I've been meaning to set up a cumulative index of all the fiction episodes on the podcast for quite some time. This weekend, thanks to being removed from my usual to-do list (since I'm hanging out at my father's house unexpectedly) I decided to do it. I suppose I should really get together with my webmasters and figure out how to set up an automatically-updating index. (Because Drupal is good at that sort of thing.) It would probably mean adding more tags, since I use the "fiction series" blog tags for meta-posts about the series, and I don't currently have data fields set up to track author and title. It's always interested to try to identify the balance point between "it's less work to do this manually" and "it's less work to set this up to be automatic." My webmasters tend to get twitchy when I propose new features that weren't part of the original site design, and I can hardly blame them.
This is an index, by author, of all the fiction episodes on the podcast. It is updated manually.
Ferreira, Jeannelle M.
Jones, Heather Rose
Katz, Gwen C.
Pinkard, Miyuki Jane
(Originally aired 2023/01/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2023.
Here’s looking forward to a new year of content, so let’s take a look back at what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has done this year.
With 30 podcast episodes, in addition to the monthly On the Shelf roundups, we published five original stories: “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher, “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinkard, and just last week “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko, who will be joining us in an interview later in this episode.
This year, I kicked off a new series that I’ve been contemplating for a while: “Our F/Favorite Tropes” – you can’t tell in the audio version, but that’s written “Our F-slash-F-avorite Tropes”. This series will explore how the dynamics of popular historic romance tropes change when a female couple is involved. In the five episodes so far we’ve explored tropes for only one bed, spinsters, marriage-based plots, kissing lessons, and widows. The trope series is being a lot of fun and I intend to continue for as long as I can come up with interesting tropes to explore.
The remaining 7 episodes covered many of our popular topics: a biographical look at 18th century gender non-conforming actress Charlotte Charke, a tour through three works of literature – John Lyly’s play Gallathea, the 2nd century Greek novel Babyloniaka, and the 18th century legal appeal of Anne or Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, all of which coincidentally touch on the motif of two women marrying. The show did an interview with Erica Friedman about her book on the history of Yuri anime and manga. There was an episode on the motif of the ”lavender menace” throughout history, that is, the way accusations of queer sexuality have been used to undermine feminist movements. And we put together our second multi-media show on the topic of the history of lesbian sex in pornography.
If you missed any of these and want to go back and check them out, you can find a cumulative index on the website. I’ve been thinking of doing some thematic indexes as well, collecting up the fiction episodes, biographical episodes, interview episodes, and so forth for easier browsing.
In the past year, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has published summaries of 51 publications. Those are harder to sum up, especially since I was doing a fair amount of working my way through a random collection of downloaded articles. The most ambitious project was publishing an edition, translation, and commentary on the Grandjean appeal. This past month’s entry was Lisa Moore’s Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel, which I chose along with a couple other forthcoming items as background for a podcast on the gothic genre.
I felt a bit like I was slacking off this year, but when I look at the numbers, the only year I covered more publications than this was in 2014, when I first started the project and kick-started it by posting a publication every day for a while. No need to worry about running out of material, though. I’ve covered a total of 385 publications, but my database lists close to a thousand. Many of the ones I haven’t covered yet are either hard to track down, of only marginal interest, or largely duplicate content I’ve already covered. But that still leaves several hundred titles on the to-be-read list.
While we’re talking about annual summaries, in another month or so I plan to do my usual summary of topics and dynamics of the sapphic historical fiction field. That will be posted on the blog, since it involves a lot of data crunching that may not be of general interest. I always find it interesting to see how many books I’ve been able to find, what the balance is between big press, small press, and self-published, and how the settings are distributed in time and space.
News of the Field
In addition to annual summaries, of course, January means that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is open for submissions to our fiction series. We’re looking for short stories up to 5000 words, for which we pay 8 cents a word. The stories must be set in an actual historic time and place, although fantastic elements that are appropriate to the setting may be used. And the date of the story must be pre-20th century. The central character should reasonably be categorized as lesbian or sapphic, although there’s no requirement for the story to be a romance, and in fact romance plots should have something else interesting going on as well. If you want more details and a bit of insight into what I’m looking for, follow the link in the show notes to our call for submissions. It’s fairly comprehensive.
I won’t claim that this podcast has up-to-the-minute media news, but in case you aren’t already aware of it, there’s a new BBC series on Marie Antoinette that evidently leans in to the rumors of her lesbian relationships. It’s by the same writer as The Favourite which had a similar spin on Queen Anne. It’s Marie Antoinette, so don’t go into it expecting a happy ending, but it looks lush and entertaining.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Of course, the heart of these On the Shelf episodes is the new book listings.
Periodically I like to talk about my adventures in putting together the new releases. I pick up a fair number from mentions on social media, and there are a few queer and lesbian small presses that I check out every month. I skim through the more general lists of queer books that other organizations compile—especially useful if they tag them with the type of representation and the genre. Very rarely, an author will reach out and let me know about an upcoming book, which I love because it means people are aware of what the podcast is doing. But for the final “what have I missed” check, I grind my way through listings on Amazon. Because, like it or not, that’s the most efficient place to look.
My standard method is to do an “advanced search” for everything published starting 2 months before the episode I’m putting together. So for this January show, I asked for everything published in November 2022 or later. It’s an absolute must to cover the previous month, since many self-published books aren’t listed on Amazon before their publication date. (This, as I often note, isn’t ideal for getting eyeballs on a book. And in a moment I’ll point out one more reason for this.) Going back 2 months is extra work, but sometimes it turns up titles I hadn’t seen before. My standard keywords are “lesbian or sapphic” plus “historical,” and specifically excluding “erotic” and “erotica”. (If you do a similar search and instead require the keyword “erotica” you’ll see why excluding that tag cuts down on irrelevant books, without excluding relevant ones.)
Now you might think that searching on the keywords “lesbian” plus “historical” would mean that the majority of books returned by the search would be potentially relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. But you’d be wrong. I’ll set aside the question of what gets tagged as “historical” because there are perfectly reasonable applications of the term that aren’t what I’m looking for. But one thing is immediately obvious: there are books being tagged with every possible queer-related term, even when the book has a much narrower focus. How else to explain why so much gay male romance turns up in my search results? (This is a problem that’s even more striking when searching keywords in Audible for audiobooks.) But there’s an even bigger keyword problem in Amazon, and that’s what I call “classics spam”.
There are entities—hard to know whether they’re organized enough to be called companies—who package up popular classic novels that are in the public domain and game the Amazon algorithms to get their items up to the top of searches. You can identify the ones I’m calling “classics spam” because they are whole arrays of titles with identical covers, listed as being “independently published” and all with a very recent publication date. And that’s where the books become a problem for searches, because the entities continually re-issue the same titles over and over, presumably to take advantage of an algorithm that prioritizes new releases. And whoever is issuing these books is packing their metadata full of irrelevant keywords to get them to turn up in searches. I have no idea what other irrelevant keywords they might be carrying, but I can tell you that there’s no valid reason for the works of Charles Dickens, or Joseph Conrad, or Charles Darwin, or Robert Louis Stevenson to be turning up in a keyword search for lesbians.
How much of a problem is this? I crunched the numbers this month, because that’s what I like to do for fun: crunch numbers. The search I ran this month returned 44 pages of results. At 16 titles per page, that’s about 700 titles. Of those, 176 listings—about a quarter—were for future publication dates. The “classics spam” listings are never set up in advance of publication, so those future titles are free of them. But in the listings for books already in publication, the “classics spam” drown out the genuine organic search results. Out of 350 December books, ¾ of them were spam. Out of 170 November books, a little over a third were spam. (As I mentioned, the spam listings get recycled with more recent publication dates, so the further back you go, the smaller the proportion gets.)
This means that if I don’t know about a book in advance of publication, I need to wade through pages and pages of search results that don’t merely fail to hit the specific target I’m looking for, but that have been deliberately designed to make it difficult to find what I’m looking for. Before I got a sense of how this dynamic worked, I often stopped browsing the search results once I was getting entire pages full of classics spam. Now I know I was overlooking books that were getting elbowed out by the spam. Even filtering out the spam, out of the 191 already-released listings returned by this month’s search, 25 titles actually fit the criteria I use for the podcast—about one-eighth. But that’s better than the rate with the spam included, which is about 5%.
