There's a phenomenon where the majority of books you read keep citing a specific earlier work, and you build it up in your mind to being something larger and more significant than it turns out to be. Of course, academic citations aren't necessarily a mark of significance; sometimes they're an acknowledgment of origins, of idea-lineages, of honoring those who first mapped out the territory. But it can still, sometimes, feel like a let-down when you finally get around to reading some highly-cited work and it doesn't live up to the image you've created in your head.
The core essence of Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian is the idea that lesbian invisibility in popular culture is neither a reflection of the absense of lesbians nor an accidental coincidence, but rather is a systematic (if uncoordinated) process of framing lesbianism and lesbian characters as unreal, illusory, or not of this world.
While I follow the general argument presented here, I do have one bone to pick with what I feel is an unexamined bias. Castle's work started off as a study of ghost stories in post-Enlightenment literature. As she started seeing more and more lesbian characters and themes in those stories, she developed the idea of the "apparitional lesbian" -- the lesbian who moves through popular culture only as a ghostly motif. But this seems to be a "hammer problem" as in, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail." If your focal field of study is ghost literature, and you keep seeing lesbians in that literature, does that mean that all lesbians in literature are ghostly? Or does it mean that you'd find lesbian characters and themes in other types of literature as well, if that were your field of study? And if you're looking for "ghostly lesbians" to explore a theory, how hard are you working to view those characters through a ghost-lens?
So, as I read this book, I kept asking myself, "Is this a genuine universal cultural theme, or is it an artifact of one academic's preoccupations?" I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of others who have read the book.
Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 1 - A Polemical Introduction: or, the Ghost of Greta Garbo
As an iconic example of the phenomenon Castle is studying, she contemplates the Greta Garbo film Queen Christina, and how Hollywood took a notoriously lesbian figure from history, portrayed her using a lesbian actress, and turned the story into a heterosexual love story. Lesbianism becomes an illusory “ghost” in cultural performances, even when the “fact “of lesbianism is undeniable. The lesbian is made difficult to see – absent even when central –a figure that’s easy to refuse to recognize in the moment, and easy to deny after the fact, as in all the obituaries of Garbo that avoided mentioning her love for women at all. The lesbian in popular culture is always somewhere else – never here and now, never central and familiar (in contrast to the figure of the male homosexual). It is this effect that Castle tackles and unmasks.
The book emerged out of Castle’s previous interest in the place of ghosts in post-Enlightenment culture, combined with a realization that lesbianism had been the “ghost” in her own work. The “disappearing” of lesbians reflects the threat that the idea of lesbianism is seen to pose to patriarchal society. This takes the form of denying or simply remaining silent with respect to lesbian aspects of historic figures (often in the name of protecting their reputations), silencing, censoring, or dismissing lesbian themed works, or simply ignoring the existence of lesbians - as happened in many legal systems – not because that existence was unimportant but because it was too dangerous to be given existence by recognition.
Castle reviews examples of lesbian literary figures framed as ghostly and supernatural evil. If ghostly, the lesbian can then be exorcised and disappeared from the “reality” of the literary work entirely. Real life lesbians similarly “ghost” themselves, disappearing into isolation and secrecy, or into marriages of convenience.
Castle lays out the outline of the book’s contents: two autobiographical essays about her own “emergence”, three historical and biographical, and three literary criticism. The organization is chronological in terms of writing, but this reflects the development of her thinking, from recognition to theorizing to exploration. The remainder of the introduction lays out who “the lesbian” at the center of her focus is not and is.
Castle attempts to define “the lesbian” in terms of presence, but the result is inherently a jumble of the particular, a listing of prominent cultural figures (mostly of the 20th century).
All in all, this was the least satisfying of the four chapters of this book that I summarized in detail, from the viewpoint of providing a survey of the field. While the other three chapters were written by scholars with extensive work in the topic they took up, Thomas (based on some cursory googling) seems to be more a specialist in Victorian English culture, with queer history being only one of a number of specialized topics she has written on within that field. This probably accounts for the relatively narrow focus of the chapter, which makes it far less useful as an introduction to lesbian literature in the 19th century than the overall program of the Cambridge Companion would seem to call for. It omits the substantial body of sentimental homoerotic poetry, the rise of "school stories" with strong homoerotic themes, and -- as I note in the body of the summary -- a large part of the decadent movement that engaged strongly with lesbian imagery. If you are looking for a guide to 19th century lesbian literature, I would advise going farther afield. (Terry Castle's anthology has good coverage for this era, along with other sources.)
Thomas, Kate. 2015. “Lesbian Postmortem at the Fin de Siècle” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
Thomas, Kate. Lesbian Postmortem at the Fin de Siècle.
This chapter begins with a tour through the complex inter-connectedness of lesbian writers in the late 19th century. As a community they were not only aware of each others’ works and themes, but promoted each other, wrote about and to each other, and often loved each other, whether requited or not.
The chapter's discussion focuses (perhaps oddly) on the gothic fascination with death that is so often associated with Victorian sensibility in general. There is a discussion of how lesbian identity in literature of the era is most often elusive "apparitional” to use the term Terry Castle applies – tying this analysis back to the fascination with death.
Overall, this chapter focuses on a narrow range of writers, and on a narrow range of subject matter, and on a thematic exploration of that filtered selection, rather than being a study guide to the full range of “lesbian literature” at the turn of the 20th century.
Since the previous chapter focused on the “long 18th century” and this one picks up only at the very end of the 19th, there is a gap in coverage that, for example, excludes the majority of the French decadent movement, the Parisian Sapphic revival, and any of the Victorian writers who were not fascinated by themes of death.
(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)
(Originally aired 2022/07/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2022.
How was your Pride Month? Did you do anything special to commemorate it? You know: riot in the streets? Demand the right to be your own special brand of queer? Read a banned book…or maybe write one that will risk banning? Events like Pride hold a fascinating place in the long stretch of history. It’s so easy to lose track of the origins and slide into a simple feel-good celebration. But when we look around at the forces marshalled to push us back into those closets, it can be important to remember the place of rage. We are still making history today and must continue to make it if we want to get to a place where Pride can be mere celebration.
But making history isn’t the only creative act. I’m always on the lookout for people who are creating content that might be of interest to my audience, and when I saw a post on twitter for a new podcast titled “Swords & Sapphics” I figured it was worth a shout-out. As it turns out, the content isn’t quite as historically oriented as the “swords” in the title might imply but very solidly sapphic. It’s a conversational show looking at issues of representation, queer media, body image and related topics, especially as depicted in TV, film, and books. I have a link to their website in the show notes, so check them out if it sounds interesting.
