You've been asking about this for years -- long before it was a glimmer of a project. But now it's out in the world. Daughter of Mystery has an audiobook from Tantor Media, narrated by Kitty Kelly. Here's the Books2Read link page with all the audio outlets I've tracked down and added so far.
I started listening to the first couple of chapters while making breakfast this morning and am loving it! (I'll probably add it into my sleep-listening rotation.)
Spread the word! There are more and more people listening to audiobooks for the multi-tasking ability, and maybe we can tap into a whole new readership.
Sorry, no contemplative introduction today. Slept late.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 7 – Haunted by Olive Chancellor
Note: because this essay is a work of literary criticism, much of the content is a detailed tracing of parallels and connections between texts that are “in conversation” with each other. By its nature, this sort of analysis is impossible to summarize neatly.
This chapter tackles the question of the way in which Henry James’s The Bostonians can be considered a “lesbian novel”. The central character of Olive is clearly experiencing and motivated by same-sex desire, and critics of the work regularly dismiss it as concerning “perverse” desires, but the actual “lesbian content” is elusive when pinned down.
James claimed he was merely writing an “American tale” about “one of those friendships between women which are so common in New England.” This is, of course, not at all in conflict with the external analysis of Olive and Verena as a romantic couple of the type that gave rise to the term Boston marriage – the type that James’s sister enjoyed with her “beloved friend” and companion (who otherwise did not at all resemble the characters in the novel).
Despite James’s emphasis on the story as “American”, Castle traces its connections to French decadent literature of the 19th century that treated lesbian relationships far more explicitly. Despite James’s avoidance of any explicit reference to lesbianism, he hints at it through oblique references to Emile Zola’s Nana – perhaps the most notorious work of its type. Castle traces these references in detail.
The chapter concludes with a look at how James than diverges from the underlying logic of the “decadent lesbian” plot (however concealed) to maintain his heroine Olive as pure and virtuous, and as an innocent victim of Verena’s omni-sexual desirability. Olive is betrayed by Verena’s decision to marry her male suitor, but she is not destroyed by this betrayal in the way a more stereotypical lesbian protagonist of the era would be.
We're more than halfway through the year, so it's time to start beating the drum for next year's podcast fiction series! I mentioned late in 2021 that I was committing to continuing the series in 2023 by virtue of having agreed to commission a story in advance. But that's different from starting the active promotion. So spread the word.
The call for submissions is essentially identical to last year's. (I've made some minor revisions in the CfS text, but mostly because I can't read anything without feeling compelled to tweak the wording.)
When I look back over the stories that we've published in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, I continue to be amazed and gratified by the work that authors have been willing to entrust into my hands. (Or voice, as the case may be.)
I'm also going to take this opportunity to touch on the topic of the financial basis for the fiction series. The default business model for podcast fiction that pays authors and narrators (at least the model I'm familiar with) is for the content to be completely free to access and for support to come through voluntary donations, either using a Patreon-type model, or a year-by-year kickstarter model, or by hosting advertising. Or there's the fall-back option, which is "podcast producer fronts the money."
I use that last option. The LHMP has a Patreon, which goes toward hosting expenses but doesn't address royalties or narrator fees. I have a strong aversion to including advertising. And I don't have the energy for a regular cycle of kickstarter-type funding campaigns. What I do have is a day-job that allows me to create this show without worrying about where the money's coming from. I like to be upfront about this. In a few years when I retire, I might have to reassess that approach, but there's always the possibility that I'll reassess the Project as a whole.
So what I'm getting at here is that I'd love for people to show their appreciation for the podcast by signing on to the Patreon. (I'm afraid you don't get much in the way of extras -- just the satisfaction.) But honestly, your financial support isn't all that critical. And if you feel inspired and appreciative about what the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast provides, then you can do a lot more by promoting the show and giving it a review at Apple Podcasts (or the equivalent).
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2023 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.
What We’re Looking For
Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.
Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:
If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here is a good basic format:
As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)
Notes on Sensitivity
I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid exoticizing the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"
What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.
A note on transfeminine characters: I am completely open to the inclusion of stories with transfeminine characters who identify as women-loving-women. This is a complicated topic for historic stories, though, as this is not a motif with much known historic grounding before the later 20th/21st century. (In all my research, I've found only one possible, fictional example that was not presented as gender deception for ulterior purposes, and no non-fictional examples of any type that don't involve intersex persons.) If you're submitting this type of story, you may have to work harder than usual on making it work in the historic context.
(Originally aired 2022/07/30 - listen here)
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has published several stories set in Eastern European Jewish communities around the late 19th or early 20th centuries. This hasn’t in any way been a deliberate plan, but there seems to be something about that era of social change, peril and upheaval, exciting social and political movements, and tantalizing dreams of new possibilities that inspires stories. It’s also a rich era of literary creativity for Yiddish culture and new stories in the same setting participate in that heritage.
Our story today, “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, focuses on a Yiddish theater troupe at a time when that field was just in its infancy. In the next episode, we’ll have an interview with Rebecca and talk about the setting, the story’s inspirations, and how it connects to Rebecca’s other fiction. I confess I hadn’t realized when I chose this story that I’d already loved several of her tales.
Rebecca Fraimow is an author and archivist living in Boston. Some of her other short fiction about queer Jews encountering unexpected situations can be found at PodCastle and Diabolical Plots. Rebecca's work has also appeared in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, The Fantasist, and Consolation Songs: Optimistic Speculative Fiction for a Time of Pandemic. She can be found on Twitter at @ryfkah and has a website at rebeccafraimow.com. Check the show notes for links.
Our narrator today is Violet Dixon, who has appeared previously as a narrator. 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.
“It’s a disaster,” said Ida Glickl, head in hands. “To leave St. Petersburg before we’ve even had a chance to recoup our costs --”
“We’re leaving?” said Chava-Leah.
“-- and Goldfaden will hear the news, of course, so he’ll turn back before he gets here, and no doubt will beat us back to Odessa with ‘Two Kuni-Lemls’ –”
“But why are we leaving?” said Chava-Leah.
“And when I think how we raced to get here before him, and how many shows we missed! We’ll make it all back in St. Petersburg, says Chaim! – oh, you haven’t heard?” Ida raised her head, shoving her luxurious hair back from her face. “The Tsar’s been killed. So the theaters have been closed, and they say there was a Jew involved, so of course the news for us will only get worse. You must start packing up the costumes, darling, as quick as you can – oh, and here I almost forgot what I came down here to tell you to begin with! There’s a new girl who’ll be coming with us when we leave St. Petersburg this evening, we’ll have her as Libenyu in Two Kuni-Lemls if we ever get a chance to perform it. I’ll send her down today so you can get her measurements before we go. We’ll need the costume altered for her, but of course that will be no trouble for you and your clever fingers. Bless you, Chava-libte, for being my rock!”
She blew Chava-Leah a kiss as she left, which normally would have Chava-Leah blushing; at this moment, she could hardly think to notice it.
The Tsar dead! And killed by a Jew! Who’d be such a fool?
She was packing up the last of the hats when she heard footsteps behind her, and sprang to her feet. Her heart was hammering in her chest, as it had been, on and off, ever since Ida brought the news.
The new arrival took a startled step back. “Ah – you’re the costumer? Ida said you’re to take my measurements.”
Chava-Leah took in a breath, trying to calm herself. “Then it should be done, of course. You’ll take off your clothes, please. What’s your name, new girl?”
“Greta,” said the new girl. She looked around at the small room, piled high with trunks, then picked one to sit on and began to unbutton her plain dark dress without a trace of shyness: a relief, under the circumstances. Chava-Leah had been worried she’d need coaxing they didn’t have time for. She folded her dress and petticoats carefully over one of the trunks, then stood up in her drawers and chemise. “Sufficient?”
“Stand straight,” Chava-Leah told her, and picked up her measuring tape. She ran the tape down the knob of Greta’s spine down her center back, and noted the value. The familiar motions were soothing. Practical considerations. Ida had been right, to focus only on what had to be done. “You’re too long to match our last Libenyu, more’s the pity.” She knelt down to measure the length of her leg, from the hip down. “The old skirt, I think we could make work. How much do you mind if your skirt’s a bit short? You’re not fussed about a little ankle?”
Greta laughed, short and harsh. “I’m not fussed about much.”
“You’d be amazed, some of the girls I’ve seen come and go,” said Chava-Leah, straightening. “What they think is going to happen for them, I don’t know. Silks and feathers appear for them out of nowhere? This is the Yiddish theater, not the Ballet Russe! Once they see what’s what, they’re not so loud when their mothers come fetch them home. Hold your arms out, please. Can you read?”
