When writing about women in pre-20th century western history, the topic of domestic service is inescapable. Either you employed maidservants, or you were one, or your economic status was marginal enough that you fell outside these categories--which significantly affected your options. No matter which category your fictional character falls in, there will be a complex web of relationships with the other women in the household where she resides. Who are her allies? Who are her rivals and where to their interests still intersect? What are the power dynamics and how do those dynamics shift to confront male household members or outsiders? As I mentioned in the general introduction to this volume, too often when writing female characters in historic settings, they are depicted as isolated from other women, whether due to authorial extrapolation from modern household structures, or due to an unconscious misogyny that feels that women in general didn't do anything interesting (but your protagonists are *special*).
When I wrote the protagonist of Floodtide as a young woman in domestic service, it shifted the types of stories and outcomes she could have--but not always in negative ways. (Despite a lack of social power, Roz has a lot less scrutiny on her personal choices than Margerit Sovitre has.) And I tried hard to depict all the flavors of female alliance that Roz found in the various households she intersected with. Do not overlook housemaids as a source of story potential!
Jones, Ann Rosalind. 1999. “Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor" in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor"
While other papers in this volume look at relations between upper class waiting women and their aristocratic mistresses (whether in life or fiction), this study concerns itself with in-group relations among ordinary housemaids and women in service. One common life path for young women from rural households (whether of the gentry or lower) was to be placed in service with a large urban household with the expectation that this would not only provide income in the immediate future but would lead to wider opportunities for marriage. In drama, such figures are often depicted as working class so they may be portrayed to comic effect as accomplices to the central character’s plans. But what evidence do we have for how actual women in such positions interacted for their own interests?
While women in such positions often had limited literacy skills, we can retrieve some understanding from pamphlets written in the voice of—and likely penned by—women in service representing themselves as speaking for the class. This article looks at two such publications: Isabella Whitney’s “A Modest meane for Maids” (1573) and the anonymous “A Letter sent by the Maydens of London” (1567). This genre no only gave voice to an often silent class, but indicated that they considered that the use of a collective voice, representing a unified point of view, strengthened the arguments they made. Whitney, in particular, as an identifiable individual who also left a body of poetry, sheds a particularly fascinating light on the range of possible experiences for urban maidservants.
In Elizabethan England, domestic service was not simply the most available occupation for unmarried women, it was—in theory—the legally mandated occupation. One statute mandated that any unmarried woman in London between the ages of 14 to 40 who could not prove other employment could be seized by the authorities and forced into domestic service “for such wages as they shall think meet” and to be imprisoned if she refused. But women in household service were paid less than a man (1/2 to 2/3 the rate) and were often subject to sexual abuse from male members of the household which could result in job loss (and consequent prison for vagrancy) if that resulted in pregnancy. Housemaids were simultaneously required to be of strict deportment, considered to be sexually available, and had functionally no recourse to refuse sexual advances. Abortion was widely practiced (or believed to be practiced) as a preferred alternative.
Whitney’s poem “A Modest meane for Maids” tells the other side of this story, detailing how employment in service required impossible levels of patience and diplomacy, and revealing the frustration and resentment such work engendered. She alludes to a good position (with an admired mistress) lost due to false accusations of another. Elsewhere she gives advice to her younger sisters (also in service) regarding which types of positions are worth holding on to and which might be better left. The demands of service were worth it if the household met minimal standards of decency, because any alternative might be worse.
In the guise of giving practical advice for success in service, Whitney critiques the unreasonable demands of employers and warns obliquely against those who might “infect” them with corruption (strongly implying erotic entanglements). The circumlocutions used for these hazards suggest she means male employers and their sons within the household—the men who have the power to suppress even the suggestion that they might be a hazard to maidservants’ morality.
Within this all, Whitney depicts concentric circles of alliance and connection: her sisters (both as family and as fellow maidservants), domestic workers in general, the family she serves (which relies on her loyalty and honesty for their own security). Whitney’s advice may be overtly directed to the first two, but in pointing out the hazards of service and demands on workers, she is also speaking to the last.
The anonymous “A Letter sent by Maydens of London” is more outspoken (hence, no doubt, the reason for its anonymity). This pamphlet has a specific target: Edward Hake, whose earlier (but now lost) pamphlet “The Mery Meeting of Maydens in London” accused the class of female domestic workers of sloth and dishonesty. The counter-pamphlet is structured with multiple voices and nominal addressees, calling for common cause with their mistresses against Hake’s misogyny. (Ironically, but inevitably, some scholars have claimed that the specialized legal language used in the pamphlet means that it could only have been written by…wait for it…a man.)
In contrast to other proto-feminist works of its era, the Letter avoids questions of whether the genders have an essential moral nature and focuses on the everyday dynamics of the household. The narrators refute the charges of laziness, theft, and going about in public in pursuit of men, not be addressing Hake directly, but by appealing to common cause with their (female) employers for the efficient running of the household. Should the housewives take Hake’s advice and deprive maids of their half-Sunday off, they would soon find no one willing to work under such conditions. Subverting the “body” metaphor of the household, where the master is the “head” with authority over the “body”, they embrace the image of being the limbs that are required for a body to stand and to accomplish work. Without them, the mistress is “disabled” and unable to accomplish what she desires. The arguments have a taste of collective bargaining: workers have the right to withhold their labor if the working conditions are intolerable.
Another tactic is introduced, urging the women—both mistress and maids—to make common cause against their male critic. The maids say they take pride in their work; they are too sharp-eyed and competent to allow theft under their noses. And they appeal to the mistress’s pride in her own competence: surely she knows her own resources and inventories well enough to be able to testify that no theft is takin place? If they give a candle-end to a beggar woman, surely they do it with their mistress’s knowledge and permission for she believes in charity? Further, they say, Hakes makes little distinction between giving charity to beggars at the door and paying housemaids their earned wages—so how can he understand the valid dynamics of the household economy? Hakes would forbid mistresses from rewarding hard work or offering charity as they see fit, and it isn’t his business to judge their actions!
Then the female alliance shifts again, as the maids defend “Mother B” a labor broker who appears as a villainous figure in Hake’s pamphlet. Mother B has done nothing but arrange for labor contracts and, if those contracts are not honored, will help the maids to leave and find better employers. Surely this is their right if the contract is broken or has been completed? Without the assistance of Mother B, maids who are summarily dismissed from service might turn to dishonesty to live, rather than being helped to another position.
And as for railing against maids going to plays and public spectacles, he would forbid both mistress and maid from doing so, and the alliance shifts back to common cause between those groups. Plays—like sermons—depict stories of virtue and vice, teaching moral lessons, they argue. And further, this attack on enjoying public entertainments places the fault more on the mistresses (who allow it) than the maids who indulge in it. Once again, the narrators leverage their employers’ sense of their own authority and judgment to undermine Hake’s demands.
Both publications discussed here set up a two-level structure of female alliance: first, among the maidservants in opposition to their employers, but second, identifying themselves as part of a larger household and including their female employers in an alliance of women’s concerns against external dangers (e.g., housebreaking) or misogynistic attacks on all women.
Only a couple of the papers in this collection specifically address topics related to homoeroticism, but very much like my interest in books on singlewomen, this type of history can be both grounding and inspiring when creating stories about lesbian-like characters in history. Too many historic novels envision their sapphic protagonists in isolation, at best making common cause with a love interest to create a cozy cocoon. But women lived lives rich in interconnections with other women—indeed, for most of history, other women were far more relevant to a woman’s life than any man was, even a possible husband. And those interconnections had plenty of space within them for emotional and romantic bonds. So understanding the feminine matrix of womens’ lives—regardless of sexuality—is essential for composing stories with the rich detail of of the past.
Frye, Susan & Karen Robertson. 1999. “Introduction” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Frye, Susan & Karen Robertson “Introduction”
The importance of relations (of all types) between women to society and to women’s lives has tended to be overlooked in favor of the more visible relations between men or between women and men. Due to the nature of society, men could assume that their relationships were stable and long-lasting, but women’s relationships could easily be disrupted by the lesser control women had over their own lives. Or women’s relationships might be temporary alliances across social barriers, established for a specific purpose.
The introduction to this collection provides a summary of the contents, pointing out the connections between papers and the importance of basic groundwork in making the documentary evidence of women’s lives and work available to scholars. The collection is organized in four themes: Alliances in the City (looking not only at London but other major urban centers in England), Alliances in the Household (examining the many different roles for women within the household and how they interacted), Materializing Communities (covering intentionally-created communities revolving around common social, economic, or religious concerns), and Emergent Alliances (the role of race, class, and desire in women’s alliances).
(Originally aired 2022/03/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2022.
You know, I don’t know if I should even take the risk of commenting on what’s going on in the world in these introductions, because in the week between recording and when the podcast goes live, pretty much anything could happen. Events move quickly. And the rhythms of a monthly round-up podcast don’t allow for timeliness.
Speaking of which, although it’s somewhat old news at this point, we have a line-up for the 2022 fiction series. The first story of the year, of course, was one we bought last year: “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, which aired in January. But we have four new stories to announce, and a commitment to continue the fiction series in 2023 because I’ve already agreed to commission something for next year. I even have a schedule that’s fairly solid.
The April story will be a tale of curses, ghosts, and religious tourism in 4th century Cappadocia (which is in modern-day Turkey). This is “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher.
The July story is “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, set among a Jewish theater company in late 19th century St. Petersburg.
In October, we’re taking advantage of aligning with Halloween to present a story of supernatural danger and household rivalry in Heian era Japan, with Miyuki Jane Pinchard’s tale “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain.”
And in December we have a wistful, gentle epistolary story of claiming one’s life, set in 19th century New England – “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko.
It's always interesting to see the themes that emerge in each year's submissions, both the ones we choose and the ones we don’t. Ghosts appeared several times. The performing arts were a noticeable presence, with singers, actors, and music hall performers. Several submissions were set in religious communities. Two of the stories I bought had characters with invisible disabilities. The distribution in eras was fairly similar to previous years, but with an unexpected cluster in the 17th century. It's one of my favorite centuries; perhaps people were playing to that? Though I didn’t end up buying any of those. The geographic distribution was also similar to previous years with a heavy focus on North America and the British Isles. (I've never received a submission set in South America, and only one set in Africa if you don't count Ancient Egypt.) In the first three years of the fiction series, most of the submissions came in during the last week of January, but last year and this one there was a fairly steady flow throughout the month. Much easier on my nerves!