Publications on the Blog
In June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog looked at a fascinating academic study of lesbian historic fiction: Linda Garber’s Novel Approaches to Lesbian History. Then we tackled The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, which finished up in the beginning of July. Next up on the blog is a book that gets cited regularly by other authors: Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. That should take care of all of July, though I haven’t yet decided how many posts I’m going to split it up into. I’m having some interesting thoughts about Castle’s central thesis about the connections between lesbian representation and ghosts, so you’ll probably hear more about that in my commentary in the blog. After that, well, it feels like there’s been a lot of literary analysis and I’ll be looking in my to-do list for something a bit more based in everyday life.
Several books that I ordered a while ago came in this month. One isn’t remotely relevant to the Project but relates to my interest in the history of magic: Medieval Marvels and Fictions in the Latin West and Islamic World by Michelle Karnes. It provides a cross-cultural look at stories of magical objects and events.
I picked up George E. Haggerty’s Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century from a citation in my recent reading expecting it to be a bit more focused on homoerotic topics than it appears to be. So it may go a bit far down on the to-do list.
The last item touches on a subject I’ve been wanting more academic interest in, though this one is fairly limited in time-frame. Anne E. Linton tackles the topic of intersexuality in: Unmaking Sex: The Gender Outlaws of Nineteenth-Century France. There are many different historic intersections between lesbian possibilities and intersex possibilities but I’ve found it rare to have the intersex side addressed directly. This is a topic I should tackle in a future podcast to discuss the overlap in topic in more detail, and explain why it can be difficult to make clear distinctions when discussing specific individuals.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
This month’s new and recent releases aren’t quite as numerous as last month’s list – though we could always dream of last month’s numbers becoming the norm! I found one May release that had escaped my notice previously.
Penny's Forest by Tatiana Dee from TDY Books braids together a number of cross-time stories, which the author promises us will all come together in the end.
Viola Windermere's plans for a relaxing holiday at her aunt Penny's home in England fall apart when she accidentally travels to 1673 while exploring Penny's wooded property. There she meets and falls in love with a Romani woman named Hazel, who lives in the forest with her young daughter and a mysterious woman called Old Bridget, believed by some to be a witch. Penny Windermere encounters a small occult group living in her house after she transports back in time to 1934. She manages to return to her own time, but the thought of Marion draws her back. Martha Jenkins travels back to 1611 and, against her better judgement, returns again and again with drastic consequences. Jane Ainsworth is the single mother of a small boy in 1593. His sudden disappearance years later is the thread that weaves these stories together.
There’s one more June book: Becoming the Pannell Witch: A Prequel (The Pannell Witch #1) by Melissa Manners from Melissa Manners Publishing. As you can guess from the title, there’s a second part of the story, which will be coming out in October. It appears that these characters are based rather loosely on events surrounding an actual 16th century witch trial in England. The transcript has a link to the (very brief) Wikipedia page about the historic <a href="http://www.alpennia.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pannal" rel="nofollow">https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pannal ">Mary Pannal</a>.
Yorkshire, 1556. From the moment Mary meets Elizabeth, she’s smitten. For the first time, her life has a purpose, and when she delves into the world of herbal medicine, she is amazed to see that she can even save lives. But Mary is accused of witchcraft and her world falls apart. Can her relationship with Elizabeth survive?
I found four July releases. First up is The Only Game in Town by Geonn Cannon from Supposed Crimes. It looks like this can be summed up as “What if ‘A League of Their Own’ but more overtly queer?”
When the men are called to fight, women are called to play. 1916. Marcy Neal is a shortstop with a barnstorming baseball team called the Lady Yankees when the US joins the Great War. Every able-bodied man is expected to serve, athletes included. A canceled season would be a financial disaster for team owners and morally devastating for the American public, so a plan is devised. The season will go on as planned... with women players. Marcy jumps at the opportunity to play professionally. With only a few weeks before the first pitch, she gathers the best players she knows. Rosalind O'Brien, the fastest woman in Illinois. Iona "Moxie" Moccia, a catcher who knows the game better than anyone on a Cracker Jack card. And Caroline Rainy, the best pitcher to ever take the mound. Rainy is also Marcy's lifelong friend, first love, and current heartbreak, but she's willing to put her feelings aside for the greater good. The war has given them the chance of a lifetime to prove women can play the game as well as any man, and Marcy has no intention of stopping before the World's Series.
The author, Jill Dearman describes Jazzed from Vine Leaves Press as A gender-swapped take on the infamous “Leopold and Loeb” case: part historical fiction, part true crime. Juxtaposing the thrilling scientific breakthroughs in quantum physics and artistic explosion of the Harlem Renaissance with the pseudoscience of eugenics and anti-immigration fervor that also defined the era.
Academic geniuses, Wilhelmina “Will” Reinhardt and Dorothy “Dolly” Raab, become roommates at Barnard in the early 1920s, a time when college for women was a rarity. Socially awkward Will, grieving her mother’s death, is fascinated by Dolly, a beautiful, charming rebel with an insatiable taste for adrenaline. Both musicians come alive at Harlem jazz clubs and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Dazzled by the world they are discovering together, their romance ignites. But while Will is obsessed with Dolly, Dolly is obsessed with crime. The power dynamics keep shifting as Will agrees to commit petty crimes with Dolly in exchange for sexual favors. When the University and their rich families unite to split them up, passions escalate. To strike back at those who deny them the right to be together, they plot another crime: murder.
Another story with a 20th century setting is Worth a Fortune by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Harriet Browning has thrived as the heiress to a lumber fortune, living lavishly among New York’s elite. Her father’s death reveals unexpected financial woes, and Harriet is left to face a sudden, harsh reality. Ava Clark threw herself into the war effort when her brothers enlisted. Suddenly, the war is over, and she’s without a cause and a job. An ad for a personal secretary from Harriet—the woman she loved more than a decade before—surprises Ava and proves impossible to resist. Harriet only wanted an assistant for a few months—someone to help sort out the mess her parents left. She never bargained for the woman who got away to show up at her front door.
