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Saturday, September 3, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 238 - On the Shelf for September 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/09/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2022.

Last month kicked my ass and I’m sitting here composing the September On the Shelf script with a brain that’s gasping for air a bit. Mostly day-job stuff – the sort that means you get a phone call from your boss at 7pm Friday evening asking you to log on again so you can participate in a live report-editing session with the Directors and VPs, and the session goes to midnight, and at the end of it the conclusion is that the report has to be re-written from scratch before Monday. It’s been a bit like that all month and has left me wrung out and not up to much else except trying to recover from each day before the next.

Underneath all that, has been preparations for attending the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention – Worldcon, for short – in Chicago, which is where I am at the time this podcast is going live. I have a fabulous schedule, with panel discussions and volunteer time and business meetings and book signings and seeing all manner of friends in person whom I mostly only see at Worldcons. And missing the ones who aren’t able to make it or still don’t feel safe traveling or mingling in crowds.

Even though I’m recording this in advance, I feel confident telling you that I’m having a wonderful time. One of the items I’m involved in is as one of the co-hosts for a LGBTQIA+ “Elders meetup” social gathering. When I saw that on the schedule as I was picking programming items I was interested in, I had a brief moment of thinking, “Wait, am I an ‘elder’?” But however much I sometimes question whether I feel part of a community, I’ve been doing this SFF fandom thing as an out queer woman for over 40 years now, so I guess that really does make me a queer elder.

I’m participating in several panel discussions that are very near and dear to my heart, and quite relevant to this podcast. One is “Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays,” where we’ll talk about using alternate history to challenge the dominant historical narratives and to center those who are often marginalized in the study of traditional history. Every single work of queer historical fiction is doing this work, alongside fictions that tackle the contexts of race, colonialism, disability, and other topics.

I’m moderating a panel discussion on gendered magic in historic fantasy (though we may broaden the scope of literature we discuss), which ties in very nicely to how gender and gendered characteristics have been perceived and policed across the ages. I’m involved in a couple panel discussions on podcasting in general: how to get started, and what it’s all about, plus a few other assorted items. If, by some chance, you too happen to be at Worldcon in Chicago, I’d love for you to find me and say hi.

On a more routine topic, this is your monthly reminder that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is doing a short fiction series again in 2023, so it’s time for you to be brainstorming story ideas and telling all your friends to do the same. A link to the Call for Submissions is in the show notes or on the website.

Publications on the Blog

During August and continuing on into September, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been looking at articles from the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. As usual, for collections about singlehood, there’s a wide variation in how relevant the articles are in application to imagining queer lives. But they also show the variation in attitudes and practices in the classical and early Christian eras. The detailed demographic data on pre-Christian Egypt is especially full of anecdotes that get my imagination spinning, particularly in contrast to some of the more rigid attitudes and practices in Rome proper.

This collection will see us through September, but after that I’m planning on doing an intersection of the blog and podcast around a particular primary source that I’ve been working on. I’ll save the details until I’m certain it’s on the schedule, but it’s a historic incident that interrogates the overlap between gender and sexuality in interesting ways—one that I’ve mentioned previously in several podcasts, but where I’ve only recently gotten my hands on the full original text to work with.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

With everything that’s been going on, it’s no surprise that I haven’t had time to shop for non-fiction for the blog, but we have a bumper crop of new fiction to talk about. I don’t usually reach back several months for the new book listings. If I missed something too much earlier, I just add it to the database and move on. But this June book looked too interesting not to include.

Mackenzy O'Rorke P.I.: In the Case of the Dangerous Dames self-published by Dee D. Matthews looks like a good old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. The cover copy is somewhat generic, but the book’s metadata indicates that we’re dealing with a lesbian PI.

1942, in the city of angels. Mackenzy O’Rorke was a one-of-a-kind P.I. For starters, she was a dame doing a man’s job and doing it with style. To be a successful sleuth, you had to be smarter than the average cop and 10 times that of the criminals. Mack, as her friends called her, was that and more. Her latest case was supposed to be a simple missing person but turned out to be bigger than a movie plot and more dangerous than the war the boys were fighting overseas. The clock is ticking, and lives are on the line. It’s up to Mack to keep three dames alive until they can sing to Uncles Sam.

There are three August books I haven’t covered previously. I’ve been trying to do a bit of sleuthing on the first one. The Lioness Queen by Elly Greys appears to be the same as the French book La Reine Lionne published in 2021 by Alexia Damyl. I’m a bit confused by the difference in author names, since both names have a presence on Amazon and Goodreads, but without any clear linkage for the couple of titles that appear to be different language editions of the same book. I tried reaching out to Alexia on Instagram to clarify that both names are her but haven’t heard back. I’m probably worrying too much, but you sometimes hear about scammers lifting entire books by someone else and republishing them under a new name, and I’d hate to discover that I accidentally supported something like that. The book has a rather unusual setting: Pharaonic Egypt.

Amanishaketo is the niece of the Nubian king Teriteqas. Disliked by her mother and denied by her brother, she ends up reconnecting with happiness in the arms of an exceptional woman. Cheeky and rebellious, she will have to fight to save the woman she loves and her entire country. Under the watchful eye of the god Amon-Re, will she succeed in going through all the trials that fate has decided to impose on her?

Another less common setting, with a touch of the supernatural, appears in Temis and Lofn by Mary Eicher from NineStar Press.

In eighth-century Ireland, the daughter of a nobleman is torn between two futures. Temis must either abide by her father’s plan to thwart a looming Viking onslaught or follow her heart and find the one to whom she believes she is eternally bound. Word of ever-closer Viking raids heightens the alarm of the villagers, and her father is forced to set aside Temis’s romantic notions to protect the village. Furious at the betrayal, Temis abandons the village to its coming battle and sets off to see where her heart might lead her. When the raiders attack, Temis rushes home, only to discover the village destroyed. Receiving a final message from her captured father, she sets aside her heart’s quest in favor of rescue and revenge for the destruction the Vikings have wrought. But the cruel invaders have brought something more than death. Within their number is the very person Temis has sought, the other half of a twin flame that has burned for millenia. It is left to a prescient Viking gothi to intervene and help determine if a timeless love can rise above violence and revenge.

I’m not sure how I missed advance knowledge about the release of the anthology Queer Weird West Tales edited by Julie Bozza from Libratiger, given that I know several of the contributing authors personally. While I don’t know exactly what the representation is in the individual stories, I feel confident asserting that we’ll see a good variety of characters in fascinating stories. Here’s the brief cover copy.

Frontiers have always attracted the Other - where they find that the Other is always already there. These 22 stories explore what happens when queer characters encounter weirdness on the edge of the worlds they know.

I found six September releases, starting off with another early medieval setting in Sigrid and Elyn: A Tale of Norvegr (Tales of Norvegr #1) by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.

Attracted by passion, repelled by war. Can two shieldmaidens navigate battlegrounds of the sword and their hearts? Pre-Viking Scandinavia. Sigrid the Valiant is legendary throughout the kingdoms of Norvegr, along with her twin brother, for their many heroic deeds, but her heart has not found a home. Now, racing on the heels of their father’s murder, a neighboring kingdom’s raids threaten to cause an all-out war. Elyn is a young shieldmaiden with a score to settle, fighting her own insecurities along with enemies who threaten her homeland, but she remains unconvinced all is as it seems.  When the two clash on opposite sides of their shield walls in combat, sparks fly from both their swords and passions. Unable to forget each other, they meet a second time, and become trapped in a cave. With nothing to do but talk, the two fierce women begin to unravel a plot that has pitted their kingdoms against each other. Will Sigrid and Elyn get past their suspicions and differences to forge a relationship and uncover the villain’s scheme, or will the antagonist’s assassins end their search for the truth?

We seem to be experiencing a profusion, not simply of sapphic Regency romances, but of Regency series. The newest contribution, with the following two books in the series scheduled for the next several months is: Her Morning Star (Ladylike Inclinations #1) self-published by Violet Cowper.

England, 1807. Miss Melanie Bright longs to escape the shadow of disgrace. Still haunted by her parent’s mistakes, the shunned debutante seizes on a hopeful chance by sharing a roof with a well-respected noblewoman. But when her patron proves to be a beautifully reckless daredevil, she’s quickly seduced by the breathtaking promise of foreign escapades. Lady Evelyn Prynne hides deep wounds behind her madcap reputation. Determined to track down and expose a French spy, she refuses to let her gorgeous guest become a distraction. Yet as they face perilous gaming halls, Lebanese deserts, and gunfire side by side, she’s intrigued by the backbone of steel beneath her delightful new companion’s dainty exterior. Wondering if the ton’s favor is still her coveted goal, Melanie questions why she’s so desperate to please her tough benefactress. And even as Lady Evelyn revels in having found a confidante who can finally keep pace with her fiery nature, she continues to plunge them into darker dangers. Will they dare the wrath of convention and bring home the life-changing prize of love?

I often grouse about how plot summaries of books can be so cagey about queer content, so it can be a relief to see the cover copy casually refer to a character as “her girlfriend,” as we see in A Funeral for a Stranger by Eve Morton from Wax Lioness.

Harriet Mortimer knows the man is going to die long before her family agrees to let him accompany them on their wagon journey out of Independence, Missouri and towards California. Isaac is a tall, young, and forthright man--yet a miasma of illness follows him and marks him as one of the many Dead Harriet sees before they truly pass. She and her best friend (and girlfriend) Patrice take a liking to the young man, and become determined to see that he leaves the world a better man, and with the solace of their presence, at his side when the time comes to pass.

The Trunk by C.M. Castillo from Glass Spider Publishing uses two of the tropes that I categorize under cross-time stories. The “romance of the archives” where a contemporary character learns about a queer woman of the past by researching some artifact connected with her, and the “mystical connection across time” trope, where the two characters experience a supernatural encounter despite the separating years.

Simone Adan is living a lie. Engaged to a man she doesn't love and disillusioned with the hand that fate has dealt her, she knows she was meant for something more. Then, one day, everything changes when she stumbles into a magical antique shop and comes across an old steamer trunk. Adorned with faded stickers of its past travels-Madrid, Africa, Italy, Morocco-the trunk's timeless beauty is matched only by the mystery of its origins. When Simone buys the trunk and has it shipped to her home in Chicago, she has no way of knowing the extraordinary chain of events she has set into play. Meanwhile, one hundred years ago in 1923 New York, Vivian Oliver is on a similar journey. A brilliant anthropologist, college professor, and frequent party girl, Vivian decides she wants more out of life than champagne socials and one-night stands with beautiful women. Accepting a position on an archaeological dig in Kenya, she is determined to build a new future for herself. But on the way to Africa, Vivian's cherished steamer trunk disappears-taking with it her clothing, her dig tools, and her private journals-only to resurface a century later in a faraway place. Through a series of inexplicable dreams, and drawn together by the enigmatic trunk, Simone and Vivian meet. Each is trapped in their own timeline-Simone in 2023, and Vivian in 1923-but despite the hundred-year barrier between them, they forge a bond strong enough to bridge the gap across time and space . . . changing their destinies forever.

