how they interpret affectionate or potentially erotic behavior. Is everyone a potential romantic or sexual partner or does society assume that only certain categories of people can provoke desire?

A subset of the pansexual model is one in which same-sex desire is viewed as a matter of “excess.” In this model, someone with typical or normative levels of sexual desire may be expected to direct those desires toward normative objects—that is, objects of the expected sex, age, class, etc. While someone whose level of sexual desire is excessive will fail to discriminate as expected in their objects and will pursue erotic objects that fall outside the norm, including same-sex partners, but also potentially including partners of an inappropriate age or class.

While a given culture may include more than one of these models of desire, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will embrace the idea that individual people may be motivated by different models. That is, there may not be an overt acceptance that one woman may lean toward female partners due to an inherent masculinity while another woman may prefer female partners due to similarity. Cultures rarely have complete coherence in their models of the world, and contradictions won’t necessarily change a world-view, either of an individual or of a society. But certain models may be more or less prominent in a particular time and place, and that mix will shape both internal and external understandings of desire.

Context of Desire

The next angle that I want to consider is closely related to the motivation of desire, but is something more like the cause or source of that desire. Or perhaps, the context in which the reason for desire is understood. This angle lies at the heart of the great Foucaultian debate: is same-sex desire a matter of behavior or of identity? But I’d like to break it down a bit more than just that binary choice.

One type of understanding is that desire—of whatever sort—is innate, something a person is born with. This view is so thoroughly ingrained in modern models of desire that it can be hard to step back and view it as only one option. In historic societies, the idea of innate desire may be tied to theories of personality based on astrology, or based on humoral theory, or caused by something the mother experienced while pregnant, though in general these theories view it as a divergence from the expected state. The innate model may align closely with ideas that physical masculinity causes desire for a female object, but this isn’t always the case.

The other pole of the Foucaultian axis is the understanding that same-sex desire is simply a matter of engaging in specific acts. This may include an idea that it’s a taste or preference in the same way that someone might prefer eating certain foods or wearing certain colors. But the idea is that lesbianism is simply a matter of choosing to perform in a certain way rather than a matter of being a certain type of person.

But these aren’t the only possible contexts that can cause the emergence of certain models of love between women. We can also consider socialization as a factor. Regardless of whatever desires or preferences an individual might have in a vacuum, if their culture presents certain models and patterns of behavior as being acceptable or even expected, that will shape individual behavior. This is the force we see behind patterns like Classical Greek age-differentiated relationships, or the several eras of female passionate friendships. For that matter, we can look at the ocean of normative heterosexuality that we all swim in and see it as a type of socialized orientation that influences people’s romantic and sexual choices regardless of individual feelings.

We can also consider a special case of socialized desire if it becomes a matter of fashion. Particular models of relationships may be valorized in a culture to the extent that people engage in them simply for the sake of status or inclusiveness. As an example of this, we might look at early 20th century girls’ school crushes, where participation in a specific type of romantic script might be considered essential for social acceptance. If a relatively broad definition of love between women is used, we may find all manner of examples driven by fashion.


The next category to consider when analyzing models of love between women can be thought of as the medium of expression. It can be simplest to fall back on the somewhat over-used Greek vocabulary of love, distinguishing eros from philia from agape, with some people tossing in storge. Eros is a physical attraction. When directed toward a person, it’s most often thought of in terms of sexual desire and involving genital stimulation (though this is not the purely philosophical version of the term). Philia is the bond between people who view each other as equals and partners, based on appreciation and respect. It’s most commonly characterized as the love between friends. Storge is the love that develops within a family based on shared experiences and traditions, and is often described as the type of love between parent and child. Agape is love for humanity in general—perhaps one might think of it as love that forms the basis of community.

I bring in this set of models because if we go looking for female same-sex relationships in history and we are focused entirely on eros, then we spend our time squabbling over “did they or didn’t they?” But if we integrate all varieties of love into our models then we can see how that expression—whether in terms of what the participants experienced, or in terms of how society understood their relationship—can represent a continuum of possibilities. And here we need to look at different types of expression both as viewed by society and as experienced within the relationship.

