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Wednesday, February 9, 2022 - 08:06

The contracts are all in, so it's time to announce the full 2022 Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast fiction line-up!

Our January story, already broadcast, was:

  • "Palio" by Gwen Katz - horseracing politics and flirtation in 17th century Siena

The four stories we just bought (in no particular order, as the schedule isn't set yet) are:

  • "A Farce to Suit the New Girl" by Rebecca Fraimow - set among a Jewish theater company in late 19th century St. Petersburg
  • "From the Bird's Nest" by Jennifer Nestojko - a gentle episotolary story of claiming one's life in 19th century New England
  • "The Wolf that Sings on the Moutain" by Miyuki Jane Pinckard - rivalry and supernatural danger in Heian era Japan
  • "The Sprits of Cabassus" by Ursula Whitcher - curses, ghosts, and religious tourism in 4th century Cappadocia

It's always interesting to see the themes that emerge in each year's submissions, both those chosen and those not. 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. The distribution in era was fairly similar to previous years, but with an unexpected cluster in the 17th century. (Yes, it's one of my favorite centuries--were people playing to that?) 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 your basic writing skills. Plotting, characterization, and background research are relatively easy to pick up and are 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 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 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--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!)

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Monday, February 7, 2022 - 20:25

One of the long-term "resource" projects that I'm gradually collecting data for is a catalog of romantic, erotic, and sexual behaviors indexed to the cultures and eras when they were popular, and placed in their social context. Think about the simple kiss. What did kissing mean in a given culture? Who kissed whom? In what context? What was communicated between the people who kissed? How as that kiss interpreted by those who witnessed it? If you're writing a sapphic historical romance, under what circumstances might ytour characters kiss? Will their first kiss be erotic or social? Is there a difference in kissing technique for different types of relationship? Will a kiss mean the same thing to both protagonists?

THe easy approach is to assume that the gestures of affection in your story will be identical to the ones you're familiar with, but that approach flattens out history and drains away much of the joy of writing (or reading) about people in another time.

Have you ever chucked somone under the chin? Have you done it without realizing that it's a gesture with a long social history? Would your fictional characters do it? Now repeat those questions for a much larger repertoire of signs of affection. (Why do I never pick projects that have a clear "done" point?)

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Full citation: 

Fisher, Will. 2013. “The Erotics of Chin Chucking in Seventeenth-Century England” in Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England. ed. James M. Bromley and Will Stockton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-8076-4 pp.141-69

One of the reasons I wanted to include this article, in addition to the brief inclusions of f/f interactions, is that it offers many examples of a type of erotic interaction that may be unfamiliar to contemporary people—at least, as a formal concept. For that reason, I’d like to include some additional quotations from the 17th century sources that describe exactly what is going on.

(from John Bulwer’s 17th c Chirologia; or The Natural Language of the Hand) “we…stroke them gently with our hand whom we make much of…or affectionately love. … drawing our hand with sweetening motion over the…face of the party to whom we intend this insinuation.”

(from Daniel Rogers’ 1642 treatise Matrimonial Honour describing actions to be avoided outside marriage) “[husbands must refrain from] stroking [women’s] cheeks…with wantonness.”

This article pairs nicely with Diane Watt’s “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in that it explores an interaction that inhabits the boundary between social and erotic behavior. The ambiguity of that boundary can be highly relevant to seeing female same-sex erotic relationships in contexts where we aren’t going to get evidence of actual genital activity. A kiss may be just a kiss, but a chin-chuck always carries with it an erotic implication.

Although Fisher makes passing allusions to medieval examples, one could be forgiven for coming away from this article thinking that chin-chucking had been invented in the 16th century. Not so! (I have a blog tag for it, although it doesn’t manage to gather up all the examples.) This gesture is well established in classical Greek art as associated with erotic courtship (both m/f and m/m, and in at least one surviving vase painting, between a f/f couple). It continues as a standard artistic motif (and presumably, social reality) throughout the middle ages. We see f/f examples in illustrations of the myth of Callisto (where Jupiter in disguise as Diana clearly indicates the sexual nature of the interaction with a chin-chuck touch) or in illustrations of “sodomites” such as the one used for the logo of this blog.

Chin-chucking is—and is not—sexual. It implies erotic intentions, but is not itself a sex act. It reflects social hierarchies—and because it does so, it can be used to signal and enforce them. To touch someone’s face in an intimate fashion is to emphasize that you have either the right (via an existing relationship) or the power (via a social hierarchy) to invade their personal space.

When did chin-chucking cease to be erotic? That’s a separate question, but I’ll assert that the modern-day remnants of the gesture primarily retains the age/status implications. When Aunt Gertrude pinches your cheek at the family get-together, she’s performing an act of hierarchical dominance, mediated through the illusion of familial intimacy. (Think it’s not about dominance? Who gets to pinch whose cheek?)

But to get back to how this topic fits into the depiction of historic same-sex relationships: think about the powerful symbolism of having a repertoire of actions your same-sex couple can perform in public that simultaneously have that plausible deniability and convey erotic meaning. Your characters neither need to entirely hide their affection nor entirely betray their sexual desires in doing so. But exactly how they express themselves will vary according to time and culture. And that’s why topics like this deserve study.

Fisher examines the social and erotic context of the gesture-group known as “chin-chucking”, which is loosely defined as “reaching for, touching, fingering, pinching, caressing, cupping, or clasping of the cheek or chin.” The central version of the gesture involves one person holding the chin of the other person with the fingers of one hand. [Note: although Fisher considers this topic specifically within the context of 17th century England, there is a much wider context involved. See my commentary for further consideration.]

This action held an ambiguous position within social interactions. While generally signaling erotic interest, it was not unambiguously a “sexual” act. Within an otherwise neutral context, it might be considered “innocent”, but in combination with other actions or in suggestive circumstances it could be considered “proof” of the existence of a sexual relationship (or at least the intention to have one). To tease out the limits and implications of this gesture, Fisher examined around a hundred texts of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as numerous depictions in art. He argues that the literary and artistic examples both reflect and shape social attitudes towards appropriate contexts for chin-chucking.

Using examples from poetry and ballads, Fisher shows how even when the persona of the work protests that chin-chucking is an innocent pastime, it always carries sexual implications. But these implications are even more striking in non-fictional contexts. Court cases for adultery included descriptions of the “freedoms and familiarities” that implied adulterous relationships, including “kissing and stroking her upon the face and sometimes chucking her under the chin” or “kissing and embracing…his arms sometimes about her neck and at other times about her waist.” In one particularly telling sequence from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the (married) Pepys details the gradual progression of his interactions with a (married) woman whose husband’s career he could further. First he comments on her attractiveness and speculates on finding an excuse to get her to come to his office (alone). When she does, he “stroke[s] her under the chin,” noting in his diary that he was not “uncivil” to her and didn’t want to offend her. But on another visit he kisses her, which she protests against. But evidently Pepys kept dangling the prospect of a quid pro quo and on another occasion he “caressed her”. Eventually he took her out drinking and then “arrive[d] at what I would, with great pleasure.” We see her a progression of actions from the ambiguous chin-chuck to the less ambiguous kiss to the boundary-crossing “caress”, finishing with a sexual act. At the early stages, there is plausible deniability, and the boundaries of the sexual are constantly shifting and being negotiated across a continuum.

Chin-chuck interactions are found in art and plays, where stroking the face is a sign of flirtation, seduction, and often evidence of a sexual relationship. These interactions sometimes occur between same-sex couples, as in paintings of Callisto’s seduction by Diana (the disguised Jupiter), or the attempted seduction by Queen Olivia of the disguised Rosania in James Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir. Olivia “plays with [Rosania’s] hair and smiles…and strokes her cheek.” And later directly suggests that they kss and “find out pleasure by warm exchange of souls from our soft lips.” (F/f interactions of this type often involve gender disguise, while m/m interactions typically do not.)

The question of what counts as “sexual” or “erotic” and how actions are given social meaning changes over time. Something might be considered sexual (or sex-adjacent) behavior in one era and not at others. [Note: Fisher states that chin-chucking “today…is not generally considered to be a sexual act,” but I would argue that, although it isn’t a named erotic act currently, in the way that kissing is, it is still recognized as an “intimate” act, and one that has highly variable acceptability depending on the participants and circumstances.]

A detailed analysis of who performs chin-chucking on whom in 17th c England, and what judgement is placed on it, uncovers a complex set of hierarchies that parallel those involved in more clearly sexual activity. The person who performs the touching is depicted as the seducer, or at least the active/dominant member of the couple. But although this role generally defaults to the male, older, socially dominant partner, those hierarchies can be disrupted. Literary depictions of the goddess Venus usually show her as the active partner in chin-chucking of her (younger, subordinate) lover. Depictions of m/m chin-chucking in literature almost always align with an age hierarchy (and in mythological cases, with a dominant/divine, subordinate/mortal hierarchy).

Fisher connects this with theoretical framings of early modern sexuality as being oriented around age and status differences as much as around gender. This contributed to a fluidity of sexuality as one’s age and status relationships were contextually determined, even when gender was not.

When erotic behavior conflicted with the expectations of gender/age/status hierarchies, we may see negative judgments expressed that depend, not on the act itself, but on the question of who takes which role. Female sex workers who “fail” on the basis of both gender and status may be mocked or derided for taking the active role in chin-chucking. A woman (as opposed to a mythic goddess) who takes the active role in kissing and chin-chucking might be viewed as transgressively arousing, but might instead be treated as ridiculous, especially if her lover is significantly older. Conversely, when a woman is performing chin-chucking in a context where other physical elements of the scenario place her in a subordinate position (as in one of the illustrations in the pornographic Satyra Sotadica) it can be taken as a sign of eager consent.

Thus, while chin-chucking gives us a window into the continuum of early modern erotic interactions, it also gives us a window into how such activities negotiated and structured sexual relations along axes that encompass more factors than gender alone.

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Sunday, February 6, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 222 - On the Shelf for February 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/02/05 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February, 2022.

This year, the timing was almost right to be able to announce the year’s new fiction line-up today. But rather than cut the timing too close on getting contracts turned around, I’m putting this episode together before I start reading submissions. So even I don’t know exactly which stories will be chosen. We received a good number of stories—not a new record, but very close to previous years. I’m always a little surprised that we aren’t more inundated. But we’ll keep plugging along. I’ve sort-of already committed to a 2023 series by way of agreeing to commission one piece. So keep your eyes on the blog within the next week or so to see the announcement of the line-up.

Around this time, you already start seeing people talking about what books they’re excited about for the rest of the year. I got involved in a facebook discussion of how those sorts of lists often overlook self-published and small press books, especially now that we’re seeing more and more books featuring queer characters from major publishers. Not fair! people say. We created these genres when no one else would touch queer stories and now we get kicked to the side and ignored! But it’s never quite that simple. (As I pointed out in the discussion.) To eagerly look forward to a book, you have to know it exists and when it will be released. I know I harp on about this regularly, but if I were to put together a list of “10 sapphic historicals I’m looking forward to in 2022,” it would mostly be books from mainstream publishers. Why? Because those are the books I can find information on. The ones that already have publication dates announced and advance publicity easily available. They’re the ones that people are talking up months in advance.

One of the usual complaints about traditional publishing models is the long timelines involved. But those timelines are also what makes it possible to get buzz circulating in time to make a splash at release. And the established book publicity ecosystem—the community of reviewers and bloggers—has traditionally operated with an advance publicity framework. Short timelines and just-in-time production supply chains don’t mesh well with that framework. And so the books that do are the ones that get talked about.

If small queer presses and self-published authors want the same level of visibility, they have to make themselves visible. They can’t count on being the only game in town any more.

News of the Field

This next item may be somewhat niche, but if you’re a US citizen and a supporter of progressive politics (and I have to say, if you aren’t a supporter of progressive politics, this podcast probably makes you uncomfortable on a regular basis) there’s a fund-raising auction you might want to check out called Romancing the Vote 2022, run by the same ad hoc coalition of romance writers and readers who put together the Romancing the Runoff fundraiser last November. And once again, I’m donating a sapphic historical fiction consultation to the auction. This is either a research essay on the setting of your choice, or a manuscript evaluation specifically focusing on historic women-loving-women content. Check out the link in the show notes for more information.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog extended my recent focus on classical Greece and Rome with several essays from the collection Ancient Sex, New Essays edited by Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand. This included the essay by Sandra Boehringer on Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans #5 that became the final chapter of her book that I previously covered; Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary,” which looks at the concepts of active and passive sexual roles through the lens of “active” women; and Kate Gilhuly’s “Lesbians are not from Lesbos,” which follows the development of the several independent sexual reputations associated with the isle of Lesbos and the figure of Sappho.

For this month’s offerings, I decided to clean up a number of assorted journal articles that have been lying around on my computer desktop for quite some time. They cover topics including representations of female same-sex desire in early modern England, grave memorials in England featuring same-sex pairs, the erotic context of the gesture known as “chin-chucking”, and an article on cross-dressing women in Delarivier Manley’s “New Cabal.” So a mixed bag, though all focusing on English topics. I often feel guilty about how skewed the blog is toward English topics and sources. But on the other hand, to the extent that my goal is to provide materials for people writing historic fiction, that seems to be where most people are setting their stories—much as I might like to read more variety.

Book Shopping!

No new books for the blog received, although I just ordered one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time – an academic study of lesbian historical fiction. More on that when it arrives and I’ve had time to digest it. But I did receive a fun, historical-related book from a kickstarter campaign I backed. It’s an art book titled Classics…but Make it Gay. It’s a collection of re-interpretations of famous works of art through a queer lens, with contributions from over 60 artists. The book was successful enough they’re doing a second volume. Check out the link in the show notes.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of new books, what are the recent and forthcoming historical novels that I know about? There are two January books to catch up on. The first is the most recent in a series that has previously managed to escape my notice: The Raven and the Firebird self-published by Cameron Darrow, the fifth book in the Ashes of Victory historic fantasy series, which focuses on an institution of English witches in the period between the first and second World Wars. It looks like Darrow’s series may be best when started at the beginning. The description rather throws you into the middle of an ongoing storyline.

As daily life settles in at the EVE Witchcraft Conservatory, new opportunities, lives and love abound. Victoria and Katya's relationship is ever-evolving, while Millie and Elise are coming to understand what it truly means to be a Bonded witch. At the same time, the school is flourishing, a place of discovery, encouragement and equality. To women and witches everywhere, Longstown has become a beacon brighter than any other. But is it bright enough to shine through the storm rolling in from Germany? For when Helga arrives with an announcement, she brings with her a request: help. Help that only the most famous, most powerful witches in history can provide. Agreeing means thrusting EVE directly into German politics and gaining the attention of Adolf Hitler and his growing Nazi party, while declining would go against the very principles EVE was founded on, yet keep the school safe. EVE's public choices may be nothing to the private ones, however. After all, its greatest secret was never going to stay that way forever...

The second January book is the start of a new series by Edale Lane’s Past and Prologue Press. The book is Daring Duplicity and the series title is The Wellington Mysteries: Adventures of a Lesbian Victorian Detective.