I want to point out that there’s nothing illegal in classics spam. The works are in the public domain and anybody who wants to can publish a new edition. I could do it; you could do it. And in a system where publishers get to pick the keywords they attach to a book, there’s no good way to legislate where you cross the line from keyword optimization to making search functions unusable. But just as we’re seeing with the decline in the usability of Google searches, gaming the system is a parasite that eventually kills its host.
So all in all, trying to find recent, thematically-relevant books using Amazon keyword searches is a daunting task. If you’ve ever wondered if people are going to stumble across your book on Amazon without knowing to look for it specifically, the answer is “probably not.” What can you do to make it more findable? So many things, but that’s a topic for another day.
And with that said, I’m doing my bit for getting out the word about new books.
I have one correction to make for a book mentioned in last month’s show. Elsie Sees it Through by Derek Ansell is published by Next Chapter Publishing, rather than being self-published. I think that when I took the listing information from Amazon, it must not have included the publisher information at that time, but the author kindly wrote to me to provide me with the correct data. Yay, author feedback!
Also, I’m still holding off on discussing books from any of the several Harper Collins imprints until their strike is settled. This is something that has been requested by the striking workers as a way of supporting their action. The “on hold” list is up to three titles now.
There are three November titles that I only just discovered, all set in 19th century America.
A Rose Blooms at Golden Fork self-published by Rachel Anderson appears to be the start of a three-book series with a common setting.
It's the start of the 1849 Gold Rush and young frontier woman Rose Davis has just struck out from her homestead for the booming town of Golden Fork. Can a young, single female make it on her own on the wild frontier? Pull up a stool at the Lucky Shoe saloon and find out all that's happening from the mill to the mines. Rose follows her dreams and her heart to unexpected places in this historical romance.
Just Wide Enough for Two self-published by Kacey M. Martin offers a fictionalized take on the relationship between poet Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert.
Everyone in Amherst, Massachusetts knows that Emily Dickinson is odd. But no one really knows her better than Susan Gilbert. Friends since childhood, Emily and Susan can always be seen walking arm and arm and sneaking off into the woods, though what they do alone out there, no one knows. But when Emily’s brother, Austin, takes a romantic interest in Susan, things begin to change for Emily as she starts to experience a feeling she doesn’t quite understand – jealousy. When Susan Gilbert moves back to Amherst it becomes clear that her family has certain financial needs that need to be met. It also becomes clearer that the family is depending on Susan to meet those needs. A man like Austin Dickinson solves all of those problems. He’s handsome, kind, seemingly intelligent, and wealthy. The only issue? Susan is madly in love with his sister.
Rachel Kelly and the Vigilantes (Rachel Kelly in Oregon County # 1) self-published by Pamela Cabot gives us a Western adventure.
Rachel Kelly wasn’t the only person who wanted Frank Dawson and his vicious gang brought to justice. Over the years many others had tried to locate the hideout of the outlaws who robbed banks, murdered, and took captives to work as slaves. Yet somehow the gang always managed to escape the law. Dawson made his biggest mistake on the day he raided Rachel’s homestead and murdered her family. She took it very personally and made it her life’s work to find them. The breakthrough came when Rachel met a gang member who claimed she was able to smuggle in hand-picked vigilantes, masquerading as captives, into the stronghold. One potential recruit was a full-blooded Native American skilled in the use of her bow and knives with deadly accuracy. It was no easy task to assemble a group of capable, courageous vigilantes, but find them she did. Each had their own reasons for joining. Each having to decide whether they were willing to risk their lives to end Dawson’s reign of terror and free the captives. Brave indeed, but were they riding to the rescue or into a clever trap?
I have five more December books, plus a couple of related series titles to mention that were published earlier this year. They’re set in a wide time-span from mythic Greece up through the fateful voyage of the Titanic.
Most stories set in classical Greece have strong fantasy elements, and it can be tricky to judge whether to count them as historicals or not. I leaned in favor of Unchain My Heart (which has the sub-title “A Fantasy Lesbian Romance in Classical Greece” in case you weren’t sure). It’s the first volume in the Bonds of Fate series, self-published by R.J. Martin.
Kyra the Bard has given up on love. Zoe the Amazon doesn’t believe in it. It will take a powerful magic to convince either of them to try love again. When Zoe learns her sister isn’t in their homeland but instead marrying an Athenian, she leaves her comfortable new life in Egypt to confront her. What should be a simple journey across the Sea is complicated by a sudden storm, a villainous mutiny, and a monstrous ex-lover. Kyra would have been just another fling on Zoe’s way to Athens, but the gods know better, and ensure they're bound together until they realize they can help each other heal old wounds.
I almost managed to have read this next book before it showed up on the podcast, but it’s way up there at the top of my to-be-read list, based on the cover copy. The title, Sixpenny Octavo self-published by Annick Trent, is a reference to a particular size of book in the printing trade.
Clockmender Hannah Croft's friend Molly has been arrested for her connections to a Jacobin club. In the tumultuous political climate of 1790s Britain, being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to land Molly in gaol. Hannah's one hope to free her lies in the testimony of housemaid Lucy Boone. Lucy has spent her entire life moving from one household to another, never forming a true connection with her fellow servants—nor with her occasional lovers. She prefers it that way. When you can rely on yourself, why would you need anyone else? But when Hannah Croft asks for help, she cannot say no. Working together to free Molly, the two women don't try to ignore their growing attraction. For Hannah, Lucy is a beacon of hope at a difficult time. And Lucy finds herself loving her new life, made welcome by Hannah and her friends. But their situation is fraught with danger. Rumours abound of an informant in their midst, and a sinister man from the magistrate's office dogs Lucy's steps. One wrong move could land them in gaol—or splinter their new relationship from within.
As proof that my method of identifying new releases has gaps in it, I only ran across this next Regency-set series when book 3 came out. The series title is Diary of an Obstinate, Headstrong Female, and the first two titles are Vanilla Kisses and Appetence. By the way, in case, like me, you’ve never encountered the word “appetence” before, it means a strong desire or craving, related to appetite. The December publication in this series, volume 3, is Midwinter and the series is self-published by C.C. Burns.
A cosy country Christmastide. An ill-timed quest to expose injustice. A determined pursuit that sets everything asunder. When Eleanor and Annalise arrive at Stapleford Hall and begin to acclimatise to the slow rhythms of a secluded country life, they expect the remaining months of Eleanor’s confinement to continue as uneventfully as they began. But then a Christmas outing sets them on an unexpected mission to seek justice for the women of Cambridgeshire who are subject to the tyranny of the University Proctors and the questionable practice of confining them to The Spinning House without reasonable cause or a fair trial. Their quest to expose this unlawful custom leads them on a path of spontaneous adventure, new acquaintances, and a chance to test their thespian skills and new disguises. It would be risky business in any event, but with Eleanor lying low and Giles expanding his countrywide search for her, the timing might have been better. As the Midwinter winds set over the frost-bitten Fens, unforeseen danger begins to crystallise in the powdery snow trails of their perilous footprints.
Olivia Waite, whose “Feminine Pursuits” series has hit many people’s favorites list, has a new self-published short work out for the holidays, titled Hen Fever. I’m not sure whether it connects in any way to the Feminine Pursuits books.
Lydia Wraxhall is on her best behavior every day of the year—except one: the annual Bickerton Christmas Poultry Show. On that day she brushes her birds, sharpens her tongue, and engages in the closest thing the village knows to war. Harriet Boyne is a soldier’s widow reeling from the worst years of her life. She and her friends have inherited a manor on the village outskirts, and Harriet is looking forward to a quiet holiday far from the anguish of the battlefield. But a dispute over a flock of loose chickens — a rare local breed, which Lydia thinks could be champions and Harriet thinks could be delicious — draws Harriet into the competition under Lydia’s grudging guidance. Harriet’s frozen heart is thawed by Lydia’s gentleness, and lonely Lydia blossoms under Harriet’s keen regard. But the day of the poultry show is fast approaching, and everyone’s drawing up battle lines. And in the contest between secret love and public glory, there can only be one winner.
This is my regular bewilderment at the fashion for secondary titles that explain what the book is about, but with White Star: A lesbian Gilded Age romance set on the Titanic self-published by Laura Jelenkovich, at least you know for certain what you’re getting.