I don’t usually include re-issues in the book listings, but I wanted to take note that Rhiannon Grant has self-published an edition of her Neolithic sapphic story Between Boat and Shore, which had been orphaned when the original publisher, Manifold Press, closed. This is a very unusual and well-written novel combining a slowly developing love story, a bit of a murder mystery, and a fascinating and deeply researched imagining of Neolithic society in the north of the British Isles. I’m really happy to see this book available again.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming? I hadn’t realized until I drew up the list that it’s been all audiobooks for me this month, and not much in the way of sapphic content. Though part of the reason for that is that when I get in a mood for audiobooks, there’s often little overlap between the lesbian historicals on my to-be-read list and the books available in audio. I get a better success rate for the sapphic historical fantasy coming out from the major publishers. But a lot of the more intriguing purely historic titles are either self-published or from small enough presses that they haven’t been up to investing in audiobooks. I know there’s been more of a push to get audiobooks out from the lesbian presses. My own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, will be coming out in audio in August (according to the current published schedule). The industry grapevine seems to consider publication in audio alongside print to be an essential strategy, not just a nice to have. So I can hope that things might change.
I listened to another title in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novella series, about the lives of children who slip into other worlds and what happens when they come back. This one was Across the Green Grass Fields, featuring a world that’s a horse-mad girl’s dream…or nightmare.
Another book that I listened to because it’s a Hugo finalist is Becky Chambers The Galaxy and the Ground Within, a novel in an existing series that stands alone fairly well (which is a good thing because it’s the first book I’ve read from that series). The basic premise is: an odd assortment of spacefaring aliens are stranded together at a planetary truck stop and get to know each other better. I have a number of complicated thoughts about what the book is doing and hope I can make time to explore them in a review. (I’m about half a year behind in writing reviews, so I often catch up by writing very short ones.)
Katherine Addison’s Witness for the Dead is also a continuation of a series, though in this case I’ve read the previous volume, The Goblin Emperor, and feel the sequels wouldn’t stand on their own as well. It’s basically a fantasy police procedural, told from the viewpoint of someone whose profession is taking the testimony of dead souls.
The final item in my media-consumed list is the only one with sapphic content, but wow, what content. The Netflix series First Kill (based on a short story by SFF author V.E. Schwab) can be summed up as “cross Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Romeo and Juliet and make them both lesbians.” You have two warring families – the vampires and the monster hunters – and two high school girls trapped between them as they fall in love. The first season ends on something of a cliffhanger with respect to the romance, but given the tone of the series, I have high hopes for a happily ever after ending.
Looking ahead to the other podcasts coming up this month, we’ll have another fiction show at the end of the month. Rebecca Fraimow’s “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” is set among the birth of Yiddish theater in turn of the century Russia. And we’ll have an interview with Rebecca in the August On the Shelf show.
For the essay episode, I’ve decided to start my series on how favorite historic romance tropes play out with female couples. My original idea was to try to pull in guests to talk about their favorite tropes, and that’s still a possibility for some episodes. But my organizational skills fail a lot around coordinating with other people to do things, and I decided it was better to plunge into the topic on my own rather than leaving it to wither for lack of my social and organizational skills. So this month’s episode will start with a brief overview of what sorts of tropes we’re going to tackle and why they play out differently in sapphic historic romances.
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
It's time for another queer-themed bundle to celebrate Pride! This year, we have five books in the main bundle, and another ten in the bonus, for a total of fifteen if you spring for the bonus. Once again, winnowing it down to a manageable number was ready hard — there are so many writers out there who are creating intelligent, nuanced and queer SF/F.
Because this is for Pride, we looked for books that depicted queerness in all its aspects. You'll find profoundly hopeful work as well as darker themes, but what you won't find is stories in which being queer means you're evil, nor any in which it's purely a doomed and tragic fate. We've included newer writers and new work, reintroduced some older ones, and are offering a mix of novels, novellas, and short story collections; we have science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, solarpunk, cyberpunk, ghost stories, and more. These are stories that celebrate the multitudes within our queer community, all written by authors at the top of their game. You'll find a wide range of diverse characters, an equally wide range of styles, and stories that will hook you from first to last.
We can't claim that this is anything like a definitive LGBTQIA+ collection. There is too much wonderful queer writing out there for anyone to be able claim that. Instead, we're offering a collection that celebrates queerness, and shows off the work of some of the best writers working today.
StoryBundle has always allowed its patrons to donate part of their payment to a related charity, and once again we're supporting Rainbow Railroad, an NGO helping LGBT+ people escape state-sponsored persecution and violence worldwide. Especially at this moment, their work is desperately needed, and if you choose, you can pass part of the bundle's price to them — a gift that can save a life. – Catherine Lundoff and Melissa Scott
* * *
For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you're feeling generous), you'll get the basic bundle of five books in any ebook format—WORLDWIDE.
If you pay at least the bonus price of just $20, you get all five of the regular books, plus TEN more books for a total of 15!
This bundle is available only for a limited time via http://www.storybundle.com. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub, .mobi) for all books!
It's also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.
Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.
StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.
For more information, visit our website at storybundle.com, tweet us at @storybundle and like us on Facebook. For press inquiries, please email email@example.com.
As with the previous post, this chapter is written by a prolific and deeply knowledgeable scholar on the era in question. One of the benefits of a survey like the Cambridge Companion that is both a high-level overview and focuses specifically on lesbian history is that it can be easier to see some of the large-scale patterns. If the 17th century was an era when female homoeroticism was becoming more visible in general, the 18th century was an era when knowledge about female homoeroticism was becoming more organized into motifs, tropes, and categories. In some ways, that categorization only serves to emphasize the diversity of experiences that fall generally into the concept of "female homoeroticism". I've started poking at the idea that one of the problems with trying to identify "lesbianism in history" is that we need to acknowledge that there were many different "lesbianisms", each with their own history and cyclicity. On some points, they intersected and overlapped, on others they could be distinctly different. The awkwardness we often experience in trying to develop a unified historical model of lesbianism stems, in part, from trying to embrace all those lesbianisms as a single whole. But even if you look at much more recent lesbian history -- say, from the mid-20th century onward -- the experiences, concepts, and communities that are, in theory, covered by that label have been diverse, distinct, and sometimes in philosophical conflict. I shall continue poking at this idea and will probably turn it into a podcast at some point.
Gonda, Caroline. 2015. “Writing Lesbian Desires in the Long Eighteenth Century” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
Gonda, Caroline. Writing Lesbian Desires in the Long Eighteenth Century.