Stetson revels in being unconventional. So when society shies away from her independent nature, the bold woman creates an imaginary boss and opens her own detective agency. And her keen observational skills, convincing disguises, and Holmesian methods quickly bring in a string of tough-to-crack cases. Struggling to squeeze a personal life in around a series of hazardous investigations, Stetson worries she'll never find a woman of like-passions. But with her heart set on true love despite the risk, she carries on hunting for the perfect relationship. Will her clever escapades lead to death, or delight?

February books start off with a Regency romp, The Luring of a Lovely Lady  by Emma Locke from Intrepid Reads. This is book 8 in her Scandalous Spinsters series, which features a mix of novels and novellas and primarily features male-female couples.

Wide-eyed innocent Miss Abigail Conley and the beautiful but jaded Lady Cassandra Laurent couldn't be more different, but a spur-of-the moment decision takes them on an unexpected journey across England. Will love be their destination?

Next we have a cross-time story: March in Time, self-published by E.A. McNulty.

Two women, born a century apart...can each rescue the other before Time claims them both? Laura and Jim have upped sticks from the comforts of Edinburgh to a derelict house in the Highlands. Between their rapidly evaporating marital bliss and Laura's redundancy, her carefully constructed identity is crumbling. Whilst dodging renovation duties in the attic, she happens across and old sea chest. In the chest, amongst a collection of the most sumptuous dresses and faded photographs, is a letter, written by the house's former owner. Over the coming months, Laura uncovers the story of two trailblazing women at the turn of the last century. Katie, a glamorous London Gaiety Girl and the quick-witted Flora, a Caithnessian crofter who escaped the plough by joining the army under an assumed moustache. Their whirlwing romance and subsequent determination to fight together through the horrors of war and betrayal makes Laura question everything. Is her sanity a small price to pay for other people's happiness, or can Flora help her come to terms with her own demons?

Just to mix things up a bit, this month brings us a graphic novel with a fictionalized biography of a beloved queer author: Flung Out of Space: The Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis & Hannah Templer from Abrams Comic Art

Flung Out of Space is an imagined portrait of the wild and complicated figure that was infamous crime writer Patricia Highsmith. As the story opens, we meet Pat begrudgingly writing low-brow comics. A drinker, a smoker, and a hater of life, Pat knows she can do better. Her brain churns with images of the great novel she could and should be writing—what will eventually be Strangers on a Train (which would later be adapted into a classic film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951). Pat is a chronic womanizer, but she’s ashamed of being gay, and so on the recommendation of her therapist, she enrolls in conversion therapy, where she meets many of her future sexual conquests. Highsmith was unapologetic but guilt-ridden, talented but self-sabotaging, magnetic but withdrawn, vicious but hilarious. In short: She was a hell of a woman and a hell of a protagonist.

I regularly gripe about cover copy that hints and teases about its queer content. I had to dig rather deeply to confirm that Sarai Walker’s The Cherry Robbers from Houghton Mifflin had enough queer content to fit into this podcast. You can’t tell from the following blurb, but the protagonist of the book is a lesbian.

New Mexico, 2017: Sylvia Wren is one of the most important American artists of the past century. Known as a recluse, she avoids all public appearances. There’s a reason: she’s living under an assumed identity, having outrun a tragic past. But when a hungry journalist starts chasing her story, she’s confronted with whom she once was: Iris Chapel. Connecticut, 1950: Iris Chapel is the second youngest of six sisters, all heiresses to a firearms fortune. They’ve grown up cloistered in a palatial Victorian house, mostly neglected by their distant father and troubled mother, who believes that their house is haunted by the victims of Chapel weapons. The girls long to escape, and for most of them, the only way out is marriage. But not long after the first Chapel sister walks down the aisle, she dies of mysterious causes, a tragedy that repeats with the second, leaving the rest to navigate the wreckage, to heart-wrenching consequences. Ultimately, Iris flees the devastation of her family, and so begins the story of Sylvia Wren. But can she outrun the family curse forever?

The last of this month’s new releases is a bit marginal on the historic front. Sweet Paladin: A Lesbian time-travel fantasy romance (book one in a series titled In the Queerness of Time), self-published by Alex Washoe, looks like it’s primarily a contemporary story, but with a fish-out-of-water love interest, thrust across time into modern-day New York.

Celebrity chef Holly Milan ditched her TV career and Michelin Star restaurant (along with her rich New York boyfriend) to run a pay-what-you-can diner in Seattle’s Fremont district. She devotes her energies to feeding the local homeless camp, but no matter how much she bakes, it never feels like enough to feed the world’s hunger. Akachi of Asphodel is a twelfth-century knight of the Order of Sophia, whose home was destroyed by Crusaders. Crying out for help from the Goddess, she awakens to find herself in a strange new world of wonderous technology and dangerous mysteries. The moment they meet, their powerful attraction is obvious. But they soon begin to discover a deeper bond – one that was forged on the day they were born and could be destined to re-write the history of the world.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? Evidently this month has been all about the audiobooks. I devoured Tasha Suri’s India-inspired historic fantasy The Jasmine Throne, and am now eagerly awaiting the next book in this series, which is due out in August. The multi-faceted relationship between the two female protagonists is complex and ongoing with no guarantee of a happy ending, but should satisfy those who want casual sapphic representation in their epic fantasy.

Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is not at all historic, but once more provides casually-present lesbian representation in a murder mystery with magic.

And finally, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (once more, the first installment in an epic series) explores issues of gender and identity, and how they intertwine with sexuality, as the protagonist in a mostly-solidly-historic China takes on her dead brother’s identity in order to claim the prophecy that he would achieve greatness.

On the page, I’m still working my way through Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower. I found a way to approach reading the book that avoids tripping over the issues I have with it as a historical novel, and having done so, I’m finding I enjoy it. But it does feel a bit more like a modern caper with the characters in fancy-dress than it does a historical romance.

Some day I will find more lesbian Regencies that totally satisfy both the romance and the historical parts of my brain. At least there are lots to choose from these days.

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022 - 07:37

Submissions are now closed for the 2022 podcast fiction series. Thank you to everyone who entrusted us with your stories. Reading and making choices should happen within the next week. So excited to see what the possibilities are! (I never read submissions as they come in because I worry that it might bias my opinions.)

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Saturday, January 29, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 221 – Palio by Gwen C. Katz - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/01/29 - listen here)

January is an exciting month at the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast because it’s when submissions are open for the year’s short story series. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog in the first week of February for the announcement of the 2022 line-up. Except, of course, for the first story of the year, which we bought during last year’s call so we could have it ready for you right now. So today we’re delighted to bring you Gwen C. Katz’s “Palio”, a story involving the famous horse race in Siena, whose origins are rooted in the middle ages. The modern version of the Palio was established in the mid 17th century, and this is the setting of today’s story.

Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Altadena, California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first YA novel, Among the Red Stars, follows the adventures of the all-female WWII bomber regiment known as the Night Witches. Her short fiction has appeared in venues like Glittership, the PRISM Award-winning Dates 2, and We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. When she’s not making up stories, she can be found hiking, gardening, and teaching kids about wildlife at the local nature center.

Our narrator for this episode is Violet Dixon. Violet lives with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats outside Philadelphia. When not in the recording booth, she plays and teaches acting. Other lesbian titles that she has narrated include Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain and KC Luck’s Venandi and her Darkness Series. 

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



Gwen Katz


“Say your prayers, Bartolomeo!”

Francesca tensed at the sound of the jeering voice. She touched her brother’s arm. “Ignore him.”

But you didn’t become a Palio jockey by having a cool temper. Bartolomeo turned and glared. “Raffaello.”

The other jockey grinned at him. Raffaello was tall and broad-shouldered, and he towered over the short, slight Bartolomeo. He stood at the head of a group of boys sporting scarves of crimson, striped with white and blue. Torre colors.

“Diavolo Bianco will grind you beneath his hooves,” he said.

“I might be riding Diavolo Bianco, bischero,” Bartolomeo retorted.

“Not likely,” said Raffaello. “That horse has my name on it. In four days you’ll be lying trampled in the dirt and your soul will be on its way to Hell.”

“Then tell your dead ancestors I’ll see them there!”

Raffaello shoved Bartolomeo before Francesca could stop him. Bartolomeo rallied and hit him with a right hook. Raffaello knocked Bartolomeo to the ground.

“Get off him!” cried Francesca, grabbing the back of Raffaello’s doublet while shielding her face from the Torre boys shouting and throwing clods of mud. At the other end of the alley, she caught a glimpse of a sky-blue and white scarf. Onda colors. Their colors.

“Do something!” she shouted. “This is your jockey!”

The Onda boys came dashing in, and the tussle blossomed into a full-blown street brawl. Stones, sticks, horse apples, and rotten vegetables flew through the air, accompanied by every epithet a creative Italian imagination could conjure.

Francesca and Bartolomeo crept away and found themselves standing in Piazza del Campo, the town’s central square, gingerly touching the scrapes on their arms and faces. From the alley came the din of the brawl. Blood ran hot during the days of the Palio.

# # #

Francesca and Bartolomeo were too old to whip, but Francesca doubted their father would have done it anyway. No red-blooded Onda man could truly be angry at his son for punching a Torre jockey. He contented himself with shaking Bartolomeo by his shoulders and shouting, “What were you thinking? You race in four days! What if you had been hurt?”

“He deserved it,” said Bartolomeo sulkily.

Their father threw up his hands. “He deserved it! You could have handed the victory to Torre and you tell me he deserved it! If in four days he has the banner and we are still nonna, will you still be saying they deserved it?”

Nonna meant “grandmother.” The title went to the contrada that had gone the longest without a victory in the Palio, and Onda had carried it since before Francesca was born. But this year everything would change. This year, they had Bartolomeo.

Twenty years ago, an Arab boy had arrived in Siena with two racehorses and dreams of victory. But Lady Luck had other ideas. He never once rode his own horse in the Palio. His horses won. He did not. It was not all bad, though. He met a beautiful girl from a family of weavers and they raised a pair of skinny, dark-eyed twins who loved horses as much as their father did.

Francesca’s first memories were of sitting perched in front of her father on a horse that seemed as tall as a mountain, shrieking with delight. But Bartolomeo was the real talent. He moved with the horse like they were one creature. He was the one who would win the Palio for Onda.

“Four more days,” said their father. “Then you punch him. Do you think you can manage that?”

# # #

The blood on Francesca’s scrapes was not yet dry when the drawing took place.

Il Campo was packed, but then, there would hardly be a moment in the next four days when it was not packed. The piazza was shaped like a seashell, its sloping surface leading not to a cathedral, but to the city hall, where the mayor waited with two baskets of capsules. In one set of capsules were the numbers of the horses. In the other were the names of the contrade, Siena’s seventeen districts.

The horses stood tossing their manes, a number painted on each animal’s rump. No pedigreed racehorses here, but mixed breeds, black and chestnut, dappled and bay. But all eyes were on number seven, the one called Diavolo Bianco. He was a tall white stallion, his neck perfectly arched, his body well-muscled, every inch a champion. He snorted, as if displeased to be shown alongside such a motley assortment.

“His dam’s sire was one of mine,” said Francesca’s father. “Don’t be fooled by his size. There’s true Arabian blood in him.”

“Yes, papa, you’ve only mentioned that every day for the past year,” said Bartolomeo.

“Don’t be smart, kid. That’s the horse that will carry us to victory.”

The three of them stood among the people of Onda, wearing white and blue clothes and waving flags with the symbol of the dolphin. They waited in not-so-silent anticipation to find out which contrada would receive which horse. The jockey could be substituted. The horse could not.

On the other side of Il Campo, surrounded by people flying the tower-carrying elephant of Torre, Raffaello caught Bartolomeo’s eye and mouthed “Nonna.” Francesco and her father each grabbed one of Bartolomeo’s elbows. Francesco looked him in the eye and shook her head.

The mayor opened the first pair of capsules and read out, “Number twelve. Aquila!”

A massive cry of disappointment from the part of the crowd dressed in yellow, blue, and black. They surrounded their dejected jockey as he led away a pigeon-toed gray mare. Draco drew another poor horse, then Pantera. With each outcry from the crowd, Francesca’s pulse thrummed a little more. She gave Bartolomeo’s hand a squeeze and was startled to find that he was trembling.

“Number fifteen,” announced the mayor. “Onda!”

Francesca’s heart plummeted. Bartolomeo slumped. He trudged forward and reluctantly took the proffered reins of a small, thin-faced bay mare with one white foot. Surrounded by a press of people in sky-blue and white, they led the horse down Siena’s winding streets to the Onda stable.

“It’s all right,” said Francesca, squeezing her brother’s shoulder. “It’s not the horse that matters. It’s the rider.”

Which was an even bigger load of dung than the ones the horses were leaving on the piazza. It was the horse who won the race, not the jockey. The jockey didn’t even need to be still astride.

They were barely out of Il Campo when an uproar of cheers met their ears. Raffaello walked away with Diavolo Bianco.

# # #

“He cheated,” said Bartolomeo, pacing the straw-strewn stable and gesturing with both arms. Their father was off meeting with the captain and lieutenants of Onda to salvage their tattered race strategy, leaving the twins alone in the stable with the horse and her owner. “Those Torre bastards rigged the drawing. The mayor is on their side and…How are you so calm right now?”

Francesca sat on the stall door, feeding the mare a carrot.

“I’m not,” she said. “You just seemed like you were freaking out enough for the both of us.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Bartolomeo. “You’re not the one who has to race on that nag!”

“She’s not a nag,” came a voice from the other end of the stable. “She’s a good horse.”

The horse’s owner strode forward. Francesca had forgotten she was there. She was surprised to realize that the owner was a young lady not much older than she was. She had a pale face and a long, straight nose, and she held herself very straight, holding up the hem of her yellow overskirt so it wouldn’t trail in the muck. She was startlingly pretty.

Bartolomeo crossed his arms and cast his eyes skyward. “Of course. She’s your horse and you raised her and fed her apples from your own hand and so she’s the finest animal that ever walked the earth.”

“Introductions, perhaps, before insults?” said the young lady mildly, putting out her gloved hand. “My name is Margherita Guerrini.”

“Bartolomeo al-Hijazi,” said Bartolomeo after a moment’s hesitation. “And my sister Francesca.”

Margherita stroked the mare’s nose. “And this is Volante.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Bartolomeo. “She’s not Diavolo Bianco.”

“She’s twice the horse he is. She can win—if you stop sulking and give her a chance.”

For a long moment it looked as if Bartolomeo was genuinely going to choose sulking. But at last he sighed heavily and said, “Fine. Tell me what’s so great about this horse.”

Margherita broke into a grin, which softened her face. She led Volante out of her stall.

“She has her own ways,” said Margherita. “You need to respect them, but if you do, she’ll be loyal to death. She fears dogs. She was bitten by a dog once. She is not fast around the corners, but she’s surefooted, and she goes like the wind on the straightaway.”

“Wait,” Francesca broke in, suspicion tickling the back of her mind. “Why are you helping us? You’re not from Onda. What contrada are you from, anyway?”