For example, societies might embrace and support women’s relationships if and when they were understood as involving philia or storge, but look askance at ones seen as involving eros, regardless of what happened between the women in private. Other societies might consider it expected that women might feel eros for each other (while also having strong opinions about how they act on it). Social models of love between women might expect the bond to rely on eros—an esthetic appreciation for each other—or on philia—an intense friendship—or on storge—a modeling of family relationships. And the couple themselves could have the same range of understandings. They might base their relationship on ideas of marriage, or on friendship, or think in terms of being sisters or even a mother-child relationship. (And I want to remind listeners that male-female couples have historically used the same types of symbolic models within their marriages. We aren’t talking about literal incest here.)


When we’re looking at all the various models of love between women, one axis that we mustn’t ignore is how that love is expressed physically. And—once more—we can view this both in terms of how society imagines what’s happening, and how the participants in the relationship engage with it. As I regularly point out, when we’re discussing a wide swath of time and space, we can’t assume that there’s a clear, agreed-on definition of what constitutes “sexual activity” and what falls in some other category of erotic or sensual interactions. This topic needs a whole discussion to itself, but the key point is that the exact nature of the physical relations between two women could be a key factor in how their relationship was categorized and understood. So even if a society (or the women in a relationship) had clear opinions about women having sex, it also matters what sorts of acts they would categorize as “sex”. Is a kiss just a kiss, or do different types of kisses carry different meanings? Is cuddling and fondling considered sexual or simply pleasurable? Do social attitudes towards a female couple change based on what type of activities people believe they’re engaging in? I’m not going to set up some sort of menu or hierarchy here, but simply note it as yet one more facet of the variety of relationship models.


When we look at how relationships between women are integrated into other social relationships, we must consider several possible expectations, especially in terms of how women’s relationships compare to mixed-gender relationships. Do women (or the society they live in) expect love relationships between women to have the same sort of exclusivity as is expected from male-female relationships? (Which isn’t to say that they’re necessarily exclusive, but simply are the attitudes towards exclusivity parallel.) Or are multiple same-sex relationships considered the equivalent of having multiple friendships—some may be more important than others, but having one doesn’t preclude others? Do women in same-sex relationships (or the society they live in) consider same-sex and different-sex relationships to conflict or to exist in parallel? That is, do the two types of relationships exist within separate spheres with different roles? Or are they considered to be in conflict and competition with each other? In models where they’re considered to be in competition, this can increase male hostility to love between women. Conversely, in models where the two types of relationships exist in parallel, the greater social and economic forces supporting male-female relationships can make it difficult to give both equal priority. And, of course, in contexts where polyamory is an accepted practice, these dynamics shift accordingly, although historically in Western culture, those contexts tend to be limited to radical social movements.

Social Evaluation

The final set of axes I want to consider here have to do with how love between women is evaluated in relation to social norms, both by the women involved and the cultures they live in. We can see these same evaluations still playing out today in different subcultures, which should remind us that people’s experiences are never uniform. One contrast can be whether a same-sex relationship is viewed as assimilating to social norms and patterns, or whether it’s seen as transgressing and conflicting with those norms and patterns, or—as another possibility—if it’s viewed as entirely apart from the norms of male-female relationships: not the same, but also not challenging them.

Is love between women viewed as somehow pure and elevated and “better” than male-female relationships? Or is it considered degraded and debased? For example, do we have a model like romantic friendship, or one like the image of prostitutes engaging in recreational lesbianism? Both views can co-exist and align with different relationship models present in the same society. Is love between women considered something that cultured and sophisticated women engage it? Or is it considered uncultured and common (in a negative sense)? Sophistication isn’t always considered a positive trait. In some contexts, love between women is considered the provenance of the aristocracy or of decadent artistic types, in contrast to more conservative middle-class values.


My purpose in laying out all these categories of variation is to think about a system for describing and classifying all the different lesbianisms that we find in history. It should be obvious that it’s impossible to come up with any definition that would fit them all—and we shouldn’t try to come up with that universal definition. But we can look at the evidence from particular times and places to identify the relationship models that were present—all the various models—and thus to understand what sorts of sapphic characters might exist within those contexts and how they would interact with their societies. And that is an essential part of creating believable characters in historical fiction, in the same way that a character should wear appropriate clothing and inhabit appropriate landscapes. Understanding these models is not a limitation, but rather an opening of possibilities.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Social models of women loving women
  • Variables and features of those models

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Saturday, May 4, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 286 - On the Shelf for May 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2024.