Female same-sex desire appears in a wide variety of genres in the “long 18th century” from private letters and journals, to professional literature, to novels, to satire, to porn, to poetry. And reference to lesbianism served a number of purposes that are not always obvious to the modern reader. The most visibly sexual representation tends to be hostile, while positive depictions tend to idealize “chaste female friendship”.
That polarization can obscure the relationship of literary representation to real women’s everyday lives. In a gender segregated society with very different concepts of privacy, opportunities for erotic encounters were many, and could easily go unremarked. Hostility tended to arise when women’s activity is challenged male privilege and expectations.
In contrast, official models of female-female desire tended to be associated with an unnatural state: whether physical, such as the “enlarged clitoris” theory, still prevalent early in the century, or behavioral, such as the increasing image of lesbians as “masculine”, later in the century.
Toward the end of the century, shifts in the acceptability of gender play in masquerades and theatricals parallel an increasing “gender panic” about appropriate roles and behavior. (Some see this crisis gradually developing from as early as the late 17th century.)
Across the 18th century the discourse around female homoeroticism moved from viewing it as having no significance to being significant enough to be threatening. The figure of the “female husband” appears regularly at the intersection of those views. Writing about these symbolic representations of female-female desire and gender transgression sometimes tells us more about the concept of lesbianism in the 18th-century than trying to find real-life lesbians. Real women had a reason to obscure their desires, while public discourse focused overtly on the meaning and consequences of those desires.
The figure of Sappho as a lesbian icon comes to the fore. Language evoking Sappho establishes itself in the general vocabulary of female-female desire, most commonly as “sapphist”, “sapphic”, “sapphism” but also in ambiguous uses of “lesbian” in reference to the poet and her loves.
Public and private discussion of specific women’s sapphic desires took up a full range of presentations from the celebrated “friendship” of Ponsonby and Butler to the whispered accusations against Anne Damer, to the autobiographical records of Anne Lister.
One common theme seen in these commentaries is an attempt to force female couples into a “butch-femme” mould even when the couple themselves emphasized their similarities. However we also see couples that do embrace a gender polarity, as in the writings of Lister.
Outside of overtly satirical or hostile literature, treatments of female homoeroticism in literature are often oblique or coded. This coding may be hostile, as in the depiction of “masculine” women in novels such as Belinda, or may act to blur or conceal erotic elements in favor of sentimental attachment, as in Millenium Hall.
The chapter catalogs a number of iconic and lesser known works with homoerotic themes, and again makes a good shopping list for interested readers.
(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)
Lanser is one of the most significant voices in the study of lesbian themes in the Renaissance and early modern period, so it's not at all surprising that she does an excellent job at surveying the literature of the period. I'm a smidge less convinced by her framing discussion, suggesting that the significance of Queen Elizabeth I of England's extended reign as a woman, and as an unmarried woman at that, created a special context for disrupting concepts of gender and increasing discourse around female homoeroticism. Co-occurrence is not causation, and one could cite many other female rulers in other eras and locations that did not co-occur with a similar shift in the discourse. But it is certainly true that in later 16th centiury England there was a special awareness of the value and potential of women, and prominant themes of praising women's virtues in human terms rather than purely feminine terms. Along with Valerie Traub, who is cited extensively in the discussion, this is an era well covered by the scholarship in analyses that do no attempt to view gender and sexuality only in reference to modern frameworks, but that explore them in their own context.
Lanser, Susan S. 2015. “’Bedfellows in Royaltie’: Early/Modern Sapphic Representations” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
Lanser, Susan. ’Bedfellows in Royaltie’: Early/Modern Sapphic Representations.
Lanser connects female rule over England in the wake of Henry VIII’s death with the rising debate regarding women’s nature and women’s place in society in the later 16th and 17th centuries. That is, that the undeniable fact of Elizabeth’s lengthy reign forced society to grapple with the concept of the equality of the sexes, while Elizabeth’s relationships with her female courtiers helped sanction the validity of female friendship bonds.
As documented by Valerie Traub, this era saw a significant increase in textual representations of lesbianism or its equivalent. This shift was not confined to England, either in terms of literary motifs or in terms of the growing prominence of female rulers and intellectuals. If Women could have power, independence, and value, they were capable of desiring and being desired by other women.
Male voices begin protesting that women can’t sexually satisfy each other. None of this implies a “golden age” of lesbian expression – only that lesbian possibilities were more openly recognized and expressed for good or ill. That potential becomes a site of conflict and anxiety in a variety of literature.
Lanser explores some selected text in more detail, especially drama and poetry. This chapter provides an excellent shopping list of texts for interested readers to explore in more depth.
(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)
(Originally aired 2022/06/18 - listen here)
Transcript is pending
In this episode we talk about:
Edited to add additional titles identified by listeners:
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (link is to Wikipedia)
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Erica Friedman Online
The chapters in the latter part of The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature seems intended to provide something of a catalog to sources and themes in different eras. In this, the chapters succeed to varying degrees. This one does a fairly good job, first by analyzing the difficulties in defining "medieval lesbian literature," and then in looking at various genres and themes that have a "lesbian-like" resonance for the modern reader. (In other words, a similar approach as this Project uses.) While not exhaustive, and focused specifically on literary works and not the range of non-literary source material, I think it does a very good job. Three of the four chapters I'm blogging individually are written by authors who are esablished experts in the era they cover. The fourth, well, well come to that.
Lochrie, Karma. 2015. “Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
Lochrie, Karma. Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages.
Identifying female same-sex love in the middle ages poses challenges in part because it goes against the prevailing stereotype of the era as reactionary and misogynistic. But in some ways, the forms female same-sex love takes in the middle ages poses a challenge to contemporary models in categories of desire.
The sexual fault lines in the middle ages were not defined by heterosexuality but by permitted and prohibited acts that considered procreation the only license for sex (prohibiting many types of male-female acts) and by a valorization of virginity over any sexual activity. Thus the sliding scale of acceptable sexual acts was distinctly different from a heterosexual-homosexual binary.
All this meant that female same-sex desire, as such, was not evaluated simplistically in terms of sex. Female friendship or female communities and passionate love between women could all – in certain contexts – be considered not only licensed, but idealized.
Against this, the question of whether, and to what extent, such relationships might also sexual is difficult to evaluate, given the relative scarcity of texts authored by women, and the general scarcity of candid autobiographical texts.