Margherita smiled slowly and gave Francesca a little nod, as though she’d passed a test. “I’m from Vipera. My contrada is dwindling. We don’t race in the Palio. But we still have our pride. We would rather see the banner go to anyone other than those facce di culo in Torre.”

And that startled Francesca for a second time, because Margherita looked too classy to be calling anyone an ass face. She exchanged looks with her brother. By silent agreement they decided that anyone who insulted Torre was on the level.

“All right,” said Bartolomeo. “Let’s win ourselves a Palio.”

# # #

Margherita’s family had a small farm on the outskirts of town, and they headed there to practice out of sight of Siena’s omnipresent crowds. They had scant hours before the first of the five trials, and while the trials themselves did not count for anything, the pressure would be intense. Faltering in front of all the contrade would crush Bartolomeo. The first time he appeared in public on Volante, he had to look like a champion.

Margherita led Volante into the paddock, whispering quietly to her. Despite her prim appearance, Francesca had to admit she knew how to handle a horse. The mare’s ears swung forward at the sound of her owner’s voice and she nuzzled her affectionately.

Bartolomeo swung himself onto the mare’s bare back and took her for a warmup jaunt. Now that Francesca took the time to look at her, she saw that Volante really wasn’t a bad horse, aside from her homely face. She was fine-boned, dainty but not fragile. She galloped with a smooth, even gait. Francesca found hope rising within her.

And Bartolomeo. Francesca was a good horsewoman, but Bartolomeo made her look like a toddler on her first donkey ride. He moved like water, his long hair whipping around his face as he rose and fell with the rhythm of the horse’s footfalls.

Francesca felt a smile spreading across her face. Unbidden she was already seeing them galloping across the finish line.

And then the dog appeared.

It darted across the paddock, barking and jumping playfully. Volante shied, and as she did, she missed her footing and fell on her side, Bartolomeo beneath her.

The horse scrambled to her feet, mercifully unhurt, but Bartolomeo lay on the ground, clutching his leg. His face was pale and damp with sweat. Francesca ran to his side. She hovered there frozen, not sure what to do. The dog had already run off.

Margherita, luckily, kept her head about her. She knelt by Bartolomeo’s side. “It’s his ankle. Let’s have a look.”

But touching his ankle brought forth a stream of evocative language involving her relatives and various domesticated animals.

Margherita laughed and cuffed Bartolomeo lightly on the ear. “You big baby. It’s only sprained.”

“Only sprained? I have a trial in two hours!” protested Bartolomeo, and, despite Francesca and Margherita’s best efforts to restrain him, he tried to scramble to his feet. His leg buckled beneath him. His face blanched with pain and he slumped back to the ground, his shoulders quivering. It took Francesca a moment to realize he wasn’t shaking from pain. He was crying.

Bartolomeo never cried, not even when the bigger boys beat him up. “It was my year!” he said, shoving off her attempt to put an arm around him. “And now…”

Francesca tried to think of anything she could say to console him, but as the full weight of what had just happened settled on her, the words dried up in her mouth. The whole scene had taken only seconds. And now they would be nonna for another year.

Margherita stood up. A calculating look crossed her face.

“Let’s not panic,” she said. “Let’s think about this. No one else knows Bartolomeo is hurt.”

“No, but…” Francesca began.

Margherita cut her off. “Francesca. You know how to ride, right?”

Francesca nodded.

“Perfect,” said Margherita. “Look at you two. You’re the same height. You have the same hair. You even sound the same.”

“We do not!” protested Bartolomeo, his voice cracking.

“Don’t you see?” said Margherita. “Francesca, you wear Bartolomeo’s clothes. You ride in his place. The victory still goes to Onda. No one ever has to know.”

“Our father would know in a second,” Francesca pointed out.

But Bartolomeo was beginning to perk up. “We can talk him into it,” he said. “He wants to win as badly as we do. If I stay here while you ride the first trial and he sees how good you are…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can barely ride,” said Francesca.

Cazzata,” said Bartolomeo. “You’ve spent as much time on horseback as I have. You can do this.” He looked up at her, his dark eyes pleading. “Please. If the contrada finds out what happens, they’ll despise me.”

“If we get caught…”

Margherita waved her off. “You won’t be. If you lose, who cares? And if you win, which of the contrade will want to admit that they lost to a girl?”

This was beginning to sound terrifyingly possible. Francesca looked at the horse, who had recovered from her scare and was now contentedly cropping weeds at the edge of the paddock. All she had to do was ride her three times around Il Campo. That wasn’t so frightening, was it?

Francesca said quietly, “I guess we’d better get to work.”

# # #

The reins were slippery in Francesca’s damp hands. The late-June sun beat down oppressively, leaving her sweaty even in Bartolomeo’s light doublet. Without her women’s undergarments, her body felt squirmy and unstable, and she felt exposed, keenly aware that anyone could be looking at the space between her legs. Her loose hair kept blowing into her mouth. How did Bartolomeo go around like this all the time?

Volante stirred restlessly beneath her. The spirit of the Palio had gotten into her, too. Francesca didn’t have much practice at bareback riding, and she clung nervously to the reins, fearing that she’d lose control in the chaos of the race. Just stay on, she told herself.

Jockeys jostled and horses nipped at each other as they took their places between the ropes. Raffaello gave Francesca a smug grin from atop the big white horse. Sudden fear that he’d seen through the ruse shot through her and she turned away, her face coloring. But he only shouted, “Ready to stare at a horse’s ass, Bartolomeo?”
Do what Bartolomeo would do, she thought. Say what he would say. So she swallowed and shot back, “I already am staring at one!”

The ropes dropped. The trial began.

The horses took off in a river of many colors. All was noise and confusion and clods of earth kicked up by sixty-eight pounding hooves. Francesca lost her nerve and reined Volante back, letting the leaders dart ahead.

They swept around the great curve of the piazza and down the treacherous slope into the first corner. Around the corner, the horses leaned at almost 45 degrees and Francesca gritted her teeth, willing Volante not to lose her footing on the steep ground.

The jockey from Lupa misjudged the turn and collided with the church wall. He fell, rolling away into the crowd to avoid being trampled. The horses shot down the straightaway.

At a full gallop, the course was perilously narrow. Stone buildings hemmed them in on one side and the shouting crowd on the other. The second corner approached, the narrowest part of the track. The horses bunched up. Francesca bit her lip and gripped the reins until her knuckles turned white. Two horses collided and one fell. But somehow, she and Volante were still running.

The second lap began. Too slow! She had fallen to the back with the stragglers. Volante stretched out her neck, eager to catch up. Francesca set her jaw and whipped Volante into a flat-out run.

They zigzagged and darted their way through the middle of the pack, struggling past one rider after another. The corners swept past a second time. Now they were on the final lap. Ahead, Francesca could spot the white tail of Diavolo Bianco, held high and proud like a flag, but a knot of three other horses blocked her path. She nudged Volante to the left, then to the right, but there was no opening.

And then they were across the finish line. The trial was over. The whole thing had taken less than two minutes.

Raffaello yelled and raised his fists triumphally, surrounded by a Torre throng. Francesca slipped off Volante’s back and tried to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding. Fifth place. Not brilliant. Bartolomeo would be ashamed. But she’d finished the trial.

But that was only the beginning. There were four more, and then the race. The only thing that mattered.

Margherita took the reins from her. Their fingers brushed. “Not bad,” she said. “Not bad at all, for your first time out. There’s a victor in you.”

The touch of her fingers sent a thrill through Francesca that was more than just the excitement of the race.

But then Francesca spotted her father headed towards her through the crowd. She blanched. If they were going to have this conversation, it couldn’t happen in public.

“I’ve got to get home,” she said. “This is going to be awkward.”

# # #

Her initial strategy of running into the house and announcing “HipapaBartolomeosprainedhisanklesoI’mridinginsteadokaybye” didn’t go exactly as planned. Her father had predictably strong opinions on this development, particularly the part where she and Bartolomeo had pulled the whole thing off without his permission. But when he finally got all his oaths and threats to disown his lying, cheating children out of his system, he made an ultimatum: If a daughter of his raced in the Palio, she would not come in fifth.

The next two days passed in a frenetic blur. They smuggled a blanket-swathed Bartolomeo back to their father’s house to convalesce out of sight, but Francesca spent her every spare moment at Margherita’s farm, training. She rode until she was bone-tired and her muscles burned.

Whatever Francesca did, Margherita had a criticism. She was too timid, too slow, too stiff, too clumsy on the turns. But on those rare, beautiful moments when everything went perfectly, her face lit up with the radiance of an angel.

By midday, Francesca was fighting back tears of sheer exhaustion. As she heeled Volante into a gallop once again, she realized with a start that winning the Palio was no longer her only wish. More and more, she also deeply, painfully wanted to please Margherita.

At the second trial, she hit the wall and fell at the first corner. It was little consolation that the riderless Volante came in fourth.

At the third trial, she avoided the wall only to get entangled with another horse. Bartolomeo, who kept demanding a rehash of every moment, reminded her in none-too-oblique terms that it was his reputation on the line. And yet even his words didn’t cut her as much as the way Margherita sadly shook her head.

At the fourth trial, she kept her seat and came in second, just behind Raffaello.

She dismounted, buoyant with exhilaration. For once, the raucous Onda crowd around her was cheering, not grumbling. People slapped her on the back and showered her with unsolicited advice on how she could turn second into first.

Francesca glowed inwardly. Was this what being a victor felt like?

“Don’t let it go to your head,” said her father. “You know what the prize is for second? Nonna.”

Francesca sighed.

Back at the farm, as she picked gravel out of Volante’s hooves, Francesca asked, “What did I do wrong that time? Was I too slow off the starting line? Too tense on the turns? It was that, wasn’t it? I can work on that first corner some more…”

Margherita was leaning against a fence post, twining a stray lock of hair around her finger.

“There’s nothing else today until the banquet, and that’s not for hours,” she said. “I think you should relax.”
Francesca paused, the pick in her hand. “What?”

“You’ve worked your ass off these past two days. There’s nothing more I can do to help. Truthfully, there never was. You’re a brilliant rider. If you win, the victory will be yours alone.”

“I thought…” Francesca fumbled. “I thought you despised me. I thought all this time you were looking down on me as the inferior substitute for my brother.”

Margherita laughed. It wasn’t an unkind laugh. “That little hothead is a good rider and no mistake. But you…you’re magnificent.”

She slipped her arm off the fence post and came over to Francesca. Madonna santa, she was enchanting. Francesca couldn’t take her eyes off the curve of her neck, the smooth shape of her jaw.

“All those hours watching you on Volante,” whispered Margherita, “Watching the way you move…and all I could think was…”

She kissed Francesca.

Francesca scarcely had time to be shocked before Margherita’s arms were around her, pulling her near, her touch close and intimate without the protection of a bodice and layers of skirts. Francesca had expected Margherita to feel stiff and cold, like embracing a ceramic doll. Nothing had prepared her for the warmth she found.

They half-walked, half-tripped into the house, unwilling to let go of each other. Margherita tapped a cask of wine and filled two leather cups.

“Moscato,” she said. “You deserve it.”

And then, in a moment of indulgence, she dragged in a wooden tub from outside and began hauling in buckets of water from the pump to heat over the hearth. When Francesca offered to help, Margherita shook her head. “You rest.”

They lay half-dressed on the pillow-strewn sofa while the water heated. Francesca’s gaze wandered over the green, red, and yellow frescoes adorning the walls, most featuring the serpent of Vipera. Margherita wasn’t from a noble family, but she was wealthier than she had first let on.

“Where’s your family, anyway?” Francesca wondered aloud. “This place is always empty when I come here.”

“In town half a cask down by now, probably,” said Margherita, sprinkling sage and lavender onto the steaming water. “I’ve been running this place by myself for years.”

Francesca sank gratefully into the hot water while Margherita combed her hair and massaged her aching back. The cup in her hand was always full of sweet, floral wine. Her eyelids grew heavy. As she drifted off there in the tub, she distantly heard Margherita humming.

# # #

Churchbells awakened Francesca, tolling once, twice, nine times. She sat up hazily on the bed, where she did not remember falling asleep. Margherita was nowhere in sight.

Then the sunlight streaming through the window hit her like a stroke of lightning. It was morning. She’d slept through the banquet. She’d slept through the final trial! The Captains of the contrade would be enrolling the jockeys for the race right then. If Francesca didn’t show, someone else would be riding for Onda.

She struggled into Bartolomeo’s clothes with limbs that felt like lead and jumped onto Volante’s back. Her head swam and her eyelids felt glued shut. Struggling to keep her balance on a horse that suddenly seemed to be listing like a ship, she rode into Il Campo at a gallop.

At the sight of her, cheers went up from the part of the crowd dressed in white and sky blue. The jockeys were already inside the city hall, receiving their riding silks. She barreled across the piazza, jumped off Volante, and ran inside.

“I’m here!” she shouted, bending double to catch her breath.

Her father stood up front with the mayor and the captain of Onda, the latter holding the blue-and-white silks embroidered with the Onda dolphin.

“Fr—Bartolomeo!” he exclaimed. “Where have you been? The whole contrada has been looking for you!”

“I’m sorry,” was all she could say. “I don’t know what happened. But I can ride.”

The Captain handed her the silks. Her father whispered, “Don’t let us down.”

Francesca’s head reeled as she staggered through the pageantry before the race. Was it the wine? She hadn’t drunk that much, had she?

And where was Margherita? Francesca led Volante into the chapel for the benediction, and the other girl was not there. She rode through town in the parade, and the other girl was not there. She watched the heralds hoist the victory banner over the piazza, and still Margherita was not there.

As Francesca waited to take her place at the starting line, at last Margherita appeared. She wore a scarf of scarlet, trimmed with blue and white. Torre colors.

“So you made it after all,” she said. “I thought you would sleep all day.”

“Torre,” Francesca managed to say. “But…”

The corner of Margherita’s mouth twisted into a cold smile. “My father is from Vipera, but my mother is from Torre. Torre could make our family great. And giving them a Palio victory would raise us very highly in their esteem.”

“The drawing…”

“Rigged, of course, just as you suspected. My job was to get Bartolomeo out of the race and to convince you to take his place. If Onda had chosen another jockey to replace him, they might have picked a winner. But a meek little girl like you had no chance.”

“But you trained me,” Francesca protested. Her head was pounding.

“I trained you to keep you out of the city and away from anyone who might recognize you. But I did my job a little too well. You were beginning to look like a real contender. So I resorted to a simpler measure.”

She pulled a glass vial of laudanum out of her purse.

“It’s a pity,” she said over her shoulder as she vanished back into the crowd. “If you weren’t from Onda, I might have loved you.”

Francesca’s vision swam as she took her place between the ropes. She couldn’t tell if the numbness was the laudanum or the weight of Margherita’s words. The memory of Margherita’s lips on her own made her stomach turn sour. She was such a fool. And Onda would pay for it.