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those episodes that’s mostly stripped down to just the book news. I worry that people aren’t interested in episodes that are basically book catalogs, but I haven’t had the time and energy to set up interviews, or think about special topic book lists, or any of the other occasional content I include in these episodes. I’m going though one of those “maybe it’s time to wrap things up” periods. Injections of listener enthusiasm and feedback would be welcome.

I truly did mean to get some articles up in the blog this month to mention. I even started typing up the notes from one of the half dozen that I’ve read and highlighted. Then my brain shut down and I set it aside. The most momentous thing I’m doing related to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is that I’ve finally started thinning down my library of books I’m never likely to use for anything, so that—among other things—I can make space for all the gender and sexuality books without having to double-shelve them and leave piles on the floor. Making the choices to discard has been easier than I thought, but finding appropriate homes for them will be harder. They end up in three categories: books to give away, books that I’ll try to get store credit for at my local used bookstore, and books that have substantial resale value that I need to find a middleman for. All of which means that I’ll have boxes of books sitting around for months while I get things sorted out. But I’ve been meaning to thin out the library for quite some time and it’s good to have made a start.

Book Shopping!

And, of course, the new books keep coming in. This month’s addition is Women on Stage in Stuart Drama by Sophie Tomlinson. This purchase (and another related book that’s still in transit) came out of the inspiration to do a tropes episode on women in the theater. Searching through the books and articles I’ve already blogged and the “to do” list made me realize I had a bunch of reading to do before working on the theater episode, including several solidly relevant books that I hadn’t yet acquired. Women on Stage in Stuart Drama also contributes nicely to my background research for my Restoration-era series-in-planning.

And speaking of which, that series is no longer simply a talking point. In July, the first story from that project, “Bound in Bitterness,” will be published in the anthology Whispers in the Stacks edited by M.J. Lowe for Bella Books. The topic of the collection is “romance set in libraries” so I don’t know if any of the other stories will have historic settings. It feels good to see my Restoration ladies finally start to see the light of day. I have a second completed story in the setting that wasn’t chosen for the anthology I wrote it for, which is waiting for an appropriate venue to be published. And the romance of the central figures in the series is only waiting for my retirement. Which is now only one year out and can’t come too soon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

While Whispers in the Stacks is still a few months out, we can take a look at the May releases and a handful of books I missed in the last couple months.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that I often pass over vampire novels, even if the vampire has a deep historic background, because they don’t have the structure of historical fiction. But Unholy with Eyes like Wolves by Morgan Dante is an exception with what looks like a more solid historic grounding. The story blends the themes of the historic Countess Bathory and the literary Carmilla.

Noémie, a dishonored and widowed noblewoman in early 17th century Hungary, finds herself in an unenviable position: After grievous trauma and loss, her last chance to regain her honor comes when she must serve as Lady Erzsébet Báthory’s handmaiden. Báthory is stoic and imperious, and as Noémie struggles to acclimate and accept her present and future, she begins to have dreams about a mysterious woman. Worse, there are stories of disappearance and deaths in the castle, and Noémie might be next.

I really enjoyed a previous book in Annick Trent’s The Old Bridge Inn series, set in the late 18th century and focusing on ordinary working people in the context of social upheavals. This month she has a novelette set in the same series: Harvest Season (The Old Bridge Inn #3).

Lowri has spent the past month bringing in the harvest and daydreaming about her one-night stand with Eliza, barmaid at the Blue Boar. When the two women meet again, the spark between them is as strong as ever, but they cannot immediately act upon it: they must race against time to warn a group of weavers who face arrest for organising a strike.

Renee Dahlia breaks free of the pattern that historic romance series with a variety of types of couples will only have a single f/f volume. In the case of the Regency-era series Desiring the Dexingtons, so far 3 of the 5 titles have involved female couples. This one is The Summer of Second Chances (Desiring the Dexingtons #4).

Laudanum addicted Lady Hyacinth Walfingham is sent to the Soho Club to recover, but it’s not only the medicine that has harmed her. As she comes to terms with her old life, she slowly falls for her nurse.

Jane Bonklesford knows that life is tough, and she can only rely on herself. Her side hustle of making dentures forms a key part of her plan to get out of poverty. Working as a nurse at the Soho Club helps her keep her business costs low, and the last thing she needs is to fall in love with the beautiful aristocratic Lady Walfingham.