The Reads Rainbow website says that Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland from Balzer + Bray has a sapphic main character, so I’ll trust them, though the cover copy gives no hint in that direction. But Justina Ireland has featured queer characters in the past, so there’s no reason to doubt.

It is 1937, and Laura Ann Langston lives in an America divided—between those who work the mystical arts and those who do not. Ever since the Great Rust, a catastrophic event that blighted the arcane force called the Dynamism and threw America into disarray, the country has been rebuilding for a better future. And everyone knows the future is industry and technology—otherwise known as Mechomancy—not the traditional mystical arts. Laura disagrees. A talented young mage from Pennsylvania, Laura hopped a portal to New York City on her seventeenth birthday with hopes of earning her mage’s license and becoming something more than a rootworker. But six months later, she’s got little to show for it other than an empty pocket and broken dreams. With nowhere else to turn, Laura applies for a job with the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the US government dedicated to repairing the Dynamism so that Mechomancy can thrive. There she meets the Skylark, a powerful mage with a mysterious past, who reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice. As they’re sent off on their first mission together into the heart of the country’s oldest and most mysterious Blight, they discover the work of mages not encountered since the darkest period in America’s past, when Black mages were killed for their power—work that could threaten Laura’s and the Skylark’s lives, and everything they’ve worked for.

Groups of women working in non-traditional jobs during the 20th century World Wars is a popular setting for sapphic historic fiction, with WWI ambulance drivers and WWII munitions workers or codebreakers being popular favorites. The Killing Code by Ellie Marney from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers takes on the last setting.

Virginia, 1943: World War II is raging in Europe and on the Pacific front when Kit Sutherland is recruited to help the war effort as a codebreaker at Arlington Hall, a former girls’ college now serving as the site of a secret US Signal Intelligence facility. But Kit is soon involved in another kind of fight: government girls are being brutally murdered in Washington DC, and when Kit stumbles onto a bloody homicide scene, she is drawn into the hunt for the killer. To find the man responsible for the gruesome murders and bring him to justice, Kit joins forces with other female codebreakers at Arlington Hall—gossip queen Dottie Crockford, sharp-tongued intelligence maven Moya Kershaw, and cleverly resourceful Violet DuLac from the segregated codebreaking unit. But as the girls begin to work together and develop friendships—and romance—that they never expected, two things begin to come clear: the murderer they’re hunting is closing in on them…and Kit is hiding a dangerous secret.

What Am I Reading?

Once more, most of my own book consumption has been audiobooks. The amount of intense screen time involved in my day-job makes on-the-page reading feel exhausting, and I’ve been making very slow progress through a couple of ebooks or hard copies. But in audio I enjoyed the third volume in Olivia Waite’s Regency-era Feminine Pursuits series: The Hellion’s Waltz, with a complex heist-type plot involving textile workers and a musician searching for her lost self-confidence who also finds love. One of the highlights of this book is that both romantic protagonists not only have prior romantic experience with women, but also have supportive and accepting home lives in a way that feels true to the times.

I also enjoyed listening to the newly-released audiobook of my own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, which came out in early August. It’s fascinating to hear your own work being produced in a new medium and I hope this one does well enough that they go on to produce the whole series.

The two other items I consumed recently that I want to talk about are connected thematically in an interesting way. A couple of times I’ve talked about the importance, not only of seeing media that explicitly includes and centers queer lives, but of having a wide variety of media that depict stories in which queer people could exist, or in which they clearly exist even when not centered. The two items I want to talk about are the recent Netflix historic mini-series The Essex Serpent, based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry (though I’ll be talking about the tv show), and a rather fluffy British-set novel titled Miss Buncle’s Book, written in the 1930s by Scottish author Dorothy Emily Stevenson, writing as D.E. Stevenson.

It is, perhaps, less surprising that a fairly recently-written historic Gothic romance, set in Victorian times, makes clear nods to the homoerotic undercurrents in Victorian society. In The Essex Serpent, everybody loves recent widow Cora Seaborne, whose interest in paleontology gets her tangled up in the concerns of an Essex village where mysterious disappearances and deaths are blamed on a supernatural mythical sea serpent. Her surgeon friend who is looking for opportunities to practice Victorian-era heart surgery loves her, the village pastor whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and trying to set him up with Cora loves her, and her beloved friend and companion Martha, whose passion is social activism, loves her. But things get complicated because Martha also has a fling with the surgeon, and the surgeon ends up living with his very, very close male friend in what likely would be called a romantic friendship if they were women. The eroticized – though never overtly sexual – relationship between the two women is depicted in how they casually share a bed, and in the physical affection they share. Martha struggles with jealousy over Cora’s attraction to the two men, and over the recognition that society might grudgingly accept Cora’s disinterest in remarriage due to the unhappy nature of her previous one, but that society would not consider Cora and Martha’s relationship to be anything more than employer and employee, or at best friendship.

But within the context of this fictional depiction, other characters within their social circle do recognize that Martha has a place and a claim in Cora’s life, as illustrated by a scene where one of the men turns to Martha and says, in recognition, “You’re in love with her,” and Martha responds, “Aren’t we all?”

The story was never going to end with Cora and Martha as a couple, but it recognizes that they have an emotional bond that is as real as the various heterosexual connections in the story, and as Martha turns more and more to her social justice work, there is space to imagine her finding a new girlfriend there.

In some ways, the queer representation in D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is even more delightful, as it was written within the same era as the setting, and so cannot be accused of anachronism. I’m going to dive into this story in extensive detail because I think it tells us some useful and unexpected things about historic accuracy in fiction.

I became aware of this book (and the motif of interest) through a review by author and very prolific reader K.J. Charles. Written, set, and published in the 1930s, the story tells of Miss Buncle, a spinster living in the sort of small English village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, who tackles an unexpected decline in her income by writing a pseudonymous roman a clef about the people around her, but with a lightly supernatural twist in which a mysterious figure wanders through the village inspiring people to break out of their ruts and make drastic changes in their lives for the better. The story involves the reactions of her neighbors to recognizing themselves in the unexpected best-seller, their attempts to identify the mysterious author, and how the changes depicted in the book come into being, though not always as they did in the novel.

Among the many stock “types” in Miss Buncle’s village is a household composed of two unmarried women. Let’s look at several of the passages describing them.

Miss King and Miss Pretty dwelt in the High Street next door to Dr. Walker in an old house behind high stone walls. They had nine o’clock breakfast, of course, being ladies of leisure.

In this next passage, several characters are commenting on a tennis match and we get Barbara Buncle’s take on Miss King.

“It would have made a better game if they had had Dorothea Bold instead of Olivia,” said Miss King firmly.

“Oh, Miss King, how can you say such a thing?” cried Miss Isabella in horrified tones.

“Merely because it happens to be true. Dorothea is a more reliable player than Olivia,” replied Miss King firmly, and moved away.

“Horrid old thing!” said Miss Isabella to Barbara Buncle who happened to be sitting next to her. “It’s just jealousy, that’s what it is. She may dress herself up like a man, and talk and smoke like a man, but she’s nothing but a cat—that’s what she is.”

“I rather like Miss King,” said Barbara placidly, and she looked at Miss King’s tall commanding figure as it strode off across the court with some affection. Of course she was rather funny with her deep voice, and her short hair, and her strange habit of wearing tailored coats and skirts with collars and ties like a man, and very often she was to be seen with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and her hands in her pockets; but, after all, these little peculiarities did nobody any harm, and there was something rather nice about the woman. At any rate she would never say behind your back what she would not say to your face (like some people one could name). You always knew exactly where you were with her; she said what she thought without fear or favor.

As one of the other characters is reading through the novel and recognizing who the characters are meant to be, while being amused by the unexpected turns their lives take, she thinks,

In fact everyone did something queer, even Miss King and Miss Pretty (they were called Earle and Darling in the book but Sarah had got beyond troubling her head with such details) were seized with the spirit of adventure and decided to start upon an expedition to Samarkand. They each ordered a pair of riding breeches from Sharrods, and the book closed—very suitably—on that high note.

At this era, it’s plausible—though not a guarantee—that the word “queer” is meant to evoke something particular about Miss King and Miss Pretty’s relationship. Note that “everyone did something queer” is referring to a number of twists in decidedly heterosexual lives. But the potential ambiguity and evocation of same-sex relationships is there.

The village queen bee, quite unamused at how her fictional persona is treated, calls a meeting to discuss the matter (including, unknown to them all, the book’s actual author). We once again are told that Miss King’s defining attribute is her performance of gender transgression.

Miss King found her voice first. Perhaps it was the manliness of her attire that gave her confidence in her own capabilities, or perhaps it was her confident and capable nature which promoted the manliness of her attire. It does not really matter which, the important thing is that Miss King believed she was a capable sensible person and this belief was a great help to her in emergencies such as the present one.

Once Miss King actually reads the book and recognizes the characters meant to be her and Miss Pretty, she becomes anxious enough to go confront the publisher and demand retraction. Initially she describes the issue in general terms “it is causing a great deal of misery and trouble to innocent people.” The publisher (who, by the way, gradually falls in love with Miss Buncle), being accustomed to dealing with confrontations of this type, tells her she needs to be more explicit. Miss King, after some hemming and hawing, explains,

“So there we were,” she was saying, “both orphans, without anybody dependent upon us, nor any near relations. I had a house, larger than I required. Miss Pretty was homeless. We both possessed small incomes, too small to enable us to live alone in comfort. I was about to sell my house (for I could not live in it alone) when the suggestion was made that we should pool our resources and live together—what more natural? By this means we were enabled to live comfortably in my house. The companionship was pleasant, the financial problem was solved. There was a book some years ago,” continued Miss King incoherently, “it distressed us very much at the time, but it had nothing to do with us, and I decided to ignore it—this book is far worse—it’s all about us—it’s far, far worse—”

“You have misread the novel entirely,” said Mr. Abbott uncomfortably. “I assure you that you have misread it. There is nothing in it to cause you the slightest distress. The author is a particularly simple-minded—er—person.”

“But Samarkand!” exclaimed Miss King, trying to keep the sound of tears out of her voice.  “Why Samarkand of all places?”