One must triangulate among women’s expressions of same-sex love, contextual opportunities of the type Judith Bennett labels “lesbian-like,” and authoritative condemnations of sexual activity between women. Relevant genres include penitential manuals inclusive of sex between women, often framed as gender transgression (“acting like a man”). Expressions of passionate friendship may strike the modern reader as erotic in tone, even when there is no explicit mention of erotic activity, the sun may include references to kissing and caresses that cross the line.
A small number of literary tales address female same-sex love either directly, as in various adaptations of Iphis and Ianthe, or more obliquely as in the same-sex bonding at the conclusion of Eliduc.
The genre of cross-dressing saints provides a number of framings of female-female encounters, though primarily of the inadvertent variety. Also, in a religious context, some interpret female devotion to the “wound of Christ” as having homoerotic implications (wound = vulva).
Martial women – either in real life, or represented by the mythical Amazons – also provided a context for gender transgression, potentially creating a site of female-female desire.
I’m taking a different approach with this collection than my usual. Rather than either blogging all the articles or only blogging the relevant ones, I’m going to do a very brief summary of all the “less relevant” material in this book and then blog the four articles of specific historic interest separately. My very brief skim through the articles summarized below means that I’m likely oversimplifying or misrepresenting some of the details. But it seemed like a good compromise.
Medd, Jodie (ed). 2015. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
A volume designed to provide a theoretical and survey background for the academic study of lesbian literature.
Articles not blogged individually
The collection opens with a select chronology of works that fall within the concept of “lesbian literature” as addressed in this book. About 6 pages cover everything up to the 20th century, then 10 pages cover the 20th and 21st centuries. [Note: The pre-20th century material does not include any works that haven’t been previously noted in some fashion in the Project.]
“Lesbian Literature?: An Introduction” by Jodie Medd
Medd discusses the problems of how to define and categorize the topic of this collection. There is a consideration of the place of reading and literature in the evolution of self-conscious “lesbian identity” and the distinct contributions of the activities of reading, writing, and critiquing.
Part I: In Theory/In Debate: Connections, Comparisons, and Contestations
1. “The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality” by Carla Freccero
Discusses issues of terminology and the shifting meanings of words associated with lesbianism. Freccero has addressed issues of “temporality” (i.e., the relationship of historic time to queer identities) in the collection The Lesbian Premodern [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5065], but I think I can repeat my comment on that article: “This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.”
2. “Debating Definitions: The Lesbian in Feminist Studies and Queer Studies” by Annamarie Jagose
Talks about the sense of awkward unease that many scholars have around treating the concept of the lesbian either within a feminist or a queer framework. Primarily a discussion of theoretical frameworks and the slipperiness of defining “lesbian” as a category. This article is reminiscent of a number of discussions in The Lesbian Premodern although Jagose did not contribute to that volume. There’s a wide-ranging review of significant theoretical works addressing this topic.
3. “Experience, Difference, and Power” by Sandra K. Soto
Raises questions of marginalization and intersectionality, largely generally within society rather than focused specifically on the study of lesbian literature.
4. “Global Desires, Postcolonial Critique: Queer Women in Nation, Migration, and Diaspora” by Shamira A. Meghani
Discusses issues relating to love between women in non-dominant world cultures, how these themes have been treated both internally and externally (i.e., by dominant cultures), the ways in which western concepts and definitions of lesbianism shape the discourse in other cultures.
Part II: In the Past: Reading the Literary Archive
Note: The four articles in this section are blogged individually.
Part III: On the Page: Modern Genres
9. “Modern Times, Modernist Writing, Modern Sexualities” by Madelyn Detloff
Maps out an understanding of English-language “modernism” in the 20th century up through WWII. Considers the themes of personal independence, outsider/expatriate perspectives, the rise of sexological and psychological frameworks.
10. “Popular Genres and Lesbian (Sub)Cultures: From Pulp to Crime, and Beyond” by Kaye Mitchell
A consideration of several iconic literary genres relevant to lesbian literature in the 20th century, including detective fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, the “pulp novels” of the 1930s to 1950s, and mainstream literary novels moving into the 21st century. [Note: I don’t see any reference to the rise of the lesbian small presses, despite the fact that the discussion of detective fiction largely mentions books published by them.]
11. “Lesbian Autobiography and Memoir” by Monica B. Pearl
Discusses works that—in some cases tangentially—can be understood or at least suspected of expressing the author’s own same-sex desires. The discussion includes poetry (Sappho, Dickenson), private correspondence, and literary memoir (Alice B. Toklans), as well as works in which known same-sex relationships were used as a basis for “autobiography in disguise” where the gender or relationships of the participants may be altered.
12. “Lesbianism-Poetry//Poetry-Lesbianism” by Amy Sara Carroll
A discussion of lesbian themes in poetry, focusing solely on 20th century work.
13. “Contemporary Lesbian Fiction: Into the Twenty-First Century” by Emma Parker
A consideration of lesbian literature in an era when it can be written and published as “mainstream literature.” The discomfort some writers have with categorization and labeling, in some cases particularly with “lesbian” as a label. A perception that self-identified “lesbian literature” has diversity issues and presents a false image of a unified community consciousness. The shift from “coming out” novels to works that take the characters’ identities for granted. Issues of motivation and representation in lesbian historical fiction. [Note: As in other articles in this collection, the author seems to be either unaware of, or disinterested in, historical fiction outside of “literary” works.]
14. “Comics, Graphic Narratives, and Lesbian Lives” by Heike Bauer
A survey of graphic stories (in the “stories told in pictures” sense, not the sexual sense) and the place of graphic stories within literary theory. Includes both classic works by artists like Bechdel and DiMassa as well as queer representation in “superhero” comics.
Appendix: A Guide to Further Reading
Several select reading lists for further exploration, including one page focusing on literature and cultural history before 1850. [Note: There are even 3 titles there that aren’t in my database yet!]
(Originally aired 2022/06/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2022.
News of the Field
It’s Pride Month, which means that I’m promoting the annual speculative fiction Storybundle. See the show notes for a link. If you’re not familiar with the Storybundle concept, it’s a collection of e-books centered around a theme or genre sold as a bundle with the idea that you might buy it for one or two titles that interest you and then find more books and authors that you didn’t realize you would enjoy. The Pride speculative fiction bundle always has a sprinkling of historic fantasies, and once again I have a book included: my brand new novella The Language of Roses. All the titles are worth checking out, but among those that might specifically appeal to sapphic historical readers include two titles in Cynthia Ward’s vampires and spies series: The Adventure of the Incognita Countess and The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum. In addition, there are several anthologies and collections, ghost stories, epic adventure, and solarpunk. And on top of great reads, the Storybundle always chooses a charity to support. This time the charity is Rainbow Railroad which helps LGBT people around the world to escape persecution and violence in their home countries.
