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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 16:53

OK, I'm doing something unusual here. I'm going to blog the entirety of The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, but I'm not going to do it now. But I can't do only the article on gothic literature in my usual format, because I don't know how many individual entries I'll be writing and everything will get out of order. So here's what will eventually be the blog on that article outside of the normal LHMP framework, and then I'll tuck it into the usual format after I've worked on the rest of the book. That's likely to be a fairly quick exercise (for a rather thick book) because more than half the book focuses on the 20th century, and out of the 17 earlier articles, at least 9 of them look like they're solely male-focused. (Sigh.) So in the interests of finishing up my gothic reading, here you go.

Bruhm, Steven. 2014. “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8


Although this article is placed in the “Enlightenment Culture” section of the book, this survey article begins with references to several modern horror/gothic works that connect the themes of hidden supernatural terrors with hidden sexualities. But despite the modern recognition of how these themes are connected, and despite the graphic depiction of a wide range of “forbidden” sexualities featured in the historic gothic genre, male homosexuality is startlingly absent in historic gothic works (though not in historic pornographic works). Examining this problem, Bruhm notes that in 19th century gothic works, homosexuality is hinted at with innuendo or vague threat and is concealed under symbolic tropes. To illustrate this, he focuses on two works: Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.

In The Monk, the apparently pederastic desire between the head of a monastery and the mysterious, attractive young novice is resolved away from homoeroticism when the novice is revealed to be a woman in disguise, after which the story turns to more traditional heterosexual gothic transgressions when the abbot sexually assaults and murders a second woman who turns out to be his sister. The looming threat of male homosexuality is vaguely present, but never directly articulated, then is resolved by the gender reveal followed by the quite directly articulated heterosexual sexual transgressions. Homophobia inserts itself in the “unspeakability” of the (illusory) same-sex desire.

In Carmilla, by contrast, the looming threat is the vampire Carmilla who insinuates herself into the life and bed of the young woman, Laura, caressing her both in dreams and in reality, and stealing both her innocence and life by drinking her blood. Carmilla represents, not simply lesbian desire, but sexual liberation in general. Nor is she entirely unsympathetic, adopting gothic tropes of the orphan cast alone in the world on the kindness of strangers. But at the same time, Carmilla embodies the icon of the aristocratic, languorous predator who features in decadent literature largely as a male fantasy. Here, homophobia appears in the framing of Carmilla and Laura’s relationship as predatory (as well as in the opinions of literary critics who sometimes insist that the story’s lesbianism is not about lesbianism, but is a symbolic stand-in for something else entirely).

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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 15:47

My heart leapt when I ran across the article that was a preliminary to this book and then the book itself. Surely this would be foundational to my discussion of lesbian gothic literature! Well, it's definitely useful in organizing some of my thoughts, but the focus of the book is on lesbian genre literature of the 1970s through 1990s so it neither covers early gothic literature with lesbian themes, nor current lesbian gothic novels. Still and all, useful reading.

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Palmer, Paulina. 1999. Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. Cassell, New York. ISBN 0-304-70154-8

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

Note the publication date (1999) which means that this study of lesbian gothic literature will be far from up-to-date, and will reflect a previous generation’s ideas and experiences (as well as not reflecting the boom in queer literature that the e-book revolution has enabled). The introductory material suggests that the study’s scope will focus strongly on what today might be classified as paranormal (witches and vampires) rather than more classical gothics.

She notes the difficulty of defining exactly what the gothic genre is, but quotes one definition as the intersection of themes of inheritance and claustrophobia. From its origins structured around tropes of archaic settings, suggestions of the supernatural, the experience of terror, and the popular motif of the naïve heroine and wicked villain, the genre expanded in the 19th century to encompass vampires, ghosts, the search for illicit knowledge, and the figure of the “wanderer.” By the 20th century, Palmer’s definition of the scope of the gothic seems to include most of the genres of horror, thrillers, and the paranormal. Gothics often appear to challenge realist viewpoints in embracing the supernatural and social or sexual transgression, while at the same time often reinforcing the values of the dominant culture. From its roots, there have been separate strands of the “female gothic,” focusing on women trapped in a castle or mansion, and a gothic flavor more associated with male authors involving persecution, guilt, obsession, and dislocation.

From there, Palmer moves on to explore what she means by “lesbian gothic” within this study. Rather than gothic tropes being used to “decorporealize lesbian desire” (per Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian), these works written in the 1970s to 1990s [note the book’s publication date] “emply them to explore…erotic female relations and their transgressive dimension.” [Note: in choosing this timeframe, Palmer is focusing on stories that do not feel a need to conceal the lesbian nature of the characters and themes.] In the context of the early history of gothics, she notes that (especially) female authors treated themes that lent themselves well to lesbian contexts, including women’s problematic relationship to their bodies, the inherent transgressiveness of female sexuality, and the complications of female friendships and antagonisms, including mother/daughter relations. Women “haunting” other women is a common trope. Also noted is the contradictory role of the figure who is both courageous heroine and persecuted victim. The focus of gothic fiction on creating an emotional response in the reader blends easily with the depictions of repressed emotions and desires. There are structural parallels to closet/coming-out narratives in the themes of secrets, frustrated desire, shame, and persecution. The family/domestic sphere is depicted as a source of danger and claustrophobia, and heterosexual family structures are often viewed as threatening and the peril that must be escaped.

In traditional gothics, the lesbian-coded figure is typically assigned the role of villain and predator, but in contemporary lesbian gothics she becomes a protagonist, or the point of view shifts such that her vengeful and predatory actions are vindicated. Traditional gothics typically focus on an ominous history, either in terms of a family legacy or the physical reality of crumbling ancient monuments. History is the enemy. But lesbian gothics may be concerned with rediscovering and reclaiming a history that had been denied.

The individual chapters of Palmer’s book examine specific works within specific genre themes: the witch, the ghost, the vampire, and the thriller.

[Note: Palmer’s book has a certain historic interest as a study of the state of lesbian genre fiction as of the late 1990s, and an example of an academic work taking that field seriously as a subject of study. I personally found it a bit too all-encompassing to have a coherent take on the concept of “lesbian gothic,” at least from a current viewpoint. But the introductory material has been quite useful.]


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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 12:21

This one isn't very useful for my purposes, but what the heck.

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Yiannitsaros, Chirstopher. 2010. “’I’m scared to death she’ll kill me: Devoted Ladies, feminine monstrosity, and the (lesbian) Gothic Romance” in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies 8: 41-52.

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

The author makes a connection between themes prominent in the “coming-out story” (i.e., secrecy, guilt, persecution, and the fragmentation of the self) and the dominant themes of gothic fiction. Similarly there are connections in the reframing of the domestic sphere from a place of love and security to a site of secrets and maltreatment. As a genre rooted in marginality (of taste, politics, and sexuality) he argues that there is an inherent connection between gothic literature and representations of homosexuality.

From this starting point, the author takes a deep dive into Molly Keane’s 1934 novel Devoted Ladies which, he argues, is a parody of the gothic genre, focusing on a lesbian relationship that is simultaneously presented as ordinary and everyday, and as inherently flawed, unequal, and monstrous. Their relationship is eventually disrupted by the “femme” partner’s refocusing on a heterosexual relationship and the murder of the butch partner by a third party who wants to prevent her from interfering.

The connections the author makes with gothic literature primarily involve more recent work, such as Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and similarly recent formulations of the gothic genre.

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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 11:52

Let's see if I can get back into the blogging thing and catch up on all the gothic-related reading I want to do for a gothic themed podcast. A number of the articles I've collected for this are not ones I'd blog purely for the Project, so I may be skimming more briefly than usual.

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Parker, Sarah. 2008. “’The Darkness is the Closet in Which Your Lover Roosts Her Heart’: Lesbians, Desire and the Gothic Genre” in Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2: 3-16.

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

It’s always a good reminder to “check the publication date” when reading academic studies of popular culture. This article, having been written in 2008, can’t reflect a more up-to-date range of lesbian gothics. But perhaps more to the point, it focuses almost entirely on two specific works: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (published 1936) and Sarah Waters’ Affinity (published 1999), so it reflects an even older approach to lesbian themes in gothic fiction (while still addressing modern fiction rather than fiction from the origins of the gothic genre).

This context comes out in the analysis of how gothic fiction uses the exploration of “unconscious fantasies and forbidden desires” to make lesbian desire legible and to “counter the repressive  effects of ‘lesbian panic’” – a theory circulating at the time that much women’s fiction (of the time) was fixated on a negation of lesbian possibilities because they disrupted the gender economy in which women’s value derived from their value to men.

In discussing the characteristics of the gothic genre (and how it lends itself to articulating lesbian desire), Parker focuses on the themes of boundaries (“from the physical limitations of the domestic space – castle walls, prisons, locked chests – to the ancestral ‘line’ of the aristocratic family”) and how gothic texts allow the reader a “safe” encounter with transgressing those boundaries, but representing repressed desires via fantastic and supernatural elements. Thus, the gothic is structured by patriarchal order even as it uses transgressions against that order for its emotional impact. (For example, the regular threat of incest and its literary punishment.) Passion and desire may be experienced because the text inevitably contradicts, erases, or diffuses their experiential reality.

In Nightwood and Affinity, Parker argues, the lesbian desire that is at the heart of the story is this threat to patriarchal order that provides the reader with a pervasive sense of threat that—in these cases—is allowed to persist and be realized. In Affinity (as in many historic female-authored gothic novels) the apparently supernatural elements that contribute to the atmosphere are revealed as rational in the end. The character who fills the role of “lesbian predator” is allowed her own happy ending, even as the nominal protagonist is victimized by her.

[Note: I’m less able to follow the discussion of Nightwood, and overall this article has only tangential relevance to the gothic theme I’m currently exploring.]


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Saturday, September 2, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 267 - On the Shelf for September 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/09/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2023.

It feels like I just did one of these, so I guess time is flying. September is supposed to feel like autumn, but that’s not how my part of California rolls. Instead we glance around nervously and hope that maybe this year won’t be a bad fire year—then we knock on wood to fend off jinxing things. Of course, lots of parts of the world are dealing with a regular fire season now. Instead of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, my part of California has rain, green, heat, and fire season.

My facebook memories feed has been showing me a constant stream of my last two overseas trips for Worldcon, which is usually scheduled around now. It’s been making me yearn for next year when I’ll be traveling across the pond again for that event. I’m already starting to make lists of people and places I’d like to see.

As usual, I’d like to remind folks that we’ll be running a fiction series again next year on the podcast, and the Call for Submissions is up on the website. Tell everyone you know who might be interested in writing a sapphic historical short story.

Once again, I have two author interviews at the end of this episode. It isn’t intentional to double-up, but that’s just how the contacts are working out. I hope I can keep it up, since I really enjoy hosting authors on the show. I’m always interested in being contacted about interviews, especially in the context of book releases, but I also love talking to people about non-fiction relating to sapphic history or historical fiction.

Book Shopping!

The book shopping was plentiful this month—not specifically books for the blog (which, you’ll note, I haven’t said anything about lately because I’m on an inadvertent blog vacation) – but several works for deep background research for my own projects or for historical fiction projects in general.

First up is the chunky and luxurious exhibition catalog The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, by Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker. This was created to accompany an exhibition that’s currently in San Francisco, but which many of my friends saw when it was in New York previously. It focuses mostly on the life of the court with portraits and rich furnishings.

While I was picking the catalog up in the museum bookstore, I also snagged Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. It’s a popular-oriented discussion of the everyday life mostly of ordinary people in Tudor England. I find this sort of work useful for getting my head in a historic space when brainstorming stories, though such guides can vary a bit in reliability on the details, and they almost never touch on anything specifically relevant to queer characters.