They thought they had six days to be together away from the world, the lies and fake smiles that tore their spirit to shreds. Just the two of them, young women trapped in an impossible love. With a twist of fate they had embarked happiness in Southampton, the Titanic sailing for New York on her maiden voyage. But that same fate would soon reveal its true face, disrupting the lives of 2,200 people on the freezing moonless night of April 15, 1912. Billions of stars twinkled, reflected on the still waters of the mirror-smooth Atlantic, the only witnesses to a tragedy no one could ever forget. Or maybe someone could, at least for a while.
There are six January books in my spreadsheet so far, with a similarly wide time-spread as the December books.
The Demon Gospel (Hidden Gods #2) by Ariel Dalziel from Bongo Productions Press signals fairly clearly that this historic fantasy has significant erotic content, and based on the cover copy it looks like you’re going to get non-consensual sex. It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the first book in this series has sapphic content, but you can check it out for yourself.
After the sacking of the Judaean city of Makor, Chana is a slave to a truly demonic Master—Alexander of Rome. When he brings home a powerful shapeshifter, Chana is subject to witnessing and participating in their ever-growing depravities. But the shapeshifter is just as much at the Master's nonexistant mercy as Chana is. Together they forge a secret bond, hoping that Alexander will never find out. How long can they fool a centuries-old demon? Worse yet, Rome herself descends into chaos, going through four Emperors in eighteen months. From Nero and Otho's suicides, through Galba and Vitellius’ bloody ends at the hands of the mob, Chana witnesses it all. As Eve and Chana learn more about the Master, they find his sinister backing behind the Empire itself. But as Eve learns to control her tremendous powers, Chana harbors the secret hope of freedom. Will she find it? How does one escape a demon?
Violet Cowper has joined the significant crowd writing Regency-era sapphic romance series. This month’s contribution is Her Enticing Muse (Ladylike Inclinations #3).
England, 1792. Maria Balcombe refuses to forsake her talents. Fleeing an unwanted arranged marriage, the gifted young artist hopes to make a name for herself in London’s competitive streets. So when a celebrated portraitist agrees to her pleas for mentorship despite their clashing styles, she gratefully accepts the beautiful woman’s strict conditions. Stella Wesley needs an obedient student. But with limited opportunities for creators of the fairer sex, she reluctantly bends her ideals for a confidante who’s willing to flaunt society and act as a living anatomy model. And she soon finds the hours she spends exploring the artistic intimacy of the female body are turning into an undeniable, smoldering attraction. Angry at a world that demands conformity over innovation, a conflicted Maria throws their future into jeopardy with her stubborn frankness. And when Stella is torn between abandoning her protégé for a one-in-a-lifetime offer or succumbing to her deepest desires, she fears more than one heart will end up broken. Will their forbidden strokes reveal love’s vivid promise?
Forever's Promise by Missouri Vaun from Bold Strokes Books is part of an ongoing string of Westerns, although it doesn’t appear that they are part of a connected series.
Wesley Holden migrated west with her brother, Clyde, to build a life neither of them could hope for back East. To share the homestead claim, Wesley had to disguise herself as a man. As brothers, Wesley and Clyde began to carve a new home out of the Kansas frontier. When Clyde is unexpectedly killed, Wes is left alone with the farm, determined to carry on, but more isolated as the days pass. For the promise of a better life, Charlotte Rose answers an ad for a bride. But the hope of a frontier husband ends when she arrives to find Clyde Holden is dead. Charlotte can’t return home because she discovered en route that she’s pregnant. Her only hope is to convince Clyde’s brother, Wes, that she can be a good wife. Desperate and out of options, Charlotte is resolved to win Wes’s heart. Allowing Charlotte to get too close is dangerous. If Wes marries, she’ll have to reveal her secret and risk everything for a woman who might never really love her, but resisting Charlotte is easier said than done.
Another story in the Western genre is The Ashes of the Brothel: Betrayal in the Wickedest Little Town in the West self-published by Katryna Lalock.
Jolted by her mother's horrific death during a California-bound train ride, Louisa never had much choice but to accept that life can be as brutal as it is beautiful. After arriving in Jerome, Arizona, with her father, Pa, and younger sister, Heather, Louisa can only hope for an uneventful reset. But their new home, dubbed the Wickedest Little Town in the West, might have a slew of even harsher lessons in store. Tragedy strikes again, and Louisa must pave the way for her sister's survival, even if it means doing something that makes Heather resent her. Becoming the right-hand woman to local brothel owner Miss Jennie, mingling with wealthy investors, and conning her way into a slice of the local mine fortune were never on Louisa's to-do list. Then again, neither was murder. Now, as Louisa's cunning little schemes ignite, it won't just be her life going up in flames.
If you’re a fan of literary novels, you definitely want to check out this next title, which was long-listed for the prestigeous Booker Prize: After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz from Liveright.
“The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for Capri with nothing but her clotted paintbrushes; and in 1923, Virginia Woolf writes: “I want to make life fuller and fuller.” Writing in cascading vignettes, Selby Wynn Schwartz spins an invigorating tale of women whose narratives converge and splinter as they forge queer identities and claim the right to their own lives.
And we’ll conclude with In the Shadow of Truth (Shadow Series #3) by J.E. Leak from Certifiably Creative LLC
New OSS trainee Jenny Ryan is brimming with equal parts excitement and fear. She is one step closer to serving her country overseas, but when her ambition costs her dearly, she realizes the fight has come to her and love has turned to lies. OSS instructor Kathryn Hammond is no stranger to sacrifice. But when doing her job means sending the woman she loves into the churn of war, her devotion to duty is tested like never before. When shocking revelations and the cruel march of time threaten their love, will Kat and Jenny embrace the truth and find each other again before it’s too late?
What Am I Reading?
I look at my list of reading, watching, and listening for the year and realize I’ve entirely fallen out of the habit of posting reviews. I think I need to power through and blog some mini-reviews for the whole year. The problem with having high standards for writing reviews is that it’s easy to psych yourself out of doing it entirely.
This month was another audiobooks-only month. I took in The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin, the sequel to The City We Became, about a group of people who become the living avatars of New York City in a fight against a cosmic evil that manifests as gentrification and other urban threats.
I was intrigued by a YA historic fantasy, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones, due to the elements of medieval Welsh legend and the promise of sapphic elements. (I became aware of it when putting together the book listings.) Although the main character does have a significant past relationship with another woman, the central romance is with a man, which is a hazard of identifying queer content by hints and rumor. The book was perfectly ok, but didn’t have the content I was hoping for.
I also got a bit of a surprise from Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell. Inspired by the character of the young girl Adele in the novel Jane Eyre, I had thought, from the cover copy, that this tale of girl-gang rage against the patriarchy would be a bit more of a madcap heist than it turned out to be. Instead I’d describe it as a dark gothic, and it should have content advisories for sexual assault and threat of incest. Don’t get me wrong, it was a powerful, well-written book, and I definitely enjoyed it. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
We finish up this show with an interview with Jennifer Nestojko, the author of our December story, “From the Bird’s Nest.” Jennifer is a teacher, poet, and storyteller, living on the central coast of California. We’ve known each other for quite some time—several decades—which I tend to feel nervous about mentioning, lest people think that being a personal friend gets you a leg up on selling stories to the podcast. It doesn’t. But it’s possible that people who know me have a slight advantage in knowing what sorts of stories I might like.
[Interview transcript will be posted when available.]
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
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 247 – From the Bird’s Nest by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2022/12/31 - listen here)
This is the last fiction episode of the year, the last podcast of the year, released on the last day of the year. And you know what that means: Starting tomorrow, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is open for submissions again, for the whole month of January. I hope to see many wonderful stories like this one showing up in my inbox! But for now, let’s close out the year with a gentle story of love and birds that fly free from their nests: “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko.
Jennifer Nestojko is a teacher, poet, and storyteller living on the central coast of California and working in San Jose. She spent a lot of time on her commute listening to Robin's voice until Robin's letters to Millie needed to become a full story.
Jennifer is a familiar name in this fiction series. This is the third story she’s sold to the podcast, covering settings from Iron Age Denmark to medieval Brittany, to this one set in 19th century New England.
When I asked Jennifer if she had any suggestions for a narrator, she asked if I’d consider auditioning one of her students, Emma Ross, for the job. Emma’s demo recording was delightful and knowing that she’d be working with Jennifer on the specific requirements of the text made me more than willing to give her a chance. I hope she goes on to find more narration jobs.
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.