“I don’t know anything about Samarkand,” said Mr. Abbott truthfully, “but to me it has an adventurous sound, and I feel convinced that that was what it was intended to convey—”

“A dreadful Eastern place—full of vice and—and horribleness,” cried Miss King.”

She gets nowhere with the publisher, and later is commiserating with another villager who advises,

“Perhaps in time he will get tired of saying no. Come up and see him constantly—publishers love to have their mornings wasted for them—put off your visit to Samarkand for a few weeks, and sit upon Mr. Abbott’s doorstep.”

“Samarkand,” cried Miss King, goaded to frenzy. “I’m not going to Samarkand—why should I? What’s it got to do with you where I go? I shall go to Samarkand if I like—”

Now why should the reference to Samarkand – a city with deep historic roots located in modern Uzbekistan – bother Miss King so? Why should the associations of it be “vice and horribleness”? And what sort of vice and horribleness? It is located on the ancient Silk Road, and in the late 19th to early 20th centuries was caught up in the proxy wars between western powers, eventually becoming part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, which was its status at the time of this book. But one gets the sense that Miss King isn’t thinking of contemporary politics, but rather that Samarkand is standing in for the “exotic East,” a place where standards of behavior are quite un-English, and that the people who live there – or even simply visit there – are suspect in some way. One can’t help but think of the long history of how lesbian relations were projected onto Islamic societies such as the Ottoman Empire. (It’s hard not to be reminded of Anne Lister’s dramatic travels to that general part of the world that ended in her unfortunate fatal illness.) Taking a step back, it’s clear that Samarkand is standing in Miss King’s mind for sexual deviance, and that Miss Buncle’s Book, she believes, is accusing  her and Miss Pretty of things she would prefer not to discuss explicitly.

But as life goes on, we learn that Miss Angela Pretty has some chronic lung problems, and her doctor raises the question with Miss Ellen King about a change of environment.

“I don’t like these continual colds,” he said. “I don’t like them, Ellen.”

These two were old friends. They had always lived next door to each other (for Dr. John’s father had been Silverstream’s doctor before Dr. John was born). Ellen and John had played together as children, and together had climbed every climbable tree in the two adjoining gardens. Dr. John had a great respect for Ellen King, and a great compassion; she was such a lonely sort of creature and ridden by a curious temperament. Her excellent brain had never been developed and turned to use. Ellen would have made a good doctor or lawyer (the stuff was there), but her father had abhorred clever women and had denied her the opportunity of a decent education.

“What do you mean, exactly?” she asked him anxiously.

“I don’t mean anything very much,” Dr. John told her. “In fact I mean exactly what I say—I don’t like these continual colds that Angela gets. Could you possibly go away?”

“Go away? You mean to Bournemouth or somewhere?”

“Bournemouth? No. I mean to Egypt. It is warm and dry there. Just for the rest of the winter, of course.”

“I suppose we could if it is necessary—I mean of course we could if it is necessary,” she amended in sudden alarm.

“I wouldn’t like to say it is necessary, but it is advisable,” he replied, choosing his words carefully.”

As Miss King and the doctor discuss this possibility, we encounter some hints of psychological stereotypes that associate same-sex relationships with personality weaknesses. The doctor dismisses these concerns, although he does so in a rather sex-stereotyped way.

“John!” she said suddenly. “Shall I let Angela go alone? I could take up some sort of work—no, don’t say anything yet—I believe I’m bad for Angela, John. I have begun to think she would be better without me. She depends upon me too much. Sometimes I think she is beginning to lose her identity altogether—”

“What on earth are you talking about?” said Dr. John furiously, taking a few strides across the floor and back again to his usual station in front of the fire. “What on earth are you talking about, Ellen? I thought you had more sense. Angela would depend upon anybody who happened to be there to depend upon. It’s her nature to—to lean—Angela is weak in body, and soul, and mind.”

“I know,” said Ellen, “I know all that, John, but I love her just the same. I love her too much. I fuss over her too much—I agonize over her—”

“Look here, we all agonize over people we love. But we mustn’t fuss—that’s the important thing. It’s difficult not to fuss, but we mustn’t do it, Ellen. I don’t think you do fuss over Angela. I think you’re very sensible with her.”

“I’ve begun to doubt it,” Ellen replied. “You don’t know how she depends upon me for everything. She can’t even decide what to wear without asking me what I think. That’s bad, isn’t it, John?”

“It’s the woman’s nature,” he said impatiently. “You’ve done such a lot for her; you’ve been wonderful to her, Ellen. Believe me it’s not your fault that she’s weak and vacillating—you’re not bad for her; it’s absurd and ridiculous to think so. As for her going to Egypt by herself, the thing’s simply unthinkable; I couldn’t countenance it for a moment. I’d rather she stayed here, infinitely rather. You must go and look after her; she needs you. For pity’s sake, don’t go and get a lot of foolish ideas into your head.”

“John, have you read that book?”

Miss King has recognized that Miss Buncle’s Book is depicting her relationship with Miss Pretty as queer (in the modern sense) and seems to be worrying that there is something unacceptable about the relationship that perhaps she, herself, hadn’t recognized. Or maybe she’s worried that everyone else will suddenly realize that they aren’t “just good friends” and it will destroy their lives. The doctor assures her, “It didn’t strike me as a satire, nor could I find anything nasty in it.” He reiterates the suggestion that Miss Pretty needs some time in a warmer climate, and Miss King concludes,

“Why don’t you send us to Samarkand while you’re about it?” she demanded, with a deep chuckle. “I believe you’re in league with [the author].”

Dr. John waved his hat at her. “Good! Splendid!” he cried. “That’s the spirit—that’s more like the good old Ellen King I know so well. Tell them all that you and Angela are off to Samarkand—and, Ellen,” he added in lower and more confidential tones, “don’t forget to order those riding breeches, will you? You’d look fine in them.”

Later on, the doctor’s wife is discussing the book with Miss Buncle (still unaware that Miss Buncle is the author) and we get the impression that perhaps Miss Buncle, while depicting King and Pretty dead-to-life is not consciously aware that their relationship is romantic.

“I can’t understand Ellen King at all; she’s usually such a sensible sort of person. I can’t see anything in the book for her to make a song and dance about—can you?”

“No, I can’t,” said Barbara. She had not intended to be hard on Miss King; she liked her. The fact was that Barbara had always been of the opinion that Miss King found Silverstream a trifle dull. There was little scope in Silverstream for Miss King’s energies and capabilities, and it had been with friendly intent that she had arranged an adventurous holiday for her in Samarkand.”

Towards the end of the book, though still before anyone knows the true authorship, Miss Buncle encounters Miss King.

“What horrid damp weather,” Barbara said, wondering what we would do without that safe topic of conversation. “And so warm and unseasonable, isn’t it? I do hope it will clear up and be nice and frosty for Christmas Day. I like Christmas Day to be frosty, don’t you?”

“It never is,” Miss King pointed out.

“I expect we shall have a cold spell later,” continued Barbara. “After all this mild wet weather we are practically bound to. Don’t you think so?”

“Well, it won’t affect me, anyway,” said Miss King blithely, “Angela and I are off to Samarkand next week.”

However we are meant to understand the self-awareness of Miss King and Miss Pretty, they are given their happy ever after. And they embrace and publicly acknowledge the depiction of their relationship in the book, as symbolized by choosing Samarkand as destination.

But much more to the point, the author D.E. Stevenson, who was born at the end of the 19th century, created a heartwarming story in the 1930s that included a female couple clearly meant to be understood as a romantic couple, living in peace and friendship with their neighbors in a small English village, who also clearly recognize them on some level as a romantic couple, but everyone just quietly accepts that and pretends they haven’t noticed. Not only do we need that type of queer representation in historic fiction, but we need to recognize that that type of queer representation is historically accurate – that stories set in the past don’t need to choose between being pure fantasy and being awful and miserable. Go ahead and write your characters pulling up stakes and moving to Samarkand with everyone being happy for them.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Daughter of Mystery
Tuesday, August 30, 2022 - 11:00

A "completist" entry in this series, but as my summary points out, not of particular interest to the Project. Which aligns fairly well with my current mood. Let me tell you about the last 12 hours. I was supposed to fly out of SFO this morning at 08:30 (going to Chicago for Worldcon), which meant setting my alarm to get up at 05:00 to get BART to the airport. My attempt to get my full complement of sleep by going to bed early failed (general anxiety about travel schedules does that), so I'm not sure I had actually slept yet when the text arrived around midnight saying our plane was not leaving its origin, due to the crew timing out, and the flight was being rescheduled for 13:30.

In theory, this meant that I could turn off my early-morning alarms, sleep in to a reasonable hour, and then make a leisurely trip to the airport at a rational hour. In reality, I still didn't sleep well. And since I'd deliberately used the trip as an excuse to use up my perishables and I'd left the kitchen spotless for the house-sitter, I'd have to leave the house to get breakfast and coffee anyway, so I just headed for the airport as soon as I was up. Had a nice leisurely brunch (complimentary, courtesy of the Airline food vouchers). But I'm now at that state where I'm pre-exhausted and looking at not getting into Chicago until dinner time (Pacific Stomach Time) and then have to take the train into the city and find the hotel before I can have dinner.

But all in all, my strategy of allowing an extra day before the convention (I'm volunteering at Reg tomorrow, but it wouldn't be a disaster if I'd had to cancel that), and scheduling an early flight (so the back-up plan still has me flying on the same day) means this is all just par for the course for Travel These Days. I am confirmed in my rule of thumb to always leave an extra day leeway when I have to be somewhere on a specific date.

None of this has anything to do with singlehood in classical Rome, but I'm not planning on posting the links to this entry anyway so no one is likely to read this and I can just grouse and be grumpy in peace. So...grump.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Petrova, Mina. 2019. “Single as a ‘Lena’: The Depiction of Procuresses in Augustan Literature” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Petrova, Mina. “Single as a ‘Lena’: The Depiction of Procuresses in Augustan Literature”

This article looks at the associations in Roman society between singleness in women and sex work, whether directly or as a procuress (lena). Although focused on women, this chapter has no particular relevance to the Project.

Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Monday, August 22, 2022 - 07:00

As with so many moral judgments imposed on women, it's rarely a case that some particular action or state is praised or blamed in abasolute terms, but rather that it is conditionally praiseworthy depending on how it upholds patriarchal ideals and structures. Being/remaining single may default to being discourged, but circumstances may elevate it in support of some other ideal or principle. Thus, the "widow faithful to her dead husband" is praiseworthy...unless she has failed in the higher principle of procreation. The Amazonian virgin may be very conditionally praiseworthy as a pseudo-man, but face narrative punishment for daring to step outside approved female roles.