A similar book, more specifically aimed at authors is Krista D. Ball’s What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank. Despite the title, which suggests that it’s pitched at fantasy authors, the focus is on historic food culture of the real world, as something of a reality-check for world-building medieval-ish fantasy settings. So while it may not be a detailed guide to any particular era, it can help set expectations and burst some popular myths.

Another exhibition catalog that caught my eye is Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World by Noémie Ndiaye and Lia Markey. While the topic fits in with my interest in what I call “decolonizing my imagination”, I’m not sure that this specific text will be useful to me as it focuses a lot on how racialized artifacts and representations are handled in museum displays and archives.

Given the ways I integrate historic magical practices into my Alpennia series, I’m always on the lookout for interesting new books on the history of magic and this month I picked up two of them. Speculum Lapidum: A Renaissance Treatise on the Healing Properties of Gemstones by Camillo Leonardi, translated and edited by Liliana Leopardi, is an edition of a 16th century Italian work on magical gemstones—just the sort of reference book that Antuniet Chazillen would have collected for her work.

The second book speaks more to the type of everyday language-based magic that we see in Floodtide. This is Katherine Storm Hindley’s Textual Magic: Charms and Written Amulets in Medieval England. It has some great discussions of the how, what, when, and who of magic based on written texts or spoken words.

And finally, I picked up the 17th annual volume of the series Medieval Clothing and Textiles, which publishes articles on a wide variety of topics related to that subject.

One of the secondary themes of this podcast is women in history doing things that modern people might believe they didn’t do, such as the recent episode on female spies. I often pick up books exploring women in specific professions, either generally or focusing on a specific woman. One fascinating book that I did not buy this month is Deanne Williams’ Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a study of women—especially young women—involved in various aspects of dramatic production in the middle ages and Renaissance. Our image of the medieval and Renaissance stage is often skewed by the fairly unusual situation of public theater during the Elizabethan era, when women were legally prevented from acting on the public stage, resulting in the use of boy actors for female roles. But Williams digs into all manner of historic records to find women as performers, authors, and translators of plays and pageants, including private household entertainments and court masques. I learned about the book on the history podcast “Not Just the Tudors” when they had the author on to talk about it.

While listening to the podcast, it occurred to me that I might add theatricals to my series on tropes. I don’t know that falling in love in the middle of putting on a play is a particularly common trope in heterosexual romance, but my memory started pulling up any number of examples involving female couples, where the context of gender play on stage creates a space for experiencing and expressing same-sex desire. It touches on some of the same themes as my planned episode on the gender-disguise trope, but has enough differences to be worth a separate show.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Now let’s tackle the new fiction! I have a couple of books to catch up on from earlier months, but mostly this will be August and September releases.

When one of this month’s interviewees mentioned Ember of a New World by Ishtar Watson from Dark Elves press, I realized I’d somehow missed including it in the new releases, despite interacting with the author on Mastodon. So here it is now, belated from its April release date.

7500 years ago, at the dawn of the western European Neolithic...

Ember of the Great River people is a free-spirited woman living in a small tribe in prehistoric Germany when a sign from the gods sends her on an epic quest to the end of the world, where the Sun sets. With only her wits and her father's obsidian blade, she faces the vast, untamed wilds of prehistoric Europe.

But these wild lands are far from empty...

One can find love, death, and adventure in the dark forests of tribal Europe, where only the Mesolithic forest people dare to tread.

Well-researched and highly descriptive, Ember of a New World is an inspiring coming-of-age story featuring a non-binary protagonist. Clothing, weapons, rituals, and daily life are described in detail as the reader is transported to the Linear Pottery Culture of the early western European Neolithic.

In the grand tradition of queering Jane Austen, we have Sanditon: The Lesbian Solution by Garnet Marriott and Jane Austen. People are less likely to be familiar with the original text of Sanditon as it was never finished, though a mini-series has expanded the original draft into a longer story.

Here Garnet Marriott has taken Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and re-told and completed it as a lesbian romance, also featuring Austen’s Lady Susan, and Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley. In this version, a carriage accident at Willingden leads to Charlotte Heywood’s invitation to visit Tom Parker’s new coastal health resort at Sanditon, where she meets the handsome Sidney Parker, the audacious Sir Edward Denham, and the beautiful mulatto visitor, Miss Constance Lambe, heiress to a fortune. Charlotte and Miss Lambe begin to form an amorous friendship, but when Charlotte’s sister Katy is subject to unwanted advances from Sir Edward and Willingden’s Lord Faulkner, there begins a feud which ultimately threatens Sanditon’s existence and the future prospects of Charlotte Heywood, who must wrestle with her own emotions and affections whilst fighting to preserve Tom Parker’s vision of a new world.

Where Pleasant Fountains Lie (The New Countess #3) written under the nom de plume Lady Vanessa S.-G from Pacifico Press adds to a series giving voice to the female characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Countess Olivia has married Sebastiano accidentally: She thought he was his sister Viola, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. However, until Olivia has sex with him, she can annul her marriage. Today, she will secretly give Sebastiano three tests, and then make her final decision.

I’m a bit confused by Haven's End (Daughters Under the Black Flag #2) by Eden Hopewell, because the book identified as number 1 in the series isn’t scheduled to come out until next June. So I don’t know what’s going on there—whether this story stands on its own or whether you need to have read the first volume, which evidently you can’t yet. The cover copy certainly sounds like we’re coming in at the middle of a story.

Margo (O'Shea) Flynn's life is anchored by two great loves: her best friend who she married, Caleb, and her soulmate and love of her life, Elara. Together, the three built a life, raising children and tending a thriving business. But when Caleb's ship is captured by the Spanish while privateering, their world is shattered.

Leaving their adult children to manage the family enterprise, Margo and Elara set sail with a pirate crew, driven by grief and a thirst for vengeance against the ruthless Spanish fleet. Their journey is fraught with danger, heartache and surprises, but their love for each other and Caleb's memory fuels their resolve.

As they navigate treacherous waters and face relentless adversaries, the bond between Margo and Elara deepens, becoming their greatest strength and most profound connection. But will their love endure the trials they must face, or will their pursuit of justice lead them to a peril they cannot overcome?

The Birdwatchers by Louise Vetroff from Lura Press is clearly tagged as a lesbian story, otherwise I might have moved it to the “other books of interest” section.

In the mid-19th-century United States, fate brings together three people from Louisiana: a birdwatcher, a runaway wife, and a little girl, and leads them to a wagon train from Texas to California. Three different characters with three distinct reasons to leave their homes have something that unites them — the dream of a better future. Will they struggle to overcome their challenges alone or receive guidance from unexpected places so they may achieve their collective dream?

The supernatural intersects with a heist in The Haunted Diamond by Becky Black from JMS Books.

Flapper Bobbie Morgan is always a welcome house guest at weekend parties. But the young woman her hosts think is only a jolly fun girl with nothing but dancing and fashion on her mind, is actually a jewel thief and her latest job is to steal a South American diamond with a long and bloody history, for a buyer waiting in New York. While Bobbie is crossing the Atlantic with the stolen diamond, Iandara, a ghost bound to the cursed stone, manifests, with one mission -- free herself forever by destroying the diamond.

As if the temporarily-corporeal, thousand-year-old ghost of a trainee witch isn’t enough trouble, Bobbie’s ex-partner and now rival thief, Frances Stryker, is aboard and also determined to steal the diamond from her. Bobbie and Iandara team up to thwart Frances, and in the ensuing shenanigans become much more to each other than simply temporary allies.

But there is no way for both of them to complete their missions. How can they find a way to free Iandara and also allow Bobbie to complete a job whose stakes are higher than Iandara knows?

The second volume is out in Shelley Parker-Chan’s epic series set in a semi-historical China: He Who Drowned the World (The Radiant Emperor #2) from Tor Books. I was very impressed with the first book and have added this to my audiobook queue.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high on her recent victory that tore southern China from its Mongol rulers. Young, ambitious, and in possession of the Mandate of Heaven, Zhu believes utterly in her own capacity to do anything – endure anything – that will allow her to seize the imperial throne from the Mongols and crown herself Emperor.

But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor, the former courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband – and her powerful kingdom has the strength and resources to wipe Zhu off the map. The only way for Zhu to defeat Madam Zhang is to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the beautiful, traitorous eunuch general Ouyang.

Nearly mad with the grief and guilt of having killed his beloved Prince of Henan, Ouyang is alive for only one reason: to enact revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan. His instability soon threatens his partnership with Zhu, who has never felt grief in her life. Zhu can’t even imagine what kind of sacrifice could ever cause her to feel it. But all desire costs, and while Zhu has already paid with her body – the true price of her ambition will break even her ruthless heart.

Carving a New Shape by Rhiannon Grant is the topic of one of this month’s two interviews.

Arriving in a new village on her first ever trading voyage, Laki immediately feels unsettled by some of the rude and bullying behaviour and the loss of her necklace - and attracted to Bokka, who is both helping and hindering. As they start to work together to escape the situation, will Laki's naive ideas and Bokka's struggles with communication make it impossible to carve out a space in their society which is the perfect shape for them?

Set in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and around the Orkney Islands, Carving a New Shape is an evocative exploration of an ancient society, the power of love, and the ability of humanity to adapt. Featuring central characters who would be described today as lesbian, bisexual, and autistic, this is a warm-hearted story which doesn't play down the challenges they face but leads to a happy ending.

For Love and Liberty by Eden Hopewell is set in Philadelphia in 1804.

Follow the story of Abigail, a young heiress in the early days of the industrial revolution, who inherits a textile mill after her mother dies. When she starts to see the harsh working conditions that her employees face, her heart is moved to fight for their rights. Along the way, she meets Sarah, a worker at the mill, who shares her passion for justice. Together, they navigate the challenges of their society and work towards a better future for all. But Abigail struggles with her attraction to Sarah and the societal and personal risks involved in pursuing a relationship with her. But their love deepens despite the risks involved. In the face of danger and opposition, Abigail and Sarah decide to stand up for their love and their cause.

Her Duchess by Brooke Winters has a very brief blurb, but it may be sufficient to pique your interest.

One dowager Duchess. One school teacher. One happily ever after.

It's 1871 and the school that Iris works at is closing, forcing her to leave the town that's become her home and the woman she secretly loves.

Peggy can't stand the thought of life without her best friend and she'll do whatever it takes to keep her close.

And finally we have Into the Bright Open: A Secret Garden Remix (Remixed Classics # 8) by Cherie Dimaline from Feiwel & Friends.

Mary Lennox didn’t think about death until the day it knocked politely on her bedroom door and invited itself in. When a terrible accident leaves her orphaned at fifteen, she is sent to the wilderness of the Georgian Bay to live with an uncle she's never met. At first the impassive, calculating girl believes this new manor will be just like the one she left in Toronto: cold, isolating, and anything but cheerful, where staff is treated as staff and never like family. But as she slowly allows her heart to open like the first blooms of spring, Mary comes to find that this strange place and its strange people—most of whom are Indigenous self-named "halfbreeds"—may be what she can finally call home. Then one night Mary discovers Olive, her cousin who has been hidden away in an attic room for years due to a "nervous condition." The girls become fast friends, and Mary wonders why this big-hearted girl is being kept out of sight and fed medicine that only makes her feel sicker. When Olive's domineering stepmother returns to the manor, it soon becomes clear that something sinister is going on. With the help of a charming, intoxicatingly vivacious Metis girl named Sophie, Mary begins digging further into family secrets both wonderful and horrifying to figure out how to free Olive. And some of the answers may lie within the walls of a hidden, overgrown and long-forgotten garden the girls stumble upon while wandering the wilds...