Raffaello smirked at her and made a crude gesture. Sudden fury surged within her, overpowering the lingering grogginess. When she looked at the arrogant Torre jockey mounted on that big white horse, all she could see was Margherita’s cold smile.

The ropes dropped.

Francesca plied Volante with her whip.

They flew.

She and Volante surged to the front of the pack. Only Raffaello remained ahead of them. They charged into the first corner. In Francesca’s half-drugged state, the slope felt steeper and the corner sharper than she remembered. Struggling to keep her balance around the turn, she barely managed to pull up Volante in time to avoid crashing into the front of the chapel. Three other riders darted past her.

No. She wouldn’t let them win like this. She gritted her teeth and shook her head, trying to clear the grogginess. And she headed full speed into the second corner.

Over the next two laps, she fought twin battles, working her way back through the pack while trying to keep her head clear. Every hoofbeat drove a nail through her skull. But at last she reached the front, pulling even with Raffaello. He gave her a startled look when he noticed her beside him, then lashed her hand with his whip. She winced.

Francesca and Volante began to edge ahead.

As they swept around the tight final corner, Raffaello reached out and grabbed her leg.

She lost her balance and crashed into the track’s hard surface, the thin layer of earth scarcely cushioning the stones below. She curled up, barely avoiding the storm of hooves. Raffaello flashed her a cheeky smile as he galloped toward the finish line.

And there, almost neck in neck, ran the riderless Volante.

“Go, Volante!” shouted Francesca.

It was as if Volante grew wings. Unridden, unguided, the little bay mare charged past Raffaello and over the line.

Raffaello had already raised his fist in victory before he realized what had happened. The sound of the crowd could have been heard in heaven above. People in blue-and-white scarves poured onto the track, lifting Francesca onto their shoulders and singing “Onda, Onda!” while they carried her up to claim the banner.

As she hefted the banner, her face glowing, Francesca caught sight of Margherita in the crowd. She looked up, her face stony, then turned away.

A hint of sadness tinged the exhilaration pouring through Francesca. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to hate Margherita. All she’d done was play the game. Francesca wanted to tell herself that, in her place, she wouldn’t have done the same. But in her heart, she knew it was a lie. For Onda, she would have done anything.

Blood ran hot during the Palio.

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, narrated by Violet Dixon.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online


Links to Gwen C. Katz Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 08:00

This is just a pointer to the version of this paper that I blogged.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra. 2015. “The Illusion of Sexual Identity in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans 5” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Boehringer, Sandra “The Illusion of Sexual Identity in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans 5”

This article covers the same material and topics as Chapter 4 in the 2021 edition of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. See my write-up of that version at the link. Although the structure of the two discussions is different, and the present article is worth reading on its own, it didn't seem profitable to write it up as a separate LHMP entry.

Time period: 
Monday, January 24, 2022 - 07:40

This article tackles an interesting contradiction in Roman sexual discourse--or perhaps in scholarly discourse around Roman sexuality: how do you integrate the theoretical concepts of "active" and "passive" within sexual activity with the language used to talk about those acts and the people who engage in them? I tend to think that apparent contradictions--rather than needing to be resolved via an additional layer of theory--sometimes simply illustrate the contradictory nature of life and society. "Women are supposed to behave this way, men are supposed to behave that way, but what if they don't?" You can view it as the exception that tests the rule, or as an unavoidable messiness around the edges of normativituy, or as a deeper structural coherence that would make sense if only you could decipher it. Or you could simply accept that people behave in individual ways that don't always follow social rules, and that other people will talk about those diversions from the norm in descriptive ways rather than necessarily tryin to shoehorn them into the standard language. Kamen and Levin-Richardson tackle the question: Given that women are presumed to be sexually "passive" according to the Roman sexual hierarchy, and given that the verb futo/future inherently presumes that the agent of the verb is the "active" partner in m/f penetrative sex, how is it that the agentive feminine noun "fututrix" exists, and what does it mean when it is applied to specific women?

The article become relevant to the LHMP because that question is addressed within the context of sexually "active" women in general, to which category the tribade belongs. But I take issue with the shallowness of the analysis of "tribade" in this article. And, in general, the article gives the feeling of having presupposed a conclusion and then carefully selecting and omitting the evidence in order to come to that conclusion. The question itself is fascinating, but the answers here are somewhat unsatisfactory from a methodological basis.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Kamen, Deborah & Sarah Levin-Richardson. 2015. “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Kamen, Deborah & Sarah Levin-Richardson “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary”

This article looks generally at the topic of women with “active” sexuality in a classical Roman context, as understood in the context of three grammatically-feminine nouns derived from verbs of sexual action: fellatrix, tribade, and fututrix. (Crudely translated, fellator, rubber, and fucker, but where the grammatical form of the word unambiguously indicates a female actor.) An example is given of an inscription identifying a woman as Mola foutoutris “Mola, fucker” using an agentive noun that implies the possession and use of a phallus. The thesis is that these terms have in common that the women were conceptualized as “sexual agents”, separate from the question of penetration, as two of the words (fellatrix and fututrix) were used for women who were penetrated (according to Roman understandings) and one (tribade) for women who penetrated. [Note: I’ll be interesting to see how these conclusions are reached, as I’ve previously seen multiple analyses that interpret fututrix as indicating a woman who performs penetration, and context doesn’t necessarily indicate that a tribade engages in penetrative sex, especially given the literal meaning of the word root.]

The article begins with a discussion of how the terms “active” and “passive” have generally been used in academic discussions of classical homoeroticisim, and especially Greek pederasty. In this context, social norms assumed/required an alignment of social hierarchy (older, higher-status) with both erotic attitude and activity (desiring erotic interaction, gaining sexual satisfaction) and with the grammar of the language used (the grammatically active erastes “lover”). The norm for the grammatically passive eromenes (beloved) was to be younger, lower-status, accepting/allowing erotic interaction, and not experiencing sexual satisfaction from the encounter.

Foucault used active/passive in a second way (in addition to the insertive/receptive duality), following his focus on Greek philosophical principles of self-control of desires of all types, where someone “active” sexually was one who exercised control over his (gendered pronoun used deliberately) sexual appetites, while someone who was sexually “passive” was driven by their appetites, with this category expected to include women, children, and slaves, not because of the nature of their physical participation in sexual acts, but because “by nature” they did not have the virtue of self-control. In combination with a number of other dual contrasts, Foucault creates a “polarity” model with one pole being masculine/dominant/active/superior/sexual-subject and the other pole being feminine (or feminized)/dominated/passive/subordinate/sexual-object. This multivalent polarity model is generally used by those studying classical sexuality.

Thus the prevailing model as used by Halperin, et al. is one defined by “the penetration of the body of one person by the body—and specifically, by the phallus—of another.” In this context “active” and “passive” assume the meanings “penetrator” and “penetrated”. Having been developed in the context of Greek sexuality, this model was also taken up by those studying Roman sexuality. But the association of “penetrated” with “passive” becomes less coherent in the context of a named category of men who actively seek and enjoy penetration by other men. Such men might be disparaged as “effeminate” (aligning with another part of the polarity) but they disrupt the idea that being penetrated was, by definition, something that was endured rather than sought.

The standard vocabulary of sex in Latin aligns with two roles (active/passive), two genders (male/female), and three orifices (vagina, anus, mouth), with the assumption that the inserted item is a phallus, and with gaps in the vocabulary for impossible combinations (e.g., men’s lack of a vagina, women’s lack of a phallus). In the following table, note that only masculine agentive nouns occur for the “active” (insertive) role.

(To deal with potential formatting issues, I’ve reorganized this from a table to a bulleted list. Vocabulary is identified as “v” for verb and “n” for agentive noun.)


  • Vagina: future (v), fututor (n)
  • Anus: pedicure (v), pedicator or pedico (n)
  • Mouth: irrumare (v), irrumator (n)


  • Vagina: futui (v), male: cunnilinctor (n)**, female: femina or puella (n)
  • Anus: pedicari (v), male: cinaedus or pathicus (n), female: pathica (n)
  • Mouth: irrumari or fellari (v), male: fellator (n), female: fellatrix (n)

[**A digression for context: As one might guess from the similarity of words, this is the masculine agentive form for “one who performs cunnilingus, oral sex on the vagina.” And its inclusion in this place in the table is a bit confusing and incoherent. The table is taken from Parker in Hallett and Skinner 1997 which has a bit more discussion of this topic. Why this is viewed as a “passive” act has to do with viewing phallic penetrative sex, and sex with at least one man present, as the reference point.  One would expect cunnilinctor to be grouped in the “mouth as orifice” group, with a distinction between whether it is a phallus or a vagina “penetrating” the mouth. But since the grid here assumes the presence of at least one man, then the location of cunnilinctor in this space is treating the (passive) man as having a mouth-as-vagina, since that’s the only available role for a man in this scenario. Thus the mouth is viewed as a “receptive orifice” and the person whose mouth is involved is seen as the passive/receptive partner. How do we assign active/passive roles when two “receptive orifices” are brought together? Mouth + vagina? In this case, it is the social acceptability of the organ that guides interpretation. Romans considered oral sex to degrade and pollute the mouth performing it. Therefore, in order to align status and sexual roles, the person whose mouth performs oral sex is defined as having the lower status (passive) role, even when that contradicts the gender of the people involved. Note that this table doesn’t include language for the hypothetical cases of the “active” vagina that is “penetrating” a mouth, or for the “passive” woman who is performing oral sex on a woman. The feminine agentive form cunnilinctrix doesn’t seem to appear in the Roman corpus, but the act is clearly implied in Martial’s epigram on Philaenis.]

In discussing Parker’s “grid of sexual roles”, the authors note that Parker, in addition to using active/passive as synonyms for insertive/receptive, also uses “active” in the sense of “desiring sexual activity regardless of role.” Thus a sex worker or a woman who has sex outside of marriage is “active” in the sense of pursuing sex in contexts that are not licensed by normative roles for women. Within this sense of “active” a woman could hypothetically be “sexually active” within her role as a married woman, although this would still be considered non-normative.

Having reviewed the various ways in which the concepts of active and passive were used, both by the Greeks and Romans themselves, and by scholars discussing classical sexuality, Kamen & Levin-Richardson move on to considering what Roman writers meant when they used “active” feminine agentive terms for women engaged in sex, such as fututrix. Using both grammatical and social contexts for the language discussing men in “passive” sexual roles, the authors identify a distinction between words that indicate an “accepting/enduring” role, such as pedicatus or irrumatus and words that indicate a “desiring/pursuing” role, such as cinaedus or fellator.

This finally brings us to the heart of the present article: is there language in classical Latin that marks a “passive but sexually desiring/pursuing woman”? because one of the basic tenets of the Roman sexual system is that all normative women (of whatever social status) are, by definition, sexually “passive.” Roman sexual literature is fully of descriptions of women who enthusiastically pursue sexual experiences, but this article focuses somewhat narrowly on women described as fellatrix (a woman who performs oral sex), fututrix (a woman who fucks, linguistically identifying her as an active participant), and tribade (which gets defined in a variety of ways, so I’ll wait to see how these authors interpret it). Although these are agentive nouns, they do not define sexual “identities” but simply sexual activities that are framed in a certain way within the context of Roman sexuality.

“Fellatrix” is the feminine form of the agentive noun derived from the verb “fello” (to suck) which, when used in a sexual context, indicates oral sex (by default, performed on a phallus). The masculine form is more common, appearing in both literature and graffiti, while the feminine form has only been found in graffiti. Descriptions of women performing fellatio do appear in literature, used as mockery or invective, but without using the agentive noun. Oral sex was considered to be degrading and polluting for the person performing it, and description or accusations of the act were often combined with other undesirable characteristics. “Fello” is a grammatically active verb, and therefore implies an active (and perhaps willing) participant in the act. Beside the literary descriptions and innuendos, there are multiple examples of graffiti along the lines of “Rufilla felat” (Rufilla sucks) which, when appearing in a brothel may be more of an advertisement than an insult. But not all such examples appear in buildings identified as brothels, and several of the examples of the form “Secundilla felatrix” (Secundilla the cock-sucker) appear on the walls of private homes.

These uses of derivatives of the verb “fello” can be contrasted with vocabulary derived from “irrumo”, where the agent of this verb is the man (always a man) on whom oral sex is being performed. Thus it might best be colloquially translated as “to mouth-fuck”. The use of this vocabulary set highlights the “receptive” partner in oral sex as both grammatically and behaviorally passive, and contexts in which it is used often focus on the act as aggressive or hostile.

Kamen & Levin-Richardson interpret “tribade,” although literally deriving from a verb meaning “to rub,” as indicating a women who performs penetrative sex. Part of their rationale is the fable by Phaedrus regarding a drunken Prometheus putting male and female genitals on the wrong bodies, thus creating both molles (men classified as effeminate due to preferring a passive role in sex) and tribades. They elaborate their interpretation of this myth as indicating that molles are male beings who have been given female genitals, and tribades are female beings who have been given male genitals, therefore tribades must have been understood as performing penetrative sex.

(Note: Boehringer points out the logical inconsistency of this take, as “molles” was used for people who had male physiology but were considered to have effeminate desires. Thus the basis for interpreting this fable as characterizing tribades as having a penis-equivalent is weak, and the logical chain “tribades are women with a penis, therefore tribades are defined by performing penetrative acts” requires independent evidence.)

The authors note the legal argument quoted by Seneca the Elder about two women caught in a sex act, both of whom are identified as “tribades” but only one of whom is initially believed to be a man. Martial has several epigrams that identify the subject as a tribade who engage in a variety of sexual acts. One sodomizes (pedicat) boys, does an unspecified act to girls (dolat), and also performs oral sex on girls (vorat). Another fucks (futui) her girlfriend. A third “joins twin cunts”. All of these are presented linguistically and situationally as “active” and the authors assert this agency “generally takes the form of penetration”. [Note: although the evidence they present does not at all clearly indicate this.] The tribade’s sexual agency typically involves acts that would be considered normative for a (dominant) man, but are inappropriate for a woman.

The third “sexual agent” word found for women is fututrix “(female) fucker”. The default meaning of the verb “futuo” involves a sexual agent with a phallus who penetrates a vagina. So how do we interpret examples in which the agent is female? There are two examples in graffiti of a person with a feminine name identified as a fututrix. There’s a possible example on a curse tablet. And there are two examples in Martial’s epigrams of a grammatically-feminine body part (a hand, a tongue) that is being used sexually being called “fututrix”.

Reference works of Latin have interpreted this word in opposite ways, depending on whether they relied on grammatical or social context. Grammatically, fututrix indicates an active agent and is directly parallel to masculine fututor, and by this reasoning should be interpreted as indicating a woman who performs penetration. Thus, if one follows the interpretation of tribade as implying penetration, tribade and fututrix should be parallel in meaning. But the authors dismiss this, arguing that there are no examples of a woman described both as a tribade and as a fututrix. [Note: the authors either overlook or avoid discussing Martial’s epigram that describes a woman as a tribade and states that she fucks (futuo) her female partner.]