So for those of you thinking ahead to submitting next year, what is it that catches my eye and makes it to the final round? The first hurdle is simply "good writing"—prose that is not only competently written but that uses language in skillful ways. The writing should paint a vivid picture and it should be clear that every word and sentence was chosen to create the desired effect. If you're a beginning writer, the place to put your energy is in learning and practicing these basic writing skills. Plotting, characterization, and background research are relatively easy to pick up and can be fixed in revisions. But solid writing chops are essential to make it in the door. They require work and practice and, ideally, good critique partners.
The next hurdle to be considered seriously is that the central character(s) of the story should clearly fit the lesbian/sapphic theme in some way and should do so in a way that rings true to their historic context. I'm kind of picky on that point. I don't want modern personalities dressed up in costume on a stage. And, needless to say, the historic setting itself should also ring true. I can enjoy playing fast and loose with history as much as the next person, but it's not what I'm looking for in this fiction series.
After that, the considerations become more flexible. I tend to be drawn to stories that are "a story" rather than a character sketch or a slice of life. I like an episode where the central character changes in some way in response to the events. But I hope I'm open to a diversity of narrative structures, not all of which have that pattern. I generally hold to the notion that a story should come to an end rather than merely stopping, and that stories should have an underlying meaning and theme that real life doesn't always have. And, in general, I prefer stories in which all the characters--even villains--have complex lives and personalities rather than simply fulfilling a functional role. They don't all have to be likeable or pleasant, but they should make sense.
The ultimate consideration--and the one that can be the hardest on authors when it doesn’t benefit their submission--is that I want to buy a reasonably balanced diversity of stories in terms of setting, era, and plot. If I get four fabulous stories about late 17th century sword-wielding opera singers who rescue their girlfriends from convents, I'm still only going to buy one of them in any given year. (Though if I ever did get four fabulous stories on that theme in a single year, I might suggest kickstarting an anthology!)
Publications on the Blog
In the blog this past month I’d meant to clear out some random articles that were sitting on my computer desktop, but there ended up being a theme after all. They all cover some aspect of early modern England—which could happen by chance, given how much research in lesbian history draws on those topics—but I also ended up with two articles analyzing the depiction of female same-sex desire in Delariver Manley’s The New Atalantis. These are Ros Ballaster’s "`The Vices of Old Rome Revived': Representations of Female Same-Sex Desire in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England" and Jennifer Frangos’s “The Woman in Man’s Clothes and the Pleasures of Delarivier Manley’s ‘New Cabal’”. Another article only touches on same-sex issues in passing, but provides important background on interpreting depictions of female couples in art. This is Will Fisher’s “The Erotics of Chin Chucking in Seventeenth-Century England.” And I finished with two articles on the social meaning of same-sex pairs in grave memorials, neither of which provided new information, but which closed the loop on early publications on the topic. In one case, I discuss just the section on same-sex tombs in the chapter The Double Tomb from Jessica Barker’s book Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture. The other item is the article “Two names of friendship, but one Starre: Memorials to Single-Sex Couples in the Early Modern Period” by Jean Wilson, which is cited in later articles on women’s double-tombs, but which primarily focuses on men’s memorials.
For the next month I think I’ll start on the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. There are a couple of articles that explicitly address homoerotic topics, but I may do brief skims through all the articles on general principles. When writing about female same-sex relationships in history, it isn’t possible to know too much about non-sexual relations between women. The structures of women’s interactions with each other will be the water that your sapphic couple are swimming in.
I picked up two new books for the blog this month. One is the brand new study Novel Approaches to Lesbian History by Linda Garber. This is an academic study of lesbian historical fiction. I first became aware of it in the planning stages several years ago and have been eagerly awaiting it ever since. The other book is Julie Peakman’s Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century England.
This would have been a useful book to have on hand back when I was putting together this month’s essay podcast: A History of Lesbian Sex in Pornography. This is a topic that was on my brainstorming list, but it got moved up to the top when Sheena asked if I’d like to tackle the topic for her special event on Lesbian erotic fiction last month. I agreed on the condition that I create a double-duty episode and include it in this podcast as well. This is the second show I’ve created with a slide-show version, although it’s designed to work for audio-only as well. But I highly recommend looking up the YouTube version of the show, which will include images—plus an actual embedded image of me narrating the show in real time! I only just learned how to do that. I’m not planning to go over to having video content for all the shows—honestly it more or less doubles the work, if it’s going to be anything more than a video of me reading the script. But it’s fun to do for the occasional topic that has a lot of visual content.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
So let’s look at the new and recent historic fiction. There’s one February release that I only just found, but otherwise apparantly I’m caught up with everything that pings my search filters.
Geonn Cannon has what appears to be a stand-alone book from Supposed Crimes: Queen and Bandit.
Gracie Simon is a reporter with a secret. Forced to lie about her gender to get hired, she lives in fear of what will happen when the truth comes out. Evelyn Wade is a rising star with a secret of her own. With three hit films on her resume already, she's ready to risk it all to reveal the truth in the hopes it will help other actresses. When Gracie is assigned to do a story about Evelyn's new movie, both secrets come to light during the course of their conversation. Evelyn is ready to spill the beans about what she knows but doesn't want to be anywhere near Los Angeles when the bombshell drops. To avoid the fallout, Gracie suggests they take a road trip under the guise of doing a complete, in-depth profile of the up-and-coming starlet. Evelyn agrees, and they hit the road the same day Gracie's exclusive hits the presses. Trapped together in a car, with bridges burning behind them and 2,000 miles to their destination, Gracie and Evelyn quickly discover that when the secrets are thrown out, the only thing left is the truth.
There are nine March books in my spreadsheet. I’ve followed my default approach of organizing them chronologically.
Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix (Remixed Classics #3) by Aminah Mae Safi from Feiwel & Friends is part of a collection by various authors that re-interpret various classic works through new lenses. A fair number of the works in the series have queer content, and in this case there is a sapphic main character who is not the point-of-view character.
Jerusalem, 1192. The Third Crusade is ending, and Rahma Al Hud just wants to get herself and her sister, Zeena, back home to their family's land on the Tigris River. The only problem? They've run out of money. Rahma is a trained warrior, and though she is not nobility, she still has a strong sense of duty and honor. She refuses to steal from less fortunate traders on the road, so instead she steals from the fleeing invaders. But every time she scrapes enough money together, she finds herself giving it away to those more desperate than herself. In a last attempt to get home, Rahma and Zeena rob the richest-looking caravan they've ever seen. But in her haste, Rahma unwittingly steals the chest containing the keys to the city of Jerusalem and the peace treaty that was bound for Salah Ad-Din and Richard the Lionheart. In order to restore peace to the Holy Land, Rahma must return the treaty and the keys, and escape without getting caught. With the help of a motley crew of misfits—including a softspoken Mongolian warrior, a lost Andalusian scientist, a frustratingly handsome Persian prince, and an unfortunate English invader left behind enemy lines—Rahma is in for her most daring heist of all.
Daughters of the Deer by Danielle Daniel from Random House Canada looks like it falls in the literary fiction genre. As the book delves deeply into the history and experiences of First Nations people of Canada, I checked out the author’s bio, curious about her personal connections. She notes that although she has an Algonquin ancestor, she does not feel able to identify as Métis, but writes out of respect and honor for that ancestry. I’ve linked her bio in the transcript in case you want to know more. I feel like I have some responsibility when including books focusing on marginalized cultures, and I generally try to do some research to understand where the author is coming from, even though I rarely comment on it in the show.
In this haunting, groundbreaking, historical novel, Danielle Daniel imagines the lives of her ancestors in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s, a story inspired by her family link to a girl murdered near Trois-Rivières in the early days of French settlement. Marie, an Algonquin woman of the Weskarini Deer Clan, lost her first husband and her children to an Iroquois raid. In the aftermath of another lethal attack, her chief begs her to remarry for the sake of the clan. Marie is a healer who honours the ways of her people, and Pierre, the green-eyed ex-soldier from France who wants her for his bride, is not the man she would choose. But her people are dwindling, wracked by white men's diseases and nearly starving every winter as the game retreats away from the white settlements. If her chief believes such a marriage will cement their alliance with the French against the Iroquois and the British, she feels she has no choice. Though she does it reluctantly, and with some fear--Marie is trading the memory of the man she loved for a man she doesn't understand at all, and whose devout Catholicism blinds him to the ways of her people. This beautiful, powerful novel brings to life women who have literally fallen through the cracks of settler histories. Especially Jeanne, the first child born of the new marriage, neither white nor Weskarini, but caught between worlds. As she reaches adolescence, it becomes clear she is two-spirited. In her mother's culture, she would have been considered blessed, her nature a sign of special wisdom. But to the settlers of New France, and even to her own father, Jeanne is unnatural, sinful--a woman to be shunned, and worse.
Lillie Lainoff’s One for All from Farrar, Straus and Giroux is basically a gender-flipped YA Three Musketeers, but also includes casual representation of a disability that the author shares. Although the book came up on my keyword searches, it wasn’t clear what the queer representation was until I found one review that confirms there’s an f/f relationship among important secondary characters. And that’s quite enough that I’ve added this to my pre-orders.
Tania de Batz is most herself with a sword in her hand. Everyone in town thinks her near-constant dizziness makes her weak, nothing but “a sick girl”; even her mother is desperate to marry her off for security. But Tania wants to be strong, independent, a fencer like her father—a former Musketeer and her greatest champion. Then Papa is brutally, mysteriously murdered. His dying wish? For Tania to attend finishing school. But L’Académie des Mariées, Tania realizes, is no finishing school. It’s a secret training ground for a new kind of Musketeer: women who are socialites on the surface, but strap daggers under their skirts, seduce men into giving up dangerous secrets, and protect France from downfall. And they don’t shy away from a swordfight. With her newfound sisters at her side, Tania feels for the first time like she has a purpose, like she belongs. But then she meets Étienne, her first target in uncovering a potential assassination plot. He’s kind, charming, and breathlessly attractive—and he might have information about what really happened to her father. Torn between duty and dizzying emotion, Tania will have to lean on her friends, listen to her own body, and decide where her loyalties lie…or risk losing everything she’s ever wanted. This debut novel is a fierce, whirlwind adventure about the depth of found family, the strength that goes beyond the body, and the determination it takes to fight for what you love.
Jane Walsh continues her series of Regencies from Bold Strokes Books with Her Duchess to Desire.
Anne, the Duchess of Hawthorne, is tired of her reputation as the Ice Queen of London society. She resolves to leave behind her cold-hearted marriage to the duke―and to find a woman to keep her warm at night. Perhaps the dashing designer she hires to transform her Mayfair estate can also help her to transform her life. Letitia Barrow has big dreams of running her own interior design business. The opportunity to reinvent the Hawthorne estate is the job that will finally establish her as a leading designer among the ton. The duchess might make her weak in the knees, but giving in to temptation could risk everything she’s working so hard to build.