Can they overcome their assumptions and make a life together? Or will their class differences be too much of a hurdle?

The cover copy for 2 Screams 1 Sugar by Sula Sullivan makes it a bit difficult to untangle what genres it’s playing to. The text gives off the feel of maybe turn-of-the-century England, without providing any solid evidence of time or place. The solid elements are that it’s a mystery, it involves a sapphic romance, and—based on both the cover art and the author’s notes—both protagonists are Black. Since the author sometimes writes historic fantasy, I’m uncertain whether the reference to one of the characters as a “giantess” is meant to be literal or only figurative.

In the bustling streets of Whittlesham, where gas lamps flicker, and crime abounds, two young women find themselves drawn together after a chance encounter at a crime scene turned tourist attraction. Destiny is a plucky aspiring detective stuck in the murky world of low-ranking journalism, and Jada is a giantess artist who turns the macabre into money with her crime scene sketches.

Driven by insatiable curiosity and a mutual passion for justice, the two women embark on a journey that leads them to unexpected places, including the purchase of a derelict narrowboat. Working together, the duo transform the boat into a cozy shop where they serve coffee, gather clues, and concoct plans to establish their own detective agency.

As they navigate the treacherous waters of the lowest currents of Whittlesham’s society and unmask the secrets hidden within its dark alleys, Destiny and Jada must rely on each other's strengths to unravel the truth behind the crimes that haunt their city. Danger lurks around every corner. Can they stay one step ahead, or will they become the next victims in Whittlesham’s twisted history?

The Good Women of Fudi by Liu Hong from Scribe Publications is set in turn-of-the-century China, featuring two gender-nonconforming women. But this isn’t a straightforward romance novel, despite clear sapphic themes, and it’s probably best not to go in expecting the two women to achieve a happily-ever-after ending together.

Best friends Jiali and Wu Fang know that no man is a match for them. In their small harbour town of Fudi, they practise sword fighting, write couplets to one another, and strut around dressed as men. Jiali is a renowned poet and Wu Fang is going to be China’s first female surgeon. But when Wu Fang returns from medical training in Japan, she is horrified to hear of Jiali’s marriage to a man who cannot even match her couplets, and confused by her intense feelings of jealousy towards her friend’s new husband, Yanbu.

Ocean man Charles has arrived in Fudi to start a new life. He eschews the company of his fellow foreigners, preferring to spend time with new colleague Yanbu, his wife, Jiali, and her friend, Wu Fang. Over the course of several months, he grows close to them all, in increasingly confusing ways, but what will happen when he is forced to choose between his country and his friends?

As tensions between the Manchu rulers and the people rise, and foreign battleships gather out at sea, loyalties will be tested in more ways than Jiali, Wu Fang, Yanbu, and Charles can possibly imagine.

It feels like we’ve been having a wealth of Prohibition-themed novels in the last year or two, now including Adrift by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books.

Janeth Castro never expected to be the most prominent bootlegger in Southern California. After growing up in Central Mexico and falling into her role in the business, she’s torn between supporting her family values and living life on her own terms. The last thing she needs is a white woman protesting at her door.

Alice Covington is many things: a pickpocket, a drifter, and now a daughter of the Prohibition movement. Under her mother’s cruel eye, she follows the protests to a mysterious mansion by the sea. Determined to play by her parents’ rules—which include not falling in love with a woman—she is surprised to find the great house host to the most surprising, and attractive, rum smuggler in town.

Janeth and Alice are caught in storms that neither can seem to escape. Obligation, fear, and old guilt claw daily at their hearts, and their chance meeting leads to an unexpected romance that may be just what they need to find safe harbor.

This next book, My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna van Veen from Poisoned Pen Press, has a strongly gothic feel.

Spirits are drawn to salt, be it blood or tears.

Roos Beckman has a spirit companion only she can see. Ruth—strange, corpse-like, and dead for centuries—is the light of Roos’ life. That is, until the wealthy young widow Agnes Knoop visits one of Roos’ backroom seances, and the two strike up a connection.