Pride Month also means that it’s the anniversary of the start of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. That’s always a convenient time to look back and take stock. I kicked off the project in June 2014, so it’s been eight years of posting summaries of historic research relevant to writing lesbian and sapphic historic fiction. The schedule has been irregular: sometimes I’ve posted every day, mostly I try to post once a week, sometimes I’ve taken breaks. The publication count is up to 360 items, but the to-do list is over 500. I’m not adding new material to hunt down quite as rapidly as I used to, but it’s still faster than I’m reading things. One thing I haven’t been able to do in the last two years has been visiting the U.C. Berkeley library to pull articles from online sources that I can’t access from home. But there are enough books to keep me busy until I’m comfortable going back on campus.
One major benefit of accumulating that much material on the blog is that it makes creating podcasts easier. Back when I first started the podcast, each episode meant starting a research project from scratch. But now I often pick a topic specifically because it’s shown up in multiple publications for the blog. That means I can start by pulling up the relevant topic tags, or simply do a keyword search and find related blog entries. The next step is to copy-paste the relevant chunks of text into a master file. In the process, I get a sense of what sort of outline I want for the episode. Then it’s a matter of moving the blog text into the outline, removing the redundancies, smoothing out the flow of the language, and writing the introduction and transitions. It isn’t quite as simple as stitching together a patchwork of text from the blog, but it’s a lot easier than writing everything new.
Publications on the Blog
Last month I finally finished up the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. Only a minority of articles were directly relevant to queer topics, but they all addressed women’s lives in some fashion.
I started off June with a blog about Linda Garber’s Novel Approaches to Lesbian History, an academic study of the field of lesbian historical fiction. As you might imagine, I’m tickled to death to find out what other people think of this field as a whole. What sorts of patterns and trends they find and how those are interpreted from a critical perspective. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for several years, ever since I first saw mention of it.
For the remainder of the month, I thought I’d tackle one of my very recent acquisitions and review the relevant articles in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. The majority of the collection either addresses theoretical topics or 20th century literature, but I think there are four articles that will be suitable for blogging.
And, of course, as usual, I’m buying new books faster than I can blog them! This month’s haul includes several items purchased during the online Medieval Congress. Though online ordering isn’t quite the same as wandering through the book vendors in person and wondering how I’ll fit it all in my suitcase to take home.
I’m going a little outside my usual pre-20th century scope with Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature by Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley. Although the literature Tinsley studies is from the 20th century, she explores the deeper historic context of Caribbean history in which it is situated. And I’m always searching for material to expand beyond the usual white European focus of the blog.
Some topics and historic individuals crop up again and again in the literature, but that doesn’t mean new publications aren’t valuable. Clorinda Donato has created a new study and edition of a fascinating text in The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. I’ve previously done a podcast on Vizzani’s life and biography, but Donato’s work provides a detailed look at the context, not only of the original text, but of John Cleland’s English translation, and adds her own translation of the Italian original.
On speculation, I picked up a book titled A Little Gay History of Wales by Daryl Leeworthy. I’ll always have a fondness for Welsh history, but as I suspected, the book has essentially no information on women before the 20th century.
My last purchase to mention this month is Erica Friedman’s By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Manga & Anime. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this title in the next podcast, which will be an interview with Friedman about this very book, which looks at the history of Japanese “girls love” media.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
New fiction releases are plentiful this month! There are 3 May books to catch up with and then 14 titles released in June.
First, we have a Jane Austen-inspired work: Emma: Restraint and Presumption self-published by Garnet Marriott and adapted from the work by Jane Austen. I feel this should come with a caveat that this is one of those Austen adaptations that makes minor modifications in the original text—an inserted paragraph here and there—to add a queer twist to the story.
Emma Woodhouse distances herself from conventional marriage by imposing it on others, and her search for female intimacy leads her to befriend Miss Harriet Smith, to secure companionship and help Miss Smith to a husband of gentleman status. When this project fails, Emma questions her own approach to marriage, and in trying to establish a companionship with Miss Jane Fairfax, discovers that she must abandon her marriage plans, and seek to satisfy her true nature in an exclusively complete intimacy, independent of social expectation and conventions.
On Stolen Land self-published by Stephanie Rabig is a tale of supernatural horror set in the American west.
When a prairie-mad settler murders Milton Allen's brother and his family, the wealthy rancher offers an enormous bounty to bring the culprit in. Ada Marshall and Pearl Beckwourth, bounty hunters with twenty years’ experience, assume this is yet another straightforward job. But when a fellow bounty hunter is torn to pieces not fifty feet away from their camp, their natural wariness grows, and in the tiny, isolated valley town of Woodlawn, they learn that the attacker may not even be human...
Something Happened in River Falls self-published by Karyn Walters has a similar setting, but is a straightforward historic romance.
Virginia Morrisey is the owner of a successful hotel and a single parent in 1890's America. Best friends with the local madam, she is also known for her dubious morals and her lack of concern for societal mores. Helena Fernandez is the leader of an activist organization dedicated to preserving Christian principles in the town of River Falls, where they both live. Struggling with an attraction to other women, Helena uses her dedication to her organization to suppress and atone for her lesbian yearnings. Brought together by unforeseen circumstances, the women find it hard to ignore their attraction to each other. Can they find a way to come together in a world that will not accept them? Can they face the dangers together or will they push away their chance for happiness?
The June books start off with a fictionalized true-life adventure: Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey from Feiwel & Friends.
Two teen vigilantes set off on an action-packed investigation to expose corruption and deliver justice in Valiant Ladies, Melissa Grey's YA historical fiction novel inspired by real seventeenth century Latinx teenagers known as the Valiant Ladies of Potosí. By day Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza are proper young seventeenth century ladies. But when night falls, they trade in their silks and lace for swords and muskets, venturing out into the vibrant, bustling, crime-ridden streets of Potosí, in the Spanish Empire's Viceroyalty of Peru. They pass their time fighting, gambling, and falling desperately in love with one another. Then, on the night Kiki's engagement to the Viceroy's son is announced, her older brother—heir to her family’s fortune—is murdered. The girls immediately embark on a whirlwind investigation that takes them from the lowliest brothels of Potosí to the highest echelons of the Spanish aristocracy.