From the Bird's Nest
by Jennifer Nestojko
To: Miss Millicent Gardiner
From: Robin Martin, the Bird’s Nest
My dear Miss Gardiner,
I am so happy to hear of your safe arrival in that great city of New York. I wish you the best of fortune during your sojourn there, and I believe without the slightest shadow of doubt that your endeavors will be fruitful and that the denizens of that fair town will be as dazzled by your performance as those close to home have always been. I will always be one of your truest fans.
Oh, Millie, dearest, that sounds so terribly formal, and so it is too funny, indeed. Perhaps Mother’s old propriety guides have rubbed off on me, but I find that doubtful. I do hope you dazzle your audiences – nay, there is not hope to it, for I know you will sing them out of their seats. I used to listen to you practice for hours; it may have been my favorite occupation then when you came over to visit, and Mother always did chide me a bit for doing so. Your voice, singing or otherwise, enchants me, and I am sure the effect is not limited to this one small songbird who herself only sings as she cooks or gardens. I will miss our duets while you are out conquering the world, but I know you will come home at the end of this tour.
Oliver called the other day, but I was up in my sitting room writing and not home to visitors. I am trying so hard to make this next little book come together, but my hero just will not do as I tell him, and it is very vexing. My heroine, Penelope, is a darling, and so much fun, but Bryson is really a bore. I may have to excise him from the book entirely and find a new man to take his place. I am rambling, dearheart, but you should hear what happened with Oliver. It will make you laugh.
Oliver, who cannot seem to take a hint or a direct command, left a “token of his admiration” for me in the shape of a brooch. It was dreadfully gaudy and not at all to my taste. I was trying to figure out how to return it to him without needing to actually see him, but when I looked for it later I could not find it. I had spent the early afternoon baking, as you know I like to do when I am trying to work out something with my writing, and when it came time for tea I was simply famished. I was also somewhat frantic about the bauble, as it seemed expensive and I could not keep it. It had vanished without a trace.
Do you know, when I cut into my little loaf of bread, my knife struck something hard. Imagine – I had baked that blessed brooch right into the bread. Fortunately, it stood up to its adventure, and I cleaned the thing and sent it with Arthur back to Oliver. Arthur, being kind and dignified, made no comment on my request; I do believe he disapproves of Oliver as well, though he would like to see me properly married off. He was here before me, and sees me as but a child; I have a feeling he would like to see me settled, though if I were to leave here to live with a husband, he would lose his place. The house would be sold off, I am sure. I believe he hopes I will marry someone who will take over the running of the household, though I think I am doing just fine so far.
Millie, I want to hear all about you and your great doings. I am terribly proud of you, singing upon a stage for hundreds of admirers. Please don’t let any of them admire you more than I do.
My Own Brilliant Star,
Thank you for your letter, it arrived just after dinner, and I was more hungry for it than for any croquettes or other treats that Janie makes up to tempt me with. It is such luck that she is staying on as cook; old Marnie was ready to retire. I am sure you are having great feasts in your honor and dining upon delicacies we here in our small town have yet to even dream about.
I fell upon your words like a starving wolf upon a defenseless lamb – yes, I know I tend to get carried away with my metaphors, but your missives are my lone excitement. You, now – you are living such a grand life. I gobble up your descriptions and then read the letter again, slowly, savoring every morsel. I have read a few of the reviews of your performances in the papers; I make Arthur scour the shops for any such scrap. I must say, the descriptions of throngs of suitors give me a small qualm, but you are always quoted as saying you are currently married to your work. I would so hate for you to find a ravishing Bryson of your own and leave me to live in another state. I get quite heartbroken when I think of it, and then I have a good laugh at myself and my flights of fancy.
After all, Bryson could not tempt you. He is indeed a bore, as you noted when I sent you a copy of my latest efforts. I have jettisoned him in favor of one Peter. I am giving Peter more admirable traits, and I hope he repays me for the effort by being sweet and tractable like a good boy should be to his creator. I do need to change the heroine’s name, however. Peter and Penelope are the stuff of cheap theater, not dreams. Her name shall henceforth be Audrey. I am glad you like the rest of the book. I am at the point of being fond of it, if perhaps foolishly. Later I will become quite cross and dissatisfied, but after a few tussles it will be ready to be sent off. That is a ways away, but by now I know my process.
It thrills me no end to hear that in New York and Philadelphia and other towns you have found my previous efforts being sold in reputable shops. You know no one recognizes me as the promising author; no one suspects that you know him at all. It is our little secret together – well, our secret, and that of my publisher. I wish I could be known by my own name, or at least by a woman’s name, but it is always amusing to read the reviews.
I miss you so much, and I wish I could be travelling with you and sharing in your triumphs. You understand, don’t you, dearest? I know you do; you are the sister of my heart and know all of my secrets and follies. Of course it is folly that I so rarely leave the grounds of my home, but I cannot seem to help myself. The terror that rises up in me quite destroys my reason. Your bravery is something I admire so much. That you see any courage in my own choices is astonishing.
Shine on brightly for all; sing to the many, but please ever keep me, the one, as the lodestar in your own skies.
I am feeling a bit peevish today, for I have a toothache, and so all seems dark and gloomy in my world. Besides, the bread I made for tea burnt to a crisp because I was daydreaming. It is a well-known failing of mine. I know you called me your “glimmering light in darkness” in your last letter, but I cannot help but feel drab and uninteresting. I am in a confessional mode, so I will tell you that your Lucy, the friend you have met on your travels, seems so brilliant and witty, from your reports, that you must cleave to her and think no more of your old shut-in friend.
Perhaps you have outgrown me; it would not be impossible as a thought, though I don’t see how I could ever outgrow you. I am, however, stuck here like that horrible rubber plant Mother used to keep in the parlor. Lucy can see the world with you, she can bring you flowers after a performance, she can soothe the headaches that you always get from crowds and long train rides. You have not said that she performs these small graces, but I wonder. It should be I tending to your needs, not some servant or a dear friend.
I would not be sending this letter, but you did tell me that we should share even our darker thoughts with each other, and not pretend all is sunshine. Your letters have relayed news of your headaches and your frustrations with rude men trying to garner your favor. My news is so much more tedious, filled with household mundanities and petty jealousy, but it is my own reality.
Spring is coming on slowly here, but I have heard bird song in the gardens and there are daffodils growing. I remember that they are your favorite. You have always been bright and golden. I may be a robin of spring, as you call me, but the female robin is so brown and hidden.
Forgive me my moodiness – by the time I write again, which very well may be tomorrow, I will have shored up my thoughts. The book is developing apace; Peter is much better than Bryson. I shall endeavor to be more Peter and less Bryson.
Your own little Robin.
My Dearest Millie,
It is not the next day, but a few days later, that I write you again. We have a bit of a tumult. Oliver came round and I really had to see him; I had been avoiding him all these months since the incident of the Brooch and the Bread. (Wouldn’t that make a sweet little story?)
So what does that dratted boy do, despite the fact that I have been avoiding him and returning his gifts? He gets down on one knee and asks me to be his wife. Whatever possessed him? I have not encouraged him one bit, and he does not really know me. Your comment a while back about his family needing an influx of money may provide a hint, but I am not that easy a target.
I turned him down, of course. He would be shocked to know my other self, though he has found my books in the wild and seems to like them, believing firmly that they were written by a man. That he enjoys my work would make me think more kindly of him had he not expressed, strongly, his opinion of women writing, and his opinion of you singing on the stage. His phrasing of such opinions left much to be desired and bordered on being crude. He was rather put out by my refusal, thinking perhaps a shut-in would not have a spine.
We will laugh together over his indignation some day and then lump him in with the others. I wish we had some better defense. Have you heard all the talk of Boston marriages? I hope those become more popular. I have no wish for a husband, and you are so often quoted in the papers as being married to your work. I find it tiresome that the question of achieving a husband is one of the first asked by reporters. Your glorious voice and your dedication to your art should be foremost, not some idea of a false achievement.
There I am, riding my hobbyhorse again. Mother used to say, sardonically, of course, that it was rather fortunate that I did not venture into the world considering some of my opinions. She would be pleased that I did not share them fully with Oliver, though his face would have entertained me for weeks after.
His proposal made me miss you terribly, though. When you are not out there conquering the world and making it love you, then we shall present a united front here at home and fend off the sad little knights who come to save the maiden from the dragon of having wealth and independence.