And another Regency that’s part of a series, though it looks like this is the only sapphic story is A Lady's Finder (When the Blood is Up #3) by Edie Cay from ScarabSkin Books. Based on the page count this looks like it’s short story length, and although the book is tagged “lesbian romance” on Amazon, the cover copy seems to indicate that the love interest is non-binary and uses male pronouns. So you’ll have to figure out the representation for yourself.
Lady Agnes is a scandal thanks to her sister’s marriage to a prizefighter. Or rather, she should be, but as a charitable spinster-to-be, she remains firmly invisible, even to those she loves. Always dutiful, Lady Agnes should be the toast of her family, but only if she marries well. Finding the prospect of wedding a man unpalatable, Lady Agnes cannot be the social savior of her sister. Suddenly, receiving attentions from the unpredictable and surprisingly resourceful Mr. Jack Townsend, Lady Agnes finds herself believing he might love her and not her dowry. After being overlooked for so long, can she believe he cares for her, or is she a means to an end as her family insists? Jack About Town is London’s best Finder of Lost Things. What few realize is that Jack transcends the spheres of men and women, existing as both, or perhaps neither, sex. True, his most lucrative finds are pornographic artifacts for rich toffs. But now he has found Lady Agnes, a meticulous, generous, knock-down incredible lady who wears men’s boots. Best of all, Lady Agnes accepts him in his entirety—a jewel so rare that even Jack is surprised he could find it. When Jack is commissioned to steal from Lady Agnes’s cousin, can Jack find a way to prove his love and still earn the money he needs to protect himself and his home?
Francesca May brings us a historic fantasy in Wild and Wicked Things from Redhook.
In the aftermath of World War I, a young woman gets swept into a glittering world filled with illicit magic, romance, blood debts, and murder in this lush and decadent debut novel. On Crow Island, people whispered, real magic lurked just below the surface, but Annie Mason never expected her enigmatic new neighbor to be a witch. When she witnesses a confrontation between her best friend Bea and the infamous Emmeline Delacroix at one of Emmeline’s extravagantly illicit parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where magic can buy what money can not; a world where the consequence of a forbidden blood bargain might be death.
Another book where the keywords indicate sapphic content, but the cover copy is coy, is The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson from Versify.
The story of Hilde, a former orphan, who experiences Berlin on the cusp of WWII and discovers her own voice and sexuality and finds a family when she gets a job at a cabaret.
The Ribbon Leaf by Lori Weber from Red Deer Press hits a hot-button historic era, with the story of the friendship of Jewish and gentile girls in Nazi Germany. Stories with this trope can sometimes be very good and sometimes be problematic, and I don’t have enough information to be able to advise potential readers. So do your own due diligence if this is likely to be an issue for you.
Would you risk your life to help a friend? In Nazi Germany, friendship between an Aryan German girl and a Jewish German girl is strictly verboten, and an act of kindness might mean death. Sabine and Edie have been best friends since Kindergarten. Then Kristallnacht hits in 1938, shattering Jewish shop windows, synagogues, and their friendship. The girls, who once dreamed of stardom together, now take different paths -- Edie escapes to Canada, and Sabine remains to experience life in her Nazi-controlled southern German town, eventually rescuing and supporting Edie's beloved Papa who poses as Sabine's grandfather. Even though the girls are separated, the yellow ribbon that once decorated their identical dresses binds the girls' families in ways that contradict Nazi ideology. Throughout the seven long years of WWII, Sabine confronts how far courage can take her, while Edie finds her own strength to deal with leaving her father behind, integrating into a new country, and coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Each girl comes of age, experiencing first loves, loss, and joy. Without knowing how the other is doing across the ocean, they keep hope alive that their bond of friendship remains.
World War II is also the context for this next historic fantasy: Into the Underwood: Maiden self-published by J.L. Robertson.
Against the harrowing backdrop of World War II, a young seamstress' ability to bring embroidery to life exposes an unremembered past and unforeseeable future. Sylvia Taylor began her life following in her mother's footsteps, training to become London's next high-end dressmaker. But when a series of air raids send her back to her mother's home village of Lustleigh, she is immediately abducted by the Erlkönig, the immortal ruler of the Underwood—a woodland kingdom of spirits and monsters. As Sylvia endures an indefinite term of servitude to settle a mysterious family debt, she meets Sasha, a famine survivor from the Soviet Union, with whom she begins piecing together dark secrets from her family's past.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading lately? It feels like I sometimes have three or four books going simultaneously. I’m continuing my recent love affair with audiobooks. I’d wanted to listen to Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey ever since I heard about it. And—honestly—even if all I’d listened to was the introductory material, this would have been worth it. There’s so much about the mythic and historic context of the story that provide context for the tale itself. Although not necessarily an enjoyable aspect, Wilson’s translation really lays bare how very gendered the experiences of characters in the Odyssey were. I’ve also started listening to the second book in K. Arsenault Rivera’s alternate Asia fantasy, The Phoenix Empress. If you’re looking for casual inclusion of sapphic relationships in epic fantasy, this should definitely be on your radar. I read the first book, The Tiger’s Daughter when it first came out and struggled with the structure and pacing. Sometimes listening to an audiobook helps with those issues for me, but The Phoenix Empress is presenting me with many of the same problems and I’ve switched over to a different book for now and will see if I come back to it.
In print, I just gobbled down an advance reading copy of Aliette de Bodard’s “Of Charms, Ghosts, and Grievances” – the latest adventure of her fallen angel / dragon prince husbands in the Dominion of the Fallen universe. No sapphic representation in this one, though the larger series does have it, but it’s so enjoyable seeing an author get to have fun playing with established characters in new situations. I’m also in the middle of reading Samantha Rajaram’s The Company Daughters, which the author talked about on this podcast. Very solidly historically grounded in the world of the Dutch East India Company.
And what are you reading these days? In next month’s show, I get to tell you about my new release, so I hope that it will make it onto some of your to-be-read lists soon!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
I’m feeling trapped between my (entirely personal, self-made) commitment to review (almost) all the media I consume, and how thoroughly behind I am at doing so. Hence, my all-in-one micro-review roundup, in which I give my impressions of everything on my “to review” list since last June. It may take me a couple more days to transfer these into the various review sites.
Short story: “At Words Point” by Carolyn Elizabeth – a teaser story set in the world of her Caribbean pirates novel The Raven and the Banshee. Like most f/f pirate stories, a bit light on history and heavy on swashbuckling. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like it.
Audiobook: City of Brass (book 1 in the Daevabad series) by S.A. Chakraborty – epic fantasy in an alternate and magical Near East, focused largely on the internecine conflicts of the various djinn tribes. Very atmospheric, although I felt the central plot-line was formulaic and I kept wanting to give the female protagonist a good shake.
Audiobook: Network Effect (part of the Murderbot series) by Martha Wells – a highly praised series that many of my friends are devoted fans of. I guess I can see the appeal? But it was a bit too much action-thriller for me. Much like my reaction to superhero movies, I wish I could filter out the loving technical depictions of battles and just get the characters and their interactions.
Audiobook: Rosemary and Rue (book 1 in the October Daye series) by Seanan McGuire – urban fantasy overlaying the world of the fae onto the SF Bay area, with its roots in the hardboiled detective genre. Very imaginative with intricate worldbuilding. It doesn’t hit my sweet spot largely because of that “hardboiled detective” thing. I just don’t care for “we going to throw endless amounts of physical and psychological damage at our protagonist to continually raise the stakes.”
Non-fiction: The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger – literary analysis of a story structure that runs in different lines from the “hero’s journey.” A great work of analysis aimed at those who want to analyze or write fiction. This book helped me take a structural look at some of the things I do in my own fiction and gave me tools to talk about those things. Recommended.
Move: Elisa & Marcela – based on the real life story of two women who married (one while presenting as a man) in early 20th century Spain. There’s a lot of angst and trauma, though if I follow the ending correctly, the two do stay together after emigrating. (Though I’m not sure if that part is accurate to the historic figures?) Not a happy movie but not entirely a tragic one either.
Audiobook: The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner – sapphic reconfiguration of Jane Eyre with an extremely gothic flavor. This had me riveted to my earbuds and biting my nails through to the final chapter. Very well written and gripping. Don’t mistake this for “a romance” but the erotic relationship between the two women is central to, and drives, the plot. Content note for various types of abuse, violence, and gaslighting.
Short fiction: “Mary’s Secret Desire” by Tilda Templeton – sapphic Jane Austen fan-fiction in which Mary Crawford (of Mansfield Park) falls in with a lesbian sex club masquerading as an order of nuns. Ridiculous from a historical point of view and the writing is stiff and awkward. Basically an excuse for some erotic scenes.
Novel: Lucas by Elna Holst – another entry in my “sapphic takes on Jane Austen” binge. This novel builds on the premise that Charlotte Lucas (of Pride and Prejudice) now Mrs. Collins, harbored a secret and never expressed passion for Lizzie Bennet. Having resigned herself to Lizzie’s happiness as Mrs. Darcy, and deeply unhappy and unsatisfied in her own marriage, she finds herself falling for the sister of the local doctor, a woman with a mysterious and ultimately horrifying backstory. A somewhat uncomfortable psychological novel, though structurally satisfying as a romance. But there were several plot twists and backstory scenarios that stretched my willing disbelief to the breaking point. The writing is quite good, though.
Novel: Gay Pride and Prejudice by Kate Cristie – see previous note about sapphic Austin binge. This adaptation does something that simply does not work for me: taking the existing text of P&P and making minor modifications to tell a slightly different story. The premise that Caroline Bingley’s real issue with Lizzie Bennet was that she was madly in love with her, and that the close friendship between Darcy and Bingley was a bit more than friendship, has some intriguing potential. But this version of that premise was simply lazy and pointless.
Novel: The Heiress by Molly Greeley – the best of the sapphic Austen lot. What’s the real story behind the sickly and nearly invisible Anne de Bourgh (of Pride and Prejudice)? Greeley begins with the premise that Anne was the victim of a laudanum addiction, begun to quiet a colicky infant and continued through young adulthood because her withdrawal symptoms were interpreted as a medical crisis. After she decides to take charge of her own life and beats the addiction with the help of a cousin, Anne finds happiness in the arms of a female companion. Not structured as a romance novel, but definitely has a happy ending. The writing is marvelous and evocative and the author captures the context of passionate friendship in a believable way.
Short fiction: Complementary by Celia Lake – an f/f volume in an ongoing series about a magical society embedded in the “real world” and responsible for taking care of unfortunate magical “incidents.” A sweet mystery set in an artists’ colony in the early 20th century, with a parallel plot about two women discovering that they fit into each other’s lives very comfortably. Well-written with an interesting series premise. The world-building didn’t quite grab me enough to pursue other books in the series, but I very much enjoyed this one and it can reasonably stand alone.