Greta raised her eyebrows. “I’ve a degree from the Academy of St. Petersburg.”
She bit her lip as soon as she said it, and Chava-Leah barked out a laugh. “Well! Good for you for saying so. The theater’s no place for a modest girl, that’s for sure.”
“If a person can’t read, that’s no shame to them,” said Greta. “The shame should be for those who made it hard for them to learn.”
There was something about her diction – a little hesitant, a little stilted. “Still,” said Chava-Leah, “if you read only Russian, that won’t help you here, either. What about Yiddish?”
“Of course,” said Greta, chin high – then, after a moment: “But … I’m a little out of practice.”
Chava-Leah suppressed a sigh. Well, actresses were always in short supply around the Yiddish theater, and beggars couldn’t be choosers. “That’s what I needed to know. You’ll ride in the wagon with me when we leave, I’ll go over the part of Libenyu with you so you learn it.” She began to walk the measuring tape around Greta’s narrow frame.
Greta held herself stiffly as the tape wrapped around her, with a touch of embarrassment that Chava-Leah hadn’t expected from someone who’d shucked her clothes with so little fanfare. “You know all the parts, as well as making the wardrobe?”
“There’s always more work to do around the troupe than hands to do it. I’d have been Libenyu, next time we played, if you hadn’t come along to save me from it.”
Greta raised an eyebrow. “You’re not sorry, then, to lose your role?”
“I’m no actress. It’s my husband who’s the actor – he’s a star with Goldfaden’s troupe, God rot him. So it’s the theater or my mother-in-law’s house, and I like the theater better than my mother-in-law, and Ida Glickl better than Goldfaden – or my husband, for that matter.”
She chuckled at her own joke as she checked the under-bust measurement, then moved on to the next. Greta tensed as the measuring tape slipped over her breasts. “Really,” said Chava-Leah, not sure whether to be annoyed or amused, “you’re jumpy as a bride!”
“That I’ve never been,” said Greta, “and don’t intend to be.”
Chava-Leah drew the tape taught and answered, lightly, “Well, I can’t say I get much use out of the man himself, but it’s not so bad having the paperwork.”
“No?” said Greta, glancing backwards over her shoulder. “I suppose you get more use from Ida Glickl?”
Their eyes met. Chava-Leah became irritably aware that the color had risen to her cheeks. Greta’s face went wary for a moment; then she smiled, ruefully and shook her head. She looked as if she had been making a joke to herself, and hadn’t expected Chava-Leah to understand it.
But there was no denying that they both had understood it.
And now Chava-Leah understood, too, the particular quality of Greta’s stiffness while being measured. Chava-Leah had taken a lot of measurements in her day: there were girls who’d never had a hand on them, and girls who knew what a man’s hands could be good for, and then, more rarely, the girls who knew what a woman’s hands could be good for, too. The latter, it could be a pleasure to meet – but even if Greta and she were alike in that way, it still didn’t give her call to make personal remarks. “Don’t turn your head,” she told Greta. “When your back twists like that, it sets the measurement off.”
To the wall in front of her, Greta said, “I didn’t mean to give offense.”
With a figure like this, the new girl would never be in competition with Ida for the leads. Chava-Leah finished her measurement and snapped the tape back into her hands. “You can put your clothes back on. I’ve got what I need for now.”
The inn was a beehive of activity, actors in every corner shouting for each other’s belongings or fighting each other over trunk space. In the midst of the confusion, Ida found Chava-Leah and pressed some letters into her hands. “Chava-libte, you’re packed up already? I knew you would be! Be a darling and post these for me if you can, will you? If we’re lucky, we’ll have a stage to play on in Odessa!”
As always, Ida’s endless energy was contagious. Chava-Leah set out briskly into the streets without thinking twice about it, but she hadn’t gone more than a block before she started to feel a prickle on the back of her neck. When they arrived in St. Petersburg three days ago, she’d been impressed by the bustle of the streets. People didn’t hang around the corners to schmooze; they’d talked as they walked, moving with purpose, heads held high. They all had business to be about, even the Jews. But today all the Jews she saw – and there weren’t many – kept their heads low and their voices quiet, and the further she got from the friendly chaos of the inn, the more Chava-Leah felt her own shoulders shrinking in.
When she reached the post office, the doors were closed. There was no sign on the front. Thinking someone might be on their lunch break, Chava-Leah rattled the door, then knocked, but no answer came. As she turned away again, a woman glared at her from across the street.
Chava-Leah went back the way she had come, conscious of her pace. She didn’t want anyone to think she had a reason to be running.
After the uneasy silence of the streets outside, the familiar squabbling of her troupe attempting to organize itself in the inn-yard felt like a Purimshpil. Chava-Leah shoved the unsent letters into her pocket and dove into the middle of it, as relieved as a fish thrown back in the water. She found a cake of rosin for Jacob the violinist, a treasured false beard for the younger Schmuel, and a box of illegal fireworks that the other Schmuel had hidden under the bed for safekeeping and then forgotten about.
Into the middle of all this stormed Ida and her husband Chaim, caught in a moment of high drama. “How could you be such a fool?” Ida roared, then caught sight of Chava-Leah, and swung round to her, grabbing her hands. “Chava-Leah! Tell me you didn’t leave the costumes unguarded!”
“The new girl’s there,” said Chava-Leah, promptly. She wasn’t entirely sure that this was true – Greta had certainly been there when she left, but she might easily have wandered off by now – but she wasn’t going to tell Ida that until she knew there was trouble. She pressed Ida’s hands, and said, “What’s happened?”
“The innkeeper’s taken the trunk with our scripts in it hostage,” said Chaim, “and won’t let us leave with them unless we pay his villainous bill.” He raised his voice. “Three times what our stay was worth, here in this rotten, flea-infested --”
“How could you let them out of your sight!” cried Ida, whirling back on her husband. “You never learn! And now we’re trapped here for days, for all we know – well, there’s nothing to be done for it. I’ll go throw myself on the innkeeper’s mercy, and see if he’ll bend. A part below my merits, and an offense to my pride --” She cast one more glare at Chaim, and lifted her chin high. “-- but what’s that, when necessity calls?”
She swept off towards the inn, leaving Chaim and Chava-Leah staring at each other in her wake.
“What’s going on?” said Greta, from behind her. Her eyes were wary in her thin face. “I heard shouting.”
Chava-Leah swung round. “What are you doing here? You should be with the costumes! Quick, quick --” She herded Greta back towards the inn, glad enough to leave Chaim Glickl behind to stew in his own pot. She saw the practical necessity of keeping a Chaim around, but that didn’t mean she had much to say to him.
“I thought we were leaving,” said Greta.
“I’d be glad if we were,” said Chava-Leah, and explained about the kidnapping of the scripts.
Greta didn’t look impressed. “Surely you can get more scripts --”
“You think they’re so easy to come by?” Chava-Leah picked up her stride, suddenly impatient with Greta; why had she come at such a time, and knowing nothing! “Goldfaden guards his plays more jealously than he does his wife! Ida and I copied them out secretly at night, while my husband snored in his bed beside us – the only plays ever written in Yiddish, the first time it was ever done. If it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t have a troupe. If we had no scripts, we would have no troupe again. So how could we leave them behind?”
She heard her own voice coming louder and faster as she spoke. The silence of the streets, the glares from all sides, were still in her mind.
Greta was right. Nothing good would come of staying. They’d no way to raise the money, or do anything but go deeper into debt.
But she remembered sitting shoulder by shoulder with Ida, scribbling pages upon pages of prose in guttering candlelight. She remembered the way her heart had pounded at Ida’s nearness, at the feeling that they were stealing their own futures. Once, her husband had woken in the middle of the night, and asked what they were doing. “Copying recipes,” Chava-Leah had answered, at random, “to cook for you Ida’s blintzes!” When he snorted and rolled over again, they’d clung to each other in silent laughter.
“So write your own,” said Greta now, unmoved. “What does it matter?”
“What does it matter --” Chava-Leah threw open the door to the room she’d been using as a wardrobe, and then turned around to throw up her hands as well. “Maybe it’s so easy for you! You write us more scripts, if it’s so simple, you with your degree from the Academy of St. Petersburg!”
“In midwivery!” said Greta.
“Midwivery!” Chava-Leah stared at Greta. Despite everything, she really had to laugh. “Really, what are you doing in the theater?”