Conquer on, my heart, and I will keep the home fires burning for your return.
I am all aflutter, knowing that you are so close, that you will be singing just a few miles away from our own Bird’s Nest here. I realize – oh, how well I realize – that I should be there, waving at you from a seat up front or in a box or whatever they have in a theater – but I cannot. Not even for you, my darling, can I face so many people and go so far from home. I wish I could.
Thank you for the tickets; I am sure George will be very pleased to attend, and his new bride will also be able to hear you in the environment that best suits you. My brother has always been fond of you, as you well know. I also thank you, my closest friend, for your kindness in not asking that I attend the performance, even though I am sure you long to have me there, just the once. You offer; you don’t demand, and that makes me love you all over again, though I am not sure that I could love you more than I presently do. It makes me ashamed of my failings, but I truly am terrified of venturing out beyond my little nest. This Robin will never depart for warmer climes – or even venture up to Boston for your grand moment.
My heart will be with you tomorrow night; it travels with you, though I stay so tiresomely at home.
To Miss Millicent Gardiner
Greetings from your esteemed childhood companion. Please know that I watched your performance from the box to the left of the stage. You were incandescent. I would have come to you after to shower you with praise and affection, but I was not able to stay. I know you understand. I wish I could see you before you leave town, but, alas, train schedules wait for no man, or woman, and you have future performances to give.
Please accept these flowers from my garden and arranged by my own hand.
Dearest Millie ,
You have just left, and after our wonderful afternoon together, I am tired, but unable to rest. I was so surprised to see you in the parlor when I was told I had a visitor. Nell was most insistent that I get up, and I feared that Oliver had returned and was making demands on my time once again.
That you had planned this sweet surprise weeks ago fills me with joy and banishes all fears of Lucy or other new friends. Of course you need friends and support as you go; it was silly of me to think they could ever steal you away from me. When Lucy came by at the end of your visit, she was so kind and cheerful that I hold her now as a friend as well. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some day we could fill the Nest with women who have imagination and talent who wish to give each other support and companionship? I rattle around in this large place too much, and sharing what I have would be a worthwhile endeavor. I know I have shared it with you, since the loss of your own parents and home, yet it is still largely empty.
I would not want too many to stay here, but most certainly I will be glad when you come home to rest between tours. When you held me as you used to when we were school girls, when you caressed my hair in the dear old way that was your habit when I was fretful, all time and distance were erased and I knew I had been foolish to doubt you and myself.
One would think my great adventure last night was needless, since today brought you to me, but no – it was necessary, even if I never manage the like again. We were so busy with other matters today that I didn’t really tell you how it came about. I was so impatient with myself that I sent for George and enlisted his aid for my little plan. He took care of all of the details, arranged the carriage and the hooded cape, and most tenderly brought me into the theater, making sure I was carefully seated with the least amount of fuss. He held my hand when I was frightened, and he was most solicitous of my health of both body and mind. George used to torment me a little when we were young, but that is the nature of brothers, from what I can tell. That he is such a balm to me now erases all previous pranks from our shared youth.
There were so many people, even though I was in a box by myself; it quite took my breath away. I tried to breathe deeply and use the composing exercises you taught me so long ago. I thought I would faint, but I held on, and after a bit I became curious. I watched men and women from my little nest and imagined them into future books; it was a feast for my eyes and fed my fancies. I must admit, I saw several frocks and bonnets that I coveted for myself; I must have a dressmaker come so that I can indulge myself a teeny bit, even if I do not go to banquets or theaters again.
I had no need of my fancies or my breathing exercises when I heard you begin to sing. I floated away from all care on the wave of your voice. I existed in my own little space, only aware of you; I was so transported it was a shock to come back to that little box for the intermission. It was a shock, indeed, and I almost didn’t make it to the second part of the programme, but I did. George was a dragon, keeping all comers at bay and bringing me refreshments.
I could not make it to the very end; the applause was deafening and that roar of your admirers all together wore me out, but I saw the roses I arranged and sent you from the gardens at the Bird’s Nest brought out to you.
I am sorry we were not able to do more than stroll about the gardens today and talk a bit about your travels, though it felt so comfortable to fall asleep in your loving embrace. I feel safe with you, and I am greedy in wanting more time. I feel positively virtuous in sending you off with a smile and no tears, as if I were sharing my most precious treasure with the needy, which, really, I am.
I shall be able to rest for the evening, now that I have written some of what I could not say while you were here. Time slips past even though we will it to stay. I can think of at least three poets who have made the same observation, which is why I so seldom stray from prose to poetry.
I could write you a poem, though – this instant, were I not already nodding over this missive. Good night, my songbird.
Peter and Audrey and company have finished their adventures, including proofs and corrections, and are now off to the printing press. It is such a relief to have that done, and I deserve a short break from ink stains and broken pen nibs. Nell should find this a relief, since I always seem to stain my frocks despite the vast pinafores in which I swath myself to prevent such mishaps.
Of course, I was reading in the garden, relaxing in the summer sunshine, when a new character spang up, like Athena from the brains of Zeus, only she sprang from my own thoughts. I had no headache, thankfully, and I am not of such a straying nature as Zeus. I am only scandalous in my refusal of proposals of marriage from young men who see my fortune and not my graces.
My fortune shall be used as I see fit, and I have laid out a plan, with the suggestions you gave to me added in, to brother George. He does not have authority in this case, since Father distinctly left the house and part of his fortune to Mother and then to me once Mother passed on, and he knows that. George is not overbearing in the slightest, which is fortunate. I dislike overbearing men, and wait until I tell you about the latest suitor. Even Mother would have sent him firmly on his way.
It is a good thing I do not ramble in this way when I compose my novels; we would never get to the ending! Still, George has advised me on the practicalities of opening the house up to a few more women to live here and do their art or work as needed. You and I, of course, are the main residents, but others could come and go depending on need. I know of a woman, Josie, who is studying medicine, who may need a place to stay for a while. It is a terribly hard profession for a woman to take on, not because women cannot do the work, but because they are discouraged from doing it. I want to counter such discouragement. We also have a good room with excellent light for painting if Lucy wishes to come and stay for a while.
We would need to take on another servant and hire a washing woman, but my purse will stretch to that; it just never made sense to have more than Nell and Janie and Arthur for just myself and you now that Mother is gone. Indeed, that seems like too much, so I am delighted to be moving our plan forward.
I know when the leaves begin to turn and the air has that tang to it, then you will be home. I am enjoying the summer sunshine, and my roses are blooming, but I look eagerly to autumn’s joys.
The air is crisp and cool and the trees in the orchard are laden with apples, including our old favorite, whose fruit we used to gather and eat as we studied. It is hard to study when there is so much to do. The squirrels are scurrying away with their nuts; we don’t begrudge them their share, as they are so cute and diligent in their labors.
I have been diligent in mine. The art studio is now well appointed, as are the rooms for Lucy and Josie. The house has been aired and cleaned and all arranged in such a way that four women can share space or have privacy according to the needs of the day or hour. I bought the sweetest new linens and curtains for the rooms, and had such fun choosing the fabric for the bedspreads; Nell brought me samples, of course. I have even made little rag rugs for each room. You and I will share the largest room, of course, and we have a darling little parlor with a partner desk George found for me. It is the most wonderful thing, equipped with little cubbyholes and drawers.
I have also been diligent in getting my newest story going. I want a larger cast of characters, and more women this time. I have a new direction in which I am going in my scribblings and I cannot wait for you to read my efforts and give me your insight.
What is most invigorating, even more so than this brilliant weather with its great gusts of wind, is the thought that I do not have to wait much longer. The end of the week will bring the best of the foliage as if the entire woods were welcoming you back, clad in holiday attire. I too will be clad in my own festival gown, because I went through with my silly plan to get more fancy clothes, even if I go nowhere but here and see no one but you. Thank you for your encouragement in that as in all things.
Millie, we have so much to do together, but I trust that we will settle into a life worth the living and sharing. You will have other concert tours, of course, and I will have my attacks of writing come upon me, but together we will create something that reaches out past this little Nest of ours.
There I am getting sentimental. I must go and finish my last rug for Josie’s room and then wrestle with my main heroine a bit more. I am beginning to suspect she is not the only heroine in the story. I look forward to your thoughts.
May my welcome home be herald to your journey and may your journey be safely concluded soon.