Other Books of Interest

Two books made the “other books of interest” list, for different reasons.

The Girl Who Fled the Picture by Jane Anderson from Howe Street Publishing is a bit too coy about the potential queer content to make the main list.

A girl who won’t conform. A journey across 18th Century Europe. A dangerous pursuit of forbidden love.

1742, Constantinople. Fifteen-year-old Isabella dons Turkish dress to pose for her portrait. The touch of the artist’s apprentice freeing her from corsets and draping her in sensuous silk unleashes a passion that changes her life forever.

Fleeing to Rome to avoid an arranged marriage, Isabella rebuilds her life creating beautiful silver jewellery but love for the apprentice takes her on another journey. She arrives in Scotland just in time for the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. In the midst of the dangerous intrigue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s court, will the forbidden nature of her secret love see her lose everything?

In contrast, The Valkyrie by Kate Heartfield from Harper Voyager isn’t coy about the female protagonists being lovers, but is more mythic than historic, so it too falls in this group.

Brynhild is a Valkyrie: shieldmaiden of the Allfather, chooser of the slain. But now she too has fallen, flightless in her exile. Gudrun is a princess of Burgundy, a daughter of the Rhine, a prize for an invading king – a king whose brother Attila has other plans, and a dragon to call upon. And in the songs to be sung, there is another hero: Sigurd, a warrior with a sword sharper than the new moon. As the legends tell, these names are destined to be lovers, fated as enemies. But here on Midgard, legends can be lies… For not all heroes are heroic, nor all monsters monstrous. And a shieldmaiden may yet find that love is the greatest weapon of all.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? There are several books I’ve been reading in print, but none that I actually finished last month, so you’ll have to wait to hear about them. I’ve listened to two audiobooks. The Great Roxhythe by Georgette Heyer is a book that is deeply conflicted about exactly what sort of book it’s trying to be. This book has been deliberately out of print for much of its existence and is one of the few Heyers that I hadn’t previously read. Georgette Heyer more or less writes three types of stories: the light historic romances that she’s most famous for, murder mysteries, and a few more serious historic novels that I will confess I have mostly found tedious and dense. I eventually struggled my way through An Infamous Army, which wants to be a historic novel about the battle of Waterloo, but builds the story around an array of characters from her Regency romances. The Great Roxhythe is set during the reign of King Charles II and is, in essence, a love story—but it’s a tragic, asymmetric love story between Lord Roxhythe and King Charles, and between Roxhythe’s somewhat naïve and priggish secretary and Roxhythe himself. It is suspected that this aspect of the book is what led to its suppression: there is no suggestion at all of any erotic relationships between the three men, but the emotional bonds are portrayed in the language of romantic love which—although historically accurate for the setting—may have been a Bit Much for an early 20th century readership. But this isn’t a romance novel—it’s a slogging, overly detailed tour through Restoration-era politics. And if I hadn’t been consuming it as an audiobook I would never have kept at it long enough to finish.

Alas, even the appeal of audiobooks couldn’t keep me going through the second title, Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. The premise of the book is, “What if the Eurovision song contest, but as an interstellar fight for survival?” The book’s gonzo, madcap comic narrative style was appealing when I heard the author doing a reading from it—appealing enough to spend an Audible credit on it. But it just didn’t hold up for me for an entire book’s worth of interest. There wasn’t enough cake under the frosting and every time I tried to listen, my mind kept wandering away.

Author Guests

So let’s finish up the show with our author interviews. First up is Rhiannon Grant.

[interview transcript will be added when available]

Our second guest is Katherine Quarmby, talking about a book that was in last month’s release announcements.

[interview transcript will be added when available]

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

Links to Rhiannon Grant Online

Links to Katharine QuarmbyOnline

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Monday, August 21, 2023 - 08:19

To help with discoverability for the podcast (and make promotion a little easier) I've been setting up special topic indexes. The latest one is for the "Our F/Favorite Tropes" series. So if you want to check out our shows about how favorite historical romance tropes work differently for female couples, here's your list!

Do you have a favorite historical trope you'd like to have explored? It's probably already on the to-do list, but lots of interest could move it up in the queue.

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Saturday, August 19, 2023 - 12:19

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 266 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 9: Spies - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/19 - listen here)

Professions as Tropes

So far in the “Our F/Favorite Tropes” series, I’ve tended to focus on topics where gender is a functional aspect in how the trope plays out, such as marriage-based tropes or tropes that depend on assumptions about sexual tension. But many popular tropes simply feature aspects of the characters’ lives: their personalities, their life history, or their profession. With respect to professions (understood broadly) we definitely see gendered aspects in what professions are popular in fiction, or which are considered to have romantic potential.

There’s a motif that often comes up when discussing sapphic historical fiction that I’d like to tackle head-on, and that is the notion that women in history “weren’t interesting” and therefore that one either needs to manipulate them artificially into a male-coded profession, or go to the length of gender disguise in order to have at least one of your romantic protagonists be interesting enough to support the plot.

If you will excuse the vulgarity: bullshit!

It would be bad enough if I heard this notion from people who disparage the idea of woman-centered fiction in general, but too often I hear it from people who are fans of lesbian fiction as a rationale for why they don’t like historical fiction. Or from writers and readers of lesbian historical fiction explaining why they require at least one character to take on a male-coded role in the story. Or, for that matter, as a reason for why a fictional woman with an unexpected profession is considered “unbelievable”.

As a general booster of sapphic historical fiction, I do understand the attraction of adapting popular tropes, plots, and character types from heterosexual fiction and simply slotting one of the female protagonists into a traditionally male role. But as a historian and a feminist I find it immensely frustrating to see the implicit message, time and again, that women-as-women are inherently boring.

So in the trope episodes that explore professions, I’m not going to take the angle of “here is how you can have your heroine get around the problem that Women Didn’t Do This Thing” but rather to talk about the contexts and ways in which actual historic women Did The Thing.

To some extent, I kicked this off in the episode on Aristocrats and Billionaires by touching on ways in which women could become independently wealthy.  But today we’re tackling something a bit less ordinary: women as spies.

Espionage and Romance

Espionage creates a gloriously rich context for angst-filled romances. Not only is there a lot of potential for an enemies-to-lovers plot (as I mentioned in the episode covering that trope), but the inherent complexities of dissimulation, dishonesty, ulterior motives, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties lend themselves to a storyline in which the romantic conflicts and misunderstandings are solidly grounded rather than being trivial or artificial.

For same-sex romance plots, there is also the thematic parallel of being closeted in one’s profession as well as perhaps in one’s romantic desires. (Although, as always, I’ll note that modern concepts of being closeted or feeling a need to be covert about romantic or erotic attraction don’t necessarily map directly to historic experiences.) All in all, the life of a spy means that you are regularly trying to establish relationships of questionable sincerity, usually for a third party’s benefit, in contexts where being open and honest about your identity and desires could mean peril or death. I hope I don’t have to justify why having one or both of your romantic protagonists be a spy is guaranteed story potential!

Women in Espionage

So here’s the other side of the question: when and in what contexts in history were women engaged in espionage? What sorts of roles did they have and what types of actions did they take? And were those roles conducive to engaging in same-sex romances or would special pleading be needed?

Let’s first acknowledge that espionage has been a key aspect of politics and war since the earliest written records. The forms might differ, but the essential truth is that any time two cultures, states, or peoples come in contact with each other, people will be working hard to gather information on the other side while trying just as hard to keep information about their own side concealed. Any traveler, diplomat, or guest is a potential spy—and is often expected to be so by their own people. When the other party in a conflict comes into your territory, every ordinary person has the potential to become a spy, if they’re in the right place at the right time and paying attention.

The information being gathered might have to do with resources, technologies, plans, intentions, or actions in process. The spy may be purely an observer or may also be providing carefully selected information, either to affect the other side’s decisions or as a quid-pro-quo. Espionage may slide over into sabotage, either by the provision of false information or by acting against people or resources.

A spy may be motivated by loyalty or be a hired agent or a mixture of both. Or she might be playing all sides against each other, either for profit or personal power. Even when the arrangement was financial, bonds between spies and their handlers tended to be personal, rather than more anonymously administrative, which may explain continuing loyalties even when pay was scanty and infrequent. In the complicated politics of Europe, those loyalties were rarely as simple as basic nationalism, but followed lines of religion, family or marital allegiance, political alignment, or even simple charisma.

Spies came from all walks of life. Although our typical image of the official diplomat who doubles as a spy is male, it isn’t uncommon for women of the court—whether courtiers or courtesans—to fill a diplomatic role less formally. Female spies of the aristocracy often found themselves in that role to step in for a husband or father who had ben killed or imprisoned, or was in diplomatic service. All the way up through the 20th century, being a female member of the aristocracy often meant spending much of your adult life embedded in another culture, tangled in a complex jumble of allegiences.

But women of the middle and working class might be recruited or volunteer just as often, though their specific names are less likely to be recorded. All that was needed was access to information, the motivation to use that information, and a contact to pass it along to. Non-aristocratic women were more likely to act as agents in their home cultures, especially during wartime. But they might also become foreign agents if attached to the household of someone who traveled, or if engaged in commerce that involved travel.

In all these functions, women spies had significant advantages over men. Author Nadine Akkerman elaborates on this point in her book Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain. They were socially invisible. Men considered them less sophisticated, less astute, and less politically aware. They were often given a significant benefit of the doubt when acting suspiciously.  Nobody expected women to be involved in covert activities. And when they did come under suspicion, many women could leverage male courtesy. The same prejudice that leads us today to view espionage as a male profession served as useful cover again and again across the centuries, even in the face of the evidence.

Women were invisible in another way too, as providers of hospitality, goods, and personal services. In every army camp, every city, and every countryside, women came and went serving food, providing hospitality, doing laundry, cleaning living quarters, organizing social events, and so forth. A clever woman with even a smidge of acting talent could watch, listen, and read documents without being thought of as anything but part of the furniture. And that’s without taking into account the usefulness of manipulating male egos to boast of things better kept secret, if a woman is the one listening. We see this again and again in male commentary on secrecy and discretion—that the presence and access of women is dismissed and downplayed.

Another advantage women had in many cultural contexts was a hesitancy to perform rigorous searches of their person. Secret messages were concealed under clothing—or even sewn into the interior of garments—or tucked into elaborate hairdos, or hidden in jewelry or other household objects. This hesitancy to accost and search women, combined with the baseline lack of suspicion, offered a higher rate of success than males spies might expect. Furthermore, female spies, even when discovered, might be able to turn gender prejudice to their advantage, arguing that they had been duped, or were ignorant of the purpose they had been recruited for, or simply that they were deserving of mercy for their gender. This could be crucial in eras when unmasked spies might be tortured to reveal their contacts, and execution was a typical sentence.

The lack of suspicion extended to the objects and activities used to communicate information. There are stories in the 18th and 19th centuries of women using laundry as means of communicating signals and basic information, coded in the specific types and colors of garments hung out to dry. Secret messages might be written literally “between the lines” of ordinary correspondence using invisible ink (formulas for which are recorded as early as the 1st century) as well as being more obviously concealed with codes and cyphers. If a woman’s correspondence gave the appearance of concerning household and family matters, it might not be examined more deeply. Women gathering to talk in private are dismissed as “gossips,” not suspected of passing along intelligence.

Female spies might work alone, connected only to the “handler” that they passed information to. But from the 17th century onward, we also have evidence of women working together in organized rings that collaborated and supported each other.