Interpreting the word fututrix based on social context, one starts with the presumption that, because a woman cannot be an active penetrator (not having a phallus), one can only interpret the word as indicating “the normative female role within a ‘futuo’ scenario,” i.e., a woman being penetrated. However if one wanted to describe a woman as “one-who-is-fucked,” there are other grammatical constructions available, such as the passive participle, which does appear in other graffiti.

The other two instances of the word that are brought to bear involve sexual scenarios in which a man’s body part is being used sexually, and where that body part is grammatically feminine. In the first, the hand is being used to stimulate a boy’s genitals, and in the second, an act of cunnilingus is being described and the man’s tongue is described as a fututrix. Neither of these is a normative example of “futuo”. The hand is not penetrating, and cunnilingus is normally framed as involving being “penetrated.” But they have in common that the male participant is taking deliberate, intentional action. (And possibly that he is the socially dominant partner.) From this, the authors conclude that the “active” grammatical meaning of fututrix comes from agency and desire, not from the “penetrative” role in the sex act. [Note: Since the emphasis in the cunnilingus example is specifically described as penetrating the vagina, this might be an alternate basis for the “override,” but the authors don’t suggest this as a contribution.]

Additional examples are given of descriptions of lascivious women whose participation in sex is given in grammatically and performatively active terms (shake/wiggle, move, thrust).

Thus, the authors conclude, women can be “active” in sex (and have this reflected in active agentive nouns) by expressing desire for the act and engaging in actions/movements during sex. In the context of a m/f sex act (fellatrix, fututrix) this is both non-normative and desired by men. (At least, desired in a non-marital partner.) This same desiring/acting implication for a tribade is both non-normative and disparaged. (Though the authors attribute the negative aspect to them being “penetrating pseudo-men,” as opposed simply falling outside the normative sexual system.) They propose revising the table of sexual vocabulary and roles to reflect this expanded polarity, differentiating between traditionally “passive” roles based on whether active sexual desire and participation is involved.

[Note: I’m not convinced by the argumentation in this article, particularly in light of the more in-depth analysis of some of the examples by Boehringer. There’s a bit too much assuming of conclusions (e.g., “tribade = masculine-style penetrator”) and glossing over of contradictory evidence (e.g., the wide variety of sexual activities by Martial’s tribades). But there’s definitely a contradictory puzzle to be sorted out in the existence of the term fututrix, particularly when appearing in the context of sex work.]

Time period: 
Tuesday, January 18, 2022 - 08:00

An interesting article that tackles the association of Sappho, Lesbos, and female homosexuality from a different angle.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Gilhuly, Kate. 2015. “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Gilhuly, Kate “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos”

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

The common modern assumption is that the geographic and sexual semantics of “lesbian” are linked via Lesbos’s most famous resident, the poet Sappho, whose poetry expressing eros between women was well-known in antiquity. A close look at the chronology of the sexual sense begins to cast doubt on this as the primary causal link. Evidence for the depiction of Sappho as “a specific kind of woman who loved women” does not appear until centuries after her lifetime. And in the earliest known reference to an association of Lesbos with women who love women, in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, there is no reference to Sappho as an example. But if not through Sappho, how did this association arise?

Gilhuly maps out a long, gradual development of sexual associations for people from Lesbos that eventually gave rise to “the lesbian” in the modern sense of the word, but passed through a number of rather different associations before that point. I’ll hit the highlights of this tour. Gilhuly particularly notes that influence of Athenian depictions of “New Music” and how it was personified in comic drama, as well as the general use of sexual language to represent and manipulate social power dynamics, rather than referring to actual sexual practices. It was this, in combination with the evolving pop culture image of Sappho that gave rise to the association of Lesbos with a specific sexual orientation. Within this, the image of the courtesan, though not directly linked to Sappho or to female homosexuality, becomes a locus for exploring and articulating “non-wifely” activities.

Greek sources, beginning as early as Homer, frame Lesbos as being represented by its female resources and by the beauty of its women. [Note: I’d want to dig deeper into the Homer example, because the context is offering a gift of women enslaved during war. What other geographic-associated gifts are being given? Is Lesbos unique in providing women as opposed to something else? How are other gifts of enslaved women presented and described?]

It was common in Athenian comic theater to identify character types by their geographic origin, including particular sexual specialties. It was in this context that the “erotic reputation” of Lesbos in Greek literature was created. Turning a geographic name into a verb indicating some activity relating to sex was common and must be understood as the context for Lesbos to be treated in this way. Thus “to Corinthize” meant to traffic in prostitutes, “to Phoenicize” means to perform cunnilingus, to “Sybarize” is to be a volupturary. Not all such verbs were sexual. “To act like an Egyptian” is to do criminal acts, “to act like a Cretan” is to lie. [Note: Thus the logical paradox attributed to the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, when he proclaimed “All Cretans are liars,” but being one himself, must therefore be lying.]

Such “ethnic verbs” would have multiple meanings all associated with the culture in question. For example, “to Spartanize” could mean to be a pederast, to break promises, or to love money. The verb “to Lesbianize” is defined by one author as meaning “to do shameful things” while other sources are interpreted as identifying those things specifically as performing fellatio. (This interpretation becomes explicit in post-classical times.)

There is a detailed discussion of the various texts that are interpreted in this fashion. They involve innuendo and word-play, especially alliteration with other words beginning in “L” including various those relating to lapping and licking. [Note: This sort of sound-symbolism can be cross-linguistic. The association of the mouth-part used to form an L (the tongue) with other things done with that part occurs in multiple unrelated languages, similarly the sound N and concepts related to the nose or to smelling.] But the classical sources don’t clearly support a conclusion that “to Lesbianize” only meant fellatio. Other contexts suggest a sense of sexual initiative, behavior that was considered shameless, and an association with the mouth. Many of the examples have a heterosexual context.

But there is also a non-sexual use of “to Lesbianize” in classical Greek, which means “to make music according to the style of Lesbos” suggesting the Aeolic style associated with poets such as Alcaeus and Sappho. In 5th century Athenian drama, this musical style was adapted into an innovative “New Music” which provoked politicized reactions, as when Plato critized it as frenzied, chaotic, and lawless intended to provoke pleasure in the listener, and prone to inspiring the average person to think he could judge good versus bad performance. [Note: I’m definitely getting a “Kids these days! Their music is just noise!” sort of vibe.] Greek musical theory classified certain modes as “masculine” or “feminine”, and criticism of the New Music included accusations that it was effeminate and self-indulgent. Thus the association of New Music, and the musical sense of “to Lesbianize”, with the criticism of New Music as feminine and lacking control all contributed to the pop culture stereotype of “the Lesbian”.

This group of associations appears in the plays of Aristophanes, where the musical styles are associated with luring a man into a sybaritic life that includes hanging out at symposia, composing drinking songs in the style of Alcaeus and Sappho, among other things. When the man takes off from the symposium with a female flute player (auletris), he tells her he has rescued her from having to “lesbianize the symposiasts”. This is the sort of ambiguous, multi-layered wordplay that both suggests a sexual meaning and indicates that it is not the only meaning: “lesbianize” could mean either to play music in the (disapproved) Lesbian mode for the drinkers, or to provide them with (oral?) sexual services.

Other similar examples of “lesbianize” in more specifically musical contexts are discussed. But this is only one of the multiple strands that construct a sexual “identity” for Lesbians (geographic) in antiquity.

Both in Aristophanes The Frogs and in a more obscure work, Cherion by Pherecrates, “Music” is personified as a sexualized and abused woman, in order to critique what the author depicts as the degradation and decline of musical and poetic standards. The personified Mousike complains of an array of geographically personified abusers who “stuffed me full of wiggles…and undresses me and loosens me up with his eleven notes.” These abusers of music are all identified as belonging to the Athenian and East Greek (explicitly including Lesbos) musical innovators. The character of Mousike, in addition to her status as an allegorical figure, is framed as a courtesan-like woman, thus again bringing together the motifs of courtesans, music, and geography and the idea of the debasement of musical traditions—the same motifs expressed in the musical sense of the verb “lesbianize.” This intersection was created and developed on the Athenian (comic) stage and merged with the sexual sense of “lesbianize” but in a heterosexual context. Although the musical meaning of “lesbianize” does connect, in part, to the poet Sappho, the sexual sense—at this point in the development of the meaning-cluster—does not. Yet we now have a loosely heterogeneous cluster of concepts focused around the geographic idea of Lesbos and embodied in the idea of the courtesan that includes innovative (and allegedly debased) musical styles, and assertive/transgressive female sexuality (that may also be associated with debased acts such as performing oral sex). Within this context an association is created that links Sappho as muse and Sappho as courtesan.

In the early sources that mention Sappho, Gilhuly argues that she is not linked personally with homoeroticism, despite the homerotic themes in her poetry. (In a footnote, Gilhuly notes that her analysis is concerned only with literary representations, and that there are Sappho-related images on ceramics in a similar era that suggest an association with a female pederastic image and a tradition of women-only symposia among courtesans (heteirai) which may reflect a part of the tradition that was not included in literature.) She is also set up in contrast and opposition to the image of the heteira, as in a passage by Herodotus concerning Sappho’s brother and his relationship with a famous hetaira Rhodopis, where Sappho mocks her brother in verse for his devotion. It is in contexts such as this that “Sappho as lyric poet in a community of women” becomes “Sappho as adjunct to heterosexual relations of men with courtesans” with a resulting “contamination” of her reputation. This context then drives the development of “Sappho as fetishized object of male desire, depicted as promiscuous and courtesan-adjacent.” This version was so in conflict with Sappho-the-poet that some traditions felt the need to spit the historic Sappho into two different people in order to accommodate it.

Gihuly introduces the self-mocking poem by Anacreon, introduced in the text as sometimes being thought to have Sappho as its subject, in which the poet-persona is struck by Eros to love a girl “from well-built Lesbos” who scorns him because his hair is white and “gapes after another” instead, where “another is grammatically feminine and ambiguous between “another [head of hair]” or “another [person who is female].” Gilhuly downplays the homoerotic reading, feeling that it requires a conceptual leap to attributing a homoerotic reputation to all residents of Lesbos at an era when this is not otherwise in evidence. [Note: But if the commentary by Athenaeus is correct that Anacreon was visualizing Sappho as the girl in his poem, then there is no need for this leap, only an acceptance that Sappho herself was understood as having homoerotic potential.] The style of the poem clearly evokes Sappho’s style and imagery. But if Sappho is indeed the girl in the poem, then the text and the commentary surrounding it that comments on other poets who “loved Sappho” frames her as the object of male erotic desire, regardless of her own feelings. This, in turn, contributed to the motif of Sappho as icon of insatiable (heterosexual) desire with multiple (male) partners, culminating in the legend of Phaon and the leap off the Leucadian rock. (Though some version of this story attribute it to the “other” Sappho, the courtesan.) Gilhuly sees this as an understandable resolution of the difficulty ancient male scholars had in envisioning a female poet, associated with erotic discourse, as being an active subject unless she could be assimilated to heteronormativity by making her a courtesan.

Roman literature carried over some of these images of Sappho and Lesbos while introducing new ones. Gilhuly catalogs them without introducing an overall framework.

Catullus and other poets such as Horace acknowledged Sappho as a poetic predecessor but seem to have difficulty with her femaleness, either assimilating her to their poetic love object (as with Catullus’s Lesbia) or framing her as necessarily masculine (because only men can be great poets) as in Horace’s “mascula Sappho.” Gilhuly connects Horace’s epithet with a Roman image of female homosexuals as “masculine women linked to a Greek past” (as per Hallett 1989). [Note: But see Boehringer 2021 who argues against this supposed “masculine tribade” concept in Roman texts.]

On the sexual side, as in Ovid’s Heroides, the homoerotic content of Sappho’s poetry is acknowledged but over-written by a heterosexual conversion (Phaon). Ovid’s transformation of Sappho’s image was derived from themes in Greek comedy, but integrated the various motifs into a rejection of same-sex love between women.

Overall these Roman interpretations are not coherent with each other, but treat Sappho (her identity, not her work) as source material that can be reinterpreted imaginatively. [Note: Ovid, in particular, had a massive effect on how Sappho’s personal life was envisioned in later centuries.]

As a summary, Gilhuly posits that the image of the courtesan provides the bridge between the evolving representations of Sappho and the evolving image of “lesbian” as a sexual category. Although, in the context of the courtesan, that “lesbian” category is homosexual.

Both as a real social category and as a literary character, the courtesan could do and say things that a “respectable” woman could not. In particular, it was socially acceptable to depict her both as the object and subject of erotic desire, as well as depicting her as given to excess both in behavior and dress. (Within a cultural context where virtue was equated with moderation and self-control.) Gilhuly hypothesizes that this behavioral freedom was an essential context for the “invention” of female homosexuality, particularly her freedom to be a sexual initiator. But this invention/association did not occur within the cultural context when the courtesan/hetaira was a living tradition, but only later when she had become a symbolic subject.

As a fixture of the symposium, the courtesan was solidly associated with the world of poetry and philosophy. She could participate in male-coded activities within the symposium and was associated with erotic discussions. These associations are seen in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans (although these are rhetorical exercises, not an attempt to represent the actual lives and concerns of courtesans). Dialogue 5 (the one concerning Megilla/Megillus) is, of course, the focus of this part of the article. In this dialogue, the courtesan and the woman from Lesbos are distinct characters. The courtesan Leaina relates her experiences with a rich woman from Lesbos who is “terribly manly,” who has a female partner she calls her wife, and who initiates an erotic encounter with Leaina. Leaina’s conversation partner, another courtesan, suggests that Megilla might be a hetairistria (see Plato’s Symposium). The dialogue is littered with philosophical allusions, evoking the overlapping worlds of the courtesan and philosopher, even when the overt topic is a sexual encounter. One particular sexual reputation of Lesbos is directly commented on: that there are “man-faced” women there who avoid sex with men and prefer women.

Although Sappho is not an overt topic of the dialogue, Gilhuly sees her reflected presence in the work, not only in the geographic origin of Megilla/Megillus, but in traditions linking Sappho to courtesans. [Note: I find this particular point a bit weak. As evidence regarding part of the sexual reputation of Lesbos, yes, but whether it connects directly to Sappho within this specific context? Less clear.]

Gilhuly’s final point is that she believes we’re asking the wrong question in seeking what the literary evidence can tell us about the historic Sappho and about erotic practices on the island of Lesbos. And that we should instead be asking how that literary evidence created the popular image of Sappho as homosexual, and the idea of “lesbian” as a sexual category.

[Note: I think there’s a significant point made here. The historic label/category of “lesbian” as referring to erotic relations between women is a clear and solid reality, regardless of what women may or may not have been doing on Lesbos in the 5th century BCE. And the association of Sappho with female homosexuality is also a clear historic fact. Neither of those facts is undermined or erased by picking apart the exact historic path by which those meanings evolved.]