“It’s the only course available to women,” said Greta, a little defensively. “That and nursing. But it’s not like you need to be Tolstoy to write a script, either. I’ve seen one or two of these Yiddish plays – it’s nothing but farces and fairy tales. Pure distractions, to make people smile, and not think about serious things.”
“You think it’s so easy to make people smile these days?” said Chava-Leah. “You’ll find out what hard work it is soon enough – but never mind, there’s no point wasting time while we have it.” She didn’t want to think about the hardships ahead of them. Her hands itched to be doing something. She looked round at the various trunks, considering and rejecting various tasks – it would take too long to find the old Libenyu’s costume, and create more work for herself in packing everything up again later – before flinging open the smallest box. “Easier to do this here than in a jostling wagon, anyway. All right, sit down over there –”
Greta looked at the box, then at Chava-Leah. Her voice dripped disbelief. “Right now, you want to do my makeup?”
“Test your makeup,” said Chava-Leah, irritably. “We’ll need to see what works with your coloring. What else should I be doing?”
“You could tell Ida that we have to leave,” said Greta. She took Chava-Leah’s arm, urgently. “You and she, you’re close like that, aren’t you? Chaim’s nothing, anyone can see that but you – if you can convince her we should go, and not wait on this nonsense with the scripts –”
Chava-Leah’s heart pounded, and she pulled her arm away. “You don’t know everything you think you know,” she snapped. So she and Greta had something in common – who was Greta, to use that against her like this! To guess at what Chava-Leah would most want to hear, and try to pull her strings with it! “Ida’s the one who runs this troupe. I don’t tell her what to do, and neither do you.”
Greta thumped down into a seat on one of the other trunks. “How sweet,” she said, caustically. “Just like a real marriage – one above, one below. How pleasant it must be, to know one’s place and never question it!”
Chava-Leah turned back around, sticks of grease-paint in her hand, and a sharp retort in her mouth, and saw Greta looking pale and defeated.
Despite herself, her heart softened. She never could find it in herself to stay angry when someone was so clearly unhappy. Greta was rude, but she was new to this life, and nervous, and these were frightening times. “Have a little trust,” she told her. “Ida wants to leave more than any of us, and she’ll turn every stone to make sure it happens. I promise you, she’s a person who gets things done! Now, keep your mouth shut – I need your face to be still for this.” The paint wasn’t cheap, she didn’t want to waste it.
She didn’t particularly want to spend more time arguing, either. It wasn’t for this newcomer to say what was or wasn’t fair, between Ida and Chava-Leah. It wasn’t for Greta to try to make Chava-Leah unhappy for her own gain.
Under Chava-Leah’s practiced hands, Greta’s worn, pale face filled in, and turned a rosy ingenue-pink. It didn’t look particularly natural to her, but on a stage in dim light it might do well enough. It did seem a pity that Greta had been assigned to play Libenyu, the ingenue. Chava-Leah’s hands itched to emphasize the starkness of Greta’s features, highlight her piercing eyes and the imposing presence of her nose. Erasing the lines on her face with paint dimmed all the charisma she had. Young, she didn’t look interesting; she could have been anybody.
Chava-Leah frowned at her handiwork, and stepped back again to assess it from a distance. Just as she did so, the door behind her flung open, and nearly smacked her in the rear.
“Watch it!” cried Chava-Leah, spinning around. Younger Schmuel stood there, clutching the false beard she’d found for him in his hand. “What did you lose now?” she demanded, in exasperation.
“Nothing – only,” stammered Schmuel, “there are police at the front, and I –” He cast a nervous glance at Greta. “I wanted to make sure she –”
Chava-Leah sighed. Schmuel should have been on his military service, but he had papers to show that he was exempt for health reasons. Unfortunately, the papers had been written for a man named Hershel Kremer. It had never been a concern so long as everyone remembered to call Schmuel by the name of Hershel when the authorities were about. She turned round to explain this to Greta.
Greta was sitting on the trunk with her hands gripping the edge. Below the smooth pink grease-paint, her eyes shone black with terror, like a calf on a wagon bound for market.
Looking at the fear in her eyes, Chava-Leah felt a horrible certainty forming in the pit of her stomach.
And to think she’d laughed, just a few moments ago, when wondering what unlikely event could have brought Greta to the theater!
She turned back to Schmuel, and snatched his false beard out of his hand. “I’ll be having that,” she told him. “You run along now, Hershel, and stay out of the way.”
Schmuel nodded, and went. Chava-Leah stalked back up to Greta and thrust the false beard at her. She could hardly bear to look at her, she was so angry. “You put that on,” she ordered her, and then went to another trunk – she’d packed them all so neatly! – to pull out the belted coat and black hat that Chaim wore as Kuni-Leml. Without looking over her shoulder, she asked, “Does Ida know?”
“Know what,” said Greta, warily, and Chava-Leah whirled around and furiously shoved the costume in her direction.
“Really? You think I’m that stupid?”
“No – I don’t. No, she doesn’t. Are you –” She looked from the coat and hat in one hand, to the false beard in the other. Blankly, she said, “These are for me?”
“Not if you just stand there without putting them on they aren’t,” snapped Chava-Leah. She turned back around and reached back into the trunk, looking for a pair of trousers that were thin enough to fit.
Behind her, she could hear Greta’s voice, muffled through the fabric of the coat as she pulled it on. “But my papers –”
“My papers have my name and my husband’s on them,” said Chava-Leah. “His name is Yakov Spivakovsky and he plays leading men only. You can be him for five minutes.” Finding the trousers she’d been looking for, she grabbed them and tossed them back over her shoulder towards Greta.
Greta’s laugh came harsh, with a note of hysteria. “This doesn’t seem a little farcical to you?”
“Oh, yes, a real comedy!” Were those footsteps coming down the hall? Chava-Leah turned around to see Greta in Kuni-Leml’s clothes, her hair shoved under the hat, her features bland and blurry with makeup. She was still holding the false beard in her hand, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with it. Chava-Leah snatched up the spirit gum. Thank God for all the times young Shmuel had turned up late and drunk! Thank God for the adrenaline that came before a performance, when everything had to be done before curtain went up!
She shoved the beard onto Greta’s face. The footsteps stopped in front of the door. “It’s a farce,” Chava-Leah hissed, and then swung towards the door, ready to play her part. It couldn’t be so difficult; she felt as bitter at Greta right now as she did at Yakov whenever they happened to meet.
The door swung open.
Ida Glickl stood behind it.
She blinked at Chava-Leah, and then at Greta, and said, “Who’s this?” she said, and then looked again, closer. “Is that young Schmuel’s favorite beard?”
“You mean young Herschel’s,” said Chava-Leah, cautiously.
“Oh,” said Ida, and laughed. “Is that what this is about! The polizei didn’t stop here, Schmuel caught sight of a green coat and panicked, that’s all. But this handsome young man can’t be our Greta? Dear girl, you should be careful how you let Chava-Leah work her witchcraft on you – if they really had come in, they’d have grabbed you as a draft dodger too!”
She laughed again, her face pink and pretty with satisfaction, as it only ever was when she’d solved a difficult problem. Chava-Leah said, “You’ve got us the scripts back?”
Ida waved a hand triumphantly behind her. “Chaim’s coming with the trunk. We’ll be on the road in an hour, so you two need to stop playing around and get packed up. You mustn’t let Chaim see you like that, Greta, or he’ll start to think his roles are in danger!”
She shot Chava-Leah a smile with a hint of warning in it before waving and closing the door.
Chava-Leah looked at Greta, and Greta looked back at her from under Schmuel’s beard and Kuni-Leml’s Hasidic hat.
“A farce,” said Greta, her voice full of self-mockery, “from beginning to end,” and pulled off the beard.
Chava-Leah crossed her arms over her chest, still thumping with the fear of a moment ago. This time, it had been nothing. It wouldn’t always be so. “Please,” she said, “don’t tell me you killed the Tsar. Tell me anything but that.”
She meant it to come out strong; she didn’t like the frightened note in her own voice.
Greta gave her a tight-lipped smile. “You can’t tell me you’ll miss him?” Seeing Chava-Leah’s face, she let out another one of her harsh laughs. “I didn’t throw any bombs. But I’ve been to enough meetings – I’ve hosted some, I know people, and that – with the people who’ve already been arrested, it was only a matter of time. My cousin had mentioned the troupe would be coming...” She shrugged. “I thought it was a clever enough way to try and disappear. But you don’t look impressed.”