Audiobook: A Study in Scarlet Women (book 1 in the Lady Sherlock series) by Sherry Thomas. I picked this up when browsing included-in-membership titles in Audible and recalled hearing the author talk about the series on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Podcast show. (I’m pretty sure I’m remembering that connection correctly.) The premise is that the famous Sherlock Holmes was entirely a creation of Charlotte Holmes, who needed an outlet for her compulsive analysis of the world (and a way to support herself after deliberately becoming a “fallen woman” to avoid family expectations). The series has some interesting representation. Charlotte comes across as aromantic and somewhere on the autistic spectrum. One of her sisters has crippling anxiety, while another has an intellectual handicap, and Charlotte is trying to find a way to provide loving support for them as well as a way to make her own living in the face of their parents’ condemnation and disavowing her. The narrative has a non-linear structure, with bits and pieces not only of the mystery but of Charlotte’s backstory being revealed gradually in unreliable ways. For me, this was compounded a bit by consuming it in audiobook, so I couldn’t flip back and forth to compare passages as details were revealed. I ended up listening to the entire book over again to figure out exactly what had happened. Fortunately, this was no hardship because the book is extremely well written and the characters—though occasionally maddening—are likeable and intriguing. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I’ve picked up the next two books in the series, also in audiobook.
Novel: The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (book 2 in the Feminine Pursuits series) by Olivia Waite. Waite is doing some really fun things with non-standard heroines in her Regency-era sapphic romance series. This is very well written and has realistic and enjoyable protagonists, with a slate of similarly interesting side characters. If the book has a flaw, it’s that there were far too many side-plots going on. There were times the narrative flow seemed to lose momentum, and one aspect of the eventual social crisis broke my suspension of disbelief a little, though not due to any fault in the history. (I do wish the series had a better cover designer or at least a budget for models with more appropriate clothing. The cover models look like their wearing a 21st century business suit and a prom dress respectively. Honestly, it doesn’t say “historical” to me.)
Audiobook Series: Sins of the City (An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice, and An Unsuitable Heir) by K.J. Charles. I knew that K.J. Charles was a giant figure in m/m historical romance, but her one f/f novella that I’d encountered (Proper English) was pleasant but a bit thin. My tour through Audible’s free-with-membership titles led me to try this Victorian-era series to see what the fuss was about. And…wow, Charles blew me away with her mastery of complex characterization and interwoven plots. I wish this same talent had shone through in Proper English so I might have tried more titles earlier. (I do have to say that the sex scenes are intensely “meh” for me. Just not interested in that level of detail, and sex scenes don’t really do anything for me in general. So the fact that the writing makes me willing to set that aside is a significant recommendation.) At this point, I figure I’ll eventually make my way through all of Charles’ catalog. In fact…
Audiobook Series: Society of Gentlemen (A Fashionable Indulgence, A Seditious Affair, A Gentleman’s Position, short fiction “The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh”) by K.J. Charles. This one’s a Regency-era series, revolving around a close and mutually protective social circle of upper class men who love men. Basically the same comments as before: masterful characterization, great historical setting, finds the balance between accurate portrayal of the social realities while writing happily-ever-after romances…and, once again, the sex scenes simply aren’t my thing but I’m willing to put up with them for all the rest. Speaking of which…
Novel series: A Charm of Magpies (The Magpie Lord, Jackdaw) – there are more in the series that I haven’t ready yet. This one is another Victorian-era series, but with a magical twist. In the first book, a magician and an aristocrat with a magical heritage who have every reason to dislike and distrust each other must combine forces to fight a common enemy. Oh, and they might need to fight their mutual attraction along the way. Same basic review as before. This series has a few more interested female side characters than the previous two series.
Moving on to other authors…
Novel: Scales and Sensibility (book 1 of Regency Dragons) by Stephanie Burgis. Burgis does very well with light-hearted comedy of manners books with magical Regency settings. This one starts a series with the premise “what if Jane Austen…but with shoulder-dragons?” Our heroine is not only an exploited poor cousin, driven to run away with the pet dragon her cousin simply must have as the ornament for her coming-out ball, but now she finds herself back in her cousin’s home under an enchantment that makes her appear to be a domineering figure of high society. A fun romp, with a very Austenesque sense of human frailties, though perhaps a bit too driven by the characters’ utter refusal to confide in each other at key points. But I have yet to read anything by Burgis that wasn’t delightful. Speaking of which…
Short story: “Spellcloaked” by Stephanie Burgis (#2.75 in the Harwood Spellbook series). A bit of a coda to the events of Moontangled and probably not very comprehensible without having read that book. This atmospheric sketch provides closure and the deserved happy ending to two side characters from that novel. Feel-good magical sapphic Regency stuff.
Non-fiction: Medieval Underpants and other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn. The intent of this book is to provide a guide to writers of historic fiction in how to avoid silly blunders in their historical world-building. I picked it up largely because, having written a research paper on the topic of medieval women’s underpants (or lack thereof), I was curious to see Alleyn’s take on how to approach historic accuracy. Unfortunately, for all its good intent and useful tips, I’m not sure this book will go over well with the well-meaning but clueless beginning writers it purports to be intended for. There’s a bit too much of an arch snideness that suggests its real audience is “those of us who know better and can laugh at the silly blunders other people make.” That attitude is ok for a private chat channel where you can vent your frustrations with other experts, but it’s a bit unhelpful and cruel when done in public.
Audiobook: Hell’s Belle by Marie Castle. I picked this up from Audible somewhat on a whim, although contemporary paranormal isn’t usually my thing, but Marie Castle and I were almost debut-sisters at Bella Books, with this book coming out one month before my own debut novel. I think this book is aimed at a reader who wants a much higher constant level of erotic tension in their fiction than I enjoy. The basic premise involves a hereditary line of witches, some unfortunate (or fortunate?) leaks between the fabric of parallel universes, and a plethora of magical races coexisting in our contemporary world, with all the awkward social work-arounds that sort of arrangement requires. Our heroine spends a lot of time either getting nearly killed in magical encounters, or dealing with the consequences of supernaturally-induced horniness. The writing is ok, but the overall tone is simply Not My Thing.
Novel: Her Lady to Love (not sure if this is a series or just a group of unrelated books in the same era?) by Jane Walsh. Sapphic regency romance, which by rights ought to be my catnip, but I stopped reading halfway through (and had been skimming for half of that). This book had two main problems for me. One was that there is very little awareness of the social and economic forces that underpinned Regency society. I mean, we all make allowances for the protagonists of Regency romances to be extraordinary within their setting, but they still need to be plausible. Very little about the heroine’s family context or voiced expectations made any sense for the era. The attitudes and interactions felt very “modern people dressed in costume.” And on top of that, I simply didn’t like the protagonist as a person. I could find no reason to root for her to get her happy ending. I really wish I could have like this book more, especially given that the author appears to be on quite a roll with three sapphic Regencies out as of this month and a fourth on the way.
Novella?: Highland Hogmanay by Meg Mardell. This is Mardell’s second annual holiday-themed queer historical and I hope it continues to be an annual occasion. (I wouldn’t even mind something more frequent.) A runaway heiress, a mistaken identity, and a Scottish highland estate in desperate need of a more diligent landlord make for a sapphic romance worthy of a Hallmark movie. Mardell’s writing is solid and the delightful characters make one willing to ignore a few petty little plot-holes.
Audiobook: Elatsoe by Darcie Littlebadger. I added this contemporary YA fantasy to my queue knowing I was going to be on a convention panel with the author at Worldcon. In a “slightly stranger America” full of magical creatures and abilities, Elatsoe has a talent passed on from her Lipan Apache heritage to raise the ghosts of dead animals. When her cousin is killed, she doubts it’s the accident that it first appears and—with the support and wisdom of her extended family—uses her talents to uncover the truth. An enjoyable (if occasionally macabre) story with fabulous worldbuilding and casual asexual representation in the protagonist.
I have a couple more items on my “to review” list, but it’s bedtime and better to call this complete for now than to wait and then fail to post it.
Tossing this in as a "bonus" blog this week, since the material is fairly brief and presents no new information. Though it is interesting to see a chapter section use the word "queer" in a queer-studies kind of way in a book that doesn't fall within the scope of queer history in general.
Barker, Jessica. 2020. Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture. The Boydel Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-271-6, pp.79-88
I’m including this summary really just for the sake of completeness and because a colleague happened to be reading the book and was willing to scan me the brief relevant section. The book as a whole (as might be determined from the title) looks at the ways that marriage relationships are represented and symbolized in medieval tomb sculpture. In the chapter on “The Double Tomb” there is a section entitled “Queer Tombs” that specifically looks at commemorations of same-sex pairs.
There is a nod to Alan Bray’s book The Friend, which brought attention to this phenomenon (as usual, primarily looking only at men). Given the medieval focus of the current book, there is significant attention paid to the Neville/Clanvowe monument from the 14th century, which used the impalement of heraldic arms (typically done by married couples) to symbolize the men’s close relationship.
Barker’s chapter does spend a similar amount of space to discuss the joint memorial of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge from the 15th century. (The memorial is analyzed in great detail by Judith Bennett, which is where Barker gets her information.)
The footnotes to this section include data from two catalogs of memorials. One catalog covering brasses from ca. 1277 to 1500 notes that 23 out of 1240 are double tombs commemorating a non-marriage relationship. Another catalog of 1415 tombs dating between 1100-1500 lists 69 double tombs for pairs who were not a married couple. Neither of these statistics includes the data for how many double-memorials there were in total in each set, so this information could be more useful. The majority of these are for pairs related in some identifiable way, such as siblings or parent-child.
Barker notes that both Bray and Bennett dismiss as irrelevant the question of whether these “queer” joint tombs indicate a sexual relationship, but concludes “These tombs mark a significant moment in queer history because they present same-sex relationships as analogous to marriage, appropriating and adapting the designs of monuments to married couples.” In the 14-15th c when the aforementioned tombs were created (by the families or friends of the pair after their death—which indicates significant acceptance and approval), the primary form of social connection commemorated on grave memorials was the marriage bond, but this in turn created a symbolic language that could be used to indicate the close connections of other types of relationships.
When you see a particular article referenced over and over again in very intriguing later publications, it's natural to hope that the "foundational article" includes essential and extensive information on the topic. But sometimes that foundational article is simply the point at which someone in the field licensed the topic as worthy of notice. Others later dug into the details and expanded the scope of the examples.