Time period: 
Sunday, January 16, 2022 - 21:07

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 220 – John Lyly’s Gallathea - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/01/16 - listen here)

The topic of this month’s show was inspired by my youngest brother and the amateur Commedia dell’Arte troupe, the Golden Stag Players, that he performs with. Every winter they adapt a play to perform, and this year they chose John Lyly’s Gallathea, first performed on New Year’s Day in 1588 before Queen Elizabeth I of England and her court. This play is very near and dear to my heart, for reasons that will become obvious.

One of the reasons the Golden Stag Players chose it (*cough* on my recommendation *cough*) is the predominance of female characters, somewhat unusually for an Elizabethan play, but desirable for a modern acting troupe that skews heavily female. This casting challenge played out somewhat differently among that all-male theater companies of the Elizabethan era, and one always wonders how much of the gender-play on stage at the time was influenced by the tangled layers of sexual identities and roles that performances required. Gender disguise and its consequences are the very heart of Gallathea.

So, next week I’ll be part of a select, pandemic-constrained studio audience for the Golden Stag Players performance of Gallathea and in the mean time we can tour through the plot and the unexpected treatment of same-sex love within it. When a video of the performance is available, I’ll link it in the transcript notes.

John Lyly’s play Gallathea is one of the many adaptations of the tale of Iphis and Ianthe, first known from the writings of Ovid in the 1st century CE. In Ovid’s tale, Iphis’s mother conceals her gender at birth and raises her as a boy to avoid her father’s threat of infanticide. Iphis and her childhood companion Ianthe fall in love and the two families are delighted to look forward to their marriage, except for Iphis’s mother, who knows that marriage would reveal her ruse, and except for Iphis, who believes that love between two women (by which we understand sex and marriage) is an impossibility. Ovid’s work is dominated by Iphis’s philosophical and emotional inner monologue over her dilemma. In the end Iphis and her mother appeal to the goddess Isis for assistance. Isis magically changes Iphis into a boy and all live happily ever after.

Every adaptation after that has put its own spin onto the tale, emphasizing some parts, downplaying others, adding in new elements. If you want a survey of those variants, check out my podcast on the topic.Lyly kept the central gender-disguise element, but gave it a different motivation, involving a looming human sacrifice of a beautiful maiden, and then doubled the gender disguise giving us two women, both masquerading as men, each falling in love with the other. There are several subplots as well. The most relevant one is an ongoing feud between, on the one side, Cupid and the followers of the goddess Venus, who are all about romantic love, and on the other side, the followers of the goddess Diana, who reject romantic love. There’s also a comic side plot involving three journeymen exploring new careers who periodically meet to compare experiences. The comic plot only intersects the main story at a couple of points and I’ve left it out of today’s show. (The Golden Stag Players have left it out for similar reasons, but also because it somewhat doubles the playing time of the show.)

There are a lot of nuances of meaning embedded in the play. If you like, you can follow up on some of them in the books and articles blogged for our website, linked in the show notes. I’ll mostly be focusing today on a plot summary and a dramatization of some of the more interesting scenes. We start off introducing the setting and back-story. The father of Gallathea—one of our protagonists—brings her to a tree dedicated to the god Neptune and tells her the history of a particular religious festival. There had been a great marble temple there, but the inhabitants dismantled the temple, angering the god. Neptune caused the seas to threaten to overwhelm the land and when the people begged him to relent, he imposed a harsh condition. As Gallathea’s father explains,

The condition was this, that at every five years day, the fairest and chastest virgin in all the Country, should be brought unto this Tree, & here being bound, (whom neither parentage shall excuse for honor, nor virtue for integrity) is left for a peace offering unto Neptune. he sendeth a Monster called the Agar, against whose coming the waters roar, the fowls fly away, and the Cattle in the field for terror, shun the banks. …Whether she be devoured of him, or conveyed to Neptune, or drowned between both, it is not permitted to know, and incurreth danger to conjecture; Now Gallathea here endeth my tale, & beginneth thy tragedy.

But why, Gallathea asks, is this a tragedy for her? Because, of course, he believes her to be the fairest and chastest virgin in all the land. And rather than lose his daughter, he plans to save her with a trick. Gallathea is far more noble than her father and protests,

Destiny may be deferred, not prevented; and therefore it were better to offer my self in triumph, then to be drawn to it with dishonor. Hath nature (as you say) made me so faire above all, and shall not virtue make me as famous as others? Doe you not know, (or doth over carefulness make you forget) that an honorable death is to be preferred before an infamous life. I am but a child, and have not lived long, and yet not so childish, as I desire to live ever: virtues I mean to carry to my grave, not gray hairs. I would I were as sure that destiny would light on me, as I am resolved it could not fear me. Nature hath given me beauty, Virtue courage, Nature must yield me death, Virtue honor. Suffer me therefore to die, for which I was borne, or let me curse that I was borne, sith I may not die for it.

But his response is that she’s too young to know what she’s talking about and should follow his advice and disguise herself to escape her fate.

In the second scene, the gods come on stage in the form of Cupid and a follower of Diana, goddess of the hunt and of virginity. Cupid teases her, asking if there are any among the followers of Diana who know the sweetness of love. But Cupid’s description of love doesn’t make it sound very appealing.

A heat full of coldness, a sweet full of bitterness, a pain full of pleasantness, which maketh thoughts have eyes, and hearts ears, bred by desire, nursed by delight, weaned by jealousy, killed by dissembling, buried by ingratitude, and this is love, fair Lady will you any?

Diana’s nymph rejects Cupid’s version of love, with a speech that makes a number of puns between the word “heart” meaning the seat of love, and “hart” meaning a stag to be hunted, as well as word-play contrasting following the “chase” and also being “chaste.”

I have neither will nor leisure, but I will follow Diana in the Chase, whose virgins are all chaste, delighting in the bow that wounds the swift Hart in the Forrest, not fearing the bow that strikes the soft hart in the Chamber. This difference is between my Mistress Diana, and your Mother (as I guess) Venus, that all her Nymphs are amiable and wise in their kind, the other amorous and too kind for their sex; and so farewell little god.

Cupid gets his nose out of joint at being so dismissed and vows,

Diana, and thou, and all thine, shall know that Cupid is a great god, I will practice a while in these woods, and play such pranks with these Nymphs, that while they aim to hit others with their Arrows, they shall be wounded themselves with their own eyes.

Cupid’s arrows, of course, cause people to fall in love. If Diana’s followers reject love, he’ll force them to experience it.

In the next scene we meet the second protagonist, Phillida. She, too, is being instructed by her father to avoid being chosen as the sacrifice to Neptune by disguising herself.

Come Phillida, faire Phillida, and I fear me too faire being my Phillida, thou knowest the custom of this Country, & I the greatness of thy beauty, we both the fierceness of the monster Agar. Every one thinketh his own childe faire, but I know that which I most desire, and would least have, that thou art fairest. Thou shalt therefore disguise thy self in attire, least I should disguise my self in affection, in suffering thee to perish by a fond desire, whom I may preserve by a sure deceit.

When Phillida asks for details, we come to a crux of the internal conflicts that both Gallathea and Phillida will experience. They don’t want to disguise themselves as men. The thought embarrasses them. And further, they are doubtful of their ability to pass convincingly. Here Phillida protests in vain.

Phil. - Deere father, Nature could not make me so faire as she hath made you kind, nor you more kind then me dutiful. Whatsoever you command I will not refuse, because you command nothing but my safety, and your happiness. But how shall I be disguised?

Mele. - In mans apparel.

Phil.  - It will neither become my body, nor my mind.

Mele. - Why Phillida?

Philli. - For then I must keep company with boys, and commit follies unseemly for my sex, or keep company with girls, and be thought more wanton then becommeth me. Besides, I shall be ashamed of my long hose and short coat, and so unwarily blab out something by blushing at every thing.

Mele. - Fear not Phillida, use will make it easy, fear must make it necessary.

Philli. - I agree, since my father will have it so, and fortune must.

Gallathea and Phillida, now both disguised as men, are wandering in the forest—the same forest where Cupid and Diana’s followers are roaming. Here the two women meet, in a conversation that involves more private asides than dialogue meant for the other to hear.

Gallathea tells herself - Blush Gallathea that must frame thy affection fit for thy habit, and therefore be thought immodest, because thou art unfortunate. Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit: nor thy sex bear it. O would the gods had made me as I seem to be, or that I might safely be what I seem not. Thy Father doteth Gallathea, whose blind love corrupteth his fond judgment, and jealous of thy death, seemeth to dote on thy beauty, whose fond care carrieth his partial eye as far from truth, as his hart is from falsehood. But why dost thou blame him or blab what thou art, when thou shouldest only counterfeit what thou art not. But whist, here commeth a lad: I will learn of him how to behave my self.

Phillida enters and mutters to herself, I neither like my gate, nor my garments, the one untoward, the other unfit, both unseemly. O Phillida, but yonder stayeth one, and therefore say nothing. But O, Phillida.

Gallathea, overhearing this, notes, I perceive that boys are in as great disliking of themselves as maids, therefore though I wear the apparel, I am glad I am not the person.

Phillida spots her and immediately notes Gallathea’s gender ambiguity but, assuming she is a man, thinks to learn from her how to behave as one. - It is a pretty boy and a faire, he might well have been a woman, but because he is not, I am glad I am, for now under the color of my coat, I shall decipher the follies of their kind.

Again, Gallathea: I would salute him, but I fear I should make a curtsy in steed of a leg.

Neither of them is directly addressing the other yet. Phillida thinks, If I durst trust my face as well as I doe my habit, I would spend some time to make pastime, for say what they will of a mans wit, it is no second thing to be a woman.

And Gallathea thinks something very odd. All the blood in my body would be in my face, if he should ask me (as the question among men is common) are you a maid?

Do men really ask each other this? How odd. Just as it seems they must finally speak to each other, they are interrupted by the appearance of Diana and two of her followers, as Phillida notes, Why stand I still, boys should be bold, but here commeth a brave train that will spill all our talk.

Diana addresses Gallathea as “fair boy” which she denies but then scrambles to explain that she rejects the “fair” part, not the “boy” part. There is more word-play when the nymphs ask after the deer they were following, meaning the animal, but Gallathea says, I saw none but mine own Dear. Meaning “beloved,” which feels a bit ahead of the game as she hasn’t fallen in love with Phillida quite yet.

When the nymphs address Phillida as “shepherd lad,” she too protests and then backpedals, explaining, My mother said I could be no lad till I was twenty year old, nor keep sheep till I could tell them; and therefore Lady neither lad nor shepherd is here.

Both women are refusing to accept the incorrect gender identity, but use word-play to avoid acknowledging their preferred gender. Diana demands that they accompany the hunt, and Phillida agrees, saying to herself, I am willing to go, not for these Ladies company, because my self am a virgin, but for that fair boys favor, who I think be a God.

There are two interesting things to note here. Normally, Diana’s band is restricted to women. Does her acceptance of the disguised Gallathea and Phillida mean that she sees through their disguises? But I also wonder if Phillida’s comment on Gallathea “who I think be a God” is a deliberate echo of Sappho’s poem 31. Sappho’s work—either in the original Greek or in Latin translation—was being republished by Lyly’s time, and English poets were re-working bits of her themes, although an English translation of the poems themselves was yet to be published. So it’s certainly a possibility.

Diana and the group exit, then Cupid takes the stage, disguised as a nymph of Diana and proclaims his bwa-ha-ha style villain speech, speaking of himself in the third person and once again having fun with puns on harts and the chaste. Cupid will cause the nymphs to fall in love—but very specifically, he’ll force them to fall in love with “their own sex,” believing this to be a double revenge as they will desire “impossibilities.”

Now Cupid, under the shape of a silly girl show the power of a mighty God. Let Diana and all her coy Nymphs know, that there is no hart so chaste but thy bow can wound, nor eyes so modest, but thy brands can kindle, nor thoughts so staid, but thy shafts can make wavering, weak and wanton: Cupid though he be a child, is no baby. I will make their pains my pastimes, & so confound their loves in their own sex, that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities. Whilst I truant from my mother, I will use some tyranny in these woods, and so shall their exercise in foolish love, be my excuse for running away. I will see whither faire faces be always chaste, or Dianna’s virgins only modest, else will I spend both my shafts and shifts, and then Ladies if you see these dainty Dames entrapped in love, say softly to your selves, wee may all love.

Oh, and by the way, Neptune is overhearing all this and lets on that he’s quite aware that Gallathea and Phillida are women disguised as men in order to trick him out of his sacrifice. But he plans to wait and watch and have the last word in the end.

We return to our heroines, each of whom wanders across the stage explaining that she has been falling in love with the other and bemoaning that they can’t do anything about it due to being in disguise as a man. I should note at this point that Phillida is using the male name “Melebeus” and Gallathea the name “Tyterus”. First Gallathea.

How now Gallathea? miserable Gallathea, that having put on the apparel of a boy, thou canst also put on the mind. O faire Melebeus, I too faire, and therefore I fear, too proud. Had it not been better for thee to have been a sacrifice to Neptune, then a slave to Cupid? to die for thy Country, then to live I thy fancy? to be a sacrifice, then a lover? O would when I hunted his eye with my hart, he might have seen my hart with his eyes. Why did Nature to him a boy give a face so faire, or to me a virgin a fortune so hard? I will now use for the distaff the bow, and play at quoits abroad, that was wont to sew in my Sampler at home. It may be Gallathea, foolish Gallathea, what may be? nothing. Let me follow him into the Woods, and thou sweet Venus be my guide.

Then Phillida.

Poor Phillida, curse the time of thy birth and rareness of thy beauty, the unaptness of thy apparel, and the untamedness of thy affections. Art thou no sooner in the habit of a boy, but thou must be enamored of a boy, what shalt thou doe when what best liketh thee, most discontenteth thee? Go into the Woods, watch the good times, his best moods, and transgress in love a little of thy modesty, I will, I dare not, thou must, I cannot. Then pine in thine own peevishness. I will not, I will. Ah Phillida doe something, nay any thing rather then live thus. Well, what I will doe, my self knows not, but what I ought I know too well, and so I go resolute, either to betray my love, or suffer shame.

In the mean time, Cupid has done his work. The nymph Telusa has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and fallen in love with the disguised Phillida, as Melebeus. There’s a double game going on here, because we know from Cupid’s speech that he knows Phillida-Melebeus’s female gender and that’s part of his spite. But Telusa thinks she’s fallen in love with a man, where both the experience of love and the target of her affection are forbidden to a follower of Diana.

How now? what new conceits, what strange contraries breed in thy mind? is thy Diana become a Venus, thy chaste thoughts turned to wanton looks, thy conquering modesty to a captive imagination? Beginnest thou with Piralis to die in the air and live in the fire, to leave the sweet delight of hunting, and to follow the hot desire of love? O Telusa, these words are unfit for thy sex being a virgin, but apt for thy affections being a lover. And can there in years so young, in education so precise, in vows so holy, and in a hart so chaste, enter either a strong desire, or a wish, or a wavering thought of love? Can Cupids brands quench Vesta’s flames, and his feeble shafts headed with feathers, pierce deeper than Diana’s arrows headed with steel? Break thy bow Telusa that seekest to break thy vow, and let those hands that aimed to hit the wild Hart, scratch out those eyes that have wounded thy tame hart. O vain and only naked name of Chastity, that is made eternal, and perish by time: holy, and is infected by fancy: divine, and is made mortal by folly. Virgins harts I perceive are not unlike Cotton trees, whose fruit is so hard in the bud, that it soundeth like steel, and being ripe, poureth forth nothing but wool, and their thoughts like the leaves of Lunary, which the further they grow from the Sun, the sooner they are scorched with his beams. O Melebeus, because thou art fair, must I be fickle, and false my vow because I see thy virtue? Fond girl that I am to think of love, nay vain profession that I follow to disdain love, but here commeth Eurota, I must now put on a red mask and blush, least she perceive my pale face and laugh.