“By what should I be impressed?” said Chava-Leah, flatly. The quiet in the streets of St. Petersburg rang, rang in her ears. “You’re a fool, and your friends are worse.”
“Once you realized I was running, you were so quick to try to hide me –” Greta hesitated, then looked into Chava-Leah’s gaze, serious now, searching. “I thought perhaps you were a sympathizer.”
Chava-Leah said, really confused, “And I could have done what else?”
She felt stupid a moment later, and angrier because she felt stupid. As Greta opened her mouth, she rushed on before Greta could say anything. “Yes, of course, I could turn you in – what good would that do? Perhaps they’d arrest us all as accomplices. With the police, who knows? Safer not to attract their attention at all.”
Now she could think through the reasoning; at the time, it had only been instinct. Greta was here, part of the troupe, and you protected your own.
“You really don’t have any politics at all, do you?” said Greta, after a moment. She sounded as puzzled as Chava-Leah had earlier. “I confess I don’t understand you.”
“Why should you?” snapped Chava-Leah. “You don’t know me.”
“No, not really, I suppose, but –” Greta hesitated, then forged on. “A woman who finds it easy to take joy in a man, to care for children – I can see how such a woman has no politics. If you fit in the place you’re given, it’s hard to learn to look outside it, you have to be taught to see it. But for me – it feels like I was born knowing that either I was wrong, or the world was. Aren’t we like each other in that? Doesn’t it bother you for the world to be so wrong? How is it that you’re content to keep house for Ida Glickl, and not look outside yourself at all?”
She was still looking hard at Chava-Leah, as if hoping to see something in her face; she was twisting young Schmuel’s beard absently in her hands.
Chava-Leah reached out and took it back from her. “You’re going to damage that,” she said, shortly. “We’re not so like each other, I think – and it’s not so easy to be happy, so I don’t know why you should sneer at it. You can think my life is small and silly if you want, but it wasn’t so easy to come by either. And it’s farces and fairy tales that will get you out of St. Petersburg, so perhaps don’t say so anymore where I can hear.”
Greta, who’d clearly been ready to argue further, shut her mouth again at this. She began to unbutton Kuni-Leml’s coat, with slightly shaking hands. When she got to the fourth button, she muttered, “I assumed – since you’ve no sympathy for the cause, I thought you’d ask me to leave.”
“Well,” said Chava-Leah, resigned and unhappy, “most likely I should.” It would have been safer by far to leave Greta in St. Petersburg. She had meant all she said about Greta and her friends. It was hard to see that the things they had in common were all so important, weighed against the things they didn’t.
And yet – it didn’t sit right, to turn her away, either. However you looked at it, she was a kind of landsman. “In a farce,” she told Greta, shortly, “even the fools end happily enough. That’s why people like to see them. Now give me that coat, we’ve got to pack everything up again.”
The morning after they left St. Petersburg, Chava-Leah woke to find that Greta had already left.
Well, she had never been going to stay. Presumably she was off to find other political friends in exile, and plan some other stupid activity. With some regret, and more relief, Chava-Leah banished Greta from her mind, and didn’t think on her again until the next time she had cause to look in the costume trunk.
Placed carefully on top of Kuni-Leml’s coat was a very short stack of pages, written in an unpracticed hand.
I stayed up all night writing this, read the note at the top. You’re right – it’s not so easy, and I don’t know if it will make anyone smile. But perhaps you’ll get some use out of it anyway.
There were ten pages in total, more a sketch than a full play. The plot concerned a young Jewish woman whose beloved friend was sent to labor in Siberia for her politics. The dialogue was stiff, the characters prone to wordy speeches, and towards the back half the pages got notably less coherent. Greta had also, unfortunately, made a dutiful attempt to add jokes.
As Chava-Leah turned through the draft again, a line of dialogue from the heroine to her friend caught her eye:
If you fit in the place you’re given, it’s hard to look outside. But isn’t it different, if the world won’t let you fit, and you know the world is wrong?
Chava-Leah laughed and shook her head as she put the play back down. It was a kind gesture – or perhaps it was only an attempt to continue the argument that Chava-Leah hadn’t wanted to have, masquerading as a kind gesture. Either way, they’d never be able to stage it.
Still, she folded the pages up, carefully, and put them in her pocket.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, narrated by Violet Dixon.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Rebecca Framow Online
One of the hazards of any vast sprawling research undertaking, such as the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, is anxiety about doing any sort of synthesis or conclusions with incomplete material. I still give an ironic mental wince when I recall that my original idea for the Project was to gather all the research and write a definitive sourcebook on lesbian motifs in history.
But it regularly happens that I'll create some sort of topical essay and then later trip over material that it would have been nice to incorporate into it. For example, Castle's detailed tracing of the development of the "lesbian Marie Antoinette" motif would have been useful as source material when I put together the podcast on the Anandrine Sect, with its side-bar on Marie Antoinette. Somewhat more seriously, the podcast on classical Roman sexuality would have been significantly improved in nuance if the English translation of Boehringer's work on female homosexuality in classical societies had been published three or four years earlier, so I'd had a chance to read it before doing that podcast. And there are definitely potential podcast episodes that I haven't produced yet because there are publications I want to cover before doing so.
And yet, you can't spend all your life being perfectly ready and sufficiently skilled to Do The Thing. Otherwise you may never do it at all.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 6 – Marie Antoinette Obsession
This chapter introduces a late 19th century spiritualist who, along with other supposed past lives, recounted her past life as Queen Marie Antoinette. Her performance as Marie Antoinette was knowledgeable but erratic, often “forgetting” that she wasn’t supposed to be familiar with modern objects and activities, then reacting to audience skepticism by reverting to ignorance of them. Her audience, including a psychologist studying her, recognized it all as an act, but one with significant verisimilitude.
Another early 20th century woman became convinced she was being visited by the ghost of Marie Antoinette and became obsessed with the queen and artifacts associated with her. This evolved into vivid dreams in which the dreamer was a boy struggling to save the queen from execution. The woman wrote a memoir of this lifelong obsession.
A few years later, two respected female Oxford academics claimed to have encountered the ghost of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers in the gardens at Versailles. Having later learned that their visit had been on a significant anniversary associated with the revolution, they postulated that they had experienced some sort of mental time travel, and went on to try to document the people and events they had seen as historic fact. These efforts were met with a certain amount of understandable scorn.
Castle asks the question, why is Marie Antoinette the focus of so many supernatural encounters? She suggests the possibility that above-mentioned experiences were linked directly – each woman having access to and being aware of the previous account. But this doesn’t answer the question of why Marie Antoinette would inspire this sort of sequential mass delusion.
The psychologist who studied the “past lives” example analyzed it in Freudian terms as reflecting emotional isolation from her parents and an antagonism toward her middle-class background. Marie Antoinette was a natural fixation for someone who dreamed of elegance and extravagance, possibly sparked by a story about Marie Antoinette by Alexandre Dumas that closely matched some of the characters and themes in her delusion. A similar psychological background can be traced in the second example.
The two academics also came from large and distant families which did not support their academic careers. For them, as for the other dreamer, Marie Antoinette may have represented an idealized mother figure. The rigorously academic approach by which the analyzed their experience could be seen as showing up their unsupportive male (academic) parents.
However, the Freudian idea of the “royal romance” (the fantasy that one is secretly an adopted lost aristocrat) doesn’t address an aspect of all three experiences in which Marie Antoinette carries a romantic, lover-like connection.
All of the women involved were resistant to marriage, in some cases mediating this through male figures in their visions, either as mentors dissuading them from marriage, or as an alternate persona through which they could express passion for Marie Antoinette, though not in an overtly homosexual framing. The two academics, however, only recently acquainted at the time of their supernatural experience, afterward became domestic partners in a relationship described by others as marriage like. Marie Antoinette, as it were, was their matchmaker.
We come back again to “why Marie Antoinette?” [Those who follow this blog may already have identified the connection.] Marie Antoinette had become something of a cult figure of royalist romantics in later 19th-century England among women, imbued with a homoerotic tinge (not uncommon to women’s romantic culture of the time). And, Castle suggests, the rumors of Marie Antoinette’s own lesbian relationships may have been a strong factor in attracting homoerotic fascination.
The next section of this chapter lays out the historic background and documentary evidence for the development of those rumors. This section is a good survey of the evidence on the topic, which I won’t summarize in detail.