Soon, Roos is whisked away to the crumbling estate Agnes inherited upon the death of her husband, where an ill woman haunts the halls, strange smells drift through the air at night, and mysterious stone statues reside in the family chapel. Something dreadful festers in the manor, but still, the attraction between Roos and Agnes is undeniable.

Then, someone is murdered.

Poor, alone, and with a history of ‘hysterics’, Roos is the obvious culprit. With her sanity and innocence in question, she’ll have to prove who—or what—is at fault or lose everything she holds dear.

I confess it gave me a bit of a jolt when I saw that A Liaison with Her Leading Lady by Lotte R. James is published by Harlequin Historical. Harlequin publishing lesbian historic romance! As much as I have concerns about the pitifully few big-press sapphic romances sucking all the attention away from the much larger, long-established small press field, it’s still something of a landmark.

Ruth Connell’s beloved theater is under threat! In desperation, she approaches reclusive playwright Artemis Goode. If Artemis can write a hit, Ruth can save her troupe from financial ruin. Yet it’s not just Ruth’s livelihood in need of saving, but Artemis’s shattered heart, too. As quickly as their personalities clash, their passion ignites! But while that leads their play toward success, it also leads Ruth closer to the end of her partnership with Artemis…

I think a theme this month is, “I have no idea from the cover copy whether this book falls within our scope or not.” Fortunately, for The Honey Witch by Sydney J. Shields from Redhook, advance reviews came to my rescue and confirmed this has a historic setting. (19th century was as specific as anyone got.) Otherwise, the book is much more on the fantasy side and is definitely following the trend of witchy books.

The Honey Witch of Innisfree can never find true love. That is her curse to bear. But when a young woman who doesn’t believe in magic arrives on her island, sparks fly in this deliciously sweet debut novel of magic, hope, and love overcoming all.

Twenty-one-year-old Marigold Claude has always preferred the company of the spirits of the meadow to any of the suitors who’ve tried to woo her. So when her grandmother whisks her away to the family cottage on the tiny Isle of Innisfree with an offer to train her as the next Honey Witch, she accepts immediately. But her newfound magic and independence come with a price: No one can fall in love with the Honey Witch.

When Lottie Burke, a notoriously grumpy skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, shows up on her doorstep, Marigold can’t resist the challenge to prove to her that magic is real. But soon, Marigold begins to care for Lottie in ways she never expected. And when darker magic awakens and threatens to destroy her home, she must fight for much more than her new home—at the risk of losing her magic and her heart.

Other Books of Interest

Three books go in my “other books of interest” category. In the case of Flight Lines (WASPS #2) by Jana Williams, one of the subject tags identifies it as LGBTQ+, but I couldn’t have guessed that from the cover copy.

Flight Lines picks up the WASP story after their graduation from training camp in Sweetwater, Texas. With their arrival at Moss Beach Airfield, California—their duty station, life as a professional flyer is about to begin. They quickly find it's a struggle to create a space for themselves on a military base. But their biggest challenge is getting a chance to prove their skills as pilots—pilots that are desperately needed for the war effort. Each woman finds a chance to shine despite the setbacks, buoyed by friendship and their shared passion for flying - they set their course and never look back.

For Pebble in the Pond by Alex Westmore (pen name of Linda Kay Silva), the uncertainty has to do with the historic context, though notes on the book indicate there are time-travel elements. I’m a bit more willing to rely on the coy language about “secrets” and “a price to pay for love” given the general trend of the author’s body of work. But, as usual, I offer no guarantees about the content of books I include in the “other of interest” group.

When bookstore owner and writer Ryan Kincaid stumbles upon an estate sale, she buys the whole lot of Catherine Van Wyck's massive library for a song...but the song those books sing reveals secrets Catherine would rather remain in the darkness...secrets that would upend her world and those of a granddaughter she has shielded from the truth for far too long.

But what is this secret buried between the pages of novels too old and too dusty for anyone else to care about? Did socialite Catherine Van Wyck lead a mysterious life before she married her long-gone husband, or is there something more menacing about a story she buried a lifetime ago?

Ryan is determined to uncover this unearth who the real Catherine Van Wyck is, who she was, and the life path she traveled before she became a millionaire philanthropist who is now nearly penniless.

What happened to her fortune?

What happened to her husband?

What happened to her finely constructed life?

And just what is this secret Catherine has protected all these years?