With all my love,
This is just a quick note before tea to say how much I love our mornings working together, and the bread left for you was made by me just for your plate. I have gone for a wander in the woods, to think a bit more on that matter of plot and setting we discussed earlier. My work is so much stronger when you are around. I know you are busy planning your next tour, and I want you to know that I am excited for you and understand that you must fly away on your own adventures. This is a Nest, never a cage. I look forward to our evening together, and have picked a book for us to read that I just know you will enjoy.
Your own –
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko, narrated by Emma Ross.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko, narrated by Emma Ross.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Having hit on the idea of doing a podcast on the topic of sapphic themes in gothic novels, I searched my to-do lists for several publications generally on the topic of 18-19th century fiction. This is the first of a set of three titles I pulled for that purpose, although I hope to get through them a bit faster than one per month. December was a very intense month for the day-job and I left my LHMP reading for the vacation week at the end.
Moore, Lisa. 1997. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Duke University Press, Durham, 1997. ISBN 0-8223-2049-5
In the later 18th century, there is a conflict in the English imagination between the foreign, dangerous, “female friends,” personified by the image of sapphic Marie-Antoinette, and the positive image of such celebrated English female couples such as Ponsonby and Butler, Seward and Sneyd. Hester Thrale personified this conflict, expressing deeply negative views of sexualized female relationships, but praising and even engaging in intimate (but not overtly sexual) relationships between women, such as Frances Barney.
This book examines the role that the novel, as a genre, played in negotiating that English post-Enlightenment view of sexual identity. The novel took on the task of distinguishing “good” and “bad” intimate female friendships. It was a tool for producing identity and for imposing a set of sanctioned identities such that they became viewed as “natural.” In particular, it defined the concepts of domestic space and female virtue that dominated the 19th century.
This study uses four novels to examine how female homosocial spaces were used to define English moral purity. The sexuality of the bourgeois English woman became the linchpin of this concept and process. Moore both references and critiques Foucault’s work here, and more generally notes the tendency for historic studies to avoid addressing female homosexuality in this era, either dismissing it is “uninteresting because not illegal” or erasing it as merely a type of masturbation.
Moore notes recent work in the field by Trumbach, Vicinus, Castle, and Woodward and points out that one can’t speak of a single “lesbian history” in this era but of many. Moore disagrees with Faderman, seeing romantic friendship as having a complex and contradictory reception. She also disagrees with Smith-Rosenberg, seeing more wariness and anxiety around “accepted” female friendships. Moore feels this erasure has contributed to a campaign against making genealogical connections between historic female homoeroticism and the modern lesbian. The core tension sets up sapphism and romantic friendship as inherently contrasting concepts—an idea that Moore challenges.
The program of the 18th century novel was to use the dangerous, sapphic female friend as a means for the heroine to engage with, then refuse, sexual immorality. It gave the bourgeoisie the means to define themselves as more virtuous than the aristocracy or peasantry. And it cemented moral hierarchies of race and nation to assign virtue to imperialism and colonialism. The female “other “of these texts – the sapphic friend – is linked to attributes drawn from naturalist/colonialist discourse: French and Italian decadence, barbaric Turks, savage Africans, sexually divergent Others. These are the characters who must be rejected by the heroine and banished or killed by the narrative. The ultimate victory is the heterosexual marriage plot. The four novels used for this analysis are: Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Jane Austen’s Emma. [Note: Although Moore doesn’t lay it out at this point in the book, the four works represent four tropes: the pious, sexless epitome of female charity, the tribade who is indiscriminately sexually wanton, the “mannish” figure, and the romantic friend.]
Chapter 1 - Resisting Reform: Millenium Hall
Millenium Hall is a solid depiction of the (de-sexualized) ideals of romantic friendship. It depicts a community of women who reject marriage for an all-female community. The work escapes the patriarchal narrative but is not radical in terms of sexuality. The novel’s popularity argues against the idea that the book was seen as subversive or threatening. Millenium Hall defines a very narrow, specific form of female power: bourgeois and domestic, rooted in a conservative morality that aligns with class and gender hierarchies rather than subverting them. The women of Millenium Hall represent the power of “domestic surveillance.” They organize and control other women’s lives “for their own good” and because they, by their class and situation, know best. The virtuous domestic woman. They do not have power outside the domestic sphere but work to build and justify their power within that sphere. They create the concept of “institutional culture” and establish it as a feminine space. The “institution” becomes a substitute “home sphere” for those who do not marry.
But this power is gate-kept by patriarchal society. Moore argues against taking the premises of the book too much at face value as presented by the novel. The promise of female power within the domestic space, she argues, is not description but seduction – the bait set out to lure women into accepting the limitations embedded in it.
Moore points out the irony of Millenium Hall’s use of a metaphor of “slavery” to describe the lives of married women, while failing to engage with the realities of chattel slavery at the time. The abolition movement fed into the feminist movement but often as a rhetorical motif, with white bourgeois women co-opting the language of slavery for their experience while failing to engage meaningfully with the reality of enslaved people.
And the “women of Millenium Hall” are only a subset of its inhabitants. Their leisure and ability to live their lives and perform their charities come from invisible resources (in this era, often dependent on colonial exploitation and enslaved labor). The day-to-day operations of the hall are enabled by the labor of poor working class women who not only serve the ladies by performing chores, but also serve as the subjects of their moral improvement projects.
Even as Millenium Hall depicts the “power of domestic virtue” it reveals how thoroughly coerced women are into that limited sphere. Many of the women who come there are victims of male sexual power and arrive, not by choice, but as a last resort. Female friendship is defined in opposition to the violence of male sexuality, as a refuge from it. This acts to exclude sexuality from the female sphere, as the author did in escaping her marriage to live with an intimate female friend. Moore reviews a few of the stories of individual characters in Millenium Hall to illustrate this general pattern.
The women of Millenium Hall have power, but only within a constrained scope separated from “the world” and only by removing themselves from the category of “ordinary women” – marked physically or emotionally by their past history, their lives given meaning only by the control they exert over other women, cut off from pleasure by assigning it to the realm of the male society they have escaped. It is a homosocial world but not a homoerotic one where women are able to have agency or personal desires. They are not separate from ordinary patriarchal society, but instead are a filtered reflection of it, with only the presence of men removed.
Chapter 2 - Domesticating Homosexuality: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
This chapter considers how Cleland shifts the view of homosexuality as essentially “foreign” as depicted in, e.g., the pamphlet Satan’s Harvest Home, to one in which it is part of a complex picture of distinctively English sexuality. Cleland blends “foreign” female homosexuality with English domestic settings and the language of romantic friendship (as well as similarly complicating the view of male homosexuality). He “domesticated” homosexuality, framing female homosexuality as harmless play and male homosexuality as vice.
Moore begins by considering the content and context of Satan’s Harvest Home, which locates homosexuality as foreign and a recent “invader” on British shores. In contrast Cleland depicts both female and male homosexuality as “native” in England. Moore considers the problems of interpretation in a novel in which neither women’s voices nor women’s experiences are directly represented.
Memoirs is, at heart, a domestic novel with a marriage plot resolution regardless of the protagonist’s early experiences as a sex worker. The community of sex workers into which Fanny is initiated has superficial similarities to other female communities. The women enjoy intimate bonds – both specific and general – and use language parallel to that of romantic friendship. But Memoirs is steeped in active sexuality of all types, just as Millenium Hall is drained of it. Fanny is explicit in her desire for sex and orientation towards men, even while sharing community with women whose “arbitrary taste” is for their own sex. And much of the admiration of other women’s beauty is moderated through Fanny’s narrative point of view, just as – in the same breath – Fanny admires men’s beauty in similar language. [Note: Moore spends an extensive passage examining the descriptions of male and female bodies within the novel.]
Chapter 3 – Colonizing Virtue: Belinda
Belinda represents the sexualization of female friendship and the contrast between deviant and virtuous friendships, but also makes connections with colonialism and slavery to connect sapphic sexuality within social and colonial hierarchies. Moore, in this chapter, connects the images of female friendship and of national, class, and racial hierarchy as manifested in Belinda, the Pirie-Woods trial, and Anne Lister’s diaries. The character of the enslaved Juba in Belinda and the mixed-race school girl Jane Cumming in the Pirie-Woods trial both serve as outsider voices that critique and make visible sapphic erotics, thus participating in the enforcement of white bourgeois “virtue.” Lister serves as a somewhat more self-aware but still unreliable window on the varieties of female sexual agency that are the social context for Belinda.