Her fellow nymph Eurota shows up, who has similarly been induced to fall in love with Gallathea, in disguise as the man Tyterus. The two end up comparing notes on their dilemma.

Eurota acknowledges: I confess that I am in love, and yet swear that I know not what it is. I feel my thoughts unknit, mine eyes unstayed, my hart I know not how affected, or infected, my sleeps broken and full of dreams, my wakeness sad and full of sighs, my self in all things unlike my self. If this be love, I would it had never been devised.

Telusa counters: Thou hast told what I am in uttering what thy self is: these are my passions Eurota my unbridled passions, my intolerable passions, which I were as good acknowledge and crave counsel, as to deny and endure peril.

Eurota: How did it take you first Telusa?

Telusa: By the eyes, my wanton eyes which conceived the picture of his face, and hanged it on the very strings of my hart. O faire Melebeus, o fond Telusa, but how did it take you Eurota?

Eurota: By the ears, whose sweet words sunk so deep into my head, that the remembrance of his wit, hath bereaved me of my wisdom, o eloquent Tyterus, o credulous Eurota. But soft here commeth Ramia, but let her not hear us talk, wee will withdraw our selves, and hear her talk.

Ramia, another nymph, relates how all the rest of Diana’s followers are similarly stricken with love for the disguised women.

If my self felt only this infection, I would then take upon me the definition, but being incident to so many, I dare not my self describe it, but we will all talk of that in the Woods. Diana stormeth that sending one to seek another, she loseth all. Servia of all the Nymphs the coyest, loveth deadly, and exclaimeth claimeth against Diana, honoureth Venus, detesteth Vesta, and maketh a common scorn of virtue. Clymene, whose stately looks seemed to amaze the greatest Lords, stoopeth, yieldeth, and fawneth on the strange boy in the Woods. My self (with blushing I speak it) am thrall to that boy, that faire boy, that beautiful boy.

They bemoan “would I were no woman, would Tyterus were no boy,” which, of course, he actually isn’t.

But now Phillida and Gallathea are confessing their love for each other, dancing around the problem that each of them believes the other a man but dare not confess that she is a woman. Let’s follow the conversation, first Phillida then Gallathea, distinguished in voice since you have only myself on the stage.

Phil. - It is pity that Nature framed you not a woman having a face so faire, so lovely a countenance, so modest a behavior.

Galla. - There is a Tree in Tylos, whose nuts have shells like fire, and being cracked, the kernel is but water.

Phil. - What a toy is it to tell me of that tree, being nothing to the purpose: I say it is pity you are not a woman.

Galla. - I would not wish to be a woman, unless it were because thou art a man.

Phil. - Nay I doe not wish to be woman, for then I should not love thee, for I have sworn never to love a woman.

Galla. - A strange humor in so pretty a youth, and according to mine, for my self will never love a woman.

Philli. - It were a shame if a maiden should be a suitor, (a thing hated in that sex) that thou shouldest deny to be her servant.

Galla. - If it be a shame in me, it can be no commendation in you, for your self is of that mind.

Philli.  - Suppose I were a virgin (I blush in supposing my self one) and that under the habit of a boy were the person of a maid, if I should utter my affection with sighs, manifest my sweet love by my salt tears, and prove my loyalty unspotted, and my griefs intolerable, would not then that faire face, pity this true hart?

Galla. - Admit that I were, as you would have me suppose that you are, and that I should with entreaties, prayers, oaths, bribes, and what ever can be invented in love, desire your favor, would you not yield?

Philli. - Tush you come in with admit.

Galla. - And you with suppose.

Philli. - What doubtful speeches be these? I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.

Galla. - What dread riseth in my mind, I fear the boy to be as I am a maiden.

Philli. - Tush it cannot be, his voice shows the contrary.

Galla. - Yet I doe not think it, for he would then have blushed.

Phill. - Have you ever a Sister?

Galla. - If I had but one my brother must needs have two, but I pray have you ever a one?

Philli. - My Father had but one daughter, and therefore I could have no sister.

Galla. - Aye me, he is as I am, for his speeches be as mine are.

Philli. - What shall I doe, either he is subtle or my sex simple.

Galla. - I have known divers of Diana’s Nymphs enamored of him, yet hath he rejected all, either as too proud to disdain, or too childish not to understand, or for that he knoweth himself to be a Virgin.

Phill. - I am in a quandary, Diana’s Nymphs have followed him, and he despised them, either knowing too well the beauty of his own face, or that himself is of the same mould. I will once again try him. You promised me in the woods, that you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.

Galla. - I, so you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.

Philli. - Can you prefer a fond boy as I am, before so faire Ladies as they are.

Galla. - Why should not I as well as you?

Phillida - Come let us into the Grove, and make much one of another, that cannot tell what to think one of another.

And then they exit, presumably to go “make much of one another” offstage.

Meanwhile Diana has discovered the to-do among her nymphs and instantly suspects the strange nymph—that is, Cupid—who has been seen wandering the woods.

What news have we here Ladies, are all in love? Are Diana’s Nymphs become Venus wantons? Is it a shame to be chaste, because you be amiable? Or must you needs be amorous, because you are faire? O Venus, if this be thy spite, I will require it with more then hate, well shalt thou know what it is to drib thine arrows up and down Diana’s leies. There is an unknown Nymph that straggleth up and down these woods, which I suspect hath been the weaver of these woes, I saw her slumbering by the brook side, go search her & bring her, if you find upon her shoulder a burn, it is Cupid: if any print on her back like a leaf, it is Medea: if any picture on her left breast like a bird, it is Calypso; who ever it be, bring her hither, and speedily bring her hither.

She scolds her ladies for abandoning chastity and honor for the court of Venus. And when Cupid is captured and brought before her, Diana takes her revenge on him.

And thou shalt see Cupid that I will show my self to be Diana, that is, Conqueror of thy loose & untamed appetites. Did thy mother Venus under the color of a Nymph, send thee hither to wound my Nymphs? Doth she add craft to her malice, and mistrusting her deity, practice deceit: is there no place but my Groves, no persons but my Nymphs? Cruel and unkind Venus, that spiteth only chastity, thou shalt see that Diana’s power shall revenge thy policy, and tame this pride. As for thee Cupid, I will break thy bow, and burn thine arrows, bind thy hands, clip thy wings, and fetter thy feet. Thou that fattest others with hopes, shalt be fed thy self with wishes, & thou that bindest others with golden thoughts, shalt be bound thy self with golden fetters. Venus rods are made of Roses, Diana’s of Briars. Let Venus that great Goddess, ransom Cupid that little God. These Ladies here whom thou hast infected with foolish love, shall both tread on thee and triumph over thee. Thine own arrow shall be shot into thine own bosom, and thou shalt be enamored, not on Psyches, but on Circes. I will teach thee what it is to displease Diana, distress her Nymphs, or disturb her Game.

Now we return to the problem of the sacrifice to Neptune. The fathers of Gallathea and Phillida point fingers at each other. You boasted of having a fair and chaste daughter, each says to the other, where is she now? And each answers, alas, my daughter died long ago. Meanwhile, Neptune is biding his time to see how far they’ll go.

Gallathea and Phillida resume their verbal jousting, this time regarding which of them would have been the appropriate sacrifice, had they been a maiden.

Phill. - I marvel what virgin the people will present, it is happy you are none, for then it would have fallen to your lot because you are so faire.

Galla. - If you had been a Maiden too I need not to have feared, because you are fairer.

Phill. - I pray thee sweet boy flatter not me, speak truth of thy self, for in mine eye of all the world thou art fairest.

Galla. - These be faire words, but far from thy true thoughts, I know mine own face in a true Glass, and desire not to see it in a flattering mouth.

Phill. - O would I did flatter thee, and that fortune would not flatter me. I love thee as a brother, but love not me so.

Galla. - No I will not, but love thee better, because I cannot love as a brother.

Phill. - Seeing we are both boys, and both lovers, that our affection may have some show, and seem as it were love, let me call thee Mistress.

Galla. - I accept that name, for divers before have called me Mistress.

Phill. - For what cause?

Galla. - Nay there lie the Mistress.

Philli. - Will not you be at the sacrifice?

Galla. - No.

Philli. - Why?

Galla. - Because I dreamt that if I were there, I should be turned to a virgin, and then being so faire (as thou sayest I am) I should be offered as thou knowest one must. But will not you be there.

Phill. - Not unless I were sure that a boy might be sacrificed, and not a maiden.

Galla. - Why then you are in danger.

Phill. - But I would escape it by deceit, but seeing we are resolved to be both absent, let us wander into these Groves, till the hour be past.

Galla. - I am agreed, for then my fear will be past.

Phill. - Why, what dost thou fear?

Galla. - Nothing but that you love me not.

With that, Gallathea exits, leaving Phillida to worry over her growing certainty that she has fallen in love with a woman in disguise.

Poor Phillida, what shouldest thou think of thy self, that lovest one that I fear me, is as thy self is; and may it not be, that her Father practiced the same deceit with her, that my Father hath with me, and knowing her to be fair, feared she should be unfortunate, if it be so, Phillida how desperate is thy case? if it be not, how doubtful? For if she be a Maiden there is no hope of my love, if a boy, a hazard: I will after him or her, and lead a melancholy life, that look for a miserable death.

The people have found a maiden to sacrifice, who rages against the practice of sacrificing someone in the promise of youth, while also noting that she knows she is not the fairest in the land and it’s totally unfair that she has to be sacrificed. And then on top of that, the monster that’s supposed to carry off the sacrifice doesn’t show up because she’s not good enough. She is rejected and humiliated. Gallathea and Phillida encounter her as she flees and worry about what’s going on. They hear the assembled gods approaching and hide to overhear.

Neptune rages that since the humans refuse to offer their chaste daughters, he’ll slaughter all the maidens in the land and make it a shame to be a virgin. Diana shows up all: Hey, let’s not get too hasty. Why should my followers be punished for being virtuous and chaste? Then Venus steps in saying, You go get ‘em Neptune. Let’s go after those coy bitches who are torturing my poor innocent boy Cupid. You make Diana give him back! The goddesses argue, Diana calling Venus unruly and the causer of quarrels, Venus calling Diana a hater. And Neptune going all: whoa, I don’t want to be in the middle of this! So he offers to rescind his vengeance against chaste virgins if Diana releases Cupid back to his mother. Deal! Says Diana.

Now the fathers of our two heroines show up to apologize to Neptune and admit the deception. Where are your daughters? He asks. Why, there they are, coming now. Here’s my daughter Phillida, one says; and here my daughter Gallathea says the other. The two women face each other, their secret fears confirmed.

Galla. - Unfortunate Gallathea if this be Phillida.

Phill. - Accursed Phillida if that be Gallathea.

Galla. - And wast thou all this while enamored of Phillida, that sweet Phillida?

Phill. - And couldest thou dote upon the face of a Maiden, thy self being one, on the face of fair Gallathea?

The answer, of course, being “Yes, duh!” Neptune asks, Doe you both being Maidens love one another?

They answer again in the affirmative. Diana, not being attuned to the power of love, tells them, Now things falling out as they doe, you must leave these fond affections, nature will have it so, necessity must.

Gallathea protests, I will never love any but Phillida, her love is engraven in my hart, with her eyes.

And Phillida, Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.

This is the moment that makes John Lyly’s play a marvel for its age. Two female characters, knowing each other to be women, declare their romantic love for each other in public and swear they will never love anyone else. Neptune can’t quite get his brain around how this is possible, but Venus is totally on their side.

I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and Faith. Is your loves unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to bee altered till death?

Gallathea vows, Die Gallathea if thy love be not so.

Similarly Phillida, Accursed bee thou Phillida if thy love be not so.

Uh, so now what? Diana asks. Well, says Venus, I can turn one of them into a man.

What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?

Phillida answers, I am content, so I may embrace Gallathea.

Gallathea agrees, I wish it, so I may enjoy Phillida.

In the original tale of Iphis and Ianthe, which Venus just referenced, the two were differentiated by gender performance: Iphis having been raised all her life as a boy, and Ianthe always identifying as a girl. But Gallathea breaks with this source material and offers a different scenario. Both Gallathea and Phillida consistently identify as women. They express either interest in or acceptance of a male identity only as the means of having their relationship made possible and acceptable. And even when gender change is offered, neither has a preference to be the one who becomes a man.

Their fathers, on the other hand, immediately start quarreling over which one of them gets to continue having a daughter. Because it’s all about them, right? But in the end, all agree to leave the choice in the hands of Venus. Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?

Gallathea gets the final speech, urging all women to yield to love and allow their hearts to be conquered. This is an ambiguous message, since her heart was conquered by love for a woman. At the final curtain, the transformation is yet to come. In that eternal moment, Gallathea and Phillida remain women in love with women. And so they will always be for me.

Show Notes

In this episode we take a tour through John Lyly’s late 16th century play Gallathea which includes an unexpected depiction of same-sex love.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Sunday, January 2, 2022 - 14:04

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 219 - On the Shelf for January 2022 – Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/01/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2022.

I hope all of you listening have at least one thing from 2021 that you can look back on and take joy in, and at least one thing in 2022 that you’re looking forward to in hopeful expectation. The change of the calendar is an arbitrary line, but without arbitrary points for reflection, time all runs together, doesn’t it? History derives meaning from the arbitrary lines we draw to split it up into chunks that we can understand in isolation. Lives are often the same.

I don’t usually do New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes I do what I call “irresolutions” which are mostly just brainstorming rather than commitment. But one irresolution I’d like to make for the podcast is to get back to doing author interviews. I had a number of contacts for potential interviews, and then somehow back in May I got what I call “calendar claustrophobia” where it feels like I have too many pending commitments and something has to give. And doing the work of scheduling interviews was what gave. The actual work of editing the interviews is  no big deal, but the process of actually getting the interviewee and me onto the same zoom call to talk trips over several of my personal disfunctions. Don’t get me wrong. I love doing interviews! And I love that it gives me a chance to interact with other authors in this very lonely profession. But it’s substantial emotional work for me—more than it might be for someone with a different personality—and that’s why I let it slip when I was feeling overwhelmed. So I’m going to try to get back on that horse and take the jumps again, because I think the interviews add a lot of value to this show.