Ryan Kincaid is determined to find unearth the story behind this fascinating woman; and in doing so, realizes there is often a price to pay for love, for loss, and for living with secrets too shallow to remain buried forever.

Books can change a lot between initial plans and release. I enter the data on books to include when I first run across it, but every once in a while the final book takes a different angle. The original cover copy for A Heart Divided by Angie Williams from Bold Strokes Books looked very much like US Civil War standard sapphic plot A, with a cross-gender soldier and a Maxon-Dixon enemies-to-lovers romance. But at the last minute when putting this episode together, I checked back on the publisher’s website because of an apparent inconsistency in the protagonist’s nomme-de-guerre. At which point I discovered that the book’s description had been revised to align the protagonist solidly as a trans man. So: potentially “other books of interest,” and I’m glad the revised description kept me from making incorrect assumptions about the characters.

Wanda Baker’s life was never the same after killing her abusive stepfather. With nowhere to hide, she steals a soldier’s uniform and falls in with a battalion of Confederate soldiers, redefining herself as Jack Logan. Even though done out of necessity, he soon realizes living as a man reflects his true self in more ways than just the clothes he wears. The world finally sees him as the man he knows he is.

After the war, Jack finds work on a horse ranch owned by the widow of a Union soldier, Emma Stevens. She’s the most beautiful woman Jack has ever seen, but being a veteran of the Confederate army that killed her husband isn’t the only thing keeping them apart.

Emma hates that she needs the enemy’s help to manage her husband’s beloved ranch, but with fewer qualified men left after the war, she's forced to accept she has no choice. She and her young son must place their trust somewhere, and Jack is her best hope of keeping the ranch and her husband's legacy intact.

Their differences are too hard to ignore, but only love can heal a heart divided.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? Mostly audiobooks, as usual. You may remember that Lucy Holland came on the show to talk about her novel Song of the Huntress. I found it lovely and heart-ripping and complex and deeply historically rooted. The complicated relationships between Queen Aethel, her husband the king, and her beloved, the warrior-woman cast out of time, are drawn with intense realism, while not overpowering the dynamics of the historic politics blended with deep magic of the land. A very “chewy” book as I like to call them.

Nghi Vo has continued her Singing Hills Cycle, set in an alternate fantasy China and featuring the non-binary monk Chih whose vocation is to collect stories. This installment, Mammoths at the Gates, still has the core focus on "what is the meaning and purpose of Story?" But this one didn't grab me quite as much as the previous books in the series, though it gives us a wider window on the sentient hoopoe birds that serve as a repository for the collected stories the monks seek out.

K.J. Charles has another winner in Death in the Spires, a convoluted murder mystery set in early 20th century Oxford. As usual there are lots of well-drawn and juicy characters. And the book will threaten to break your heart multiple times in multiple directions as the climax draws near. Although male homoerotic relationships thread through the plot, this is not a romance novel.

And finally, I always have a read in process that I call my “tooth-brushing book.” It lives on the bathroom counter and gives me a metric to make sure I brush my teeth for the requisite amount of time. For this purpose, it needs to be a book I can read in small chunks and then put down again. For the last year and more, this book has been The Time Travelers Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer. It’s a popular-oriented general social history of early 19th century Britain, with a very readable balance between covering the broad outlines and featuring interesting colorful tidbits. There is a very light background conceit that the reader is a potential time-traveler being presented with essential information in the form of a guidebook, but this motif isn’t taken to extremes and doesn’t get in the way of reading the book as serious history.

Several years ago, I read the same author’s The Time Travelers Guide to Restoration Britain. While books like this can be very useful to the writer of historical fiction to provide a general grounding in a particular period, they aren’t sufficient to be a sole source of research. Rather, they can provide a scaffolding onto which more detailed research can be attached. Or they can provide an idea of what sorts of stories are possible in that era and keep you from spinning plots that won’t stand up to a more in-depth fleshing out. One potential down side of this sort of high-level general history is that they often present only a homogenized, generic view of society—one that gets in the way of imagining the more diverse characters and stories that are equally true to life and more interesting to write. But Mortimer’s books are reasonably sound on that part, at least acknowledging the dynamics of racism, describing the realities of how different economic classes lived, and even touching a little on diverse sexualities.

And now I need to pick a new tooth-brushing book!

Show Notes

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

Major category: 


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