Even when the rise of Christianity created a new context in which singlehood was praiseworthy, it was still conditional on fulfilling the requirements of the chaste religious devotee. But to judge these societies for not offering a context in which women might choose to be single (or at least, unmarried to men) for individualistic purposes is still based on culturally determined "allowable ideals" -- it's just that one of those ideals is individualism. This can be very difficult to portray in historic fiction -- and especially in historic romance, in which historic realities are more often bent to accommodate reader desires and expectations. Would your fictional historic character consider individualism an acceptable reason for deviating from the roles and behaviors expected by her society?

One work-around for the modern author is to provide the character with an acceptable in-story justification for the circumstances and goals we want her to have. But especially in sapphic historical romance, readers have a strong desire to see characters for whom same-sex desire is, in itself, a valid justification for her life choices. Not a make-do alternative when the normative life path isn't available. We want our widowed Dido to remain unmarried because, having done her duty in her first marriage, she now chooses to follow her heart and win the affections of a Camilla who is not viewed as a virago, but as embodying one of the life paths that women are capable of choosing.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Pyy, Elina. 2019. “Tracing Roman Ideas on Female Singleness: Virgil’s Aeneid” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Pyy, Elina. “Tracing Roman Ideas on Female Singleness: Virgil’s Aeneid”

This article compares the literary figures of Dido and Camilla as commentary on Roman attitudes toward deliberate singleness in women. Very briefly, Dido begins by representing the faithful widow, resolved to remain loyal to her dead husband by never remarrying. Her subsequent relationship with Aeneas can either be seen as a betrayal of this ideal or adherence to a different ideal that a childless woman should remarry. But her unhappy end implies that the relationship with Aeneas was inadequately virtuous.

Camilla also resists marriage, but as an Amazonian warrior committed to virginity and war. She represents the “man-like” woman who rejects normative womanhood and is admirable only in a masculine framing. Her dedication to virginity, while given lip service as admirable, is seen as a waste, and the nature of her death in battle can be seen almost as a “corrective rape” motif. [Note: my label, not the author’s.]

The author suggests that hypothetical Roman ideals around female chastity were contradicted by more pragmatic attitudes idealizing procreation and motherhood.

Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Saturday, August 20, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 237 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 2: Spinsters - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/08/20  - listen here)


The spinster, the wallflower, the woman who is considered “on the shelf” and faces a future as an old maid. And then she meets…well, that’s going to be a surprise.

Historic romance is full of beloved tropes—scenarios that evoke a certain dynamic or conflict or anxiety that gets us right in the feels. Whether you have your favorites or enjoy them all, have you ever stopped to think about how those tropes might play out differently in a historic context when your romantic couple involves two women?

I’m continuing my series of interpreting favorite historic romance tropes in the same-sex context with a look at the spinster. While the series will also sometimes look at how the trope works with a male couple, I think we can agree that the social context for unmarried men versus unmarried women is different enough that there really isn’t a parallel in this case.

Originally, I was thinking about doing a combined show about spinsters and widows, but as I began putting my notes together, it felt like the two character types didn’t really make a natural set, other than for the fact of not being currently in a heterosexual marriage. So I’ll save the widows for later (although pairing spinsters with widows has a lot of potential).

What Is a Trope?

To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.

As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal.

The Spinster Trope

So what is a spinster? A spinster is not simply a woman who has never married, but specifically a woman who has remained unmarried well past the typical age of marriage for her culture. (The word “spinster” itself has a highly specific cultural context, both in its literal sense and as a general pejorative term. But that’s a digression that we can save for another time.)

The concept of the spinster assumes a certain normative lifecycle in which all women are expected to marry—and to marry on an accepted schedule—and where never-married women are considered to be of low social value. They have marginal economic status, either taking low-paying jobs or jobs with low social status, or must live as appendages to someone else’s household, often acting as unpaid domestic labor. There is an implication that a woman becomes a spinster because she is insufficiently attractive, skilled, or endowed to attract an acceptable husband. A possible sub-reason might be that she was deprived of the opportunity to marry due to the death or other unavailability of a preferred suitor. Alternately, family circumstances — whether of finance, or social or political scandal — may have made her unmarriageable.

Within heterosexual historic romances, the attraction of the spinster heroine (for the reader!) is multifold. She may be depicted as strong-willed and independent-minded, having never encountered a potential suitor she felt was worth compromising her standards and goals for. Or she may be depicted as someone whose light has been hid under a bushel — a woman who is disastrously shy, or whose attractions are different enough from the conventional expectations that she hasn’t encountered someone who properly appreciated them. The spinster heroine may be a type of damsel in distress where — through no fault of her own — she has been deemed unmarriageable despite her conventional attractions. By definition, a spinster is older than the typical heroine for her context, which can appeal to readers who want to see wider age representation while still depicting historic norms.

The suitor who wins her over may be the thoughtful, insightful man who recognizes her hidden value, or the bold, unconventional man who breaks through the comfort of her independence to spark her desire, or the one so assured in his own position that her social defects can be safely ignored.

The Historic Spinster

Historically, in Western culture, there has been a lot of variation in the age at which one is considered a spinster, in social attitudes toward never-married women, in the proportion of never-married women present in the culture, and in the reasons why a woman might remain unmarried. There has also been a lot of variation in a woman’s ability to remain unmarried by choice, and the resulting options for her.

Demographers identify two contrasting life patterns:  the southern or Mediterranean pattern in which women are expected to marry relatively young to a somewhat older husband, and to live within the parental household until marriage rather than being employed, and often for the married couple to then live with the husband’s family. Marriage prospects rely primarily on family position, available dowry, and on the moral reputation of the woman. In Catholic cultures, women who remained unmarried past the usual age might be encouraged to enter religious life. I should note that this pattern wasn’t fixed and unchanging — as we move into the early modern period and later, the expected age of marriage drifted later to align more closely with that of the “northern pattern.”

The northern European lifecycle pattern involved relatively equal age of marriage partners, relatively later age at first marriage (typically in the mid-20s), an expectation that the married couple would set up an independent household, and an expectation that both partners would have contributed the money necessary to set up that household, either from family contributions or by working outside the home or both. For a more wealthy or upper class family, and especially in more recent centuries, the period before marriage for young women might involve schooling rather than employment, or in earlier eras it might involve being sent to live in another household to strengthen social connections and learn essential skills.

Within these patterns, the proportion of never-married women might fluctuate anywhere between 10% and 50% depending on factors such as the availability of suitable partners due to warfare or migration patterns (or social constraints on who was considered suitable), the general economic circumstances that made it easier or harder for either the individuals or the family to supply the starter funds for the marriage, or shifts in social attitudes toward women remaining unmarried.

Extreme social hostility to the unmarried spinster or “old maid” seems to have been a peculiarly English phenomenon, beginning around the 18th century and tangled up with the rise of feminist movements. Feminist sentiments were seen both as a cause and a result of spinsterhood. Many feminists criticized traditional marriage as functionally equivalent to slavery and argued both for changes in marriage and for more viable options for unmarried women. But satirists depicted feminists as embittered and lonely due to their inability to attract a husband, and attracted to feminism to make up for that lack.

Never-married women were viewed askance in other eras and contexts as well. As a woman who wasn’t under a husband’s control, she might be seen as something of a loose cannon socially. In other circumstances, the systematic lower pay women received, even for equivalent work to men, meant they were viewed as economically disruptive in much the same way that immigrant or overseas labor is viewed in today’s first world economies. At various times, singlewomen were deliberately edged out of more economically lucrative work in favor of men. And while employment factors were less relevant to the upper class characters who are the traditional focus of historic romance, the impact on overall social attitudes affected all women. In eras when fertility was viewed as a social crisis, unmarried women might be considered self-centered and unpatriotic. And in eras when womanhood and motherhood were considered synonymous, unmarried women might be viewed as essentially unfeminine.

In all eras, as previously noted, there was always some proportion of the population of women who never married. But their cultural circumstances speak to why that might be the case and how people would treat them because of it.

What’s Different for Spinsters in a F/F Romance?

So how does the spinster historic romance trope change when the context is a sapphic story?

The most obvious consequence is that there is no looming male love interest to compete with the second heroine. Perhaps our spinster regrets never having found a male partner. Perhaps she’s simply anxious about how to support herself outside of marriage. Perhaps she’s deliberately embraced singlehood in support of a personal cause or preoccupation. Perhaps she’s actively disinterested in having a husband, whether or not she’s aware of being attracted to women. One of the themes that regularly comes up in historic feminist literature or literature about female friendship is how the everyday realities of marriage interfere with women’s commitments to each other (even when considering only non-romantic bonds).  Though keep in mind that even women who had a romantic preference for women didn’t necessarily consider that a reason for remaining single. Love and marriage were often considered separate considerations. So if you want to set your heroine up to be a spinster, it can help to have additional reasons besides preferring women.

Has your spinster character already dealt with the fact that she isn’t married and doesn’t appear likely to be, and has settled into a modus vivendi? Or is she still coming to grips with her position and casting about for direction? Is she still living with her family or does she have sufficient resources (and sufficient reason) to live independently? What’s her financial situation? Lack of finances was the most common reason for a woman to remain single, but it’s not impossible for even a woman with comfortable prospects to remain unmarried. And in the rare but plausible circumstance where she has both financial resources and personal control over them, then she may be in a position to consider marriage a bad bargain, if she doesn’t need a husband’s support.

For that matter, are we dealing with one spinster or two? Are both of our heroines in a similar position and stage of life when they meet each other? Or are they coming from different positions? If we want to recreate some of the favorite character types from the heterosexual spinster trope, what parallels can we find?

The thoughtful suitor who sees the spinster’s true worth despite her retiring personality or unconventional attributes could be almost anyone, but perhaps a slightly older mentor figure, someone the spinster will believe when told she is worthy of love. Someone who helps her find her feet only to end up finding her heart.

The rescuer who is secure enough in her own position that the spinster’s social flaws can be overlooked might be a well-off widow. Widows get a lot of latitude for eccentricity and they frequently have an established independent household that the spinster could join. In some ways, widows are the closest parallel in economic and social terms to the position of the male suitor.

The devil-may-care rake who tempts the spinster to let go of her last attachments to respectability might be a glamorous courtesan, a successful actress, or a woman on the wrong side of the law. Some of these options are more precarious than others, but isn’t that always the case?