In Belinda, the character of Lady Delacour serves simultaneously as a symbol of the hazards of female friendship (in contrast with the ultimately successful marriage plot) but also as a lesson in wise choices via the contrast with Delacour’s friendship with Harriot Freke, the mannish cross-dressing gender outlaw. Delacour’s choice of Belinda over Harriot as a friend is used as a positive lesson.
The Pirie-Woods case provides a real life examination of the blurry line between virtuous and inappropriate friendships. The Pirie-Woods defense relied on invoking the need for female friendships to be considered above reproach, even in the face of affectionate behavior, lest all women be suspect. In order to maintain this illusion, even the idea of the possibility of erotic relations between women must be displaced onto a colonial Other – the sordid imagination of the half-Indian student who reported the teachers. Anne Lister’s existence was a powerful rejection of the assertion that lesbian relations were inherently un-English. While using her class privilege to provide her with the scope for acting on her desires, Lister exposes the contradictory images of romantic friendship when embedded within class hierarchies. These contradictions are even better displayed in the conflicting views recorded by contemporaries regarding the nature of the romantic friendship between Ponsonby and Butler. They were, at the same time, regarded as the epitome of the non-sexual romantic friendship, and as sexually suspect and shoehorned into stereotypes of the mannish sapphist, or at least the erotically-aware one.
Lister and Belinda illustrate another connection in attitudes – the effects of reading, especially of the classics, as a threat to women’s innocence and virtue. Both texts are feeling their way to a concept of female-female desire that relies on contrasting gender roles: the mannish (at least psychologically) one who pursues women, and the femme, who is not distinguished from heterosexual women, but is receptive to being courted by a woman. Lister also illustrates a self-awareness of the need to perform within the boundaries of acceptable female friendship, at least to the world at large.
Thus Belinda explores several relevant topics: the social functions of romantic friendship, the difficulty of distinguishing virtuous and indecent friendships, and the threat to virtue posed by novels and reading in general.
Moore provides a detailed plot and character study, primarily focusing on the character of Harriot Freke. Harriot may be depicted as a joke, but she is seen as a serious threat to Delacour’s and Belinda’s place in society. But if Harriot represents the dangerous version of female intimacy, Belinda + Delacour represent the positive social function of such friendships in giving women an appropriate context for intimate adoration prior to the point in the plot when it is appropriate for Belinda to transfer those feelings to a man.
Harriot is punished for her transgressive existence not only by cross-class mockery (from the enslaved Juba) but by physical disfigurment in the course of one of her transgressive adventures. But while the novel might superficially praise the conforming domestic woman, the narrative focus is on the more suspect characters, undermining that lesson. Harriot, though formally cast out from the characters’ lives in chapter 2, must continually re-enter the story in order to remind the reader of the hazards of female friendship, given that the central story relies on the motif so heavily.
Chapter 4 – Desire and Diminution: Emma
Emma, while offering views of female friendship, is less obviously related to the program of how friendship narratives serve the legitimization of bourgeois power. Of Austen’s novels, only Mansfield Park touches on issues of colonialism overtly. The concerns of the central characters in Emma are local and limited. In this, Austen typifies the “realist” novel, in which character is more central than sensational and wide-ranging plots. But Emma, Moore suggests, “incorporates and subordinates other social differences – here, microscopic increments of class and status – into sexual questions about the heroine’s relations with other women.” But in this it represents the triumph of the rise of bourgeois power, in which external/foreign conflicts have been disappeared in favor of the idealized domestic interior.
At the time Emma was written, romantic friendship had a complex and well-established history, both in life and literature. The action plays out against that array of sapphic possibilities. The multiplicity of models means that any story involving romantic friendship cannot help but invoke multiple possible readings, even if they aren’t explored directly in the text. It is still the “unregulated” female friendship – the one that strays outside its proper place – that poses a danger to the heroine. Emma is in danger because the “power of having rather too much her own way” sets her in opposition to the compliance and alignment with social hierarchies necessary for the proper heroine.
Moore discusses the modern critical reception of Emma, which deals somewhat awkwardly with the undeniable centrality of Emma’s feelings for Harriet, beside which Knightley seems almost an afterthought, included due to the narrative necessity of the marriage plot. For most of the novel, Emma takes a male-coded role, and must be realigned into a “proper” passive feminine role to become a wife.
[Note: I confess this chapter is the least interesting to me as it focuses prominently on the evolution and variety of modern scholarship on the novel rather than its historical context.]
The three crucial female friendships play different roles in Emma’s progress. That with Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston is in initially central even as it is moved out of the danger zone by Mrs. Weston’s marriage. The socially approved friendship with Jane Fairfax – promoted as Emma’s most appropriate companion, emerges only at the end of the novel even as it is made inaccessible by Jane’s own marriage. Thus, the most prominent friendship across the story is the one with Harriet, the most problematic in terms of class and in how it encourages Emma in her dominance and unruliness.
Female friendships are also the context in which women (and especially Emma) can be admired for beauty, and sexualized. The taboo on overt admiration/sexualization of women by male characters concentrates the erotic tension into those interactions between women. Descriptions of female beauty and desirableness come from the mouths of other women: Emma’s admiration of Harriet, and Harriet’s of Emma. One can’t help but view Knightley’s hostility to Emma and Harriet’s friendship as involving jealousy, not simply concern for Emma’s social standing. Emma’s friendship with Harriet “masculinizes” her, keeping her from inhabiting the necessary role of wife. The friendship raises the possibility of options to marriage. Knightley, it is revealed, had similarly disapproved of Miss Taylor as Emma’s governess due to her inability (or unwillingness) to exert authority over Emma, thus enabling Emma’s willfulness and agency. It isn’t until Emma comes to view Knightley as her rival for Harriet’s affection (or Harriet as her rival for Knightley) that she breaks with Harriet and opens herself to an attachment to Knightley.
At the novel’s conclusion, all three of Emma’s female friends have been removed from her life to some degree, and into their own domestic spheres, leaving her no alternative to filling that space in her life with marriage and domesticity.
This section sums up the main themes of the book: the various ways in which representations of intimacy between women were used to develop and support the creation of the ideal of bourgeois domestic virtue, through a diversity of archetypes and contrasts. Rather than sharp displacements of one sapphic image with another, there is a shifting continuum of emphases.
(Originally aired 2022/12/17 - listen here)
There are some historic romance tropes that apply easily to female couples — sometimes even more easily than they do to mixed-gender couples, like “kissing lessons.” There are some that need a lot of thought and adaptation for female couples, like most of those based on the institution of marriage. And there are many where the trope works perfectly well, but in very different ways than it does for male-female historic romances. Today’s installment of “Our F/Favorite Tropes” is an example of the latter: the widow as romantic heroine.
To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes that evoke a certain dynamic or create certain expectations, whether the story fulfills those expectations or puts its own twist on them. In this series of podcasts, we look at how some of the popular tropes from mixed-gender historic romance novels play out differently for female couples, or how they can be adapted with a little creativity.
When I did the trope episode on spinsters, I was originally thinking of combining spinsters and widows as two categories of women living outside of heterosexual marriages. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that widowed characters bring some significantly different dynamics to female couples in historic settings, and needed their own separate discussion. (Although, as I noted at the time, pairing spinsters and widows has a lot of potential.)
As usual, my examples tend to be drawn from Western culture. If you’re writing your story in a significantly different cultural setting, you should research what the differences might be, particularly with regard to the legal, social, and economic norms for widows. I’ll go further than that and note that, except for a few early examples, the data I’m drawing on for this historical overview is mostly specifically English—simply due to the way my sources skew. I don’t usually do new background research for these trope shows, so it’s a matter of using what I already have in the blog. Because the legal status and opportunities for widows would depend greatly on the culture they were living in, you’ll want to do some specific research no matter what your setting is. Think of the present discussion as sketching out just one set of possibilities.
The Widow Trope
In mixed-gender historic romances, the widow as romantic heroine represents a woman with socially-sanctioned sexual experience who is now once again available for romance. Her previous marriage might have been happy, and represents a standard against which she measures new suitors. It might have been unhappy, and provides a strong argument against entering a new relationship. One of the strongest motifs that hang around a widow is that she has “paid her dues” in the patriarchal marriage economy and is now relatively free to make her own choices for the future. She will also generally be above the typical age of marriage, providing the opportunity to feature an older heroine without the social stigma of being an old maid. Unlike an ingenue, a widow generally has established habits, goals, and commitments that structure her life. She may have children – either young children who need her care, or adult children who add to her web of social connections (or may complicate her romantic life).