Glorious Poison by Kat Dunn from Head of Zeus press completes a series that has been mentioned here before. From the description, I suspect it would help to start the series at the beginning.
The daring and dramatic conclusion to Kat Dunn's epic C18th French Revolution trilogy 'with lashings of lust, love, sacrifice, betrayal and horror'. Robespierre is dead. The Reign of Terror is over. As Royalist strength grows, the Duc de L'Aubespine plots a coup that will consign the revolution to history. With Olympe in his clutches, he believes nothing can stop him. But he's reckoned without the intrepid Battalion of the Dead! Reunited in Paris, Ada is poised for action - but if she plays her hand too soon, everything she's sacrificed to gain his trust will be lost. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance with an old enemy might be Camille's only option to save Olympe and stop the duc in his tracks. The glittering and macabre bals des victimes and the eerie catacombs make the perfect backdrop for the final episode of the Battalion's tale.
The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood from Starwater Press is in a Regency series titled “Must Love Scandal” which should tell you something useful about the book.
A carefully constructed life... -- More than ten years ago, Lady Julia Pembroke was a haughty beauty with the ton at her fingertips. Now she's an aging spinster who spends her days advocating for London's less fortunate. Balancing a precarious double-existence, half in and half out of good society, Lady Julia is rumored to prefer friendships with women to marriages to men. But when the charity home Julia runs is threatened, desperate times call for desperate measures—even if it means giving up everything she has fought so hard to become... -- Never weaken. Never trust. Never give away your heart. -- Untamed and incurably sarcastic, Fleur Warburton has spurned marriage once already. Now all but orphaned and down to her last penny, Fleur needs money—and she's ready to marry just about any old, rich fool to finally feel settled and safe. After enough tragedy for one young lifetime, happiness is not in the equation. -- A woman she cannot live without. -- But when Fleur winds up being hosted in London by the infamously independent Lady Julia, mutual admiration and close proximity blossom into an incendiary sensuality that tempt both women into a fateful decision...and threaten ruin and scandal. Now they must decide—make the safe choice and end their alliance or risk everything to follow the perilous adventure of their defiant hearts?
Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens from Scribner UK looks like an unusual cross-time story, involving several actual historic figures. Although there’s an indication of sapphic longing, I wouldn’t look for a happy ending since the protagonist is a ghost.
In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants. Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—the impossible love of a teenage ghost for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, 19th-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involves an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training).
Perilous Passages by Edale Lane From Past and Prologue Press is the second volume in a short fiction series: The Wellington Mysteries.
After solving a minor case for a major payout, Stetson embarks on a trip to America with Evelyn and her burlesque company, hoping to find her long-lost father. But the inventive detective leaves with an unidentified art thief still at large. Musician Evelyn has grown to love the unique woman who bends the rules to pursue her dreams. But facing the disapproval of her family and society at large, how can their relationship move forward? Can Stetson keep her newfound love alive, or will confronting lethal foes end in her own death?
Moving on into 20th century settings, we have Beautiful Little Fool self-published by Sarah Zane.
Daisy put everything on the line for love, only to be left broken and alone when her love shipped out to the Great War without so much as a goodbye. Now her parents plan to marry her off to the next rich man who looks her way and she doesn't have the fight left in her to protest. Until Jordan comes along. Jordan is unapologetically bold. She knows what she wants and always goes after it... until she falls hard for the girl next door, who happens to be her best friend. Speaking up could cost her everything, especially if Daisy doesn't feel the same, but staying silent has a high price, too. Her happiness. Both stand to lose everything including each other. With stakes this high, will they find the courage to go after what they want, or will they follow societal expectations straight to miserable ever after?
I realized just as I’m recording this that Beautiful Little Fool sounds like it may be playing with the characters and setting of The Great Gatsby. Not sure about that.
The next book uses the motif that Linda Garber calls the “romance of the archives”—a term I intend to adopt for this popular type of cross-time story. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce the title. Spelled L-O-T-E in all capitals, it looks like it might be an acronym, but I don’t know for what. The book is LOTE by Shola von Reinhold from Duke University Press Books. The cover copy is very elusive about the queer content indicated by the content keywords, so I’m taking this on faith.
Solitary Mathilda has long harbored a conflicted enchantment bordering on rapture with the "Bright Young Things," the Bloomsbury Group, and their contemporaries of the '20s and '30s, and throughout her life her attempts at reinvention have mirrored their extravagance and artfulness. After discovering a photograph of the forgotten Black modernist poet Hermia Druitt, who ran in the same circles as the Bright Young Things, Mathilda becomes transfixed and resolves to learn as much as she can about the mysterious figure. Her search brings her to a peculiar artists’ residency in Dun, a small European town Hermia was known to have lived in during the '30s. The artists’ residency throws her deeper into a lattice of secrets and secret societies that takes hold of her aesthetic imagination. From champagne theft and Black Modernisms to art sabotage, alchemy, and a lotus-eating proto-luxury communist cult, Mathilda’s “Escapes” through modes of aesthetic expression lead her to question the convoluted ways truth is made and obscured.
Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman from Minotaur is one of two books this month set in a 1920s New York nightclub.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement. With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared. With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
A nightclub murder is also central to Harlem Sunset (A Harlem Renaissance Mystery Book 2) by Nekesa Afia from Berkley Books.
1926, Harlem. After the tense summer that resulted in the death of murderer Theodore Gilbert, twenty-six-year-old Louise Lloyd has once again gained a level of notoriety. Reporters want to talk to her and she is in the spotlight—the last place she wants to be. Louise begins working at the Dove, owned by her close friend Rafael Moreno. There Louise meets Nora Davies, one of the girls she was kidnapped with nearly a decade ago. Nora is a little rough around the edges, but the two women—along with Rafael and his sister, Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria—spend the night at the club, drinking and talking. The next morning, Rosa Maria wakes up covered in blood with no memory of the previous night. Nora is lying dead in the middle of the dance floor. Louise knows Rosa Maria couldn’t have killed Nora, but the police have a hard time believing that no one present can remember anything at all about what happened. When Louise and Rosa Maria return to their new apartment after being questioned by the police, they notice the door is unlocked. Inside, the word guilty is written on the living room wall. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame and terrify Rosa Maria, and Louise will stop at nothing to clear the woman she loves.
And continuing the New York nightclub theme, but a couple decades later, we have In the Shadow of Love (Shadow Series #2) by J.E. Leak from Certifiably Creative.