So...not exactly disappointed here. After all, acknowledging and recognizing trailblazing publications is important in academia. And knowing what an article doesn't include is just as informative as discovering a new trove of data. I'm probably dismissing the value of this article a bit too breezily, because it does go deeply into the symbolic language of tomb architecture and ornament and estalblishes an equivalence that probably required strong arguments to be accepted at the time.
Wilson, Jean. 1995. “Two names of friendship, but one Starre: Memorials to Single-Sex Couples in the Early Modern Period” in Church Monuments: Journal of the Church Monuments Society 10:70-83
Most of the articles on burial monuments commemorating same-sex pairs reference this article, so I had high hopes that it might include further leads and details. Alas, not so, at least with respect to women’s memorials. The article focuses primarily on the symbolism of structural and artistic details of a couple of major monuments commemorating pairs of men. (This focus is not entirely surprising given that the article appears in a journal about English church monuments.)
The article opens with an analysis of the early 17th c monument to Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, and records detailing a planned joint tomb for him and Sir Philip Sidney (which ended up not being built). However the detailed descriptions that Greville recorded make it clear that it was meant to memorialize the two friends with symbolism paralleling that used for married couples. (Sidney had pre-deceased him and had no other memorial.) The article notes, “It is commonly agreed that Greville was homosexual. Whether or not his love for Sidney was reciprocated, it is clear that it was an emotion which cannot be simply dismissed as friendship…” The analysis provides detailed support for the proposed monument’s design evoking marriage.
The second tomb discussed in detail is the late 17th century monument to Sir Thomas Baines and Sir John Finch. The monument was erected by Finch’s nephew and, again, uses the visual symbolism typically associated with marriage. The two did not marry (that is, neither married a woman) and spent their lives together from the time the met at college. Like many close friendships of the era, they used the language of “a marriage of souls” to describe their bond. (Again, the details of the symbolism are discussed in great detail.)
The entirety of the article’s coverage of women’s joint tombs consists of the following:
“Homosexual relationships and passionate friendships between women have never been perceived as presenting the same threat to society as such relationships between men. The monuments to participants in female connections are therefore able to be far more open than those to males. Westminster Abbey has two such memorials form the early years of the eighteenth century, to Mary Kendall (d. 1710) and Katharina Bovey (d. 1727), which use the virtue of the person commemorated to validate her relationship with her friend. The emotional lives of both women are open to commemoration in a way that was not possible for Fulke Greville.”
The text of the article doesn’t mention the name of the second woman in either of these cases, although that information is provided in a footnote which includes transcriptions of the text of the memorials. Other elements of the symbolism of the women’s tombs are not mentioned, in contrast to the detailed analysis of the men’s tombs.
[Note: Me? Bitter? Good thing I came to this article after having read far more detailed coverage of the women’s tombs. See my podcast on the topic of marriage-like memorials for women.]
In which I once again disagree with the article I'm summarizing...
This time I can't blame it on "well, this was in early days of queer history so they didn't have access to all the other analysis." No, this time I blame it on the author having a fixed notion in their head and not noticing how they cherry-picked the evidence to support it. Let me put it this way: you're standing on a road in an unspecified European country around the year 1700. A coach travels past you. The horses are trotting along at a reasonable clip, though not going all out. Quick: what gender were the people in the coach and what were they wearing? How would you know? I don't fault Frangos's knowledge of queer theory, or of the socio-political background of Manley's satire. But I do fault her failing to be aware that 18th century coaches are closed vehicles and if someone says "I could tell the people inside were women because of their voices," the emphasis on voices is because YOU CAN'T SEE THEM, not because the most likely explanation is that they're cross-dressing.
The thing is, Manley's New Atalantis does include one reference to a Cabal member going out and about in male dress to pick up sex workers and one reference to an actress who specialized in trouser roles. But it's a far leap from that to conclude that it was a defining feature of the women of the New Cabal that they cross-dressed and found their primary erotic enjoyment in that practice. Particularly given that there are plenty of points in the narrative where that practice would have been pertinent, if it had been the case. The unfortunate thing is that I think Frangos has some interesting insight into the erotic joys of viewing a known-to-be-female body wearing male-coded garments in the context of the 18th century. I know some of those joys myself. But when the analysis hinges on a boneheaded historical error, those insights are in danger of being undermined.
Frangos, Jennifer. 2009 “The Woman in Man’s Clothes and the Pleasures of Delarivier Manley’s ‘New Cabal’” in Sexual Perversions, 1670–1890, ed. by Julie Peakman. Palgrave Macmillan, London. ISBN 978-1-349-36397-1 pp.95-116
Frangos looks at representations of female same-sex desire in Delarivier Manley’s “New Cabal” in the satire The New Atalantis, specifically focusing on female masculinity (to use Halberstam’s terminology). [Note: I’m afraid this article got off on the wrong foot for me because it stakes a claim that desire for “the representation of men in women” is the primary form that desire takes in this depiction, but leans heavily on one passage that I believe Frangos has drastically misinterpreted.]
The article opens with a quote: “They do not in reality love men, but dote [on] the representation of men in women. Hence it is that those ladies are so fond of the dress en cavaliere, though it is extremely against my liking. I would have the sex distinguished as well by their garb as by their manner.” This passage occurs to introduce an anecdote about a woman who falls for an actress who performs “trouser roles” and does represent one theme that is present in the work.
The ladies of the (fictional) “new cabal” have a secret society dedicated to female same-sex desire. They form pairs of “favorites” to whom they are devoted, and pledge not to give their love to men (even if they can’t necessarily avoid giving their bodies to them on occasion). Frangos says “in the eighteenth-century context, and in modern critical discourse about the eighteenth century, there is no term for the women of the new Cabal. They are not tribades, tommies, or hermaphrodites…though some of them cross-dress they are not female husbands…nor are they bluestockings, romantic friends, sapphists, or ‘lesbians’ (terms used to discuss female same-sex relationships toward the end of the century).” [Note: it is true that Manley does not give the women an identity label within her work, but that doesn’t mean that there were no available descriptions that could have been applied to them at the time. For some reason, historians are enamored of concluding that—in whatever era they’re studying—“there was no name” for the particular women they’re analyzing.]
“Instead,” Frangos goes on to claim, “the erotics of the new Cabal is negotiate through the trope of the woman in man’s clothes.” That is, the woman known to be a woman, while also openly wearing male clothing. (As distinct from a passing woman.) This motif most commonly appears for actresses performing “trouser roles”, but other cited examples are early 17th c figure Moll Cutpurse and 1801 fictional character Harriot Freke (in the novel Belinda). These women may sometimes be mistaken for men, due to their clothing, but it is not their intention to be read as such on a full-time basis.
In a theatrical context, this overt cross-dressing always had an erotic aspect, with male clothing revealing the actress’s lower limbs in a way that feminine clothing did not. But the contrast between appearance and reality was part of a larger fascination with masquerade, in which the “reality” might be sex, class, or race/nationality. And it is this conflict, Frangos claims, that underlies the negotiation of same-sex desire in the New Atalantis.
The article summarizes Manley’s personal and political background and discusses the politics behind the satirical elements of the work and the specific figures it attacks (in very thinly veiled caricature). In some ways the “double vision” of the superficial satire and the underlying “truth” it criticized parallel the motif of the cross-dressed body. Holding both layers in tension creates pleasure for the reader/viewer.
The principles of the New Cabal revolve around a dedication to the primacy of desire between women. Marriage (or male lovers) are treated as a necessary evil, but affection is to be reserved for one’s female favorite. [Note: although meant as satirical exaggeration, it’s curious that few historians see this as a form of “sexual orientation”, at least in an embryonic form.]
Frangos sees cross-dressing in the first appearance of the New Cabal in the text, when the allegorical narrator introduces “these ladies (we know ‘em to be such by their voices” which Frangos interprets as meaning that their appearance is at odds (i.e., masculine) with their true nature (revealed by their voices). [Note: can’t quite confine my comments in parentheticals at this point.] I see this as an error of interpretation. The ladies are passing by in three coaches and the narrators hear them laughing and talking and ask who they are. This is not a conflict between superficial visual appearance and underlying nature, but the simple fact that they are inside closed coaches and aren’t visible at all. Unfortunately, from this starting assumption, Frangos jumps to the conclusion that all the ladies of the Cabal are cross-dressing habitually, and that this therefore represents the essential basis of their sexual desire. This is going to trip me up for the rest of this summary.
The sexual activities among the Cabal are evoked by means of questions and appeals to the imagination that force the reader to invent the practices that they are then expected to condemn. This is done by reference to the “vices of old Rome” (unspecified) and by “innocently” asking “but what could they be doing that would be objectionable?” Frangos asserts that those “vices of old Rome” involved “women who are masculine in one way or another” (which is an interpretation that has been prevalent at various times, so as an 18th c cultural model I can’t challenge it), and that in parallel the ladies of the Cabal “are masculine, boisterous, given to cross-dressing and passing as men, and often sexually aggressive and voracious.” [Note: One aspect this overlooks is that the Cabal is composed of couples, not simply of individual women who look outside the Cabal for their pleasures. So if one asserts that the sexuality of the Cabal was essentially “masculine” then it would seem to apply to both partners in each couple, resulting in a butch-butch model, not a butch-femme one.] This “female masculinity,” Frangos asserts, creates cover for a non-phallocentric sexuality via mimicking heteronormativity.
Superficially, the Cabal is criticized (either covertly or explicitly) for three primary reasons: for being disposed to same-sex desire, for preferring their female “favorites” over their husbands, and for ambiguous or transgressive expressions of gender. Frangos sees this last as the most serious (although this conclusion is undermined by the illusory nature of some of the transgressions). The initial appearance where they are identified as female only by their voices has already been discussed (and, in my opinion, is in error). One of the founders of the Cabal is described as so masculine in behavior and personality that she might have been claimed by men as one of their own except that her clothing declared her a woman. Shifting from the argument that the Cabal represents sartorial masculinity, the scope now expands to any aspect of masculinity, any confounding of the gender binary. The ladies of the Cabal are always clearly female, but cross the gender line in some aspect.
Picking up on the line in Manley’s work that the Cabal “dotes on the representation of men in women,” two episodes in the work are selected to support the thesis that their erotic practices were associated with women in men’s clothing. The first is the description of how the Marchioness of Sandomire “used to mask her diversions in the habit of the other sex and, with her female favourite, Ianthe, wander through the gallant quarter of Atalantis in serach of adventures.” The two enjoy the services of female sex workers who are happy to oblige. Setting aside the question of whether Ianthe is also cross-dressing or whether this is playing the female companion to Sandomire’s cross-dressed cavalier, it isn’t clear that this supports Frangos’s thesis about the Cabal’s sexuality focusing on the attractions of female masculinity, unless it is the reader who is understood as being aroused by the cross-dressed Sandomire. Are we supposed to understand that the prostitutes find Sandomire desirable? Or is Ianthe the audience for this performance, interpreted as finding her favorite’s interactions with the professionals to be arousing? The thesis becomes somewhat incoherent on this point.