A lot of the literature on women in espionage focuses on the 20th century and military contexts such as the two world wars or the Cold War. But we can identify female spies by name in Europe at least as early as the 16th century, and doubtless earlier if one were looking for them.

So let’s take a brief tour of some specific female spies, with a big nod to Wikipedia for having century-by-century indexes of people so categorized, starting in the 16th century.

The Spies

A Venetian woman named Beatrice Michiel, later known as Fatma Hatun, fled an unhappy marriage in Italy to join family in Constantinople, married a general of the jannissaries, and proceeded to send intelligence on the Ottoman court back to Venice during the reigns of two sultans. She was not the only female spy in the Ottoman court, and had regular alliances and conflicts with the others in trying to influence policy via the sultan’s mother.

When Catherine de Medici married the heir to the French throne at age 14 in 1533 she was thrust into a foreign culture with few allies. Even when she became queen she was expected to play second fiddle to the king’s mistress. But the king’s death when their three sons were still boys brought her into the middle of power struggles for influence. When her eldest son died, she was ready with her network of spies and influencers and ruthlessly took up the reins of power.  One of her tools was a group of beautiful female spies known as her “flying squadron,” skilled at extracting information from the men of the court.

Isabella Hoppringle, the head of Coldstream Priory located on the border between Scotland and England worked as an intelligence agent for England, aided by her personal friendship with Margaret Tudor, the dowager queen of Scotland.

Elizabethan England was rife with networks of spies, not only in direct service to the queen—or at least, to the queen’s spy-masters, but private individuals also had their own information networks, such as Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who with her husband had custody of the exiled Mary Queen of Scots.

Although it’s less commonly on the radar of historical fiction readers, the north of Europe was full of political turmoil in the early modern period. When Ebba Bielke’s father was imprisoned for supporting King Sigismund of Poland against King Charles of Sweden, Ebba took on the task of supplying her father with essential intelligence about the progress of conspiracies against Charles.

During the Thirty Years War, Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis was the de facto postmistress of the Holy Roman Empire, after the death of her husband, the hereditary holder of the office, and during the minority of her son. “Postmaster” was far from a boring administrative post—she had access to every piece of correspondence that traveled within the empire and employed a network of agents to systematically open, review, and copy the contents of anything important that passed through their hands. She was successful for a long time because even those who suspected their letters were being tampered with, found it difficult to believe that a prominent noblewoman could be directing the surveillance.

Across the centuries, there’s no context like a civil war for espionage to create opportunities for drama. I previously mentioned Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents, which covers much of the English Civil War and interregnum. The most familiar name to listeners of this podcast may be Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles II, but she was only one of many women on all sides of the conflicts of the mid-17th century who engaged in espionage, not only in England, but in France and the Low Countries.

Elizabeth Alkin was a newspaper publisher and Parliamentarian spy during the English Civil War who worked to identify rival Royalist publishers.

Elizabeth Maitland was Countess of Dysart in her own right (remember from the aristocrats episode how this is a rare possibility) and was Duchess of Lauderdale by marriage. Her father saw to it that she received a classical education, as well as learning the skills to run an estate. Her family were royalists and Elizabeth was active in the secret organization known as the Sealed Knot and passed along information to exiled followers of Charles II on the continent, even developing her own recipe for an invisible ink. The intelligence she provided came from close social connections with the parliamentarian side, including Oliver Cromwell, with whom she successfully interceded for the life of the man who would much later become her second husband. At the Restoration of the monarchy, she was rewarded for her work and loyalty with lands and a pension—a far cry from the scraps that many spies of less exalted position had to be content with.

Not all royalist spies were from the aristocracy. Jane Whorwood’s family had minor positions at the Scottish court, her mother a laundress and her father the surveyor of the royal stables. But they worked their way up in responsibility and prestige, her mother later marrying a groom of the bedchamber to the princes Henry and Charles who would later become Charles I. During the Civil War, the whole family was active in royalist causes, especially channeling funds from supporters. Jane’s husband had gone into exile on the continent but she remained with the court in Oxford, once personally smuggling nearly a ton of gold concealed in laundry soap barrels, and helping to create a network of intelligence contacts ranging from London to Edinburgh, as well as participating in an unsuccessful plot to help Charles I escape captivity from Hampton Court. Letters in cipher between Jane and King Charles indicate that she also became his mistress when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, which reflects the close access she had for exchanging information. Her labors, alas, went largely unrewarded and unrecognized after the Restoration, compounded by a violent and unhappy relationship with her long-estranged husband. At one point, she reflected, “My travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter.” I think we agree.

Wars between France and various coalitions, conflicts of interest and loyalty meant that family background or place of residence weren’t a predictor of loyalties. The French noblewoman Marie de Hautefort was a favorite of King Louis XIII, but although she benefitted from his friendship, her loyalty was to Queen Anne who was regularly under suspicion for her Spanish origins. Declining to spy for the king as an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, she instead spied on the king as an agent for the queen and assisted her in conducting secret correspondence with Spanish agents.

Queen Anne was surrounded by spies, working for different factions of the French and Spanish courts. When she first arrived in France, she was accompanied by Countess Inés de la Torre who had been planted in her household by the king of Spain to spy on Anne and report back on how well she supported Spanish interests, cooperating closely with the Spanish ambassador in France. Inés was replaced in Anne’s household by Marie de Rohan, duchess de Chevreuse who had her hand in more conspiracies and plots than it’s possible to detail here, resulting in regular periods of exile from France. Marie de Rohan features among the the female spies and intriguers fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Another woman in the orbit of Queen Anne was Madeleine du Fargis, who was placed in the queen’s household by Cardinal Richelieu in the expectation that she would be his agent there. Instead she befriended the queen and, after she was exiled to Brussels following a purge of the queen’s household sparked by plots against Richelieu, she became the queen’s agent there, engaging in secret correspondence to provide information on plots and alliances, as well as serving as a conduit for information gathered by others.

As an example of how tangled loyalties could become, we have the example of Swiss aristocrat Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl who spied on behalf of King Louis XIV of France when protestant sympathizers in Bern were planning an alliance with England. Katharina had picked up her allegiances as a young woman sent to the French court where she appears to have led a rather wild life. A conflict with a French noblewoman resulted in a challenge to fight a midnight duel with pistols on horseback, reverting to swords when it turned out that the pistols were not loaded. On another occasion, she shot a count who was annoying her during a hunt. Her fame led to an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden—yes, that Queen Christina—to join her as a lady in waiting, and isn’t that an alternate history that could have been very interesting indeed? When an exodus of Huguenots from France into Switzerland, due to religious persecution, resulted in Swiss sentiment against the French crown, Katharina was recruited as an agent by the French ambassador, trading on her local contacts and access. When her messages were intercepted, she was imprisoned and tortured, but escaped a death sentence thanks to family influence.

Toward the end of the 17th century, Anna Maria Clodt’s position as a trusted confidante of the Queen of Sweden gave her a chance to leverage her access for profit from those who wanted favors from the queen. But when she turned her hand to supplying information to foreign agents, such as the Danish envoy to Sweden, she crossed the line to espionage.

Another Swedish courtier who turned her hand to espionage for profit was Beata Sparre, whose position as lady-in-waiting to two successive queens of Sweden offered scope for influence peddling, which again crossed the line to spying when she acted as an agent for the French ambassador.

Moving on to the 18th century, we begin to have so many examples I’m going to pick and choose. Women were engaged in intelligence-gathering on both sides of the American Revolution. Women had access to information from opponents in the context of providing hospitality, goods, or services. Signals encoded in everyday public activities such as hanging up the laundry were beneath suspicion—a technique used by Anna Smith Strong to signal the timing and location of messages to be picked up.

Domestic activities required easy movement and casual interactions with neighbors and merchants, creating a context for passing information, and this was used by Lydia Barrington Darragh to report on the conversations of British officers quartered in her house.

When Emily Geiger was carrying messages on behalf of General Nathaniel Greene, she was captured but maintained the secrecy of the message by eating it while her captors were trying to locate a woman loyal to the British side to search her. With no proof available, Emily was released and later delivered the memorized message verbally.

The British side of the Revolution had their own share of female agents. Ann Bates was part of several intelligence networks and completed a number of expeditions into Washington’s camp, disguised as a pedlar, which enable her to eavesdrop on logistical conversations as well as taking inventories of troops and equipment. Her work was extensive enough that eventually she was regularly at risk of being recognized and exposed, having several narrow escapes by means of a network of loyalist safe houses. After the war she moved to England and successfully petitioned for a pension to repay her efforts.

The French revolution and the Napoleonic era afterwards caught up a number of women — especially women of the aristocracy — in intelligence gathering.

The English actress Charlotte Atkyns was recruited as a royalist spy in Paris at the outbreak of the revolution and was active in several plots to try to rescue the royal family.

Camille du Bois de la Motte slipped into the role of spy for France when acting as hostess and secretary for her father , who served as the French ambassador first to Spain and then to Sweden. In Sweden she became a close confidante of Princess Charlotte who would later become queen of Sweden and was accused of passing along government secrets that Charlotte shared with her to foreign diplomats at the Swedish court.

The Baroness d’Oettlinger was the nom de guerre of one of Napoleon’s agents, working in Germany to gather information on the activities of exiled royalists by presenting herself as an exile.

Etta d’Aelders was a Dutch feminist who encouraged the French revolutionaries to extend their ideals of equality to women. From being active in French and Dutch intellectual circles, she became a courtesan at the Dutch court and was recruited there by the French secret service, though her activities served a variety of political interests. She teetered on the line between diplomacy and espionage, reporting on attitudes towards leaders or situations and offering advice and arguments regarding specific actions, but she was eventually imprisoned at the Hague as a spy.

There were so very many women who mixed espionage with the more ordinary duties of a courtier that it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface.

Moving on to the 19th century, let’s stick to a brief survey of female spies during the American Civil War. The intertwined nature of the two sides provided many opportunities for women who were engaged in everyday activities to have access to conversations and information.

Confederate supporter Belle Boyd based her espionage operations in her father’s hotel in Virginia. In addition to eavesdropping from concealed locations in the hotel, she took advantage of the tendency of Union soldiers to boast and brag to a beautiful woman. She passed this intelligence on to Confederate officers concealing the messages in a hollow watch case. Her work was so effective that the Pinkerton agency assigned three men to track her down.

And speaking of the Pinkertons, at least two women worked as spies for the agency during the Civil War. Hattie Lawton and Kate Warne were involved in uncovering an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, among other more routine activities.

The women most at hazard when spying were Black women spying for the Union. Harriet Tubman had set up her extensive intelligence network for the purpose of liberating people from slavery, but when the war began she also used it to support the gathering of military intelligence, as well as more direct actions.

A woman whose name has not been recorded deliberately returned to where she had been enslaved after she and her husband had escaped to freedom so that she could spy on the Confederate officers camped nearby and pass messages to her husband on the other side of the lines by means of a code embedded in how she hung the laundry out to dry.

When the Confederate navy was building the ironclad ship Merrimack, Mary Touvestre, a free Black woman working as a housekeeper for one of the ship’s engineers, stole the plans for the ship and traveled secretly to Washington DC to deliver them to Union officials.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was part of a spy ring in Richmond organized by an eccentric socialite who arranged for Bowser to be hired as a servant at the Confederate White House. Taking advantage of the prejudice that assumed a Black woman would be illiterate and ignorant, she gained access to critical documents left out in the open and later reported their memorized content to her contact.