How does the character’s spinsterhood interact with her attraction to women? Perhaps she has always felt a romantic attraction to women and is relieved when she ages out of the expectation to fall in love with a man instead. Perhaps she and an intimate friend have spent their marriageable years terrified that the other will receive an offer she can’t refuse, ending their hopes of finding a life together. Perhaps she takes a position expecting genteel poverty as a governess or a lady’s companion, only to find love waiting in her new home. Perhaps she finds herself gradually drifting into the company of other spinsters and realizes that many of them have far more in common that just their marital status. Regardless of romantic interests, one option for unmarried women across the centuries was to form a household with other women in a similar situation, pooling their resources. In 18th and 19th century England, such households were a recognized phenomenon, often set up in less expensive locales than London, such as Bath.

The examples I’ve been giving have tended to center around the 18th and 19th centuries — those favorites of the historic romance genre. But there are plenty of contexts for spinsters in earlier eras. In 16th and 17th century England, an unmarried woman of the middle or upper middle class might turn inherited real estate or a share in a business into an independent living. Medieval daughters of aristocratic families who were not needed for marital alliances were far more likely to end up in convents than to remain unmarried within the family, so the spinster character is somewhat less plausible in this context.

For those enamored of aristocratic characters, the convent life was no longer an option for upper class spinsters in Protestant cultures (after the Reformation), and the restrictions on who was considered an acceptable marriage partner meant that, for example, in 18th and 19th century England, perhaps a quarter of women born to the aristocracy never married. A much more fertile ground for spinster romances, though fraught with anxieties about acceptable means of finding a living. But for earlier eras, it’s much more plausible to focus on middle class and gentry than the titled aristocracy.

There is, of course, another angle on interpreting the spinster trope in a sapphic historic romance, and that is to view it within the context of intimate female friendships. That is, rather than considering the case of a woman who hasn’t married within the expected timespan, what about looking at social contexts where close female bonding was a normative phenomenon, and then considering the woman who hasn’t succeeded in forming a “special friendship” within the age range where that is expected?

The 18th or 19th century woman who has never engaged in a romantic friendship with a woman. The late 19th century girl at a boarding school who develops no same-sex crushes. The woman in any society where gender-segregated socializing is the norm, but who has no particular friends within that context.

It’s hard to see this as closely parallel to the traditional spinster trope, because even when intimate female friendships were considered normal and typical, they were rarely considered obligatory in the way that marriage was expected to be. It’s an interesting motif to play with, but the dynamics are different. And except for the case of schoolgirls, the characters will also be dealing with the default expectations around marriage.


So let’s return to our more typical spinster heroine. She has achieved that age when she’s on the shelf. Perhaps she’s disappointed. Perhaps she’s frightened. Perhaps she’s relieved. Perhaps she feels as if she’s just opened the door to an entirely new world of possibilities. And perhaps there is someone special waiting on the other side of that door.

In a heterosexual spinster romance, the outcome is a reversal of the initial state. Rather than remaining unmarried, the original barriers to marriage are overcome. But in the sapphic spinster romance, those original barriers enable a different type of resolution. They free the heroine from conventional expectations for her life path and make the choice of a female partner acceptable as what is perceived as a fall-back option. The personality features or personal circumstances that discouraged male suitors may be irrelevant to a potential female partner. Intelligent, strong-willed, and independent? Sign me up! Not conventionally beautiful or charming? Men are so superficial. Inadequate dowry or scandalous past? Well, we’ve already stepped outside the expected bounds of polite society, so we’ll just make do as best we can. As spinsters we’ve become invisible, and in invisibility is power.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Overview of the trope series
  • The social contexts of the spinster trope
  • Singlewomen and spinsters in history
  • Remaking the spinster trope for f/f romances
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: singlewomen

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Friday, August 19, 2022 - 07:00

It may not entirely be coincidence that last week, when I wanted some background entertainment for processing my apple harvest, I decided to do a re-watch of I, Claudius. The Augustan marriage laws get a mention in one scene, and of course an exaggerated version of imperial Roman upper class marriage shenanigans is featured throughout. But as this article points out, despite the clear intention of penalizing people for remaining unmarried, the laws ended up only affecting a limited set of the population, and in very limited ways.

I had intended to post these articles on a more frequent basis. (I already have the entire collection written up.) But the day-job is being very intense at the moment (combination of a high-profile investigation assigned to me, plus our regular routine FDA inspection) and I have very little brain for doing anything else. Other than processing the apple harvest, which will not wait. This year I've gotten about 3 bushels from the oldest tree, plus a much smaller quantity from each of the younger trees. They have become (or are becoming) applesauce, dried apple slices, pre-made apple pie filling, and some frozen as wedges to be used in recipes yet to be determined, such as fritters. And a very few eaten fresh because, ironically, I'm not that fond of fresh apples.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Grubbs, Judith Evans. 2019. “Singles, Sex and Status in the Augustan Marriage Legislation” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Grubbs, Judith Evans. “Singles, Sex and Status in the Augustan Marriage Legislation”

The legislation in discussion here was only relevant to upper class women, but also to freedmen/freedwomen of the elite. The intent was to regulate behavior around marriage, divorce, and sexuality, but we must distinguish theory and practice. These notes will primarily cover women and the effects of the law were strongly gendered.

Instituted by Augustus in the 1st century, most of the content of the acts were repealed by Constantine in the 4th century. They did not survive to become part of the Justinian code which influenced later medieval law. There were three separate sets of acts, two on marriage and one on illicit sexual activity. But the contents were later combined and so it’s hard to distinguish the original structure.

The goal of the laws was for men between 25 and 60 and women between 20 and 50 to be married and procreating. Unmarried people were penalized by not being allowed to inherit except from close relatives. Childless couples were restricted in what they could will to each other.

Widows and divorcées were allowed a grace period varying between six months to two years before being required to remarry or face the penalties. If such restrictions on inheritance meant there were insufficient eligible heirs, the remainder of the estate went to the public treasury. (Parents and legitimate children could always inherit.) The exemption for close relatives meant that singlehood did not affect legacies from anyone up to second cousins or closer kin. So the effects were not as severe as the intent.

Conversely, adhering to the law’s intent resulted in benefits. A woman who had three or more children was freed from the requirement to have a male legal representative, and could act for herself legally and financially. Freedwomen (former slaves) gained the same after four children (but only if the children were born after she was freed).

The adultery law focused more on penalties. A married woman who had sex with any man other than her husband committed a crime. The penalty was for half her dowry and 1/3 of her other property to be confiscated. She also lost the right to ever marry again. Enforcement required accusation (typically by the husband or father) and conviction. Part of the intent of having legal penalties was to discourage husbands and fathers from simply killing the adulterous woman outright. But husbands could be penalized if they failed to accuse unfaithful wives of adultery.

Women weren’t able to accuse their husband of adultery. For a man to have sex outside marriage was not a crime unless his partner was in a prohibited class, such as a “respectable” woman or a male citizen. Only another man could accuse a man of adultery, based on the status of the woman he was committing adultery with.

The omission of men from this discussion is not only because of my own focus, but because the laws focused on controlling women’s behavior—and specifically the behavior of “respectable" high ranking women.

Widows who had at least one child were free of the inheritance restrictions if they did not remarry, otherwise they had a grace period before it kicked in. In an age of high child mortality, the laws spelled out how long a child had to survive to “count” for the inheritance rules.

But keep in mind that most Romans would only expect an inheritance from within the exempt degrees of relationship and so would not be disadvantaged by remaining single or declining to remarry. Only the very wealthy were inclined to leave legacies to more distant kin or to friends, and they were also those with the social power to protest the laws to some effect.

The laws also forbade the marriage of people from families of senatorial rank to freedmen/freedwomen, actors, or sex workers. (The article has many more details on this aspect that is not relevant to the Project.)

Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Friday, August 12, 2022 - 07:00

Demographics -- and especially demographic studies that include individual illustrative examples -- are fertile ground for thinking about character backstories. As I read this article, I took a lot of mental notes for my long-trunked-for-massive-revisions 1st century historic romance. I’d already decided to give one of my protagonists an Egyptian background to make use of some of the evidence and hints regarding f/f relations in Roman Egypt. The demongraphic and inheritance data discussed here are giving me some new ideas for fleshing out her backstory (including just how she ends up in Britain on the eve of the Boudiccan rebellion).

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Huebner, Sabine R. 2019. “Single Men and Women in Pagan Society: The Case of Roman Egypt” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Huebner, Sabine R. “Single Men and Women in Pagan Society: The Case of Roman Egypt”

Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches

Almost of all of the articles in this collection spend some time talking about the difficultly in identifying "single" as a demographic category in the records of the era, not simply because the vocabulary to distinguish single people wasn't clearly defined, but also because the attributes used to define singlehood in the modern world were organized differently in that society. (And in many modern societies, for that matter.)

It's also interesting--when reading through the collection as a whole--to see how assumptions about singlehood taken for granted in some articles are undermined in others. For example, this current article challenges the idea that there was a significant increase in the number of single people (however defined) in Coptic Egypt, due to the rise of Christian attitudes toward chastity and religious singlehood, compared to pre-Christian Egypt. But then later articles covering Coptic Egypt state this change in the demographics of singles as an accepted fact.

Given the observed difficulties in applying numbers to demographic categories in both eras, we see how easy it can be fore preconceptions to affect how one interprets the scanty data.

# # #

This article looks at the demographics of pre-Christian Egypt to evaluate the claim that the presence of never-married adults is a Christian phenomenon. Roman legal and literary sources treat single adults as a special anomaly, such as Vestal Virgins or priests of Cybele. Augustine law encouraged marriage and even penalized potential heirs if not married. This applies only to the citizen class and specifically does not apply to those in the military, sex workers, and enslaved people.

In general, Roman Egyptian society followed the “Mediterranean marriage pattern” which involves early marriage for women and a significant age gap, with men being older, a universal expectation of marriage, and no lifecycle period of unwed labor for (free) women.

The data for this analysis comes from surviving census records from approximately 0 to 250 CE. Available records include 400 documents which record 250 households and nearly 500 individuals. Most were lower or middle class. Approximately 11% were enslaved people. Census records were completed by household, counting all those at the same residence, including names, relationships, and identifying characteristics. They do not indicate marital status directly, though it can be interpolated from other relationships, if the spouses are in the same household. Divorce was easy and common and often simply for incompatibility.

Rarely, the word “parthenos” occurs to identify an unmarried young woman, but it does not automatically mean “virgin” in the sexual sense. Pre-marital chastity was not required for pre-Christian Egyptian women, though it could be a concern for upper class Romans and became a general expectation in Christian society. Compare also to Jewish concerns for virginity. Marital status is referred to explicitly by widows to emphasize their legal vulnerability, but not typically by divorced or never-married women.

Marriage was created by cohabitation and ceremony, but not by legal formality. Widows might head their own household (with children) without remarrying. There are examples of widows protesting a daughter’s marriage when the daughter had been a business asset.