The second example is more aligned with the thesis. It involves a wealthy widow who belongs to the New Cabal, who is courting a breeches-playing actress, with the intent of bringing her into the circle. The widow is clearly fascinated by the mock-masculinity of the actress, even having a portrait painted of her wearing her male costume. But the actress—presumably accustomed to men’s erotic response to her mixed-gender presentation, is confused and put off by a similar response from a woman. The gender signals are multiply confused in that the widow (the “femme” of the two) is taking the assertive, power-over role that would conventionally belong to a man. The actress fails to respond as the widow hopes she would, and eventually the adventure comes to nothing.
Interestingly, Frangos points out, although Manley’s satire regularly shows her targets punished for their vices, this doesn’t happen with the Cabal. They may not all succeed in their endeavors. They may be made to appear ridiculous in some episodes. But in the end they are allowed to go on their way, continuing to enjoy their companions and practices. Indeed, Manley might be seen as providing a positive example rather than a rejected model.
Frangos ends with the conclusion that the Cabal’s sexual practices depend on the juxtaposition of layers of meaning and contradiction to stimulate desire. I will end by maintaining that I remain unconvinced that the text supports this as an overall message, rather than as one strand within a more varied erotic experience within the Cabal.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 223 – The Marriage(?) of Berenike and Mesopotamia - transcript
(Originally aired 2022/02/20 - listen here)
Love Between Women in Roman-era Egypt
Once you move back in time past the recent few centuries, the information about love between women becomes more fragmentary, more ambiguous, and harder to put in context. Scraps of information—much like the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry—provide meaning only when you understand the context in which they were produced, the allusions they are making, and the assumptions that their audience could be assumed to make. If all you have is the fragment of text, that context is difficult to retrieve.
That means that even when we happen on a surprisingly detailed piece of evidence—such as the novel Babyloniaka by the 2nd century Greek writer Iamblichos--we must be careful about interpreting it in the context of modern models and understandings of identity and behavior. The Babyloniaka is a long, rambling, nearly incoherent novel of love and adventure, set in a Near East that is not the historic 2nd century but that made sense to 2nd century readers. The relationship between two women named Berenike and Mesopotamia is something of a footnote within it, but that footnote has a startling depiction of love, sex, and possibly marriage between two women, one of them presented as a queen of Egypt. The Babyloniaka is clearly a work of imaginative fiction, not a description of historic events and persons, but can it tell us truths about what people of that time believed or imagined to be true? Or at least, what they imagined to be plausible?
Within the surviving writings from the classical world, there are several references that—taken together—suggest that Egypt was a place where women’s same-sex relations were considered more ordinary than in other parts of the ancient world. Or at least, that people in other cultures believed this to be the case. The material I’ll be talking about here comes from the 2nd to the 5th century of the Common Era, so not the Egypt of the pharaohs and pyramids, and not even the Egypt of the Hellenistic era, but the Egypt of the later Roman Empire and early Christian era.
I should note that the introductory discussion here is somewhat recycled from podcast episode 77, which focused on classical Rome. But this discussion of Iamblichos is much expanded.
Since Iamblichos was a Syrian Greek, we must first ask whether there is any evidence from Egypt itself for the motif of love between women. One of the classical astrologers who described planetary conjunctions that predisposed women to same-sex desire was Claudius Ptolomy of Alexandria, Egypt who lived in the 2nd century CE. Like many classical writers on astrological influences, he considered that “masculine” influences could cause a woman to behave more like a man, including desiring women. If the stars predisposed a woman to act on these desires openly, he says, sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’. But although Claudius Ptolomy himself was Egyptian, his opinions are similar to those of astrologers writing elsewhere in the classical world and don’t make any specific reference to practices in Egypt. So what else do we have?
His near-contemporary, another resident of Alexandria, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, wrote condemning gender transgression in both men and women, and specifically criticised, “women [who] behave like men in that women, contrary to nature, are given in marriage and marry [other women].” Again, we have circumstantial evidence where a resident of Alexandria, presumably familiar with Egyptian cultural practices, refers to the practice of women marrying other women or at least referring to their relationship as a marriage. But once again, there isn’t necessarily a connection to it being a peculiarly Egyptian practice.
We get far more concrete evidence—though of sexual desire rather than marriage—from the genre of love magic texts. In some parts of the Roman world, we only have surviving examples when written on durable materials, such as sheets of lead. But in Egypt, where climate conditions allow papyrus to survive, we have all manner of everyday documents, including magical spells, intended either to curse someone, or bless them, or to bind them to a particular course of action. There are several such magical texts from Roman Egypt that contain spells to cause a specific woman to fall in love with--or at least to lust after--another specific woman. The texts give personal details about the target and descriptions of what the user wants to happen.
A papyrus fragment, written in Greek, from the 2nd century CE calls on the gods to “attract and bind Sarapias...to this Herais...now, now, quickly quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself.” I’ve omitted some of the repetition in formulas identifying the participants.
An even more lengthy and repetitive spell from Egypt is found on a lead tablet from the 3rd or 4th century, again written in Greek. The gods are invoked with lengthy descriptions and names, but the core of the request is to “inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia with love and affection for Sophia...burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love...force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia... [let her] surrender like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions...” amid much formulaic repetition, but always coming back to a demand for “love and affection.”
A tradition of sexual desire between women in Egypt is still being noted in 5th century documents from a Christian monastery that recorded a punishment for two women for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire". The phrasing "run after [someone] with physical desire" occurs in a number of texts, indicating that it was a regular expression with an understood meaning. Yet another passage condemns "a woman among us who will run after younger women, and anoint them and is filled with a passion or is [...the text is missing here...] them in a passion of desire and slothfulness and laughter and vain error..."
So now we have specific evidence from 2nd to 5th century Egypt that women expressing and acting on sexual desire for women was a part of the culture, described using language and terminology similar to that used for heterosexual desire. And we have references in the same era written by Egyptians that refer to marriage between women or at least using the terminology of marriage. But do we have anything that bridges the two before we move on to the Babyloniaka?
The rules and opinions about sexual behavior embedded in the Old Testament predate this period by a significant amount, but commentary that explained and applied those rules was being generated fairly continuously by Jewish scholars. A 2nd century commentary on a passage in Leviticus 18:3 that says “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt” expands on this asking and answering, “And what did they do? A man married a man and a woman a woman, and a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman was married to two men.” The explanation talks about a variety of prohibited types of marriage that were evidently associated with Egypt, but among them are same-sex marriages including those between women.
There’s a whole lot of cultural context subsumed in the preceding evidence. What did these writers mean by “marriage?” Keep in mind that we aren’t talking about a culture where marriage could be strictly defined by bureaucratic administrative documents. Marriage was often simply a verbal contract between the two families. There were different levels of formality, sometimes depending on the social status of the participants. What exact vocabulary was used in these texts and how would that vocabulary be interpreted in other contexts? We’ll touch on that last question in the context of the Babyloniaka.
The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos
The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos first came to my attention when Bernadette Brooten mentioned it in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Her reference was brief, but intriguing: “a lost novel by Iamblichos that tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia.” This was an intriguing lead, but a bit devoid of explanatory context. For one thing, the name “Mesopotamia” is so obviously a geographic name that I wondered if the “lost novel” might be some sort of allegory of nations rather than a representation of real women’s lives. My eventual conclusion—to get somewhat ahead of myself—was that Brooten was over-reaching in claiming that it presented irrefutable evidence for same-sex marriage in ancient Egypt, but that it came awfully close.
So how exactly was this “love and marriage” presented? Was the language unambiguous? Did it use the same vocabulary that would be used for a heterosexual couple? And if the novel had been “lost” how was it that we knew the contents at all?
Fortunately, we live in the age of online texts, and I have the advantage of friends who live and breathe classical texts as close as my twitter feed. So thanks to Maya (who tracked down a cleaned up copy of the OCR’ed English translation, and a parallel text with the original Greek and French translation), thanks to Fade for Classical Greek consultation, to Irina for general offers of assistance, and to various other virtual cheerleaders, I was able to put together more details.
Iamblichos (or in the Latinized version, Iamblichus) was a Syrian Greek writer of the 2nd century CE. His best-known work was his Babyloniaka (Babylonian History) which was an epic romance of the lovers Rhodanes and Sinonis and their hair-raising adventures to achieve their happily ever after. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia indicates that the original work consisted of 39 books, but today the only surviving version is a summary by an anthologist named Photius, which mentions only 17 volumes. Evidently a copy of the original survived until 1671 when it was destroyed in a fire. One could wish that someone had taken the trouble to copy it before that tragedy, but that’s true of so many works.
Photius was a 9th century Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Among his other endeavors, he was a compiler of Greek texts--not only religious and philosophical writings, but more popular works as well. He regularly offers his opinion of the moral and literary merit of the material, which raises the question as to what extent he may have edited the texts to fit his prejudices. There’s at least a hint that he may have excised many of the details about Berenike and Mesopotamia due to disapproving of their romance, but on the other hand, he omits so much of the overall story that we can’t be sure this was a pointed choice. Many other classical Greek works are known only through his summaries, so perhaps we should simply be grateful for his efforts.
The text that I’m working from is an excerpt from a 1920 English translation by J.H. Freese entitled The Library of Photius in 5 volumes, with Iamblichos appearing in volume 1. Google Books has a cleaned up (though still error-filled) scan available in e-book formats and this can be proofed against a pdf scan of an original copy at archive.org (which also has a much messier OCR text). But for my purposes, I wanted to know what words were used in the original Greek (or at least in Photius’s 9th century Greek summary of the original Greek) to discuss the “love” and “marriage” between Berenike and Mesopotamia. The Greek version I used is from a French website which provides parallel texts in Greek and French translation, taken from an early 19th century publication, and which conveniently separates the various authors Photius covers into individual pages. While I can’t tell if the Greek has been standardized in spelling and diacritics (as is likely), it presumably represents the original vocabulary accurately.
Let us pause for a moment in wonder at the fact that all these materials are available freely and easily on the internet (at least, once you know they exist)! Truly we live in an age of riches. And I’m summarizing the process in this much detail to point out that it is possible to do this kind of research without necessarily having access to university libraries or extensive funding.
I have a cleaned-up version of the full text of Freese’s English translation in the blog entry for this source, [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-220-iamblichos-babyloniaka] with Greek text for the passages about Berenike and Mesopotamia. But the story is so rambling and confusing that I’ll give a much more condensed version here with a detailed discussion of the parts that refer to the women’s relationship. It’s best if you think of this story as an ancient Greek soap opera. A really really wacky ancient Greek soap opera.