After the restoration of the French monarchy there was a program of rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette’s reputation, which included rejection of the lesbian rumors. But rejection of the sexual aspect of Marie Antoinette’s relations with women did not require erasing the romantic nature of those relations, which were refashioned to fit later 19th century ideals of romantic friendship. Her friendship, especially with the Princess de Lamballe, was framed as noble and faithful until death, creating an archetype for a “safe” model of f/f passionate devotion. To suggest that it was (also) sexual was declared a monstrous slander. There is extensive exploration of depictions around this theme.
This, then, provides a motive for Marie Antoinette as the focus of hazily homoromantic fantasies and experiences. [Note: although outside the scope of what Castle is discussing, we can see this at play in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess, in Sarah Crewe’s fixation on Marie Antoinette and Lamballe as a fantasy escape.]
In “sanitizing” Marie Antoinette of lesbian overtones, biographers and romantics contradictorily transformed her intense same-sex friendships into a symbol of homoerotic romance, with an imprimatur of acceptability.
But alongside this creation of Marie Antoinette as a “sanitized” icon, lesbian writers of the 20th century romanticized the queen as an overtly lesbian figure, including (as only one example) Stephen Gordon’s pilgrimage to Versailles in The Well of Loneliness. Several other similar literary references are cataloged.
Castle’s summary returns to the motif of Marie Antoinette as ghostly figure, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to tie this in to the theme of lesbian presence enabled by its erasure – it was the sanitization of Marie Antoinette's slegacy that enabled more women to connect with her homoerotic symbolism.
I've put my commentary in the "notes" section attached to the LHMP entry this time. A bit of an explanation of the complexities of the LHMP file structure...
Back when I first started the LHMP blog in LiveJournal, the information architecture was flat -- a single entry (plus tags/keywords) regardless of how I organized the information within that text. When I worked with my website designers to create this site, I wanted to take the opportunity to sort out the various types of content within each LHMP blog in a more rational and structured fashion. There was the summary of the publication content itself. There was my editorial commentary on that content, which might precede, follow, or be interleaved with the publication summary. And often there was additional unrelated text that simply happened to be in the same post, such as book promotion, scheduling information, or whatever.
So after much wrangling (and not a small amount of hair-tearing on the part of my website designers, when I had trouble explaining my grand vision), we came up with a four-part structure:
Blog - This shows up at the top of the entry and provides the "envelope" for the LHMP content, but is not part of the LHMP post proper. If you go to an LHMP post directly (e.g., via the index) you won't see the "blog content" but there's a link that takes you to the blog view.
Publication Summary - In theory, this is a brief description of the nature/topic of the publication, handy for article collections or books that I break up into chapters. In reality, I often don't bother to use it, though I might go back and fill in some of this data some day, just for housekeeping purposes.
Introduction - In theory, this is where my personal commentary on the publication is supposed to go. If you view the whole entry (from the "blog" level) it's right there. Similarly, if you view an individual post (whether a singleton or part of a multi-part publication) it's right there. if you use "view publication on a single page" for a multi-part publication, there's a toggle at the start of each individual section to make it visible. But sometimes it's hard to separate out my comments (hence the use of square backets with editorial notes), or it makes more sense to add my commentary at the end. And sometimes I don't have much to say in the blog field other than commentary on the publication, but the "blog" content is what displays on the website's front page and I need to put something there. So I tend to be irregular in my use of this. And sometimes it's hard to separate out general comments that go in the blog from commtary about the entry itself. So I've been very irregular about this and keep thinking if I had all the time in the world, I should go back through all the entries and rationalize how I use this field.
Content Summary - This is where the actual discussion of the publication goes. The meat of the post. This is the least controversial part of the data structure.
Why yes, I do over-think things.
ETA: Ha, ha, and now I remember just where the glitch was that I need to follow up on. When you look at the "blog + LHMP post" view, you don't see the "Introduction comments'. You can only see them if you click through on the LHMP post header. I think this is one of those things that I should try to figure out how to fix on my own.
EETA: No, wait, the "Introduction comments" are there, they just aren't offset from the "Content summary" in the blog+LHMP view (whereas they're offset but a spacer in the LHMP view itself. That's simpler to fix.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 5 – The Diaries of Anne Lister
The "problem" of whether you can have lesbianism without f/f sex, or f/f sex without lesbianism, pops up repeatedly in the field of lesbian history. But the central theme of lesbian erasure that Castle explores in this volume can be implemented via a definition requiring sex as much as it can via the suppression or denial of sexual activity. It is certainly true that -- as Castle proposes -- many women across history (and the socieites they lived in) found it difficult to understand their desire for women except as a form of maculine identity. But unless a theory of lesbian identity also has room for femme-femme desire, and for desire that is not expressed though sexual activity, then it simply "ghosts" other parts of the lesbian spectrum. It always worries me when both those supportive of, and hostile to, queer identities in history converge on a thesis such as "Posonby and Butler can be considered lesbians if and only if they engaged in genital sex" ignoring the entire rest of the complex and multi-layered evidence for the nature of their relationship. Yes, Lister is important because she provides us with a type of first-person commentary on the topic of lesbian sex that many other women either not to record, recorded only through a far more subtle "code" than Lister's cypher, or recorded and then destroyed. But that doesn't meant that Lister's version of lesbian identity was more "real" --less ghostly -- than others.
A motif that haunts the search for lesbian history is the assumption that – prior to the advent of sexology – female couples, no matter how clearly romantic, must not have been sexual. This motif is exemplified by couples such as Ponsonby and Butler who – it was concluded – could not have been sexual, because their relationship was publicly known and celebrated. This was aided by a deliberate campaign by the Ladies to deflect any suspicion that there was anything improper about their relationship. They contemplated bringing a libel accusation against a journalist who dared to suggest there was somethng odd about them.
That view of the Ladies was supported by the commentary of later, more openly sexual, sapphists, such as French writer Colette. Yet one of their contemporaries – diarist Anne Lister who visited them – speculated in correspondence that their love was “not platonic”. Lister herself, of course, is the clearest contradiction to the assumption of sexlessness in 18th and 19th century female pairs. Her diaries are full of detailed descriptions of her sexual exploits with women, though concealed via a cipher and coded references.
Castle compares Lister to a Jane Austin heroine: active among the local gentry and a terrible snob toward those she considers less educated and less cultured. (I’ll skip the detailed review of Lister’s exploits as they are familiar to my readers.)
Lister felt uneasy about her relations with women when they constituted adultery, but not for the simple fact of involving two women, which she considered a personal preference. Castle notes a theme of fascination and identification with Byron in Lister’s musings, and sees something of a repeated motif for a certain subset of lesbians across the long 19th century.
The butch lesbian as Byronic rake is a motif that persists to the present day. Castle connects this theme to the theory that, in a society that “ghosts” women who desire women, one way for such women to “see” themselves is as masculine in their desire.
This returns Castle to the myth of “no lesbian sex before 1900” on the principle that women could not imagine f/f sex until the sexologists presented it to them as an option. But alternate images and models, such as those that Lister reflected, were always available. And that availability was present not only for the women in these relationships, but to their relatives and associates who were reaching frameworks to understand them. Lister gives us a glimpse of a society “more worldly and comprehending than one might expect” at the time.
It occurred to me that if I want to finish blogging The Apparitional Lesbian very tidily by the end of July, I need to start posting some extra blogs beyond the usual Monday post. There are 5 more chapters after this one, so it'll be blogging every day this week. Of course, there's no reason other than a love of symmetry to require completion of a publication at month's end. But since I have the notes all typed up already, there's also no reason not to finish posting, since the blogging schedule is what drives getting the reading done.
I'd love to know what people thought of the start of the "Our F/Favorite Tropes" podcast series. I was hoping to see some signs of interest from the pod-o-sphere, since tropes are a favorite topic among romance readers.
Chapter 4 – Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction
This chapter opens by debating how one defines “lesbian fiction”. What requirements of authorship, content, and self-consciousness apply? Is it possible to define necessary and sufficient conditions? [HRJ editorial comment: no.]
The topic is under-theorized, even in contexts that address homosexual desire in fiction, such as Sedgwick’s Between Men: English literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which deliberately excludes lesbians from its scope. Sedgwick’s thesis is that, since the late 17th century, English literature has been structured around an “erotic triangle” of men’s homosocial bonding in relation to an objectified woman. Within the structure comes a tension between male homosocality and homosexuality. Patriarchy relies on mediating male-male bonds via a woman to avoid the blurring of gender categories that m/m homosexuality evokes.