So what are we looking for in the census that would fit in the category “single.” Based on normative life stages, the author settles on defining “single” as anyone 15 or over, currently not married (defined as the absence of a spouse in the household), but regardless of whether the person has had children and regardless of the rest of the household composition. This will be a diverse group in terms of age and life situation. The evaluation excludes people who were not legally able to marry.

Out of 1116 people whose situation can be reconstructed from records almost half (554) were 15 or older. Of these, almost half (232) were single, as defined above. Unlike the “northern pattern” which included lifecycle employment for young unmarried people, there were no free domestic servants. The census identifies 253 households, of which 132 included at least one single person.

Looking at gender, of the 232 singles, 109 were women. And as women comprised roughly half of the 15-and-over population this meant women and men were equally likely to be single, and roughly half of all adults of either gender were single. Of these 109 single women, 49 had children living with them, and so may well have been married in the past. [Note: Given the reference to children typically living with their father’s extended family after divorce or parental death, this statistic seems to beg for some explanation. It would be interesting to know the ages of the children in this set. Was this primarily older widows living with their adult children? Is is the assertion that the children of disrupted families typically lived with the father’s family over-blown? See the comment about widows with children heading households.]

So 60 women-–about a quarter of all adult women-–have no evidence of ever being married (of those, some may have been previously married, but had no living children). This is a much higher proportion than for otherwise similar Mediterranean societies at various times that have been studied demographically.

Children created a significant social distinction. A widow with children could head a household while a childless widow or never-married woman would belong to a near relative’s household. (Typically a male relative, but presumably the adult daughter of a widow could belong to her mothers household and there is reference to this).

Therefore “single women” do not constitute a homogeneous group. But since children typically remain with the father’s family in the case of divorce or one parent’s death, male demographics also provide information regarding the proportion of never married people (which may be under-counted for women, when relying on the presence of children as an indicator.)

[Note: of course men and women aren’t directly comparable because one possible pattern would be for a smaller group of men sequentially marrying multiple women, resulting in lower never-married rates for women and higher rates for men.]

Men typically married younger women, giving women a good chance of outliving their husbands. But widows, especially older ones, often chose not to remarry. Men who married young would have wives of similar age (due to age limits for women to be considered marriageable), but those who married (or remarried) later were typically more than 10 years older than their wives. Overall this led to a surplus of single younger men and some men who never had the opportunity to marry.

Of the 283 adult men in the census (excluding enslaved people), 91 did not have a wife or their own children living with them, meaning about 1/3 of all men gave no evidence of ever having been married. (Though they may have had past childless marriages or ones where the children had died, similarly to the stats for women.) This also means that the vast majority of single men (3/4) had no living children, while ¼ were single with children.

[Note: given that we observed that about a half of currently-single women had children living with them, this suggests the possibility that currently-single men were more likely to have been never-married than currently-single women. But I think these numbers also raise questions about the claim that children typically went with their father's household, unless the vast majority of the single-with-children women were widows as opposed to divorcées. If so, this would have been a useful clue to apply to hypotheses about relative numbers of divorced versus widowed women.]

The pressure and opportunities for marriage varied according to gender and age. The normative pattern was for women to be married by 20 and for men to experience pressure if still unmarried by their mid-30s. But having been married, the pressure to remarry was lower, e.g. for widows with children. And the high proportion of singles reflect these differing pressures.

In Roman Egypt inheritance was not gendered – daughters inherited equally with sons, and children inherited from both parents. Spouses did not inherit from each other. The typical household structure involved multiple married couples related by the male line, with their children, including unmarried adult daughters and married sons. Women, when divorced or widowed, usually returned to their father’s household. Women with surviving parents and unmarried siblings tended to marry later (mid 20s) while those whose parents were dead or with married brothers tended to marry earlier. The author suggests that this tendency might reflect social dynamics where there was increased friction between a young never-married woman and her sisters-in-law when sharing the same household. Or that women who expected to receive a substantial inheritance, but whose parents were still alive, may have felt either enabled or pressured to postpone marriage.

By some statistics, 3/5 of women had married by age 20 and nearly all by their late 20s. How then do we explain the relatively higher rate of single women in their mid 20s? The author suggests it may represent childless divorcées or widows (whose children lived with their father) who had returned to their birth household. But interpreting these statistics involves guesswork and assumptions.

The article now presents some case studies.

  1. A 24 year old woman, Senosiris, never married (apparently), living with her parents, a younger (but marriageable) sister, and an older married brother, with his wife and 2 infants.
  2. 2. A 40-year-old woman, Tereus, lived with her parents and an 8-year-old brother. [Note: That’s quite an age gap for the siblings, so perhaps there’s a second marriage involved?]
  3. 3. A three-person household consisting of a 56-year-old man and two 40-something sisters with no evidence of marriage or children for any of them. The 2 sisters—but not the brother—are listed as owning the house, and the household was not poor, as it included 2 enslaved men.
  4. 4. More unmarried siblings forming a household: two 20-something women who owned their house.

Several more examples are given, focusing on single men living in extended households.

The overall conclusions are that, despite the social context that assumed marriage as the normative life, a significant proportion of the Roman Egyptian population was unmarried at any given time, either never married or not remarried after divorce or spousal death. The reasons in specific cases are nearly impossible to uncover, but personal circumstances could clearly affect both the ability and the desire to refrain from marriage. Yet the lives, expectations, and more informal liaisons of these singles are absent from letters and documents of the time, which helps provide the illusion of universal marriage.

This raises the question of whether the rise of religious singlehood in the fourth century under Christianity was a true demographics shift or simply a new option for reframing the context of singlehood.

Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Monday, August 8, 2022 - 07:00

I'm starting another collection of articles, this time with a hybrid approach: some blogged at length, some with a fairly short note, and those that aren't relevant to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project simply listed at the end of this first entry. (That doesn't mean they aren't interesting! Just not directly relevant.) Depending on how I schedule the individual articles, this may take me well into September (which would be convenient as I'll be doing some traveling then) or I may post them more frequently to get through the lot in August. I have an idea for what I want to post after this (to tie in with a podcast episode), so either option would work.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Laes, Christian. 2019. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Laes, Christian. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach”

The introduction begins with the definition of what we mean by “single” in this context, then looks for Greek and Latin vocabulary that carries that meaning, as well as similar meanings in other ancient languages. The modern sense is “a person not married or in an exclusive relationship.” But cross-culturally, the vocabulary of singleness may emphasize celibacy, solitariness, or loneliness, or distinguish the state for men and women. But in modern international use, the untranslated English word “single” has come into use as a general and neutral term.

This contemporary review identifies three features of singleness that need not co-occur: not being legally married (or in an exclusive relationship); living alone, with associated economic and emotional consequences; and an implication of a transitory period in youth free of obligations. There follows a discussion of modern marriage demographics.

Pre-Christian classical society doesn’t correspond to those categories well. There was no official legal registry of marriages nor was marriage expected to involve exclusivity for men. Marriage was a contract: easily created, easily dissolved. Yet there were legal consequences to marriage, including inheritance, citizenship, and there were different forms of union for which the consequences varied.

The association of singleness with loneliness is also culturally dependent. Christian ideals around marriage, celibacy, asceticism, etc. changed how singleness was viewed.

Roman male citizens may have had an expected period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, associated with a certain lifestyle, but older unmarried men might also see bachelorhood as a lifelong option.

The pattern was different for women. Practices such as female infanticide may have skewed the demographics, putting more pressure on women to marry. Household and family responsibilities may have affected options for divorced or widowed women to remarry. The legal position of women could exacerbate the economic and emotional consequences of singlehood. The normative age of marriage was lower for women than men, reducing the opportunity for an identifiable lifestyle associated with unmarried women. The positive associations that Christianity gave to female virginity, chastity, and marriage resistance were a newly emergent phenomenon.

Given all this, where do we look for vocabulary that would identify “singleness” in classical society? For women, there was a change of vocabulary when a girl reached marriageable age, and in some cases vocabulary specific to a married woman. Terms for “unmarried” include Greek “anandros (f)” / “agamos (m)” or “eitheos” and Latin “caelebs”. “Eitheos’ usually refers specifically to a young unmarried man but may have sometimes been used of a young woman. Agamos/anandros may also be used for widowed people, but female widows or more commonly called “chera” in Greek.

Latin “caelebs” refers to the state of not being married, but it’s unclear to what extent it was used for women. It could also indicate a widowed man, but a female widow was typically “vidua.”

In Christian use, “caelebs” and associated vocabulary picked up the sense of sexually celibate. This set of vocabulary picks up associations with loneliness in late antiquity, but this may have a specific association with asceticism.

Greek and Latin literature include celebrations—sometimes ironic—of the delights of a (male) single lifestyle, free of responsibilities. In contrast, there was social pressure to marry, and some cultures imposed penalties for not doing so.

Philosophical literature, both before and after the Christian era, offered arguments for and against marriage. Earlier arguments for singlehood tended to address men, while Christian arguments expanded the audience to women, arguing for virginity as the preferred state. Arguments in favor of marriage present it as the “natural” state of humanity, necessary for the continuation of the species, and—for men—providing household support and the benefits of the wife’s labor.

The introduction now provides an overview of the volume’s contents: demographics, archaeological evidence, epigraphs, legislation, literature. A couple articles focus specifically on women. Other specific topics include Jewish society, the rising influence of Christianity in Late Antiquity, and some comparative material from other eras and regions.

I plan to skim for content related to women. The following articles with little or no relevance are not blogged separately.

Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches

  • Chapter 3: Looking for Singles in the Archaeological Record of Roman Egypt – Anna Lucille Boozer
  • Chapter 4: Between Coercion and Compulsion? The Impact of Occupations and Economic Interests on the Relational Status of Slaves and Freedmen – Wim Broekaert

Being Single in the Roman World

  • Chaper 6: “Singleness” in Cicero and Catullus – Harri Kiiskinen

Singles in Judaism

  • Chapter 9: (Why) Was Jesus Single? – John W. Martens
  • Chapter 10: Contesting the Jerusalem Temple: James, Nazirite Vows and Celibacy – Kevin Funderburk

Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single

  • Chapter 14: Being a Bachelor in Late Antiquity: Desire and Social Norms in the Experience of Augustine – Geoffrey Nathan

Comparative Voices

  • Chapter 17: Celibacy and Sexual Abstinence in Early Islam – Mohammed Hocine Benkheira
Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Saturday, August 6, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 236 - On the Shelf for August 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/08/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2022.