Can we identify any specific women who we know to have been spies and also to have been engaged in same-sex romances? With the aforementioned exception of Aphra Behn, perhaps not. But though many of the female spies in our brief tour found themselves recruited in the context of marriage to men (or other less formal arrangements), many others had careers where romantic relations with men were not a factor. The question feels like a red herring. As this podcast regularly points out, same-sex desire (in culturally-appropriate forms) is present throughout history. So an overlap between women who might experience that desire and women who might find themselves engaged in espionage is inevitable. And I would love to read more of those stories!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about women in espionage through the ages and why this makes a great context for romance

Sources mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Saturday, August 5, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 265 - On the Shelf for August 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/05 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2023.

Evidently the “on the shelf” episodes are currently leaning towards new books and interviews, with not so much of other types of content. Still on unofficial hiatus from summarizing books and articles for the blog. Still not much in the way of book shopping—at least not books that are relevant to mention here.

On the other hand, the interview schedule is looking packed! We have three interviews this month and I have several more already scheduled for the coming months. Rather than aiming for one interview per show, I figure I’ll air them as I record them unless there’s a reason to delay for publication schedules.

While writing the script for this show, I was reminded that I’d promised to get the updated submission guidelines up for next year’s fiction series. So that is available on the website now. (Link in the show notes, as usual.) Every year I’m delighted to find the selection process getting harder and harder due to the quality of what I receive. But don’t let that daunt you! Send me your best, most interesting work and you’ll have a good chance.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

The new and recent books cover quite a range this month. I’ll start with a book that I had originally left off the show because the cover copy was so coy about the content that I had no confidence that it belonged here. But consultation with a reader let me know that Our Hideous Progeny by C.E. McGill from Harper does indeed have a sapphic relationship at its heart, so I’ve slipped it in a bit belatedly.

Mary is the great-niece of Victor Frankenstein. She knows her great uncle disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Arctic, but she doesn’t know why or how...

The 1850s are a time of discovery, and London is ablaze with the latest scientific theories and debates, especially when a spectacular new exhibition of dinosaur sculptures opens at the Crystal Palace. Mary is keen to make her name in this world of science alongside her geologist husband, Henry—but despite her sharp mind and sharper tongue, without wealth and connections their options are limited.

When Mary discovers some old family papers that allude to the shocking truth behind her great-uncle’s past, she thinks she may have found the key to securing her and Henry’s professional and financial future. Their quest takes them to the wilds of Scotland; to Henry’s intriguing but reclusive sister, Maisie; and to a deadly chase with a rival who is out to steal their secret.

I was commenting in one of this month’s interviews that there seems to be something about the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman” that particularly inspires sapphic adaptations. By Moonlight by Lisabet Sarai is a decidedly erotic entry in this highly specialized genre.

In her eighteen years on earth, Bess has never traveled more than twenty miles from her Devonshire village. The raven-haired innkeeper’s daughter has little time to dream of adventure as she labors from dawn to dusk to keep her abusive father satisfied.

Then, at the weekly market in Tavistock town, she meets a handsome dandy who claims her with a single stolen kiss. When the gallant gentleman makes a midnight visit to the inn, Bess learns that her new lover is none other than Kit Latour, a notorious French highwayman who has been boldly relieving the local nobility of their valuables. Well-aware of the risk she’s taking, Bess still offers herself to the seductive outlaw. Even Kit’s darkest secrets cannot quench the flames of her love.

Another specialized micro-genre—that of queer adaptations of Jane Austen—covers a wide range of approaches. Kate Christie’s previous title, Gay Pride and Prejudice, was a bit disappointing for me, as it was created with only minor revisions to the original Austen text. So I rather suspect the same approach has been used for her new book, Emma: The Nature of a Lady  from Second Growth Books. But if that approach suits your tastes, then check it out.

What if some among Jane Austen’s characters preferred the company of their own sex? In this new retelling of Emma, one of Austen’s most entertaining novels, this question once again applies. This time, Christie’s rainbow-hued pen takes on the characters–and storylines–of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, and certain other residents of Highbury. Kate Christie’s Queering the Canon series advances the proposition that everyone deserves a happy ending–or, at least, to be included in the Western literary canon.

When reading through historical records, every once in a while you stumble across a fleeting reference that suggests a deeper story. Perhaps there is an overtly queer clue. Perhaps it’s only a situation in which queer stories could have existed. The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby from Unbound Publishing is based on just such a hint.

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman – Mary Tyrell – is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service.

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge's laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past – convicts, servants, the rural poor – as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.

Eden Hopewell has a book coming out next month, but this month’s entry from her is a romantic short story: “Love in the Shadows.”

Love in the Shadows is a captivating tale of forbidden love set in 1877 Philadelphia. When wealthy Emily meets struggling painter Charlotte, they are drawn to each other despite the societal norms of the time. As they navigate their secret relationship, they must battle the shadows of their past and fight to protect the love they share. Will they find a way to overcome the obstacles in their path and build a life together?

The randomness of publishing schedules sometimes throws together accidental themes. Over the last few months, we seem to have gotten an unusual number of books set around early psychiatric institutions. These stories tend to be somewhat dark, purely due to the setting. This month, we have Behind the Red Curtain by Eve Morton from JMS Books.

Cassandra Lightman grew up making trinkets and toys. She was on her way to inventing a "flying machine" when she was committed to a sanatorium for hysteria. That's where Dr. Timothy Brown found Sandra and saw her promising intelligence. After Sandra shows Dr. Brown how to cure hysteria in women, she begins to work under him in his medical practice. Since Sandra cannot practice medicine and has no support from her family, she must carry on her position in secret. She goes into Dr. Brown’s office through the back door, speaking to no one, and always covering her face.

Sandra soon meets Bedelia Morten, one of her patients behind the red curtain. Bedelia Morten is an upper class wife with a banker husband and three children of her own. She suffers from insomnia and nightmares, which leads her to seek out Dr. Brown’s practice. Though Bedelia is initially skeptical of Sandra’s skill, she soon learns to appreciate Sandra’s talent and company.

When their relationship becomes too close, Sandra is encouraged by Dr. Brown to invent a "stand-in" for herself. Sandra goes back to her experimental roots and visits her idol-inventor Marlin Manchester. Sandra works many long nights in hopes of creating the first steam-powered vibrator. When Sandra’s invention takes off, she is forced to reconsider her role both in and out of the examination room, her future, and who she wants by her side.

I always like finding books with less commonly used settings. That was what led me to interview Lee Swanson about Her Dangerous Journey Home (No Man is Her Master #3) from Merchant's Largesse Books. The previous two books in the series detailed how Christina Kohl got into her current situation.

Posing as her dead brother, master sea merchant Christina Kohl is knighted by King Edward II in 1310 for her bravery fighting the Scots. Torn from the arms of the woman she is forbidden to love, Christina leads a perilous voyage north where she confronts the Baltic pirates who killed her father and brother.

The various media properties telling the life of Ann Lister focus on the era when she was an established landowner and courting women of her social circles. But Lister’s romantic journey starts much earlier as dramatized in Learned By Heart by Emma Donoghue from Little, Brown.

Drawing on years of investigation and Anne Lister’s five-million-word secret journal, Learned by Heart is the long-buried love story of Eliza Raine, an orphan heiress banished from India to England at age six, and Anne Lister, a brilliant, troublesome tomboy, who meet at the Manor School for Young Ladies in York in 1805 when they are both fourteen. Emotionally intense, psychologically compelling and deeply researched, Learned by Heart is an extraordinary work of fiction by one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Full of passion and heartbreak, the tangled lives of Anne Lister and Eliza Raine form a love story for the ages.

Other Books of Interest

This month, the “other books of interest” category functions more as I originally intended, with stories that diverge in different ways from the central prototype we aim to cover.

The Ghost Ship (Burning Chambers #3) by Kate Mosse from Minotaur Books (Pan Macmillan) features a romance between a woman and a character who may be a woman in male disguise or perhaps is non-binary. It’s unclear from how the character is described and the cover copy is typically coy about it. This is the third book in a family saga series, but it appears the previous books don’t have queer content.

Piracy. Romance. Revenge. Across the seas of the seventeenth century, two seafarers are forced to fight for their lives. The sequel to The City of Tears, The Ghost Ship is the third novel in The Joubert Family Chronicles from bestselling author Kate Mosse.

The Barbary Coast, 1621. A mysterious vessel floats silently on the water. It is known only as the Ghost Ship. For months it has hunted pirates to liberate those enslaved by corsairs, manned by a courageous crew of mariners from Italy and France, Holland and the Canary Islands.

But the bravest men on board are not who they seem. And the stakes could not be higher. If arrested, they will be hanged for their crimes. Can they survive the journey and escape their fate?

A sweeping and epic love story, ranging from France in 1610 to Amsterdam and the Canary Islands in the 1620s, The Ghost Ship is a thrilling novel of adventure and buccaneering, love and revenge, stolen fortunes and hidden secrets on the high seas.

Sometimes a book will end up in the “other books of interest” section because the sapphic characters are not the central protagonists, as is the case for A Lady's Guide to Scandal by Sophie Irwin from Penguin Books.

When shy Miss Eliza Balfour married the austere Earl of Somerset, twenty years her senior, it was the match of the season--no matter that he was not the husband Eliza would have chosen.

But ten years later, Eliza is widowed. And at eight and twenty years, she is suddenly left titled, rich, and, for the first time in her life, utterly in control of her own future. Instead of living out her mourning quietly, Eliza heads to Bath with her cousin Margaret. After years of living according to everyone else's rules, Eliza has resolved, at last, to do as she wants.

But when the ripples of the dowager Lady Somerset's behavior reach the new Lord Somerset--whom Eliza knew, once, as a younger woman--Eliza is forced to confront the fact that freedom does not come without consequences, though it also brings unexpected opportunities . . .

And finally we have a cross-time story where the characters literally cross time, in Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh by Rachael Lippincott from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What if you found a once-in-a-lifetime love…just not in your lifetime? Audrey Cameron has lost her spark. But after getting dumped by her first love and waitlisted at her dream art school all in one week, she has no intention of putting her heart on the line again to get it back. So when local curmudgeon Mr. Montgomery walks into her family’s Pittsburgh convenience store saying he can help her, Audrey doesn’t know what she’s expecting…but it’s definitely not that she’ll be transported back to 1812 to become a Regency romance heroine.

Lucy Sinclair isn’t expecting to find an oddly dressed girl claiming to be from two hundred years in the future on her family’s estate. But she has to admit it’s a welcome distraction from being courted by a man her father expects her to marry—who offers a future she couldn’t be less interested in. Not that anyone has cared about what or who she’s interested in since her mother died, taking Lucy’s spark with her.

While the two girls try to understand what’s happening and how to send Audrey home, their sparks make a comeback in a most unexpected way. Because as they both try over and over to fall for their suitors and the happily-ever-afters everyone expects of them, they find instead they don’t have to try at all to fall for each other. But can a most unexpected love story survive even more impossible circumstances?

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been consuming lately? Reviewing my log, I’ve started a fairly large number of things, but a lot of them are still ongoing in parallel. Here’s what I’ve finished since last month.

I listened to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman, which is something between a novel in three acts and a collection of three connected novellas. Two spinster sisters decide to rescue various imperiled women with the aid of a disinherited nobleman-turned-highwayman who of course turns out to be the love interest. More of a dark thriller than a romantic adventure, which was what I thought I was getting. And the dark parts can be very dark indeed to the point of unpleasantness.

I was far more taken with the audiobook of Celia Bell’s The Disenchantment, set in late 17th century Paris amid politics and suspected poisonings in the court. There is a central sapphic relationship though this isn’t a romance novel by genre. There’s a lovely author’s note at the end talking about the real women who inspired the story. Highly recommended and I’ll promise you that it’s not tragic—at least for the women.