Photius begins with his opinions on the literary and moral quality of the work. “The author makes less show of indecencies than Achilles Tatius, but he is more immoral than the Phoenician Heliodorus. Of these three writers, who have all adopted the same subject and have chosen love intrigues as the material for their stories, Heliodorus is more serious and restrained, Iamblichus less so, while Achilles Tatius pushes his obscenity to impudence. The style of Iamblichus is soft and flowing; if there is anything vigorous and sonorous in it, it is less characterized by intensity than by what may be called titillation and nervelessness. Iamblichus is so distinguished by excellence of style and arrangement and the order of the narrative that it is to be regretted that he did not devote his skill and energies to serious subjects instead of to puerile fictions.”
Even acknowledging that Photius’s summary of the plot may not be intended to display it to advantage, it does appear to be a sort of “Perils of Pauline” romantic adventure, in which the central characters are buffeted by the winds of fate and the machinations of the antagonists, tumbling from one crisis to the next.
One essential thing to note is that Berenike and Mesopotamia are minor characters in the existing narrative. Berenike, the queen of Egypt, is mentioned only in passing in a couple of places. But those mentions suggest that her story may have originally played a much larger part, most of which was omitted by Photius.
The central characters are the young married couple Rhodanes and Sinonis. They are devotedly in love. But Garmus, the king of Babylon, falls in love with Sinonis and schemes to get Rhodanes out of the way so he can work to overcome Sinonis’s rejection of his suit.
The lovers flee, are pursued, accidentally eat poisoned honey and escape capture because they are thought to be dead, are accused of murder then proven innocent. Their pursuers set fire to the house they are staying in, but they escape and pass by unrecognized. They come across an open grave intended for a girl who turns out not to be dead after all, and for unclear reasons they take a nap in the grave. Their pursuers once again happen upon them, but let them alone, thinking the lovers are dead. They are arrested by a local official who plans to turn them over to King Garmus. To escape this fate, the lovers plan to drink poison together, but the official learns of their plan and substitutes a sleeping draught then sets out to bring them to the king. But once they tell their story to the official, he relents and sets them free at a temple of Aphrodite on an island. Note that this official has his own parallel adventures in the rest of the story, but I’ve left them out to simplify things.
Now comes the introduction of the first of our female couple, though we have no hint yet of that relationship. The priestess of Aphrodite who presides over the temple had three children: two sons Tigris and Euphrates, and a beautiful daughter Mesopotamia (who evidently started out ugly but then mysteriously turned beautiful). The reader may know that Tigris and Euphrates are the names of the two major rivers of modern-day Iraq, and that the land between them is named Mesopotamia—literally “the land between the rivers.” There is no direct explanation in the summary of how these characters relate to these landscape features, so we’ll just note that they are presented as ordinary people and not as allegorical figures. Ordinary except for one small point: the brothers are identical twins and bear an uncanny resemblance to our protagonist Rhodanes, and the sister bears a similarly uncanny resemblance to our protagonist Sinonis. This sets the stage for much confusion of identity.
There is a reference to Mesopotamia being courted by three men, but they fall to quarreling over her and kill each other.
There is evidently a long digression about the history and practices of the temple, and how Tigris died from eating poisoned roses. So when Rhodanes and Sinonis show up, the priestess of Aphrodite concludes that Rhodanes must be her son brought back to life.
But the servants of King Garmus hear that the lovers are hiding out at the temple of Aphrodite. The lovers get advance notice of their approach and escape, but their pursuers misidentify Euphrates and Mesopotamia as their quarry. They arrest Euphrates, taking him for Rhodanes, and Mesopotamia escapes. For some reason, Euphrates is going along with the mistake about identities.
Meanwhile, the true Rhodanes and Sinonis get entangled with a domestic dispute, in the midst of which Rhodanes mistakenly kisses another woman, taking her for Sinonis, and Sinonis takes off in pursuit of the other woman for blood-thirsty revenge. Almost incidentally, Sinonis kills a man who is trying to sexually assault her, but this means she’s arrested for murder and imprisoned. When Rhodanes hears of her arrest, he despairs and is only barely prevented from committing suicide. This will become a theme for him.
In the mean time, Mesopotamia has been captured, believed to be Sinonis, and this news is sent to King Garmus. In celebration of his expected upcoming marriage to Sinonis, the king orders all prisoners to be freed…including the true Sinonis, awaiting trial for murder.
And now—finally—Berenike comes into the story. Sort of. The text (using Freese’s translation) maddeningly summarizes the original text thus:
The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia, who was afterwards seized by Sacas and, as Sinonis, sent to Garmus with her brother Euphrates.
So evidently there was an entire digression here that gave us the backstory of Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, and her relationship with Mesopotamia, presumably during the period after Mesopotamia fled from the temple of Aphrodite. It’s worth unpacking the specific language used to describe “her disgraceful amours” and “her intimacy with Mesopotamia” because Freese’s translation condenses and obfuscates things a bit.
The Greek text refers to Berenike’s “agrion autes” and to her “ekthesmon eroton”—which Frese has rendered collectively as “disgraceful amours.” “Agrion” is from a root meaning “wild, fierce, savage, uncivilized” but used here as a noun, so perhaps meaning something like “wild/uncivilized actions”? It’s the second phrase that brings in sexual implications. In “ekthesmon eroton” the second word is easiliy reocgnizable as from the root “eros” referring to sexual desire or erotic love. The first word is derived from the root “thesmos” having to do with law, rule, or order, so with the negative prefix means “unlawful” or “unnatural,” although it isn’t the usual word used for non-normative sexual relations. The final phrase, describing her relationship with Mesopotamia, can have a range of meanings from “be acquainted with” to “have intercourse with.” Given the presence of eros in the description, I think we’re on safe ground assuming the latter.
So we’re told there was originally an entire story here about Berenike, her frenzied actions and her non-normative sexual desires, and that she was getting it on with Mesopotamia. But Photius either considers it of little relevance to the plot or possibly more likely is uncomfortable with the content and declines to go into detail. (Keep in mind that Photius was writing his summary seven centuries after Iamblichos wrote the Babyloniaka. So if he, indeed, was censoring it, we must remember that his cultural attitudes don’t reflect the attitudes in the era of the story.)
In any event, we’ll hear more about Berenike in a little bit.
Getting back to the true Rhodanes, through a complex mix-up he comes upon a grave containing a mangled body that someone else thought was Sinonis, putting her name on the grave inscription. Rhodanes—who is definitely something of an emo-boy—cuts himself and adds his own name in blood to the inscription then is about to stab himself in despair. He seems to do this sort of thing a lot. Just in time, the girl he'd kissed by mistake for Sinonis runs in and assures him that Sinonis isn’t dead at all. (Recollect that Sinonis was pursuing her in a jealous rage.)
Now Sinonis—who as you recall has been released from prison because King Garmus is celebrating his anticipated marriage—shows up still in a murderous rage, only to find her beloved Rhodanes bleeding from his self-inflicted wound and being tended to by the girl she wants to murder. When Rhodanes prevents her from attacking the girl, Sinonis takes this as confirmation of his betrayal and yells, “I invite you today to King Garmus’s wedding!” while running off, presumably intending to deliver herself to the king.
At this point, everyone in the story—or so it seems—is hauled in front of King Garmus. Euphrates and Mesopotamia explain that they are not Rhodanes and Sinonis. Garmus believes them but sends them off to be executed anyway. Euphrates is given into the hands of an executioner…who by happy chance happens to be his own father, who connives at his son’s escape.
Mesopotamia is handed over to a different executioner who is told to cut off her head so no one can ever be mistaken for Sinonis again. But the executioner is smitten with Mesopotamia’s beauty and “sends her back to Berenice, who had become queen of Egypt after her father's death, and from whom she had been taken. Berenice is again united to Mesopotamia, on whose account Garmus threatens war.”
I’m going to get back to this key passage in a moment, but let’s clean up the rest of the loose ends of the plot. King Garmus is about to have Rhodanes crucified, but at the last minute (as these things often happen), a messenger arrives, reporting that Sinonis has just married the king of Syria. Well, so much for steadfast true love! But that gives Garmus an idea for even better revenge against Rhodanes and puts him in charge of an army to go attack the king of Syria. He is expected to die in battle, but as a back-up plan, Garmus tells the army that if the king of Syria is defeated and Sinonis is recaptured, they are to mutiny against Rhodanes and kill him. But instead, when the army prevails against Syria and retrieves Sinonis, Rhodanes is made king of Babylon in place of Garmus. Presumably somewhere in there Rhodanes finally managed to explain the mix-up about the kiss to Sinonis because they get back together.
Anyway, getting back to Berenike and Mesopotamia. While Mesopotamia has been having her perilous adventures with mistaken identity, Berenike evidently popped back home to Egypt to be crowned queen after her father’s death. When the smitten executioner spares Mesopotamia, he sends her back to Berenike “from whom she had been taken.” (This wording supports the timeline that Berenike and Mesopotamia hooked up after Mesopotamia fled the island, with their interlude interrupted when the latter was seized and sent to Garmus.) That last sentence is the one that Brooten and others interpret as indicating that the two women were married. But does it?
The specific language is that Berenike marries (gamous) Mesopotamia. But some scholars note that Greek—similarly to English—is ambiguous regarding whether this means that Berenike herself enters into the marriage, or whether Berenike arranges for and presides over Mesopotamia’s marriage to someone else. Freese translates the executioner’s action as “sends her back to Berenike” but other translations render it as “takes her away with him to Berenike.” So we can’t entirely rely on an assumption that there’s no other possible marriage candidate present. On the other hand, the executioner is a eunuch (a detail not previously mentioned because I didn’t want to complicate things) and a woman marrying a eunuch would be quite as unusual as a woman marrying another woman.
Another potential ambiguity is that the word that Freese translates as “united”—gamous—does not always strictly mean “marry” (though it’s exactly the same word that Sinonis uses when she storms off saying she’s going to marry Garmus). My classical Greek consultant notes of the word that “in later Greek particularly, [it] gets an extended meaning that makes it more of a euphemism for sex, including illicit sex.” So, definitely a sexual context, but possibly less certainly a marriage than Brooten assumes?
It might be that Freese’s translation “united with” is a good rendering of that ambiguity. But on the other hand we do have the exact same word being accepted as meaning “marry” a couple pages earlier when it’s a heterosexual pair involved. Are both instances meant to be ambiguous with regard to the nature of the union? Or do we have a case of scholars placing a higher burden of proof on the same-sex couple in order to accept the sense of a formal, recognized union?