Given that it’s January, it also means that submissions are open for the 2022 fiction series. I hope that if you’re written something—or are still thinking about writing something—that meets our criteria, that you’ll send it in for consideration. As the saying goes: don’t self-reject. Every year I hope that the submissions will be more numerous and more gripping. My goal is for the decision process to get harder and harder every year. Please help make my dream come true! At the beginning of submissions month I’m usually terrified that I won’t receive any stories. That terror has lessened over the years. And this year I feel like I’ve leveled-up a bit as a fiction market, because I’ve started receiving the equivalent of spam submissions: stories that completely ignore all the requirements, including timing, format, and content. I have arrived! I can join the other editors in their secret invitation-only gripe sessions! Just kidding. I’m so proud of the material I was able to publish in the last year and have confidence that I’ll be able to present you with the same high quality in 2022. If you’ve loved the stories we were able to share with you, I hope you reached out to let the authors know on social media.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog has finally finished the coverage of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t usually spend quite so much time on a single book—I think the only book I’ve covered in quite so much detail was Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men. One reason I took the time to do so was that I’m a methodology nerd. I love books that go so deeply into the questions of how to study history and how to understand cultures of the past in their own terms and not in terms of their relationship to contemporary ideas. Another more selfish reason for reading the book so closely is that I have a book project set during the 1st century in the Roman Empire that has been languishing for a couple decades waiting for me to feel up to doing the complete rewrite it requires. I feel like I just might be in a place where I could tackle that again, as well as working on the chapter on classical Greece and Rome for my super-secret project that I mention on occasion. But the third reason I think Boehringer’s book is worth the time is that a study of gender and sexuality in classical cultures may be the most accessible way for those of us rooted in Western history to grasp a radically different cultural approach to those concepts. More recent cultures can be too superficially similar to our own to be able to have the necessary distance. And Westerners sometimes need a bit of practice in stretching our understanding into unfamiliar shapes before we can approach non-Western concepts of gender and sexuality on their own terms.

I haven’t picked a topic for the blog to tackle next. I feel like I need something a bit less intense, time-wise. I think I have a couple collections of articles that might fit the bill.

Book Shopping!

No new acquisitions for the blog this month. I did pick up some historical reference books, but related to things like clothing. And the one book I thought was going to come in had its publication date rescheduled. That one will be fun because it’s an academic study of lesbian historical fiction and I hope to have an interview with the author on the show.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

But we can talk about new and recent fiction, though the listings are a bit thin this month: one December book that I was saving until I’d had a chance to learn more about it, and three January releases. I’ve decided to go back to my old practice of reading the cover copy, rather than trying to summarize the book in my own words. It can be a bit hard to guess what’s going on when I haven’t actually read the book, and at least the author’s own words provide what they want you to know about it.

The December book is The Many Woes of Dolly Danbridge, self-published by Lauren Thorn. The book is tagged with keywords for lesbian fiction, so I’m relying on that, although the cover copy is rather vague.

Dolly Danbridge is poor, awkward, and plain. She is also completely spoiled. At 16 years old, she has spent her whole life dreaming of wealth and high society. These dreams are dashed when she is uprooted from her home in Boston and placed in the humble town of Gaylord, Ohio. Here, she will struggle to hold onto her high-status ambitions— and decide if they are really worth pursuing after all. Set in 1830’s America, this novel wittily dissects the social norms of times past and presents an alternative to the typical Victorian love story.

The first January book is The Raven and the Banshee by Carolyn Elizabeth from Bella Books. There was a short story set in the same world released a couple months ago, in case you want a sample before committing to the novel. I continue to be amused that “lesbian pirates of the Caribbean” is its very own sub-genre, and some day I really will do a special episode on the topic.

Early eighteenth-century Charlestown, South Carolina, finds sixteen-year-old Julia Farrow, spirited daughter of a wealthy owner of a shipping company, living and loving on her own terms. With her sharp mind and sharper tongue, she constantly defies family and society expectations without regard for the consequences. Branna Kelly, the only child of an Irish immigrant sailor, is hopelessly in love with her employer’s daughter, imagining their life together as captains of their own fate. Broken-hearted after Julia’s shockingly cruel rejection, she embarks with her family to chart a new shipping route to the Caribbean. Before Julia has a chance to make things right, tragedy strikes and the Kelly’s ship is overrun by merciless pirates. All hands are presumed lost. Fifteen years later, Julia is now running Farrow Company and sailing with the crew on her newest ship. An ill-fated encounter with those same pirates leaves Julia the lone survivor, left alive to be rescued by the infamous Raven, hard-hearted captain of the mercenary ship, Banshee. What follows is a passionate tale of vengeance, forgiveness, second chance love and redemption in a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Wildflower Words by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books looks like something of a slice-of-life story set in the American frontier.

Hazel Thompson prides herself on being a beacon of earnest goodwill in Cedar Springs, Utah, where she works alongside her mother as a cook in a raucous restaurant and dance hall. But lately, Hazel wonders if she hasn’t clipped her own wings by always putting her family and neighbors first, leaving no time for her own wants. Lida Jones, the daughter of roving Eastern European immigrants, treks West with her father in search of a better life on the rapidly developing American frontier. To help make money, Lida takes a job in the Pack Horse Library and gets to know the rowdy, tough residents of Cedar Springs. Getting close to anyone is a waste of time, though. She won’t be here long. Hazel and Lida can’t help but get to know one another as Lida travels through on her route. When Lida’s father begins to struggle at work, Lida fears she’ll have to leave Cedar Springs―and Hazel―behind. But how can she when, finally, she’s found a place, and a person, to call home?

Just as a side-bar: Ledel isn’t the only author who has been inspired by the real-life Pack Horse Library women of the 1930s, which began as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. If the topic inspires you, you might also check out Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted which re-imagines the program in a near-future dystopia. And for a contemporary real-life version of a woman combining horses and books to spread literacy, take a look at the work of Caitlin Gooch who tweets as @theblackcowgirl and runs a non-profit program called “Saddle Up and Read” to spread the love of both books and horses to children in North Carolina. I don’t usually go off on tangents like this based on the new book listings, but sometimes I just get inspired to share the fantastic web of connections in our world.

The final January book is All of You Every Single One by Beatrice Hitchman from The Overlook Press. This is a literary novel set across several decades of the early 20th century in Vienna.

Julia Lindqvist, a woman unhappily married to a famous Swedish playwright, leaves her husband to begin a passionate affair with a female tailor named Eve. The pair run away together and settle in the more liberal haven of Vienna, where they fall in love, navigate the challenges of their newfound independence, and find community in the city’s Jewish quarter. But Julia’s yearning for a child throws their fragile happiness into chaos and threatens to destroy her life and the lives of those closest to her. Ada Bauer’s wealthy industrialist family have sent her to Dr. Freud in the hope that he can cure her mutism—and do so without a scandal. But help will soon come for Ada from an unexpected place, changing many lives irrevocably. Through the lives of her queer characters, and against the changing backdrop of one of the greatest cities of the age, Hitchman asks what it’s like to live through oppression, how personal decisions become political, and how far one will go to protect the ones they love. Moving across Europe and through decades, Hitchman’s sophomore novel is an intensely poignant portrait of life and love on the fringes of history.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? Being on vacation for three weeks gave me time to finish the year with several more titles under my belt. I listened to the audiobook of Darcie Littlebadger’s contemporary fantasy Elatsoe, a Young Adult novel with a Lipan Apache protagonist who can talk to ghosts. At Worldcon I was on a panel with the author about writing asexual characters, so I decided to read something from a fellow panelist.

A few months ago I really enjoyed the holiday novella Meg Mardol put out last year, so I prioritized her new holiday offering A Highland Hogmanay which is a delightful romance of mistaken identity and found family.

And I’ve been continuing my belated tour through KJ Charles’ back catalog of gay male historical romance, with a short piece from the Society of Gentlemen series and two books from the Charm of Magpies series: The Magpie Lord and Jackdaw, which I seem to have read out of order by accident.

I’ve once more started a sapphic Regency romance that doesn’t seem to be hitting the spot for me. Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower is full of madcap adventure and banter between the cast of characters that forms the continuing thread of the Wild Wynchesters series. (I think this is the only title in the series with a female couple.) But the writing style doesn’t really capture the historic setting in a way that hits my sweet spot and I’m struggling a bit to get invested in the characters. Is it possible that I’m more picky about subgenres that I really really love? I’m not sure. I know there are lesbian Regencies that I’ve enjoyed so I keep trying them to find more.

The Annual State of the Field Report


As has become my custom—and because I’m the sort of person who likes to geek out over numbers and trends—I’ve taken a look at the state of the field of sapphic historical fiction in 2021, through the lens of the books included in the new releases listings in this podcast. As usual, my list isn’t likely to be an exhaustive data set. And much depends on exactly how one defines the parameters. But to the extent that I’m being consistent in what I include and how I identify the data, this analysis should be useful for comparison purposes.

The total number of books remains remarkably consistent. I included 107 publications from 2021, which keeps the annual numbers consistently with 100 titles, plus/minus 7. This means that if you can read a story every 3 days, you have hopes of being able to read all the sapphic historical fiction that comes out in the year.

The proportion of books that are published under a named imprint has also been remarkably consistent, around 75%. (Demonstrating that the lower proportion for 2019 seems to have been an outlier.) Keep in mind that “named imprint” includes self-published books where the author has created an imprint name for their output. It would take a lot of work to determine which imprint names are single-author houses so I haven’t tried to sort that out at this time.

In 2021, there were 59 named imprints represented in the data, 31 of which haven’t appeared before. That’s roughly half of the total. The total number of publishers represented each year has also remained remarkably consistent, falling somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a lot of churn. In the 4 years I’ve been tracking this data, only 5 publishers had at least one book in every year: 4 small queer presses - Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Sapphire Books, Supposed Crimes; and the SFF online imprint Tor-dot-com.

Out of the 59 imprints in 2021, 48 of them only released a single title that meets my criteria. That’s about 80%, and that also has been remarkably consistent across the years. Imprints releasing only 2 titles, and those releasing 3 or more also have similar numbers to last year, continuing the slight increase in the multi-title presses at the expense of the 2-title presses. The 5 publishers that put out 3 or more sapphic historicals in 2021 are: Bold Strokes Books, which continues in the lead with 7 titles; Kalikoi, a brand new press that shot into second place with 4 titles, though several of them are quite short; and with 3 titles each, Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Past and Prologue Press (which is a single-author imprint).

Some publishers that have had significant contributions in the past but were thin on the ground this year include Bella Books with only one title (and I’m being a bit generous on that one because the historic connection involves modern historic re-enactment), and the mainstream publishers Little Brown, and Harper Collins, neither of which put out any sapphic historicals that I was able to identify this year. The number of identifiable mainstream presses in the data continues to increase gradually. While I can’t always guarantee that I recognize all the minor imprints of mainstream publishers, I found 8 different imprints in this year’s data, compared to 7 last year and 6 each the two previous years. Only Tor-dot-com has been present all 4 years, but 2 others (Harper Collins and William Morrow) have had titles in 3 of the 4 years.

Looking back over recent years, there are also some shifts in the more prominent queer publishers with regard to historicals. Eleven queer presses have published relevant books in at least 3 of the last 10 years. Only 2 presses show up every year: Bold Strokes Books and Bella Books. Three continue to be steady producers, though not every year: Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Supposed Crimes. Five of the publishers have had regular output in the past, but nothing in the last 2 years or more. That would be Affinity Rainbow Publishing, Bedazzled Ink, Regal Crest Enterprises, Shadoe Publishing, and Ylva. If it were only a matter of 2020 and 2021, we might chalk that up to the world being on fire, but a few seem to have simply lost interest in historicals. In contrast, publishers with a fairly recent but promisingly strong presence include NineStar Press and I’ll add in Kalikoi (who made an amazing showing for only entering the field in the past year).

Overall, the shape of the publishing field seems remarkably stable, even if the specific players move on and off stage regularly.

Times and Places

But let’s move on to the fun part of the analysis: where and when the stories are set. I group the settings by time period, using longer periods in earlier eras and splitting them more finely in the 19th and 20th centuries. Overall the distribution between pre-19th century and more recent settings has been relatively consistent with about a fifth of the stories set before the 19th century (though 2020 was an outlier with about 30% in the earlier set). Within the pre-19th century group, there’s some shifting of numbers. In 2021, the 17th century was almost overlooked, while the 16th century was stronger than usual. But there’s some representation in each of the categories I measure.

In the last 2 centuries, the relative distribution has been consistent over all four years, with increasing representation in more recent eras. (This doesn’t apply to the later 20th century, in part because it can be hard to decide whether to classify a fairly recent setting as “historical”.) As usual, stories set in the first half of the 19th century are mostly classifiable as “Regency romances” set in England, while American settings increase significantly in the latter half of the century, and in the first half of the 20th century American settings predominate. One interesting shift is that we seem to see fewer war-time stories, rather than having many titles cluster around the American Civil War and the two World Wars. And of the early 20th century stories, there are a larger number focused on the period between the two World Wars, with Jazz Age settings.

In terms of geography, we once again see consistency across the last 4 years. The top two locations for settings are North America (which mostly means the USA) and the British Isles (mostly England, but with Scotland and Ireland regularly appearing). In general, the two groups are roughly equal in frequency, representing a little over a third of the total each. This year, the British Isles took the lead slightly, but not enough to suggest a trend. Continental European settings are the next biggest regional group, together representing one-fifth of the total. The specific countries represented are highly variable, but this year France is the leader as usual, followed by Greece (which, as usual, shows up primarily with classical or mythic stories). Settings in Asia have been gradually increasing, particularly in China, but still represent only 5% of the total this year. The rest of the world covers the final 5%. The only consistently appearing setting in this miscellaneous category is the Caribbean, due to the popularity of pirate stories.

For the US-set stories, 12 different states are represented (based on the cover copy), only 4 of which appear more than once. New York remains the runaway most popular state, and this may be the first year when Chicago doesn’t appear at all.

In terms of genre, we once again see consistency across the years, with fantastic elements appearing in about a third of the titles (though this is affected by my judgment calls about which fantasy books count as historical). Books that have romance as the primary or a significant component made up 2/3 of the total this year, based on my best estimation from the cover copy. This has probably been fairly consistent, but my confidence in doing the evaluation has been variable. I didn’t have the time this year to try to tag books for tropes and themes, so I won’t try to do an assessment of that angle. Anecdotally, there may have been fewer stories that clustered around iconic events, such as World War II, or the French Revolution, but we still see certain cultures being viewed through fixed settings, such as mythic Greece or Viking-era Scandinavia or the Caribbean of the age of Piracy.

What’s my take-away from this year’s survey? It’s the phrase that keeps popping up in this summary: consistency. There’s a certain overall shape to the field of sapphic historicals, for good or ill. The market is neither growing nor shrinking. Self-published titles are neither taking over nor disappearing. The field continues to be highly distributed across a large number of imprints, with no publisher specializing in the genre. The distribution of stories in time and space are uneven, but consistently so, with the centers of gravity being Anglophone cultures and recent centuries. We have yet to see whether the writing and publishing disruptions of the pandemic have affected the field in measurable ways. Only time will tell.

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 


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