Changing gears somewhat, I want to give my highest recommendation to the Netflix animated adaptation of the graphic novel Nimona by N.D. Stevenson. It’s a lovely if heartbreaking story about the struggle to be accepted for who you are, and not who other people want you to be, in the guise of an endearing and chaotic monster girl named Nimona. The darker aspects of the show may be a bit intense for pre-teens, but if you have a teenager working on identity questions, the story may hit home for them.

I started reading Edie Cay’s A Lady’s Finder, set in the world of 19th century female prizefighters, but it wasn’t hitting the spot for me (I guess you can consider the pun intentional) so I set it aside for now.

Among the stories I’m still in the middle of is Meredith Rose’s Sherlockian story A Study in Garnet, which I expect to give a strong nod to when I finish it. And speaking of Meredith Rose, she’s one of the three authors I’m hosting this month. The other two are Annemarie K.D. who gave us last month’s fiction episode, and  Lee Swanson, whose new book was mentioned previously.

Author Guests

First up is Annemarie K.D., whose story “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” aired last week.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

I’m so glad I happened across Meredith Rose’s website when looking up information about her book, because it convinced me I wanted to interview her.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

Lee Swanson has the distinction of being the first male author I’ve interviewed for this podcast. At least, the first author who was male at the time of the interview.

[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]

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

Links to Annemarie KD Online

  • Annemarie does not have active social media at this time.

Links to Meredith Rose Online

Links to Lee Swanson Online

Major category: 
Saturday, July 29, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 264 - To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More by Annemarie KD - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/07/29 - listen here)

Seventeenth-century English playwright, poet, and spy Aphra Behn appears in this podcast startlingly often, in multiple guises. I recorded an entire episode about her. She gets discussed in my interview with author Janet Todd, who wrote the definitive biography of her. She’s a secondary character in one of Catherine Lundoff’s pirate stories. And now she is the primary focus of this month’s fiction episode: “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” by Annemarie KD.

The title is adapted from the title of Behn’s most overtly gender-bending poem: “To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.” Here it takes on new meanings, when Behn meets one who becomes her muse and opens new possibilities in her life.

The background of the story is Behn’s career as a spy for King Charles II in the Low Countries. We know relatively little about the details of that career other than the constant struggle to receive promised payments, and the names of a few other key players. Female spies were not at all uncommon in this era and I highly recommend researching the topic for those looking for interesting fictional settings. Too often, popular culture tells us that women in history could only have exciting adventures by aping men. But 17th century espionage was not a gendered profession and there are plenty of opportunities for danger and romance.

Another major thread here is the use of classical themes and reference, in particular the myth of Hermaphroditus, who combined male and female in one body. This is the central image of the poem referenced in the story’s title. The Clarinda of the poem is seen as attracting both male and female desire, and the poetic persona—whom we imagine to be Aphra—desires both aspects.

Annemarie KD was born under a gibbous Gemini moon, and has the eclecticism to prove it. She is, among other things, a librarian and a florist. Her librarian's proficiency and passion for research made seeking out and studying the histories surrounding this period in Aphra Behn's life a meticulous joy. It was her work and play and prayer with flowers, however, that gave her the confidence to return to authoring fiction after over a decade. Her writing is indebted to, and inspired by, the quietude, partnership, and beauty of senescence and rebirth inherent in creating with that vivacious medium.

Annemarie lives in the dappled shade of a beloved oak tree, with her dog and two cats. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the interplay of water and light. She dreams of a world in which liberation begets an equilibrium of pleasure and reciprocal, loving care.

The narrator for this story is yours truly, Heather Rose Jones.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More

by Annemarie KD

So this is what a year of playing at intelligencer in the Low Countries wrought?

Aphra had allowed herself to be carried hither on a tide of sighing memories: of flirtations lit by a youthful exuberance, exchanged with a man blithesome and droll.

The one before her now could hardly be the swain of her sun-stained recollections. He wore a hounded look, underlined by the shadows that clung below his eyes, mimicked by the glances he shot towards the door again and again.

“Do you have it, then?” His eyes shifted from the door to regard her, quavering.

“I was provided some small allotment; a promise of your full reward to come, I’m sure.”

“I need more than promises. I need certitude that my return to England won’t be to a courtroom and the Tower, or worse,” he hissed.

Then, seemingly growing conscious of the disagreeable impression he was making, he changed his approach. He leaned in and spoke just above a whisper. “You know the reward that was meted out for my father.”

She matched him in nearness and volume. “You’re no regicide, William. The King will reward faithful service.”

A wheeze escaped his lips, that poorly masked a bitter scoff. His eyes jumped once more to the door that led from the inn to the street beyond.

“There are too many ears pressing in on us here. Come.” He stood, and in a muted echo of the gallantry Aphra remembered from their former time together, extended a hand to her.

The coach they hailed certainly promised to banish the press of ears that had concerned Scot, though his countenance didn’t lighten. As they clambered in, his agitation seemed to set the compartment buzzing. He violently pulled the drapes near him shut, and leaned over her to do likewise on her side. She put a placating hand on his arm and took the curtain between her own fingers. A contrite smile drifted across his face, and he returned his hand to his lap.

She turned to cover the window, and as she did, she caught the dark shape of a man, standing alone, watching them. He wore a tall black hat, its brim turned up sharply all about it. Before she could focus on the vague figure’s face, however, the coach lurched forward.

“The pardon, Astrea.” Scot’s voice recalled her attention. She drew the fabric over the window. “I can do much for His Majesty with the confidences I’ve won here. But without that safe-guard, I cannot hazard action that would land me in a Dutch prison.”

Aphra was not without sympathy for him. She would entreat London for Scot’s pardon in her next letter, without fail. But she could little neglect her purpose, and catching wind of Scot’s crowing about “confidences,” she gave chase.

“If your wit has remained the same refreshing drollery it was in Surinam, I’m certain you’ve made no shortage of friends here.” She angled the bow of her lips in a smile towards him. “You can delight me with an abridgement of the most notable goings-on and players.”

“An accurate abridgement would be that they are all rogues, not a one among them to be trusted. The most inveterate villain of them all being my ‘Colonel,’ Bampfield,” Scot sneered. “Though he shall not have that over me much longer. I mean to quit his service soon, and go to the Hague. There I could be sharp eyes and ears for the King.”

Aphra tried to hide her irritation at all his equivocating. She armed herself with a tilted chin and dancing eyes, aimed to flatter. “Ah, as smart as your eyes and ears are, you have a mouth to match, and it’s that which has charmed me since first we met. So, Celladon,” she said, invoking their names for each other from their former, gauzy dalliance, “tell your dear Astrea, with that delightful tongue of yours, why should His Majesty beware of this Bampfield?”

The praise did little to soften Scot, who continued his ranting unabated. “He is treachery personified. Was once Colonel to the late King, you know, before he amassed his own regiment of dissidents in Holland. He hinders me at every step. Trails me, close as a shadow.”

A shadow. “I saw a man outside the inn as we set off. He seemed to be watching us. Wearing a tall hat, with a sharply upturned brim.”

“I pray it was not him. He is wary of me leaving his service for another. I must have protection before I’m at liberty to divulge all I know.”

It did not escape Aphra that this Colonel Bampfield had due reason to suspect Scot. Was not this coach ride proof of it? Her London correspondents, equally, would be wary of placing full credit in a man who had joined the King’s opponents in Holland.

“Then give the King what proof of fidelity you can. Something to aid me in my bargaining for the pardon you desire.”

Scot looked ahead with a spiritless expression, as if all other directions had been cut off, and hope of evasion with them. When he spoke, his voice sounded thickly.

“If I’m to sing, I shall require a drink to whet my beak.”

# # #

Aphra sighed to the darkness of her room. Scot, son of a man executed for regicide, may yet be redeemed. The same could not be said of Celladon, the object of Aphra’s youthful pastoral fantasies. That man, along with any attraction to him that might have once lingered, was lost.

She shrugged her coat from her shoulders, and slid her rings from her fingers. Carefully, she placed them in a small bag. She’d left London with £50 from her employers. After exchanging it in the Continent, only £40 remained. The day’s ride Scot insisted on had cost over £10 - not to mention the ales he quaffed. It had scarcely been a week since her arrival. How was she to manage the continued costs? She worried the muslin-swaddled rings between her fingers.

And what had she to show for it? Scot’s pledge that he would tell all when she came to Holland. The name of Bampfield, and of another Englishman who, Scot charged, was employing agents to spy on English merchants. Hopefully it would be enough to coax further support from London.

She nestled the bag of rings in her travel chest, inside one of her gowns. Fetching a candlestick, she resolved to write a letter to her correspondent, to send out with the next post. Then, to put out the light on this long, tiresome day.

# # #

The very day Aphra was to cross into Holland, news came that threw all plans into a tumult. English forces had set fireships among the Dutch merchant vessels crowding the Vlie channel. The conflagration was spectacular. Holland was in a state of high alarm, and Englishmen much more prominent than herself were being apprehended and questioned by Dutch authorities. Going into that country now would be walking herself into certain detainment.

She dispatched a letter to Scot, rearranging their meeting for two weeks hence, at a house a couple miles from her inn. She wrote her London correspondent of the change in plans.

There was nothing more to be done for now. Perhaps she would go into the city center. She might overhear something useful, herself. Her command of Dutch was meagre, but it was nonetheless greater than Scot’s, which was non-existent. He confessed to her never having bothered to learn, all his dealings being with English dissidents and exiles.

There was still the issue of funds, however. Wherever she might go, it would have to be without charge. She donned her coat and rings, and made towards the innkeeper’s desk, to enquire after places that met her criteria for cost.

As it happened, he informed her, the newly-established Academy, modeled after Paris’ own Academie Royale de Peinture, was open to visitors this day. It was housed in the Bourse - not too far by foot, he assured her, if she wished to avoid the price of a coach.

It was a welcome suggestion, as it promised a setting in which she could linger and observe without drawing suspicion. Having ascertained the way, she left the dim interior of the inn, and stepped out into the mild warmth of a waning summer.

# # #

Inspired by the Parisian Academie though it might be, so far, the feel was decidedly Netherlandish. Aphra stood in the Academy’s antechamber, in front of a regiment of portraits and paintings ranged together. The expected stern and solemn likenesses of a succession of aldermen and burgemeesters were in attendance, and several compositions depicting silver ribbons of water weaving among level expanses of green, all under great barrels of clouds. In total, the collection gave the impression of staid sureness; a conviction that the patrons of this guild were as inevitable, as rightful in their place as the land, itself.

Among the drab, larger-than-life city fathers and dark wood, however, one small stretch of canvas stood in contrast; not least because its diminutive size and its tones of mild blue, and of a gold like sand at daybreak, made it seem a portal onto another world entire.

Two figures crowded its foreground. Another stood off in the distance, strangely innumerable. The foremost scene would be recognizable to anyone: It was a struggle, between pursuer and pursued. A woman stood, her fierce determination to capture her quarry evident in the bend of her waist and the twist of her neck.

Where the arc of her figure spoke to her firm resolve, the carriage of her prize was all elusiveness. The hunted youth seemed to Aphra to be very difficult to pin down, indeed. He wore a look of pleading, but for what outcome? Even his gestures seemed uncertain in their purpose. Was he trying to pry the huntress’ fingers from his neck, or was he wrapping his palm around hers?