That is: Sedgwich's theory is that the literary canon is defined relative to the function of creating, maintaining, and policing male-male bonding. Within such a theoretical framework, there is no place for literature that centers bonds between women of whatever nature. In contrast to the ongoing tension within m/m bonds, Sedgwick sees no cultural distinction between homosociality and homosexuality among women – and thus no theoretically meaningful category of “lesbian” or “lesbian literature”. [Note: Rather than Sedgwich taking this as a sign that one cannot simply apply male structures to f/f content, her argument seems to be that f/f content cannot be meaningfully analyzed at all. Please note that Castle is challenging all this!]
F/f desire cannot be meaningfully analyzed within Sedgwick’s “erotic triangle” because f/f desire dismantles the structure and rebuilds it. Sedgwick’s triangle is only stable if its female apex is unconnected to any other female character. Castle now undertakes to apply the “triangle” analysis to 18th and 19th century novels that do include female bonding. And that analysis based on this “triangulation” can identify structures that might be useful in defining “the lesbian novel” via a sort of pattern-matching. The centerpiece of this analysis is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show.
The analysis is complex and detailed and I won’t to try to summarize it. Suffice it to say that the overall structure is “abandoned wife makes common cause with husband’s mistress and they discover they like each other much more than they ever liked him.” This triangular analysis is reconfigured once again in settings where male characters are marginal or absent, such as school stories. There, the structural disruption is typically supplied by death or departure.
In another structure that Castle labels “post-marital” the prior withering of a heterosexual relationship is the female protagonist’s impetus for entering into relations with another woman.
The chapter concludes with a speculation that the lesbian novel tends to reject realism in favor of the fantastic, allegorical, or utopian. [Note: SInce Castle's overarching theme relies on seeing lesbian characters in literature as "un-real" in various ways, I worry that it isn't "the lesbian novel" that rejects realism, but rather that realist lesbian novels are un-seeable under Castle's theoretical structure. A sort-of "meta-ghosting" that paralells what she claims is happening in the literature itself.]
This chapter is the article that forms the philosophical heart of the book, with subsequent chapters elaborating on the motif in specific contexts. I've interspersed some commentary within the summary, and will include more general retrospective commentary in the last post for this publication.
Chapter 3 – The Apparitional Lesbian
This chapter opens with the example of Daniel Defoe’s ghost story “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” viewed as a lesbian love story but one in which one party is dead – a literal ghost – thus making the relationship impossible and unreal. The second example – Dennis Diderot’s La Religieuse – involves eroticized persecution of a young woman in a convent. The erotic element is introduced in the midst of physical hazing by the authorities accusing the young woman of “unnatural desires” – something she does not understand until transferred to a different convent where her superior engages in erotic activity with her, becoming obsessed with her. The superior is described in increasingly ghost-like terms as the story progresses, moving in shadows and becoming increasingly mentally deranged, until she dies.
Castle sees a parallel of this process across the scope of lesbian literature. The lesbian figure is “de-realized”, made into a shadowy figure either symbolically or literally. Lesbian passions are introduced only to be obscured and disembodied. The specter of genuine, real-life lesbian love between two real women is neutralized and removed from the stage, either by madness, death, or a heterosexual reclamation. In Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, the “ghost” is the masculine identity of the cross-dressing title character – an identity that is made unstable by her female lover’s desire to consummate their love.
Various poems of the French decadent movement are used to demonstrate motives of insubstantiality and the lesbian as doomed and wandering spirit. This motif of ghostly symbolism intruding into lesbian relationships is traced through a number of early 20th century novels.
[Note: it occurs to me to speculate on how much of Castle’s identification of “ghost” themes in lesbian literature is driven by her earlier specialty in ghost motifs in literature in general.]
Turning the “ghost” motif around, Castle notes that an important feature of ghosts is that they do exist, perhaps insubstantially, but they are visible, they have presence. And they can be difficult to banish.
Sometimes the motif of the ghost reflects the lesbian character’s perception that she has no substantial reality in her lover’s life - no ability to influence the outcome of their lives. This appears in Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
In lesbian “pulp” fiction, the repeating motif of “shadows”, “twilight”, “darkness” marks not only the secretive closeted society the characters moved in, but also carries the negative connotations of secrecy and darkness. A life that exists only in shadows can be nullified by the application of light.
But after the brief excursion into the pulps, Castle considers it necessary to return to “more ambitious and self-conscious literary works” and moves on to the later 20th century.
Having completed a literary tour, Castle returns to the “why” of lesbian ghosting. Patriarchal authority relies on the denial and suppression of love between women. Beginning in the 18th century, cultural upheavals placed traditional social structures under assault, which encouraged anxiety about female independence and the potential for women to be free of men for social, legal, economic, and emotional needs. But the denial of lesbian reality that this generated only served to reinforce the concept of lesbianism in social awareness. (Castle cites Freud on the power of repression to reinforce a concept.)
Chapter 2 is a personal reminiscence that has no relevant content for the Project. I was tempted to combine it with Chapter 3, like I sometimes do for chapters with minimal commentary, but since it's the only such chapter in this book, I flipped a coin and gave it its own entry.
Chapter 2 – First Ed
This chapter is a reminiscent of when Castle, as a child, encountered and crushed on a butch woman, and how she later recognized the experience as part of her recognition of her sexuality.
(Originally aired 2022/07/16 - listen here)
“…and there was only one bed!”
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes—scenarios that evoke a certain dynamic or conflict or anxiety that gets us right in the feels. Some readers have specific favorites, other readers enjoy the whole box of chocolates. But have you ever stopped to think about how those tropes might play out differently in a historic context when your romantic couple involves two women?
I’ve been wanting to do a series of shows that ask that question. The podcast won’t be all-tropes-all-the-time for the duration, but expect that maybe half the shows will focus on this topic for the foreseeable future. Originally, I wanted to bring guests on to talk about their favorite tropes and how they apply to sapphic historical romance, but honestly, I’m really really bad about the process of hunting up guests for the show. So I decided I’d just charge ahead. If there’s some trope you’d love to dissect and explore in this context, I’d love for you to reach out to me, and there are a couple topics that people have expressed interest in that I may bring in as guests.
What Is a Trope?
But first off, what is a trope, anyway? The word comes from the Greek “tropos” meaning “a turning, a change”. The literary sense comes by way of classical rhetoric, where tropes referred to types of figurative speech used to explore and communicate ideas – things like metaphor and analogy. But in literary analysis, it has come to refer to a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, like the knight in shining armor; it could be a situation, like the moment when the detective reveals the murderer; it could be a mini-script, like “experienced mentor trains novice to be an expert.”
In the context of romance novels—and we’re looking more specifically at historic romance novels here—popular tropes can be any of these types. Especially popular as “named” tropes are ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
To brainstorm for this series, I went online and searched out popular historic romance tropes and came up with a list of about 50 topics to draw from, though I’ll be focusing primarily on tropes where the gender of the romantic couple changes the social understanding of how the trope works. In some cases, the trope dynamic is shifted due to the same-sex nature of the couple, and we might find parallels in how male couples and female couples both differ from mixed-gender couples. For example, all the tropes relating to marriage—marriage of convenience, fake marriage, political marriage—have similar considerations when considering pre-21st century same-sex romances. But in other cases, gender itself is a significant factor in how the trope applies differently. For example, if you’re writing a trope involving titled aristocracy, you need to pay attention to gendered rules about who can and can’t inherit titles in the specific setting you’re using. While my historic research focuses on female couples, I’ll try to include discussion of how the tropes play out for male same-sex couples if it seems relevant.
As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. But if you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, there’s even more need to challenge the assumptions and conclusions embedded in popular tropes.
Only One Bed
I thought it would be fun to start this series with a deep dive into the trope “only one bed.” Let’s take a look at the social context and assumptions that make this situation noteworthy in male-female romances.
A major context is the dual role in western culture of the bed as a location for both sleep and sex. This is a fairly universal connection across time. Accompanying this is the cultural assumption that when a man and woman are in the same bed, the potential for sexual activity is so overwhelming that one can assume it will happen or has happened. One can trace this assumption in accusations of illicit sex that rest entirely on sharing a bed, and in moral treatises that frown on unmarried men and women sharing a bed even when poverty or crowded conditions result in a distinct lack of privacy. (Cultural concepts of privacy around sex are also worth exploring.)