Even as a sexual euphemism, the word “gamous” clearly evokes the concept of marriage. It may be one of those cases where, if you accept the possibility of marriage between women, then you can understand it as referring to a marriage between two women, whereas if you consider marriage between woman an impossibility or absurdity, you’re left interpreting it in a purely sexual sense. Which brings us back to those other couple of references in 2nd century sources to Egyptians being reputed to engage in same-sex marriage between women.
So, all in all, is this a text that supports the idea that marriage between women was a normal, accepted event associated with Egypt in the 2nd century CE (when Iamblichos was writing)? I’d have to judge that as “not proven” but also “not disproven.” The Babyloniaka is clearly a fantastic story of improbable events, not even a pseudo-history. But conversely, a female same-sex relationship is included in the story as an unremarkable event, described with the same word as is used for heterosexual relationships. Photius, in his summary, clearly disapproves of the women's relationship but recall that he explicitly refers to Iamblichos’ text as “immoral.” So we can’t rely on Photius as reflecting the original author’s attitude. Further, when you consider how rare it is for fictional texts to introduce the idea of same-sex romance at all, then it seems meaningful that Iamblichos included this element in a context where there seems to be no direct motivation for it. (Unlike, for example, Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, where the same-sex element is the whole point of the story.)
Even the most conservative reading of this text is that the 2nd century audience for the Babyloniaka would not have considered a romantic relationship--and perhaps even marriage--between a fictional Egyptian queen and a Babylonian woman to be an event that needed special pleading. The text clearly identifies their relationship “erotic” in the sexual sense and uses the word gamous which at the very least evokes the concept (if not clearly the legal status) of marriage, in parallel with how heterosexual unions are described. It isn’t stretching matters too badly to consider this a motif that women of the 2nd century within the Greco-Roman cultural sphere could reasonably have been aware of and used as a way to imagine their own desires.
At the other extreme, the most generous reading is that marriage between women may have been an ordinary event in classical Egypt that has been largely erased from the historic record by later Christian writers and the prevailing misogyny of both pagan and Christian Roman culture. This, I think, goes beyond what this specific text can be considered to establish as solid history. But I just might incorporate it into a story some day.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
When I'm in the middle of a run of covering full-sized books, I sometimes forget how densely packed with interesting analysis articles can be. There's also a bit more feeling of accomplishment when I get to increment the numbers of publications every week, rather than once a month or so! It's been a while since I did an update on the scope of the project. This is item #339, which means I've covered more than a third of the publications in my master database. The master database includes 911 entries currently, though there's some duplication (articles published in more than one place) and a handful of items are ticked off as "not relevant". More and more I'm being picky about how I prioritize tracking things down. There are some topics that have their own academic cottage industry that far oustrips the amount of LHMP-relevant information to be found. And I regularly feel like I need to work harder to expand outside the topics beloved by the anglophone academic community (with the caveat that my own ability to read and digest material is limited to a small set of European languages).
I'm once again donating a f/f historical research consultation to a political fundraiser. (Romancing the Vote, I won't post a link because it will be obsolete in a week, but if you catch the window you can search on that.) I'm torn between hoping that the auction winner picks an era and setting I have lots of information on, and hoping they pick one that will challenge me to learn new things. In either case, I have an ulterior motive in making the donation: I'm trying to start writing up "chapters" in an overall handbook for writing f/f historical romance, and doing it on an external deadline helps. (The donation can also take the form of a manuscript critique, but in the prior instance the winner picked the "research essay" option.) I have no idea when I'll get enough of this put together to make a viable book (so don't hold your breath), but it does help me feel like there's an ultimate goal to the Project.
Ballaster, Ros "`The Vices of Old Rome Revived': Representations of Female Same-Sex Desire in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England", in Suzanne Raitt (ed.), Volcanoes and Pearl-Divers: Lesbian Feminist Studies. Onlywomen, 1993.
This is one of those articles where I had to go check the publication date and then revise some of my knee-jerk reactions to certain details. 1995 doesn’t always feel that long ago (Heather, it was over a quarter of a century ago!) But in terms of queer historical scholarship it’s an entirely different era. Reading through that filter, I become aware of the “academic cohorts” people operate in. Who are they citing? What is taken for granted and what feels new and radical? History is not a static field, and queer history is a very clear example of that principle.
Ballaster uses the lens of Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, and especially its “New Cabal” as a lens for exploring knowledge of, and attitudes toward, female same-sex eroticism in 17th and 18th century England. (Manley’s book was published in 1709 and so speaks to both centuries.)
Manley’s description of the sex lives of the New Cabal is exaggeratedly coy. This women-only group meets censure for reasons the narrator pretends not to understand, for what could women do together that would be improper? Those who slander them “must carry their imaginations a much greater length than I am able to do mine…they pretend to find in these the vices of old Rome revived.” While accurately noting that 17-18th c texts often refer to female same-sex erotics only by circumlocution, Ballaster interprets “the vices of old Rome” to be a reference to the belief that the fall of Rome was due to rampant male homosexuality, and suggests that this need to find parallels with male behavior might seem to connect with Trumbach’s claim that there were no social models or roles for female homosexuality in the early 18th century—a claim that Ballaster will demonstrate to be false.
[Note: I think Ballaster is mistaken about even the superficial reading of “the vices of old Rome”, given the demonstrated awareness in 17th century writings of Martial’s epigrams and Lucian’s Dialogues in reference to f/f sex, and use of references to those as one of the standard circumlocutions. Furthermore, as Ballaster eventually argues, the satirical context of Manley’s narrative undermines a literal reception of the narrator’s mock-ignorance. But here I am leaning on discussions in more recent work, such as Wahl 1999, which points out the potential legal protection in hiding political satire behind the mask of innocent disbelief.]
The New Atalantis was, first and foremost, a political satire. A separate key to the women of the New Cabal identified them primarily with women in the household of Queen Anne, and Manley was not the only political satirist who used insinuations of lesbianism against Anne’s court. (See e.g., Miss Hobart in Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of the Count de Grammont.) The general view of queer historians at the time this article was written (it cites Faderman, Dekker & van de Pol) was that the potential for f/f sexual relations in the 18th century was either not taken seriously or dismissed entirely, and that even the women who were romantically involved did not see their relations as potentially sexual until the end of the 19th century, with the exception of Hobby whose suggests that the work of Katherine Philips indicates something resembling a “lesbian identity.”. But Ballaster goes on to argue against the prevalent view. [Note: which is a great relief, since otherwise I’d spend most of this article muttering and grumbling, as I did when summarizing the relevant work by Faderman and Dekker & van de Pol, et al.]
Rather, Ballaster asserts, there were a variety of representations of female same-sex desire in circulation during the 17-18th centuries that challenged patriarchal norms. Alongside the image of the gender-transgressing cross-dresser or “hermaphrodite”, and the rise of romantic friendship, the sharpest challenge came from the image of the “tribade”—women whose same-sex relations were explicitly centered around sexual desire.
The article now reviews the state of the field of lesbian historical theory in the mid 1990s, especially the ways in which it conflated gender identity and sexuality in ways that muddle the interpretation of 17-18th century experiences. This distinction becomes most pertinent in comparing the different challenges presented by cross-dressing women--whose transgression was overt, but could be erased by removing the exterior signs, and the tribade—whose transgression was inherently covert, and which could not be subsumed into a heteronormative framework.
In looking for representations of f/f sexual desire, Ballaster reviews the corpus of 16-18th century medical representations of sex between women, including theories of a physiological cause or consequence of f/f sex, and popular pornographic tropes, such as “initiation” or convent scenarios.
While such literature can be discounted in its details as reflecting male fantasies, it does demonstrate that awareness of f/f sexual possibilities was in general currency, at least in certain circles. The contrast between male-authored sexual scenarios, and female-authored romantic/platonic scenarios raises the question of whether it is meaningful to speak of a “lesbian identity” in either context.
Representations of “lesbian desire” in the 17-18th centuries fell in three general models (per Vicinus): “the aristocratic libertine woman depicted in pornography and political satire, the cross-dressing woman of the working classes, and the romantic friend of the middle classes.” But Ballaster notes that real-life exceptions can be found in all cases, such as middle-class cross-dressing actress Charlotte Charke. Ballaster is less interested in whether a class-based distinction is “real” than in how it is given meaning by modern historians. In particular, how the first category is often dismissed as inauthentic due to the prevalence of male authorship. But female authors expressing the other two models were well aware of the social and literary conventions they were operating within, just as much as writers of pornography and satire. The poetry of Katherine Phillips is explored once more regarding what it can tell us about the “real” experiences of the women writing and written about in her work. Regardless of the potential place of sexual expression within Phillips’ life, it’s clear the relationships she depicts disrupted and challenged the centrality of heterosexual marriage.
If female same-sex desire was considered genuinely subversive, this challenges Faderman’s position that romantic relations between women were tolerated and even approved by society because they were considered non-sexual and not perceived as challenging patriarchal structures. But just as Faderman claims that 19th century romantic friendships were viewed as inconsequential, Ballaster points out that earlier authors such as Brantôme viewed f/f sexual relations as inconsequential—both in the sense of “having no consequences for the social order.” So perhaps men’s opinions on the subversive potential of f/f relations are not a reliable guide to women’s experience of that subversive potential?
Both the “marriage” of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler and the explicit sexual details revealed in the diaries of Anne Lister suggest the existence of an “underground” culture available to women who desired women. Lister in particular depicts a variety of means by which such women identified each other and established connections and relationships.
The article now returns specifically to Manley’s New Atalantis and other sexually-charged satirical writings about Queen Anne’s circle. In addition to the roman a clef characters of The New Cabal, a more direct satire, but targeting the queen’s favorite Abigail Masham, The Rival Dutchess: or Court Incendiary depicts Masham as confessing to “having too great a regard for my own sex”. (The context makes it explicitly clear that she is talking about sexual desire.) And these were not the only works that used the motif of communities of aristocratic, learned women inclined toward same-sex desire as a sign of “the world turned upside down”. But they also convey a complicated anxiety about women in positions of power, and women who gain influence over the powerful through sex (whether sex with men or women).
Interpreting Manley’s work as indicating anxiety about all-female networks in general is complicated by her own gender, as well as the clearly political motivations of her attacks. Further, within Manley’s text, women are presented as the wise and knowledgeable commenters on the New Cabal, as well as the subject of that commentary. And the socio-economic structure of the New Cabal, as described within the work, might be considered an idealized, libertine, self-regulating (and verging on socialist) state. The women of the New Cabal, regardless of Manley’s superficial political intent, offer a vision of an entirely different social and sexual economy, centered around women who pledge to devote themselves sexually only to other women. It is not an imitation of heterosexual relations, but another thing entirely.