The scene in the distance was as inscrutable as the woman’s intent was plain. Two heads sprung up from two bodies joined into one. What had once been two pairs of legs were now enmeshed beyond disentanglement, beyond discernment as anything but a single pair. It was a perplexing form, difficult to capture in a description. If she were made to try in one word, it might be- -

“Queer, isn’t it? That figure being so distant. Almost as if to ensure it remains illegible to any but the most curious, the most knowing observers.”

A woman stood next to her. Though she was addressing Aphra, her gaze was occupied with studying the painting. She was finely dressed, in a gown of a blue so deep, it was near black. Her lustrous, wavy hair was just as dark. Aphra could not help but notice that she was strikingly pretty.

Suddenly, she turned a pair of glittering eyes on Aphra. “I’ve no doubt that you’re one.”

“It certainly tells a less obvious story than its neighbors,” Aphra said, looking back towards the somber portraits in hopes of masking her sudden thrill at the strange compliment.

“And more imaginative, too,” the woman said, a ripple of amusement in her voice. “Gossaert’s depiction of Ovid’s Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Do you know the tale?”

“The water nymph, and the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. I am familiar with it; in translation, at least. It is a great regret of mine that I have yet to master Latin - one that I hope to remedy before the end of my days.”

Aphra turned back to face the woman. She was still fixing her with that insuppressible twinkle lighting her eyes. My, but something in Aphra’s chest leapt, being shone on by those two beams.

The woman smiled. “I wonder what other desires you might regret failing to satisfy?”

# # #

The last two weeks would have been devastatingly bleak if not for Mrs. Jennings. Aphra’s meagre supply of funds from London had dried up long ago. She’d been reduced to pawning one of her rings, and skipping meals to save charges.

So if Cyrene (Mrs. Jennings insisted on the familiar), a widow - like Aphra - without children, a woman of quality English stock, who’d lived in Flanders for years, wanted to show Aphra some dearly appreciated hospitality in the Antwerp establishments she relished most, why should Aphra deny such kindness? Surely she was obligated to stretch out His Majesty’s coin with whatever means were appropriate?

It wasn’t as if she was neglecting her duties. Outings with Cyrene gave her pretense and means to observe goings-on in the city. She introduced Aphra to interesting people, useful people: merchants, and artists, and even one Edward Butler, Secretary to the Duke of Ormonde. And in all their conversations, Aphra hadn’t let her purpose slip. Besides, she had yet to receive news from Scot, all the time until this, the day appointed for their meeting.

That Cyrene was witty, and beautiful, only made her a more fitting companion to comfort Aphra in this strange place. And she was beautiful, wasn’t she? Dazzling, with an effect that Aphra was unaccustomed to, for she often found herself uncharacteristically slow in her replies, for all the dreaming she did in Cyrene’s presence. Sometimes it was wondering at the mind that produced some shimmering insight or turn of phrase…and sometimes it was wondering if her cheek would be warm and soft under Aphra’s hand, if the skin there would pink at the touch. If Cyrene’s lips would part with the faintest whisper of a breath as Aphra inclined her mouth forward…

An abrupt thump roused her, and Aphra looked up to see Scot already over the threshold, the door closed behind him. He sat and tossed a packet of folded papers onto the table between them.

“Were you followed?” Scot coughed out, glancing towards a window.

“I was the picture of discretion, Celladon.”

He turned weary eyes on her. “Do you have it yet?”

“Patience. I hope what you’ve furnished here will sway them.” She read the papers as she spoke. In addition to more querulous talk of Bampfield, Scot had spat out the names of at least five Englishmen - and one Englishwoman. Englishmen who, Scot said, were aiding the King’s enemies abroad. As he himself once had.

As she read, Scot rambled. He was begging her to ensure that her employers not prosecute one of these men in particular. Otherwise, he would know it was Scot who turned him in, and would send someone to enact retribution.

It was an unpleasant business, this betrayal of one’s countrymen. And by now, Aphra had noticed how readily Scot did it. She tried to delicately point towards another avenue.

“Whitehall seems keen to have word of Naval intelligence—”

Her distaste must have showed, however, because Scot set his neck low over his shoulders and rasped, “What England is most keen for, my dear Astrea, is that for which it has always thirsted: Blood. That is absolute, and it matters little if it be Royalist or Republican who offers up the sacrifice, so long as it is made. Or have you forgotten that ‘the land cannot be cleansed but by blood’?”

Aphra was momentarily stunned silent. She had been a mere child when the regicide happened, but she grew to understand how the cry for blood to answer spilt blood had sealed King Charles’ fate. Above the queasy twist of her stomach, she scrambled until she found the sure footing of her usual wit.

She rose from the table to head for the bar. “And I suppose what you thirst for, my dear Celladon, is a good ale.”

# # #

Taking in Sunday mass the next day at the Our Lady cathedral, the services were three-quarters over when Aphra realized that they had failed to make any lasting impression on her. Her thoughts had been occupied with what to make of Scot’s document, what to write to London…and how much more enjoyable this day would be if she were spending it with Cyrene.

She’d told her charming companion that she would be missing for the next few days, giving the excuse of a visiting friend, some wife of one of her late husband’s business partners. And so she was returned to whiling away her time in places where her entry was not barred by money.

As she left through the spacious central nave, she became increasingly aware of a persistent shadow, floating starkly against the white and rosy marble interior. She increased her pace, and the dark figure matched her for speed and direction.

She ducked swiftly behind a pillar and paused.  She tried to differentiate the various patters of footfall echoing off the stone, but between the multitude of congregants, and the hammering of her heartbeat in her ears, it was a complete cacophony. Peering around one side of the column, she saw only the russets, blues, and whites of the church-goers and clergy.

Then she wheeled around, right into that murky, leering mass.

“Thinking of converting?”

The man wore a heavy cloak, an odd match for the gentle weather. His features had certainly made him a handsome youth once, but they now bore evidence of hard use by pain and fear. Pockmarks riddled his sullen cheeks. Perched on the top of his head was a tall black hat, with a brim turned up all about.

“More, curious to learn how others serve our Lord.” She kept her eyes locked with his as she spoke, but surreptitiously edged towards the great hall.

“As am I, to learn about your devotions. I know of your trysts with that slimy villain Scot. Where is he?”

So this was the man she’d spied from the coach weeks ago. Was he the dreaded Bampfield? She steeled her nerve, resolved that this encounter should garner her some insight helpful to her mission.

“Surely this is no proper way to make your introductions to a lady. Mr…?”

“Corney. Doubtless that wretch Scot has told you of me. Unless, perhaps, he is too ashamed to reveal the base treachery he dealt me during our former acquaintance. Though I can scarcely imagine the rogue capable of even one whit of shame.”

“If this conduct is any measure of your character, perhaps there was reason for his harsh treatment of you.” She tipped her jaw defiantly at the space between them, narrow for how he crowded in on her. “Mr. Corney.”

He withdrew at that, and gestured for her to lead the way, cloak hanging from his outstretched arm like a streamer. She leveled her chin and walked past him. Immediately, he matched pace at her shoulder.

“And you are Mrs. Behn. You style yourself cunning, but know not the first thing of the man you keep council with. Your ignorance of me proves it.”

“My ignorance of you proves only my distaste for the company of impudent scoundrels. If you must prate on, kindly tell me something worth the strain on my ears.”

He choked out an affronted bark. “Then listen and take good heed, madam, because that man Scot is a traitor no better than his father before him. I had secured knowledge of the East-India fleet, intelligence that would have greatly aided His Majesty against the Dutch. Before I could send it, the cut-throat betrayed me to Bampfield. Moldering in that prison, I envisioned a thousand manners of death to inflict upon him, the vile, abject serpent—”

“Mind your setting, Mr. Corney.” She bowed her head at a clergyman walking towards them. They walked in silence until the holy man had passed, a drifting cloud of white robes. Reaching the entrance, Aphra turned to face Corney, taking large steps back.

“I shall take my leave of you now. God speed you, Mr. Corney,” she turned, and as she walked out into the late morning’s light, she amended, “to whatever end you’re due.”

# # #

Scot was pacing the small room without pause. “Aphra, I’m good as dead!” he howled.

“Celladon, please compose yourself. You should have seen Corney flee when I showed him my pass from Whitehall. He believed me a sparrow that he could harry, installing himself outside my inn these last two days. I gave him a shock when I turned the game on him.”

“It matters little if he’s aware that you’re here on the King’s business!”

“Surely it matters greatly,” she huffed, “if he’s the friend to the King he claims.”

“Don’t you see? I demonstrated to him how to play the field. It could be dangerous to imagine him above the same tactics."

"You mean he would betray me to the Dutch?"

"For your sake, my dear Astrea, I hope that he is still as much the unimaginative puppet as ever. I, however, cannot take such chances. I must make haste back to Holland. Have you received more money from London yet?”

“Not yet. I sent a request just before you arrived—”

“Aphra.” He grasped her hands and gave them a beseeching shake. “Please. If Corney finds out where I am, he will kill me. Swiftly, I beg, get me coach fare and send a messenger to bring it here.  Do not dare return, lest he follow you. Go. Now!”

# # #

“I have a surprise for you today.” Cyrene had led her to a small, unremarkable door, in a modest quarter of town. She doubted that anything behind the door would match the thrill of merely being with Cyrene again, but she allowed herself to be led by the warm hand on her shoulder.

In the center of the room was an easel, draped in a sepia cloth. Canvases were tucked into every corner of the space. A settee stood against one wall.

“Cyrene, do you paint?” Aphra stepped into the warmth of the bright, indirect light filling the space.

“Yes. This studio is not grand, but it’s mine.” Her hand drifted to the small of Aphra’s back, and she guided her towards the shrouded easel. She reached her other hand over them, lifting the fabric to reveal the canvas underneath. “I want to show you my current project.”

It depicted a woman, draped in layers of luminous silks that clung to her form. She stood in quarter profile, her back towards the viewer. She gazed up at her outstretched right hand, in which she held a mask.

“Beautiful,” Aphra murmured. “One of the Muses?”

“Yes, Thalia, Muse of pastoral comedy and wit.” Cyrene took a step back, flicking her eyes between Aphra and the canvas. “You remind me of her.” She took Aphra’s right hand in hers, lifted it to mirror the painted figure’s pose.

Aphra’s heart bobbed in her throat.

“You’re missing your rings.” Cyrene ran the pad of her thumb over the bare backs of Aphra’s fingers. “I haven’t seen you wear the ruby in some time, but you were never without your little golden band.”

“Ah, my friend…she had sudden need, and there was no time to send for money from home…” It was mostly true, save for the reversal of Scot’s gender. “I had hoped to save the gold band. It was the lesser of the two in value, but it was passed down from my mother’s side. Necessity triumphed over sentimentality, however.”

Cyrene brought the back of Aphra’s hand to her mouth. “So generous, Aphra.”

Aphra’s breathing grew shallow. It was becoming difficult to dismiss Cyrene’s touch, the warm breath on her fingers, as mere friendly gestures. “At the Academy, you said you had ‘no doubt I was one.’ Someone who could decipher what remained illegible to others. What did you mean?”

She prayed that Cyrene’s words meant she was one, too. Unless she had somehow discerned that Aphra was a spy? She could scarcely tell which possibility made her heart race faster.

“I suspect you know what I meant.” Her dazzling eyes held Aphra’s. One by one, she took each base of Aphra’s fingers between her lips, closing her eyes as she traveled the back of her hand with soft caresses of her mouth and tongue.

Aphra pulled in a sharp breath. She had been assigned the role of Hermes, the messenger, dispatched here to relay back what she learned, in code and cypher.

But could she not also indulge in the charms of Aphrodite, in pleasure and sensuality?