The expectation that mixed-gender bed-sharing equals sex is a special case of the long-standing western cultural assumptions that male-female interactions always inherently have sexual potential, and that when a man and woman are alone without the presence of a reliable chaperone, one is allowed to assume that sex has occurred. These attitudes contribute to the periodic emphasis on separate social spheres for women and men, or the belief that platonic friendship is impossible between women and men. These assumptions have nuances and variations depending on the exact culture, era, and the social class of the people involved, but they underlie a long tradition of cultural rules and expectations.
The set-up for the One Bed trope, therefore, is that a man and woman who do not have an existing licit sexual relationship find themselves in circumstances where they both need to sleep and there is only one bed available. Because this is a romance novel, there may well be a certain amount of pre-existing Unresolved Sexual Tension. The sexual potential of the situation will create anxiety and hyper-awareness regardless of whether they find a means to avoid sleeping in the same bed, or whether they agree to share the bed but intend to refrain from sexual contact. Sometimes proximity overcomes these precautions, resulting in a shifting of gears in the relationship. Sometimes it leads to an acknowledgment of mutual desire while still postponing consummation. In other cases, the rest of society assumes that sex has occurred (even if it hasn’t) and this forces certain resulting actions by the couple. In all cases, it’s a turning point in the plot.
Two Women, One Bed
Now let’s re-examine the historic cultural assumptions when it’s two women in bed together. Is there a cultural assumption that all female-female interactions have sexual potential? That would be a “no.” Is there a cultural assumption that putting the two women in the same bed changes this answer to “yes”? Generally, no, there isn’t. Although we’ll get into some of the ambiguities and edge cases in a little bit. So if two women who do not have an existing sexual relationship find themselves in need of sleep and with only one bed available, are they going to be anxious about the sexual possibilities, or about the assumptions people will make about them the following day? Highly unlikely. You could write this scenario and have them go their separate ways the next morning without any meaningful change in their relationship or circumstances.
OK, so no “only one bed” trope for female couples, case closed, moving on…
Uh, not so fast!
Let’s back up a bit and talk about three topics. Firstly, what was the range of cultural attitudes toward women sharing a bed? What were the contexts in which it might routinely happen? What meanings were attached to it?
Secondly, were there contexts where people did make sexual assumptions if two women shared a bed—or at least, did they allow for sexual possibilities?
Thirdly, how can bed-sharing be re-fashioned into a different type of trope when female couples are involved? One with a different framework, different anxieties, and different opportunities?
Even in the present day, cultural attitudes toward bed-sharing can vary widely, and they varied even more widely in the past. Ideas about privacy, whether in the bed itself or in the room where the bed is located, have been similarly variable. Expectations depended not only on the time and place, but very much on class or income, and on individual circumstances. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive survey across the scope of history, but rather anecdotal examples from various sources.
The question of whether you have a specific room designated as a sleeping room has always depended mostly on class and wealth. A poor family might live in a single room where all activities took place, including cooking, working, sleeping, and everything else. But with sufficient income and space, there was usually a priority on having a separate room designated as a bedroom. In households that included servants or other dependents, those of lower status might sleep in dormitory-like arrangements, sometimes in a room that was used for other purposes during the day. As early as classical Rome up through the 17th century or so, someone’s personal servants (of the same gender) might sleep in their bedroom or in an adjoining chamber, to be available at a moment’s notice—or, in the case of female servants, to provide some level of security against unauthorized or unwanted sexual encounters.
A trusted servant might even sleep in the same bed as her mistress, especially if she fell on the fuzzy line between servant and waiting woman or companion. In 16th and 17th century English records, we find it would be expected to share your bed with someone—a sibling, an unrelated dependent, a close friend, a visiting guest, or if you were traveling, perhaps even a random stranger. And this was probably the case in the medieval era as well.
But getting back to logistics, by the 18th century, it was becoming more common for servants to sleep in an entirely different part of the house. Another feature that changed ideas of privacy relating to the bedroom was a shift to the use of hallways to access rooms individually, rather than having each room simply open off the neighboring rooms. This feature began being included in house design in the 18th century but many buildings retained the older layout.
There’s another entire discussion to be had about what level of personal privacy people expected when engaging in sex, whether socially licensed or not. When we’re considering historic romance novels, we suspect that reader expectations will also be important!
The bedroom (and by extension the bed) both was and was not a “private” space. Servants and other inhabitants of the house might pass through, if that were the only means to get somewhere. But at the same time, the bedroom, when contrasted with the hall or the parlor (depending on era) was a place where one might expect solitude, or the company only of invited friends. It was a place where one expected to have some control over access, and might include a side-chamber referred to as a “closet” (not in the clothes-storage sense) that could be locked. The French salons of the 17th century and later were typically held in the hostess’s bed chamber, marking the close and intimate nature of the gathering, but also the public aspect of the space.
There was another aspect to privacy in bed, though privacy itself wasn’t the driving motivation. In the drafty environment of pre-modern houses, those lovely curtained four-poster beds served a very useful purpose of providing some insulation while sleeping. The curtains, of course, could also provide a certain amount of privacy from people moving through the room or the inhabitants of other beds in the same room. (Medieval records often list multiple beds located in the same chamber and it was common in many eras to have a movable truckle-bed for a servant as well as the main bed.) Another bed design that could afford privacy as well as insulation was the box bed – in essence a very large cupboard built into the side of the room with a bed inside. These can be found throughout Europe from the later medieval period to as late as the 19th century, and featured in some early North American house styles as well. The box bed was largely associated with rural houses, rather than homes of the well-to-do. And curtained beds were also correlated with wealth and status, both in their presence and in the richness of their appearance.
So, enough about the physical infrastructure, let’s get back to the question of who you might be sharing your bed with and why.
You might share your bed because you were poor and there were too many people packed into too small a space. This, alas, does not allow for the sort of privacy one might hope for in a romance novel. Groups of siblings, students, servants, or residents in charitable institutions might be expected to share beds as a general practice in a dormitory-like environment. Medieval inns typically lumped unrelated travelers together in the same room, and even the same bed, and this continued on in the early modern period for those who couldn’t afford to claim a private room when traveling.
But apart from necessity, sharing a bed was a sign of friendship, intimacy, and trust. In the early modern period, when you referred to someone as your “bed-fellow” it wasn’t a sly way of saying “sexual partner” but a marker of that close degree of trust and friendship. Bed was a place for private conversation and sharing secrets, for deepening or renewing personal bonds. The simple act of sharing a bed was a sign of affection, and it was a place where physical displays of affection were welcomed. This was, of course, true of the marriage bed as well. But outside of that situation, none of this is necessarily meant as a euphemism for erotic activity. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s look at some anecdotal examples.
In Spenser’s 16th century heroic poem The Faerie Queen, the woman warrior Britomart and the maiden Amoret, whom she has just rescued, share a bed while traveling where they share the stories of their past adventures and commiserate with each other.
Among the English aristocracy of a similar era, the social politics of whom among one’s ladies in waiting and relations one slept beside was deeply entangled in the creation and strengthening of political alliances. In 1603 Lady Anne Clifford writes in regard to her cousin Frances Bourchier, “[she] got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.” A different letter describing the same event mentions a third party, “I lay all night with my cousin Frances Bourchier and Mrs. Mary Cary, which was the first beginning of the greatness between us.” Clifford wrote two years later to her mother about not sleeping with Lady Arabella Stuart “which she very much desires” and which her mother had urged. These are not secret diary entries detailing sexual liaisons, but letters to relatives and friends discussing the social politics of the household openly.
Among the “lady’s companions” of 18th century England, we find some references to sharing a bed, such as Elizabeth Steele, companion of professional courtesan Sophia Baddeley. (The two may also have been lovers, but the point is that the two relationships were not automatically assumed to coincide.) But the question of whether a companion might also be a bed-fellow probably depended on the specific relationship between the two women and the financial logistics.
In 18th and 19th century rural America, women’s same-sex friendships might be disrupted by marriage or other family commitments, with the women reconnecting through extended visits when it was typically expected for them to share a bed. There they would discuss their experiences while apart, share concerns and hopes, and express their affection with kisses and embraces. One woman, writing to her friend in the 1830s about an upcoming visit, promises, “I would turn your good husband out of bed and snuggle into you and we would have a long talk like old times in Pine St.” There was little self-consciousness and no expectation of guilt or secrecy. There was no social assumption that these arrangements involved what the participants would consider sexual activity. Which isn’t to say that it didn’t happen, only that it wasn’t part of the assumed script.
So we have extensive evidence throughout western history that there was no automatic assumption of sexual activity if two women spent the night in the same bed. This situation held well into the beginning of the 20th century until Freudian suspicions took hold.