It’s getting to be that time of year to start beating the drum for next year’s fiction series! Each year I usually have a moment when I think, “Do I want to do this again? Is the fiction series doing well enough to keep going? Are people interested enough that it makes sense?” But this year I’d already committed myself back at the beginning of the year when I agreed to commission a story for next year’s series. It’ll be the sixth year for the series, which feels like we’ve been doing it forever. Let all your author friends know that we’re doing this again! Check out the show notes for a link to the Call for Submissions, which will have more details than you ever wanted to know about what we’re looking for and how and when to submit it.

And speaking of audio fiction, I’m really excited about the release of the audiobook of my first novel, Daughter of Mystery this week. It should be available from all the usual audiobook sites. I’m looking forward to hearing what the narrator did with it. And if sales are good, we should get the other Alpennia books out in audio eventually. I know that I’ve been getting much more into audiobooks lately and I hear a lot of people saying something similar. So here’s hoping that this will open up a new audience for the Alpennia books.

News of the Field

If you’re a fan of queer podcasts in general, I’d like to direct your attention to a website that I recently learned about. is an aggregator of information about … well, what it says on the label. You can use it to search for new shows to check out, and filter by topic or representation. And if you don’t have a preferred podcast delivery system, you can use it as a place to subscribe to your chosen feeds. It’s a relatively new site and is looking into adding more features, so if you have suggestions about features you’d find useful (or shows they haven’t included yet) I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.

And speaking of shows I hadn’t heard about, tipped me off to the existence of another lesbian history show that I’d somehow missed previously. It’s called Vintage Lesbians and mostly focuses on biographies of historic figures. Alas, the show appears to be on hiatus currently. I had no luck trying to contact them to see if there was an update. But all the previous episodes are still available through your favorite podcatcher. Check out the show notes for links to both these resources.

Publications on the Blog

In July, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog read through Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian. This work written in 1993—and especially the title essay—still gets cited regularly when discussing how lesbian identity gets “disappeared” or displaced into the realm of unreality in popular culture. It’s an interesting theme that appears in various forms across the centuries. Castle asserts that lesbians always exist in some other place, at some other time, or in some entirely fictional space, never right here and now. Does that conclusion stand the test of evidence? Check it out and decide for yourself.

For August, I’m lining up some articles from the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. Some of the material in this collection helped inspire Ursula Whitcher’s story “The Spirits of Cabassus” which we aired back in April. In fact, it was her reference to the book that led me to pick it up, and it joins the other books and articles on the theme of singlewomen and how their lives can provide inspiration for sapphic stories.

Book Shopping!

I haven’t done any recent book shopping for the blog, alas. I mean, not that it’s an enormous tragedy, given how many titles are on my to-do list! But it’s always fun to talk about new discoveries.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Fortunately, there’s never a lack of new fiction to talk about every month! Let’s start with a couple of July books.

The Valkyrie's Daughter by Tiana Warner from Entangled: Teen follows the usual trend for stories with an early Norse setting in having strong fantasy elements. It’s probably a bit questionable to consider it a historic story, but the dearth of more historic Norse settings makes it hard to know where to draw the line.

For as long as Sigrid could remember, she’s wanted to become a mighty, fearless valkyrie. But without a winged mare, she’s a mere stable hand, left wondering who her parents were and why she’s so different. So when the Eye shows her a vision where she’s leading a valkyrie charge on the legendary eight-legged horse Sleipnir, she grabs the possibility of this greater destiny with both hands, refusing to let go. Too bad that the only one who can help her get there is Mariam, an enemy valkyrie who begrudgingly agrees to lead her to Helheim but who certainly can’t be trusted―even if she does make Sigrid more than a little flustered. As they cross the nine worlds, battling night elves, riding sea serpents, and hurtling into fire to learn the truth about Sigrid’s birthright, an unexpected but powerful bond forms. As her feelings for Mariam deepen into something fiery and undeniable, Fate has other plans for Sigrid. What happens when the one thing you think you were meant to do might end the nine worlds?

Lex Croucher’s Infamous from Zaffre Books looks like it follows the path of her previous novel Reputation in blending modern rom-com sensibilities with a Regency setting.

22-year-old aspiring writer Edith 'Eddie' Miller and her best friend Rose have always done everything together-climbing trees, throwing grapes at boys, sneaking bottles of wine, practicing kissing . . . But following their debutante ball Rose is suddenly talking about marriage, and Eddie is horrified. When Eddie meets charming, renowned poet Nash Nicholson, he invites her to his crumbling Gothic estate in the countryside. The entourage of eccentric artists indulging in pure hedonism is exactly what Eddie needs in order to forget Rose and finish her novel. But Eddie might discover the world of famous literary icons isn't all poems and pleasure . . .

When I was mining the forthcoming book listings at the Reads Rainbow website for August books – and, by the way, I highly recommend Reads Rainbow for hearing about queer books – I ran across a new-to-me author writing solidly-grounded medieval stories. Reads Rainbow indicates that Coirle Mooney’s My Lady's Shadow from Sapere Books has a sapphic main character, but as is often the case, there’s no clue to that in the cover copy.

1198, France. Lady Maria of Turenne has long been engaged in a flirtation with Count Hugh La Marche. It is a match which her father has strongly encouraged. However, Maria is her own woman and she is determined to choose for herself. Maria is unaware that her clever, scheming maid, Maryse, is secretly in love with the count. Soon after, the young troubadour, Gui d’Ussel, arrives at the castle and Maria is instantly captivated by him. He shares her distaste of convention and her love of the arts and they soon become inseparable. Meanwhile, Maryse develops a strong dislike for Gui and her resentment for Maria grows. Angered by her treatment of the Count of La Marche, Maria’s father has arranged a new wedding match. This time, Maria will not be allowed to decline. Forced into marrying a wealthy viscount against her will, Maria and Gui are torn apart from each other. However, Maria is determined to find a way to use the power she has gained through marriage to raise Gui in society. Will Maria and Gui find a way to be together? Can Maria escape her marriage? Or will they be fated to remain apart?

As I say, no clue what the sapphic content might be. I might have skipped including this book on the principle that if the publisher is that determined to hide any hint of queerness, who am I to argue? But researching the question turned up a duology by the same author published earlier this year where a sapphic relationship is more clearly indicated. Since I didn’t find these two when they were originally released, but it wasn’t too long ago, I’ll go ahead and include them now. The first in the two-book series is The Lady’s Keeper.

1168, France. At Eleanor of Aquitaine’s palace in Poitiers, fourteen-year-old Lady Joanna of Agen is coming of age. Her aunt and guardian, Alice, rescued Joanna from her brutal father by bringing her to court. But now  Alice fears Joanna could once again be at risk from the men around her. When Queen Eleanor’s son, Henry, arrives at court, Joanna quickly catches his eye. But Alice overhears the lewd conversations of the male courtiers and worries that Joanna’s honour is at stake. And as the relationship between Queen Eleanor and King Henry II of England becomes fractious, a dark mood settles over court. Drawn into a world of intrigue, danger and adventure, Alice must fight to keep her and Joanna safe. Will Joanna find a love match? Can Alice secure her place at court? Or will they fall victim to the dangers of court life?

 The sapphic reference shows up for the second book, The Cloistered Lady. Both of these are also from Sapere Books.

1173, France. Eleanor of Aquitaine has been arrested for rebelling against her husband, King Henry II of England. Her loyal ladies-in-waiting, Alice and Joanna of Agen have fled to the nunnery at Fontrevault, where they are anxiously awaiting news of their queen. Alice and Joanna struggle to adapt to their cramped new home at the Abbey. Each is secretly nursing a broken heart – and harbouring unholy desires. Joanna left behind a lover, Jean, at Eleanor’s court in Poitiers, and Alice has long been in love with the queen’s daughter, Marie. And as the days stretch on with no news, they both begin to fear the worst. What has happened to Eleanor? Will Alice and Joanna be forced to remain at the Abbey indefinitely? And will they ever be reunited with the ones they love?

We have an unusually large proportion of books with medieval settings this month. The next item is Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu from Legend Press.

In medieval Moldova, two women from opposing backgrounds fall in love. But this is a world where a woman’s role is defined by religion and class. To make a life together means defying their families, the law, and the Church. The closer they become, and the more they refuse the roles assigned to them, the more sacrifices they have to make. While Mira’s rebellion puts her life in the gravest danger, Elina must fight to change her legal status to ‘son’ so she can inherit her father’s land and change their destiny. Set in Stone delves into the past to uncover a story which is just as relevant today: the desire to forge your own path while constantly having to resist a patriarchal fear of women’s strength – and how ultimately love can help you choose your own truth.

If you’re a reader who prefers your sapphic romance free of complications involving male characters, you may want to be aware that Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak from Berkley Books involves a romantic threesome that includes a man. But the setting and central character sound intriguing enough to potentially balance that.

Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising--in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves--most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornelie Duplay. As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie's race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornelie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre's ideology and Cornelie's love. When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents...or risk losing her head.

Jane Walsh continues her focus on Regency romances with the start of a new series: The Inconvenient Heiress (The Spinsters of Inverley #1) from Bold Strokes Books.

In the quiet seaside town of Inverley, nothing exciting ever happens to gently bred spinsters like Miss Arabella Seton. Content with her watercolor paintings and her cats, she is confident that no one suspects her forbidden and unrequited passion for her best friend, Caroline. The eldest in a family of six children, Miss Caroline Reeve has the unenviable task of shepherding her siblings into adulthood with little coin and even less patience. The only benefit to being an eternal chaperone is that no one ever expects her to marry. When the Reeve family inherits an unexpected fortune, Caroline must take her rightful place in high society. Fortune hunters abound, and it is up to Arabella to save her from their snares and convince her that love has been in front of her all along. Can the heiress and the spinster discover an unconventional love outside of the Marriage Mart?

Ashthorne by April Yates from Ghost Orchid Press feels like it has a bit of a gothic horror vibe with a romance overlay.

In the aftermath of World War One, Adelaide Frost is on the run from a family who do not understand her. Hoping to do some good, she signs up to become a nurse at Ashthorne, a manor house newly designated as a convalescence home for injured soldiers. She quickly falls in love with the owner's daughter, Evelyn, who hides a warm heart beneath a chilly exterior. But Evelyn has her suspicions about what's really happening at the hospital, and as Adelaide helps her investigate, it soon becomes apparent that there are more inhabitants residing at Ashthorne than first thought.