“Then I’ll give my answer to the question you posed when we met. That if I don’t kiss you now, I shall regret it for the rest of my days.”

And then all was surrendering: to the pull of Cyrene’s hand on her wrist, the crush of their lips meeting - and to the plush velvet cushions, beckoning from the settee.

# # #

For a while, the late summer days passed in a parade which had little to differentiate one from the other. Scot’s letters were interchangeable: a few names of Englishmen to pursue, his need for money and the pardon (of which her London correspondents—when, finally, she received a reply—had made no further mention). Aphra’s arrears to the innkeeper continued to grow. Corney hounded her at church and inn, boasting that she had no hope of rendezvousing with Scot, now that he’d warned everyone he knew in Holland.

Little to differentiate the days—except for her meetings with Cyrene.

Afternoons together in her studio, imbued with painter’s light and the warmth of Cyrene’s laughter, became a rare bright spot in Aphra’s hours of anxiety, waiting, and want.

Indeed, all anxiety, waiting, and want dissolved under Cyrene’s deft fingers and mouth.

The warmth of those afternoons seemed improbable, now that autumn had brought such chill: London had burned. She couldn’t imagine the ruin she’d return to, should she ever be able to return. Over a month had passed since she’d received any funds. Everything she had—save the clothes she wore—was promised as payment against her steep debt. And now, her mission lay in tatters.

Scot had been imprisoned.

Aphra laid the blame on only one man’s shoulders.

Her tattered sole pair of shoes felt ready to split with each brisk step towards the Bourse. The buffoon often bragged of his “perambulations” about that grand colonnaded square. He prated on about the poetic irony: he had been strolling Amsterdam’s Bourse when he was apprehended by the men Scot betrayed him to. She would give him something to trouble his memories of this place, as well.

Aphra perched against a column. The plaza was a sea of tall black hats and, now that the weather was turning, dark cloaks. She nearly despaired of finding him. Until a booming, odious laugh caught her ears.

“I wish it had been me who caught him!”

She followed the voice to its source. Corney walked towards her, though he didn’t seem to have spotted her. He was speaking to someone on his left. Someone wearing dark blue. Someone who, presently, glanced up—with a pair of glittering eyes that caught Aphra’s.

Aphra turned and fled.

# # #

“Aphra, please listen…”

“To you? Corney’s man?”

“You know I am decidedly neither.”

“I know you are a traitor. From the very first. Ours was no chance meeting, I see now.” The words were bitter on her tongue.

“It’s true that Corney sent me, but I’m no traitor. I did not betray the true allegiance of my heart—of which he knows not.”

“Then I am as woefully ignorant!” Aphra spat.

“My devotion is to beauty, and life. I suggest you ally yourself similarly, Aphra. Do you know that, to the last, Scot was meeting with informants for the Dutch?"

The revelation stung. Aphra attempted to brush off the pain. "You know not for what end. Perhaps he was gathering intelligence—"

"Aphra. Isn't it evident that the ‘end’ is always the same? These men hunt and eat each other, always looking over their shoulder for fear that they will be the next one consumed. Don’t you tire of fetching game for a master who fails to reward you with even the merest scraps from his table?” Cyrene gestured at Aphra’s room, miserably empty of all her possessions.

Aphra bristled at such low, hypocritical talk of the King's service. “And yet, you hunted me.”

“What we have been pursuing, dear Aphra, does not destroy. When we chase our ambitions—our desires—the hunt does not end in gluttonous blood and death. Instead, our senses feast: painting.” Cyrene clutched the fabric at her breast. “Poetry.” She held a hand towards Aphra. “Pleasure.” She took a step closer. “Everything mysterious and bright that makes life in this dreary, unimaginative world worth living.”

“Stay back. For all your high talk, the fact remains: you were false from the start.”

“No, Aphra—”

“I wish to never see you again!”

“Please.” Cyrene’s voice cracked to a whisper.

“Get. Out!”

# # #

A knock roused her. Aphra rose from the bed, drawing the blanket around her to keep off the deep winter’s chill. 

A voice sounded beyond the door. “Ma’am, shall I load your trunk on the coach?”

Was this some trick? Her belongings had been ransomed to the innkeeper long ago.

“Everything’s been settled, Ma’am…” the voice anxiously prompted.

“How?” Aphra’s voice rang in the bare room.

“A loan, Ma’am. From my master, Mr. Edward Butler.”

“I didn’t contact him…” she muttered, opening the door.

“Ah!” The young footman brightened. “I’m to give you this, as well.” He handed her a little package, wrapped in dark blue silk.

Aphra unwrapped the fabric, and opened the small box within. The gold of her little band winked back at her. And coiled in it, a note. She unfurled it, and read,

Darling Thalia,
Flee if you must. I remain;

“Ink and quill, please, and a scrap of paper.”

Being so furnished, Aphra replied,

Yes, I must away, but I shall heed your words.
I quit the game, but I shan’t give up the chase.

“See that Mr. Butler forwards this to Mrs. Jennings.”

“Understood, Ma’am. All set?”

Aphra inhaled, gathering strength for her next step. “Onwards.”

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “To the Fair Muse who, Loving Me, Imagin'd More” by Annemarie KD, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, July 25, 2023 - 19:07

Here are the updated submission guidelines for next year's fiction series. There are only a few minor changes from last year, mostly clarifying some standard practices that newer authors may not be familiar with, and explicitly stating a policy regarding Large Language Models.

Major category: 

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2024 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.

I strongly advise authors to review these guidelines thoroughly before submitting. If your submission doesn't meet the requirements, you will have wasted both of our time.

Technical Details

  • We will accept short fiction of any length up to 5000 words, which is a hard limit. We will be publishing four stories. (If we get some really great flash fiction, there’s the possibility of doubling up if the total meets the word count limit.)
  • We will be paying professional rates: $0.08/word.
  • The contract will be for first publication rights in audio and print (i.e., the story must not have appeared in either format previously) with an exclusive one year license. (Exceptions can be arranged by mutual consent for “best of” collections within that term.)
  • Instructions on how to submit are given below. NO SUBMISSIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED OUTSIDE THE SUBMISSION PERIOD OF JANUARY 2024.
  • Do not send us stories generated in part or in whole using Large Language Models such as ChatGPT, etc.

What We’re Looking For

  • Stories must be set in an actual historic culture--i.e., a specific time and place in history--and the plot and characters should be firmly rooted in that time and place. (No time-travel or past memories, please.)
  • Stories may include fantastic elements that are appropriate to the historic setting. For example, they can include fantastic or supernatural events or beings that people of that era considered to be real. Or stories may be modeled on the fantastic literature of a specific historic era and culture. The limits to this will necessarily be subjective.
  • Stories must be set before 1900. We love to see stories that reach beyond the popular settings of 19th century America and England unless you do something new and interesting in them. I try to balance a diversity of settings and if you aren't competing with the rest of the 33% of stories with 19th c Anglophone settings, you have an advantage. [Also: see sensitivity note below.]
  • Romance is optional, and romance stories should have some other significant plot element in addition to the romance. A developing romance tends to take up a lot of plot space and we've all read a lot of "girl meets girl but they're the only two lesbians in the world." There are great stories that could be done with existing couples, friendly exes, or networks of like-minded women, just for a change.
  • We are not looking for erotica. Sex may be implied but not described. (It’s difficult to include both erotic content and a substantial non-romantic plot in short fiction. I’d rather that stories focus on the plot and characters.)
  • Stories should feature lesbian-relevant themes. What do I mean by that, especially given the emphasis the LHMP puts on how people in history understood sexuality differently than we do? This is where we get into “I know it when I see it” territory. The story should feature protagonist(s) who identify as women, whose primary emotional orientation within the scope of the story is toward other women. This is not meant to exclude characters who might identify today as bisexual or who have had relationships with men outside the scope of the story. But the story should focus on same-sex relations. Stories that involve cross-gender motifs (e.g., "passing women," "female husbands") should respect trans possibilities [see sensitivity note below].
  • Stories need not be all rainbows and unicorns, but should not be tragic. Angst and peril are ok as long as they don’t end in tragedy.
  • Authors of all genders and orientations are welcome to submit. Marginalized authors are strongly encouraged to submit, regardless of whether you are writing about your own cultural background.
  • If you want a somewhat less formal discussion of what sorts of stories really catch my eye, I wrote a blog about that.

Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.

Submission Information

  • Do not send submissions before January 1, 2024 or after January 31, 2024. Submissions sent outside this window will not be considered (with allowance for time zones). Seriously. I had someone (twice!) send me submissions in mid-summer. I remember these things and you won't do yourself any favors.
  • And evidently I need to point out that you should not re-submit a story that has previously been rejected, unless you have prior approval to do so. "Prior approval" could mean "when I rejected it previously, I said that I'd love to consider it again if you addressed X, Y, and Z." It can also mean, "Before you send it to me, you email me explaining when it was submitted previously and asking if I'd like to see it again." It especially helps if you've worked to make it even better than it was before, because the overall quality of the submissions goes up every year and you'll have stiff competition.
    • Simultaneous submission (i.e., having the story out under consideration at more than one market) is ok, but explain that in your cover letter. My turn-around time for acceptances is short enough that it's unlikely to be a problem for me.
  • Send submissions to
  • Submit your story as an rtf or doc(x) file attached to your email
  • The file name should be “[last name] - [story title, truncated if long]”
  • The subject line of your email should be “LHMP Submissions - [last name] - [story title]”
  • There is no need to provide a synopsis or biographical information in the cover letter.
  • By submitting your story, you are verifying that the material is your own original work and that it has not been previously published in any form in a publicly accessible context.
  • Submissions will be acknowledged within 2 days of receipt. If you haven’t received an acknowledgment within 5 days, please query.
  • Based on previous years, I will generally have the submissions read and responded to within the first week of February. If you haven't received a response by mid-February, please query as the email may have gone astray.


Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:

  • In addition to word count, please provide the date/era of your setting and the location/culture it is set in. (These can be in general terms, but it helps for putting the story in context, especially if it uses a very tight point of view where the time/place are not specifically mentioned in the story.) If you are including fantasy elements and think I might not be familiar with the historic background for those elements, a very brief note in the cover e-mail is ok.

If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here is a good basic format:

  • Use courier or a similar monospaced serif font, 12-point size
  • Lines should be double-spaced with paragraphs indented. (Use your word processor’s formatting for this, do not use tabs or manual carriage returns.)
  • Do not justify the text, leave a ragged right margin.
  • Margins should be at least 1-inch or equivalent all around
  • On the first page, provide the following information:
  • Your name (legal name, the name I’ll be putting on the contract)
  • email address
  • (standard formats generally require a mailing address but I don’t need one at this point)
  • word count (please use your word processor’s word count function, rounded to the nearest 100)
  • date/era of story
  • location/culture of story
  • Centered above the start of the story, include the title, and on the next line “by [name to appear in publication]”. This is where you may use a pen name, if you choose.
  • Please use actual italics rather than underlining for material meant to appear in italics.
  • Please indicate the end of your story with the word “end” centered below the final line.

As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)

Notes on Sensitivity

I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid exoticizing the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"

What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.

A note on transfeminine characters: I am completely open to the inclusion of stories with transfeminine characters who identify as women-loving-women. This is a complicated topic for historic stories, though, as this is not a motif with much known historic grounding before the later 20th/21st century. (In all my research, I've found only one possible, fictional example that was not presented as gender deception for ulterior purposes, and no non-fictional examples of any type that don't involve intersex persons.) If you're submitting this type of story, you may have to work harder than usual on making it work in the historic context.


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