Jenny Ryan wanted Kathryn Hammond from the moment she saw her sing at The Grotto, an exclusive Midtown nightclub in wartime New York City. From that moment on, she was plunged into a world of danger and intrigue that led her to a secret job at the Office of Strategic Services and an unlikely romance with the woman of her dreams. Kathryn Hammond didn’t want to fall in love. As an OSS agent, she has an assignment to complete, a war to get back to, and a debt to pay to the dead. But love doesn’t care about the plans of those it enchants, and loving anyone, let alone a fellow member of the OSS, has compromised everything—especially her heart.
Dead Letters from Paradise by Ann McMan from Bywater Books is another “romance of the archives”.
The year is 1960, and Gunsmoke is the most popular show on TV. Elvis Presley tops the Billboard charts, and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy is running for president. And, in North Carolina, four young Black men sit down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and demand service. Enter Esther Jane (EJ) Cloud, a forty-something spinster who manages the Dead Letter Office at the Winston-Salem post office. EJ leads a quiet life in her Old Salem ancestral home and spends her free time volunteering in the town's 18th century medicinal garden. One sunny Spring morning, EJ's simple life is turned upside down when the town's master gardener unceremoniously hands her a stack of handwritten letters that have all been addressed to a nonexistent person at the garden. This simple act sets in motion a chain of events that will lead EJ on a life-altering quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious letter writer―and into a surprising head-on confrontation with the harsh realities of the racial injustice that is as deeply rooted in the life of her community as the ancient herbs cultivated in the Moravian garden. When EJ is forced to read the letters to look for clues about the anonymous sender, what she discovers are lyrical tales of a forbidden passion that threaten to unravel the simple contours of her unexamined life. EJ's official quest soon morphs into a journey of self-discovery as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in the fate of the mysterious letter writer, "Dorothea." Her surprising accomplice in solving the mystery of the letters becomes one, Harrie Hart: a savvy, street smart ten-year-old, wielding an eye patch and a limitless supply of aphorisms. Together, Harrie and EJ make seminal pilgrimages to the tiny town of Paradise to try and uncover the identity of the mercurial sender and, ultimately, learn a better way to navigate the changing world around them.
Now we’re moving into the era where I start getting uncertain about labeling stories “historic” with Vera Kelly: Lost and Found (Vera Kelly #3) by Rosalie Knecht from Tin House Books.
It’s spring 1971 and Vera Kelly and her girlfriend, Max, leave their cozy Brooklyn apartment for an emergency visit to Max's estranged family in Los Angeles. Max’s parents are divorcing—her father is already engaged to a much younger woman and under the sway of an occultist charlatan; her mother has left their estate in a hurry with no indication of return. Max, who hasn’t seen her family since they threw her out at the age of twenty-one, prepares for the trip with equal parts dread and anger. Upon arriving, Vera is shocked by the size and extravagance of the Comstock estate—the sprawling, manicured landscape; expansive and ornate buildings; and garages full of luxury cars reveal a privileged upbringing that, up until this point, Max had only hinted at—while Max attempts to navigate her father, who is hostile and controlling, and the occultist, St. James, who is charming but appears to be siphoning family money. Tensions boil over at dinner when Max threatens to alert her mother—and her mother’s lawyers—to St. James and her father’s plans using marital assets. The next morning, when Vera wakes up, Max is gone.
Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair by June Gervais from Pamela Dorman Books is another book teetering on the edge of what I’d consider historic.
Introvert Gina Mulley is determined to become a tattoo artist, and to find somewhere she belongs in her conventional Long Island town. But this is 1985, when tattooing is still a gritty, male-dominated fringe culture, and Gina’s funky flash is not exactly mainstream tattoo fare. The good news is that her older brother Dominic owns a tattoo shop, and he reluctantly agrees to train her. Gina has a year to prove herself, but her world is turned upside down when a mysterious psychic and his striking assistant, Anna, arrive on the scene. With Anna’s help, Gina recognizes that the only way she has a shot at becoming a professional tattoo artist is to stand up for herself, and embrace her quirkiness both in her art and her life. When Gina and Anna fall in love, Dominic gives Gina an ultimatum. She’s faced with an impossible choice: Is the romance and newfound independence she’s found worth sacrificing her dreams? Or can she find a way to have it all?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading—or perhaps listening to, in many cases?
On a whim—because I found myself in a really cute bookstore and wanted to buy something—I got Ryka Aoki’s rather bonkers story Light from Uncommon Stars. It’s…well, it has a spaceship full of interstellar refugees managing a doughnut shop, a violin teacher who sells her students’ souls to the devil in order to save her own music, and a teenage transgender runaway violinist. And then things get complicated. Not the sort of book I’d normally pick up, except that it’s a Hugo finalist and I wanted to read it for that, but I very much enjoyed where it took me.
I also enjoyed Catherine Lundoff’s Blood Moon, the second book in her Wolves of Wolf’s Point series, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while now. Queer menopausal werewolves and a thriller plot, need I say more? Another book that has been sitting half-finished in iBooks for entirely too long is T. Kingfisher’s collection Toad Words which is as delightful as Kingfisher always is.
I continue my plunge into audiobooks. First up is another book I wanted to read for the Hugo voting: P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, following a dapper butch magical investigator in a seriously alternate early 20th century Cairo who gets caught up in a conflict with a bad-ass Djinn. Oh, and her girlfriend is…well, that’s a spoiler, so read it yourself. Someone—and I confess I’ve forgotten who—mentioned that the narration for Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister was truly inspired, so since I’d had my eye on the book already, I took advantage. After growing up in the US, the protagonist is struggling to adapt when her Malaysian-Chinese family returns to their ancestral home. Torn between family loyalty and the desire for independence, missing her girlfriend but not out to her family, things only get more complicated when the ghost of her grandmother takes up residence in her head. Zen Cho brings her own background to a story thoroughly steeped in the culture and setting of contemporary Malaysia.
And finally I absolutely devoured Nicola Griffith’s Arthurian historic fantasy Spear, inspired both by dark age history and Welsh and Irish myth, the story posits the knight Peredur as a queer cross-dressing woman. I loved that—unlike many Arthurian fantasies—I didn’t feel like the outcome of the story was pre-determined and guaranteed to be tragic. For a long time I’d given up on my love of Arthurian re-tellings because I was tired of them all ending the same, but Griffith has given me back my joy in this genre.
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