The Lady Adventurers Club by Karen Frost from Bella Books sounds like it’s aimed at fans of properties like Indiana Jones, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

A barnstormer. A Wild West trick shooter. A mathematician. When archaeologist Anna Baring announces the founding of the Lady Adventurers Club in May 1923, none of the other three members expect to ever meet again. After all, they live halfway around the world from each other. What could possibly bring them together once more? Then they each receive an unexpected letter. Anna has found a tomb that promises to be even grander than that of King Tutankhamun, and she wants them to come to Egypt for the opening. It’s the find of the century. The tomb will make old Tut look like a pauper. But will the women of the Lady Adventurers Club get to see it? Egypt is a political powder keg. Unscrupulous criminals keep shooting at them. And weird, unnerving things seem to happen wherever they go. As the women race across Egypt, their friendship will be tested as they fall deeper into danger. They’re not the only ones after a pharaoh’s treasure.


As long-term followers of this podcast may know, I have a special place in my heart for stories set in medieval Wales. So it may come as no surprise that I’ve already pre-ordered The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both. The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing…but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

The Oleander Sword – the second book in Tasha Suri’s alternate-India Burning Kingdoms historic fantasy series from Orbit Books – continues the story of two women whose lives and hearts are entwined even as their fates pull them apart. I loved, loved, loved the first book in this series, which I strongly recommend reading first.

The prophecy of the nameless god—the words that declared Malini the rightful empress of Parijatdvipa—has proven a blessing and curse. She is determined to claim the throne that fate offered her. But even with the strength of the rage in her heart and the army of loyal men by her side, deposing her brother is going to be a brutal and bloody fight. The power of the deathless waters flows through Priya’s blood. Thrice born priestess, Elder of Ahiranya, Priya’s dream is to see her country rid of the rot that plagues it: both Parijatdvipa's poisonous rule, and the blooming sickness that is slowly spreading through all living things. But she doesn’t yet understand the truth of the magic she carries. Their chosen paths once pulled them apart. But Malini and Priya's souls remain as entwined as their destinies. And they soon realize that coming together is the only way to save their kingdom from those who would rather see it burn—even if it will cost them.

What Am I Reading?

So what I have I been reading or otherwise consuming? I do my best to keep a log as I go, which definitely helps to jog my memory both for this podcast segment and when I go back to do reviews (which I am very seriously behind on). But sometimes I’m startled when I look at the log and wonder if I’ve been forgetting to enter things…and then realize that I’ve had a month go by without finishing much of anything. The only titles in the “completed” list this month include the third book in Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor series, titled The Grief of Stones. The series is evolving into something like a fantasy police procedural. There’s solid queer representation though it's not sapphic. But if “fantasy police procedural involving a main character who listens to the dead” sounds intriguing, you might want to check out this series. The first book, The Goblin Emperor centers on an entirely different character and plot, but provides the setup and background for the later books.

The other item I finished this month was the audiobook of Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, the first in a historic romance series set during the American Civil War and featuring Black protagonists. I’m developing the realization that Cole is rather hit or miss for me. Too often, her romances seem to depend too strongly on an immediate, non-rational, sexual chemistry between the characters. And that just doesn’t work very well for me. I love the topics and characters she tackles, but I’m not the right reader for the ones that depend so strongly on insta-lust.

Author Guest

And to finish up, this month, we have an interview with author Rebecca Fraimow about her story “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” which we aired in the last episode.

[Interview transcript is pending.]

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 Rebecca Fraimow Online

Major category: 
Daughter of Mystery
Thursday, August 4, 2022 - 07:00

We come to an end of Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian. There's a steadily shrinking list of early "foundational" works that I have yet to cover in the Project. The remaining ones tend to be dense and theory-focused, like several works of Judith Butler on gender theory. (Older works on gender theory can be particularly tricky, given how rapidly the field morphs.) But for now, I'll be moving on to cover some of the articles in the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. I haven't decided whether to stretch that out to run into September (given that I'll be traveling the first week or so of that month) or whether I'll push to complete it in a single month and maybe take some time off during my vacation.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3

Chapter 9 – In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender (A Musical Emanation)

As a final summing up for this book, when people reference The Apparitional Lesbian as a key work of theory, I would suggest that they’re speaking primarily of the chapter/essay of that name rather than the collection as a whole. The collection was published in 1993—I can’t find any clear indication whether the titular essay was originally written and published independently at an earlier date. This is still fairly early in the flourishing of lesbian historical studies, so both its status as a foundational work and the types of existing scholarship it had to draw on can be understood in that context.

I have to say that, at a position in the development of the field that offers a much wider scope of study, I am less convinced of the universality of Castle’s theory about the “ghosting” of lesbian content in literature and popular culture. That is, I think that some of her conclusions are right on, especially the degree to which the hidden and filtered nature of lesbian representation helped it to escape scrutiny and be more available to a wider range of consumers. But the supposed connection to a motif of dead, ghostly, and “ghosted” lesbian-like figures in literature seems to me to be, in part, the phenomenon of “if the tool you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail”.

Castle notes that she came to this essay after planning and working on a major study of ghosts in post-Enlightenment Western culture. Having been steeped in ghost lore, it is little wonder that the examples of lesbian-like characters in literature that she was most familiar co-occurred with ghostly phenomena. That is, she was working with the subset of ghost stories that happened to have lesbian subtexts, rather than working with the set of stories with lesbian subtexts and being in a position to conclude that ghosts were a prevalent theme. So, to the extent that the “apparitional lesbian” is concluded to be the prevalent mode of lesbian representation, I find the argument unconvincing--and the contradictory evidence far more accessible these days. But that's not to say that I reject the "apparitional" motif entirely.

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote: “When people wrote or left evidence of their lives prior to the development of modern categories and vocabulary around lesbian identity, the work of trying to connect those lives with concepts of identity is necessarily difficult. That difficulty may include deliberate obfuscation, either by the subjects themselves or by those writing about them, but it may also simply involve a lack of clear and explicit language. When we move into the 20th century, then silence or obliqueness around the topic of sexuality can be presumed to be more deliberate. Can that whole scope of time be gathered into a single phenomenon of the "ghosting" of lesbian identity? In some ways, yes; in others, no.”

One can trace certain themes in the treatment of lesbian(like) identity across time, even if it's questionable to conclude that they are the dominant mode. The displacement of f/f eroticism onto the Other, either culturally or in time and space, is something that Judith P. Hallett discusses in “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” and that several authors discuss in connection with early modern allegations that f/f sex is either a "new phenomenon imported from abroad" or "a thing not seen since ancient times", as well as the regular connection of f/f sex with racialized populations, especially in Egypt or Turkey. Similarly the displacement of lesbian possibilities into an imagined alternate reality, such as the pastorale fantasies of neo-platonist poets such as Katherine Phillips, or the unfulfilled longings of 19th century romantic friends for a life together, can be viewed as another flavor of Castle's "ghosting". There are other parallel themes that similarly reflect the failure of most historic societies to include f/f eroticism within the accepted public modes of life.

But it seems to me that in bringing these motifs together and claiming an overall unity under the "ghosting" umbrella is a work of artistic creation, rather than scholarly analysis. It is a perfectly valid way for one person to make a collective sense out of the disparity of historic experience around female homoeroticism, but it's not the only way, nor is this quest for a collective thematic unity in lesbian history an obligatory goal. It's possible for the vague amorphous mass of experiences, identities, and interpretations that we treat under the heading of "lesbian history" to not have a single, overall unifying thematic structure. One of the concepts that keeps coming back to me as I work on the Project is the "cluster model" of conceptual category. That is a category defined by relationship to a set of focal concepts that have strong overlap to the point where you can say "this is an identifiable phenomenon" but where no set of definitions or conditions can mathematically define all memebers of the category and exclude all non-members. This is an approach I'd like to explore further in some future essay -- the idea that there are multiple focal identities/experiences/images across history that contribute to the modern concept of lesbian identity. They overlap in various ways, but cannot easily be treated as a single, clearly definable category. (And perhaps should not be so treated.)

# # #

For this chapter I will mostly skim for aspects of Castle’s theoretical structure rather than the topical content.

This chapter concerns German opera singer Bridget Fassbender. Castle discusses the context of opera that has given women in the 19th and 20th centuries license to openly admire other women. [Note: although Castle focuses exclusively on opera singers, the same observations can be made about actresses, see for example the female fans of Charlotte Cushman.]

The discussion offers a survey of examples of this f/f diva worship across the 19th and 20th centuries. After this general exploration, Castle tackles the subject of female diva worship from within her own admiration for Fassbaender.

In the end, this chapter is simply a celebration of the topic rather than creating an underlying theoretical argument. From this position at the end of the collection, it demonstrates that the collection overall is not so much an integrated work of theory, but simply an expression of the range of Castle’s writing.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022 - 06:45

Moving on into the solidly 20th century topics of Castle's collection of essays, the framework of interpretation shifts. When people wrote or left evidence of their lives prior to the development of modern categories and vocabulary around lesbian identity, the work of trying to connect those lives with concepts of identity is necessarily difficult. That difficulty may include deliberate obfuscation, either by the subjects themselves or by those writing about them, but it may also simply involve a lack of clear and explicit language. When we move into the 20th century, then silence or obliqueness around the topic of sexuality can be presumed to be more deliberate. Can that whole scope of time be gathered into a single phenomenon of the "ghosting" of lesbian identity? In some ways, yes; in others, no. I'll return to this question in my final summing up, tomorrow.

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Full citation: 

Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3

Chapter 8 – The Gaiety of Janet Flanner

This chapter looks at mid-20th century journalist Janet Flanner, publishing in the New Yorker under the ambiguous pen name “Genêt”, who worked in an era when being open about her homosexuality was not a practical option. But evasiveness and compartmentalization was also a feature of her life and work more generally.

Here Castle returns to her theme of the “ghosting” of lesbian identities, noting that later biographies of Flanner – even those that were otherwise detailed – appear to have found her sexuality at best uninteresting, if not taboo, even though those biographies were written at a date when attitudes were more open about sexuality.

Having embedded herself in the bohemian expatriate Parisian society of the Left Bank, that aspect of her life seems unlikely to have been uninteresting. Castle makes an effort to fill that biographical gap to some extent.

Flanner’s move to Paris was not only to pursue literary interests as an aspiring novelist, but to escape a stifling home situation. There she met the women who would be her partners, and her sexuality provided entry to the Parisian artistic circles dominated by American and English lesbians such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Flanner found her stride writing “Letters from Paris” that combined travelogue and artistic commentary. (Castle provides a detailed summary of topics and personages, and a description of Flanner’s literary style.)

Flanner’s official biographer not only skims over the evidence of her several romantic relationships, but inflates – or perhaps invents – Flanner’s internal conflict over her sexuality. This idea of conflict is contradicted by the pervasive gay content and subject matter of her public writing. The writing is riddled with cues and only semi-coded references to the sexuality of the community she moved in.

Castle concludes that a biographer cannot do justice to the life of a lesbian subject without engaging with the sensual aspects of her life.

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