We might pause for a moment to compare the situation for men. Many of the same social dynamics held for men sharing a bed the same as women. It could be ordinary necessity, or a sign of close friendship, depending on the specific social context. But there was generally a higher level of awareness of the potential for sexual encounters between men who shared a bed. It was more often a subject of ribald humor, or a potential accusation against one’s enemies. And with the shift in gendered stereotypes of erotic desire around the 19th century, men came in for greater scrutiny when expressing physical affection, not only because the social stigma against male homosexuality was greater than that against female homosexuality, but because the prevailing definitions of sexual activity were focused around the presence of a penis in the act. So while the social assumptions and anxieties about two men in bed were different from those for a mixed-gender couple, there could also be distinct differences from attitudes towards women sharing a bed.
But does that mean that people assumed nothing ever happened between two women in that bed? Or that nobody ever worried that it might? Well, no, not exactly.
Religious institutions seem to have been the most consistently anxious about the consequences of same-sex bed-sharing. Concerns about same-sex relations in convents date back at least to the time of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. Those concerns covered even trivial actions like hand-holding and terms of endearment, showing that some of the anxiety was for the formation of “particular friendships”, not specifically the possibility of sex. Nuns were not supposed to have emotional attachments to anyone but God—even though the records show that this expectation was regularly violated. But co-sleeping was a special concern in convents, and most religious regulations specified that two women should not have private sleeping arrangements together. This might involve single-person cells or communal dormitories.
In the secular world, around the 16th century, we begin to see anecdotes that connect bed-sharing by women with sexual relationships. Brantôme, in his salacious descriptions of lesbian sex at the late 16th century French court describes how “two very fair and honourable damsels of a noble house, cousins of one another, which having been used to lie together in one bed for the space of three years” ended up as a result becoming sexual partners.
During the sodomy trial of Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma in early 17th century Spain, we learn that the two women had been quite open about a long-term co-habitation—“eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed.” And that might not have triggered anyone’s suspicions if it hadn’t been for a maid overhearing them in the bedroom making suspicious noises and sharing love talk and sexual commentary.
English dramas of the 17th century were rife with sexual humor and innuendo, and we find repeated sly references to the sexual possibilities of women sharing a bed in works like Jasper Mayne’s The Amorous Warre and Henry Burnell’s Landgartha.
The early 19th century slander lawsuit of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie provides a bit of convoluted backwards evidence for a recognition of the erotic possibilities of bed-sharing. Woods and Pirie, who ran a girls boarding school, had been accused of having a sexual relationship by one of the students, with one part of the accusation resting on the fact that they regularly shared a bed. The judges in the case were faced with a dilemma. The woman Woods and Pirie accused of slander was a powerful member of the aristocracy and it would be awkward to bring in a guilty verdict. But if the judgment concluded that the accusations about sexual misconduct were true, it would rattle the official position that proper British women Didn’t Do That Sort of Thing. In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed, and which they did not deny—must be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. If, they protested, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered sexually suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?
A similar struggle to avoid the public legal acknowledgement that two women sharing a bed might be “up to something” occurred in the Victorian-era Codrington divorce trial, when Admiral Codrington alleged that the conflict in his marriage (which eventually led to his wife Helen’s adultery) had started with Helen’s close friendship with feminist activist Emily Faithful, including a preference for sharing a bed with Emily rather than her husband. The evidence in the trial gave this something of a wink-wink spin, but the suspicion of sexual activity between the two women was never stated explicitly in the trial evidence.
So, while pre-20th century western culture did not make a knee-jerk assumption that two women in bed together automatically meant hanky-panky was going on, there were still rumblings of unease on occasion. Sex might not be probable, it might be officially excluded as a possibility, but it was imaginable.
And this sets aside the question of what these cultures defined as “sexual activity,” given that cuddling, kissing, and affectionate language were within the range of unexceptionable activity. We’ll come back to this point in a bit.
While society in general might prefer to disbelieve, there are any number of solid examples of female friends sharing a bed openly, without question by other members of the household, where we also know that they were engaging in a sexual relationship. Ann Lister’s diaries from the early 19th century are full of visits to and from other women where it was expected that the visitor would share their hostess’s bed openly, and Lister records the sexual activity that followed.
19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman’s first serious love was Rosalie Sully, the daughter of a family friend. Cushman’s later diary entries indicate an intense emotional and physical relationship, and based on Cushman’s later life we can conclude it was sexual. Cushman’s diary notes the occasions on which they “slept together” with delight, though this was probably not meant as a euphemism for sex specifically. Through it all, Rosalie’s family was entirely supportive of her relationship with Cushman.
The family of a Russian woman, described in a late 19th century case study, similarly supported a close female friendship that included sharing a bed during visits, being unaware that the two were continuing a sexual relationship they had begun at boarding school together.
All of this brings us to the point of re-imagining the “only one bed” trope in the context of lesbian historical romance.
Re-making the Trope
What are the parts of the trope that don’t apply? Most importantly, there will be no social taboo on two women sharing a bed that would make them hesitant or anxious based on sexual expectations. There may be other reasons why your female characters might be hesitant or apologetic about needing to share a bed, depending on the specific cultural context, but we don’t assume it will be a sexual anxiety. Maybe one woman worries that she’ll be seen as a poor hostess if she can’t provide her guest with her own bedroom. Maybe one or both feel that they aren’t close enough friends yet to make sharing a bed a natural event. Perhaps they’re of sufficiently different social classes that they wouldn’t be sharing a bed as friends and we aren’t in an era when one slept in the same bed with a servant. Maybe the sleeping arrangements of multiple people have been rearranged and there’s the potential for social jealousy over the choice of bed-fellow.
Of course, if one or both of the characters is already aware of feeling erotic desire for the other, they might consider the prospect overly tempting and be nervous about that, but it’s a different dynamic than it would be with a mixed-gender pair.
Two women also don’t need to worry about their reputations being ruined if people know they slept in the same bed. There will be no need to keep it a secret, and no reason to reorganize their lives as a result of it. No public shame, no private guilt, no shotgun marriage. In short, the two primary reasons for a one-bed trope that apply to mixed-gender couples—negotiation around a taboo, and being forced into marriage for the sake of honor—do not apply.
Of course, if your characters need to share a bed and one thing leads to another and they do initiate an erotic relationship as a result, that can serve as the same sort of turning point in the romance that it would for a mixed-gender couple, but the stakes are lower and the potential for social trauma is less.
Now let’s look at the positive side.
Historic attitudes toward bed-sharing by women mean that Only One Bed is an excellent context for getting your characters to take the next step in their physical relationship. There they are, in close proximity, with a social expectation that bed is a place for sharing secrets, deepening personal connections, and drawing closer. There is no taboo—and perhaps even a positive expectation—regarding physical contact. A touch, a goodnight kiss, a casual accidental juxtaposition of bodies, these are not fraught with anxiety or expectation. Almost certainly, one or both of the women has shared beds previously with women that they were close to but not romantically interested in, and there will be a range of behavior that will seem natural to them and not weighted with meaning. Until the moment when it is.
So if you want to create a context where your characters can find themselves making out without having planned to, Only One Bed offers a wealth of possibilities. And if you want to toss in a bit of angst, they can worry about whether the other person is on the same page about what’s happening, whether they classify the activities they’re engaging in the same way, how they both understand the experience to change the nature of their relationship—or not.
What if we do want to add a bit of sexual anxiety into the mix as they discuss sleeping arrangements? Does one of your characters have a reputation (warranted or not) as a lover of women? How does the other character feel about that? What does she expect might happen? Is she worried what other people might think?
Is one of the characters sexually experienced with women and finding herself overthinking the whole situation? What happens if she finds herself the target of displays of affection and isn’t sure how her bed-fellow intends them? How do you begin that discussion? What are the concepts and language they have available to talk about it?
Let’s suppose something does happen. How far can it go before your characters need to recognize that this is more than the sort of affection that any two women might exchange in bed?
When the night is over, have they changed how they feel about each other? Typical social expectations would be that women who share a bed will become closer as a result. Do their feelings match what the people around them expect them to feel? If other people don’t see anything odd or unusual about them having shared a bed, do they take the same attitude or are they unexpectedly bashful or nervous about it?
The answers to these questions will depend on the details of the social context, as well as the personal histories and personalities of your characters. But the key take-away is that the One Bed trope should have significantly different dynamics in your sapphic romance than it would for a mixed-gender couple. And you can use those dynamics to your advantage.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online