The places where the widow character functions similarly for male and female suitors is that she has generally achieved an accepted social independence that is difficult for a currently-married or a never-married woman to attain. That independence will either involve financial stability—in which case she will have a relatively high level of agency for her society and be in a position to enter into new relationships only if she chooses to—or it will involve significant financial precarity, far more precarious than a man in similar circumstances—in which case her decision about entering a new relationship will be complicated by the impact it has on her personal security.
And then there are the ways in which being a widow are uniquely relevant for female same-sex relationships. But before we get to that, let’s dive into a brief survey of widowhood across the ages.
Widows in Historic Societies
We generally understand words meaning “widow” to indicate “a woman whose husband has died.” But this sense wasn’t necessarily the primary meaning in early contexts. In classical Latin usage, both in pre-Christian and early Christian societies, the word vidua might primarily mean “a woman with no man to represent her legally” or “a woman with no male source of economic support,” thus encompassing never-married or divorced women as well as those who have lost a husband. In early Christian use, vidua sometimes seems to have carried a sense of “a woman who has made a vow of chastity” while the more general sense of a woman whose husband had died was conveyed by relicta, literally “leftover.” (Even as late as the 18th century, “relict” appears as a synonym for widow in English.)
There was some diversity in attitudes towards marriage and widowhood (in the modern sense) in various parts of the Roman Empire. In pre-Christian Egypt, for example, a married woman would join her husband’s family’s household, but on divorce or his death she would either return to her father’s household or could establish her own household if she had children. Spouses didn’t inherit from each other, so widowhood could mean financial problems, especially given that women typically needed a male agent for financial affairs. But to balance that, sons and daughters inherited equally, so a widow would have more than what we think of as a dowry from her birth family. There are records of early Egyptian widows living well in independent households with their children, presumably due to a solid financial foundation from their family of birth. It’s also worth noting that we have traces of evidence from Roman-era Egypt for female couples being a recognized social phenomenon, even including some ambiguous references to women marrying each other, but that’s a topic than needs closer scrutiny at another time.
In Rome itself, women were officially always under their father’s legal authority, even when married, and widowhood simply meant returning to his physical household. There were some interesting conditions and escape clauses among the upper class. Laws meant to encourage childbirth imposed some fairly nominal penalties on a younger widow who declined to remarry within a specified period of time. But she could escape this requirement if she had at least one surviving child. And a woman who had at least three children was entitled to have legal and financial agency regardless of marriage status. In a culture where it was typical for men to be significantly older than their wives, widowhood was a reasonable expectation, if you survived childbirth.
Christianity brought some different attitudes toward widows, especially with regard to re-marriage. While Roman society had praised widows who were “faithful” to their dead husband and did not remarry, early Christian society took the attitude that the marriage commitment was permanent even after death, and frowned on widows re-marrying at all. Instead, the most highly praised choice for widows was to dedicate their life to God, either as part of a religious community or not, though this certainly wasn’t a universal choice. Despite the legal restrictions and disadvantages for widows (indeed, for women in general), widows were the class of women most able to establish independence from the patriarchal household in this era, and one sees references to widows traveling and doing business on their own.
Moving on to the medieval period, the situation for widows depended on local marriage patterns and family structures. In southern Europe, we see what is sometimes called the “Mediterranean pattern” with women typically marrying young to older men and being under their family’s control before that. This social structure had few options for women outside the family—either the birth family or the marriage family—and older unattached women, regardless of marriage history, tended to be steered toward a religious life. I have less information easily at my fingertips on the specific options for widows in this context, so I’m going to move my focus to using England as an illustrative example for the remainder of this history.
English society followed what is sometimes called the “northern pattern” of marriage, with both women and men marrying somewhat older, and at similar ages, after they’ve both had a chance to gather resources for setting up a household. English medieval society tended to revolve around nuclear households, so there wasn’t an expectation for a widow to return to her parents’ household. In this context, widowhood could provide a woman with legal independence, control of her own finances, and the freedom to decline re-marriage, as long as she had the economic resources to remain single.
In theory, a married woman could have her own occupation and have financial independence from her husband as a femme sole, but only as a widow would this be the automatic and expected state. Medieval English widows would expect to inherit not only a significant share in her husband’s property, but the right to continue engaging in his business, often including guild membership and even civic offices. While rural real estate was often biased toward male ownership, including requirements like military service, or simply a desire to keep agricultural property intact as a single unit, urban widows could expect to share in the real estate left behind by their husbands, either as a direct bequest, or as a shared interest with other heirs, providing a regular income. And unlike never-married women, they could act as their own legal and financial agents in the courts, though many still employed a male agent for practical reasons.
Medieval attitudes toward people’s sexual lives meant that widows were often viewed as “unruly” in the sense of being sexually knowledgeable but not “ruled” in their behavior by a man. And unlike the beliefs about women’s sexuality that became prominent in the 19th century, medieval and early modern women were not only expected to have a sex drive, but were thought to have a stronger drive than men did. Thus we get characters like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath who is unabashed in discussing her sexual history and opinions. A sexually active widow (that is, active outside of marriage) drew less criticism than a sexually active woman who had never married, but there was sometimes more scrutiny on widows because of their presumed sexual experience.
Widows took the attitude that they had “paid their dues” and were no longer responsible to male authority in their personal lives. (Although it’s a regular pattern for male civic authorities to frown on this attitude.) Re-marriage was an option, but not a requirement. It could offset some economic disadvantages, and of course offered the only licensed context for sexual activity with men, but it meant returning to a husband’s authority.
Among the upper classes, widowhood might be the only context in which a woman had some control over her life path. A carefully negotiated marriage contract could provide a widow with the income from dower lands for her lifetime, and aristocratic widows often took up a second career as political movers and shakers.
As we move on toward the early modern period, many of the same conditions apply, perhaps more so. With a gradual restriction in the types of work generally open to women, it becomes harder for a never-married woman to gain financial independence, even aside from the social attitudes that pressured her to be attached to a male-headed household. But widows continued to benefit from the attitude that they were continuing to act in their late husband’s role in businesses.
Widows typically retained control of the family home, though they might instead live with family members, take in boarders, or combine households with other widows. While never-married women of the working and middle classes were suspect if living independently, and in some jurisdictions could be legally forced into domestic service, widows were allowed—and even expected in many cases—to continue their husband’s trade or business. They were far more likely than unmarried women were to be granted licenses for work such as food services, peddling, innkeeping and similar occupations. Among other options, a widow with a nest egg and a strong business sense could make a reliable living by dealing in small loans (once interest-bearing loans were legally allowed), or other financial investments whether real estate or businesses.
At the bottom end of the economic scale, poor widows were generally considered worthy of charitable support, rather than being treated as slackers or vagrants. At the upper end of the scale, the wealthy widow becomes an archetype of the desirable wife for an older man. But most widows fall somewhere in the middle.
As we move into the 18th and 19th centuries, the employment options for unmarried upper and upper-middle-class women, including widows, continue to shrink due to social attitudes about women’s “incapacity” and appropriate roles. A widow of the upper or upper-middle class who did not have inherited money or a solid dower contract—the financial settlement agreed on at the time of her marriage—had few options for making an independent living and generally would need to find a place in someone else’s household, either a relative’s or as an unpaid companion. This is the reason why families tended to be extremely concerned about the background, finances, and reliability of their daughters’ suitors. The dower agreement or “jointure” was what stood between a widow and destitution, once significant social barriers to working for a living became established. For women of the aristocracy, a reliable jointure was an essential life insurance policy.
That consideration only applies to the upper parts of society, though. As long as she didn’t need to maintain that façade of middle-class respectability, a widow could still support herself through an independent business and, as previously, it was more acceptable for a widow to manage her own business than for a never-married woman to do so.
There were some trades that were traditionally female, such as dressmaking and millinary. Investment and lending were still an option open to women. Women worked as grocers and specialty shopkeepers, just as they had in earlier ages, and they were successful in food services and as tavern keepers. If a husband and wife had kept an inn, it was normal for the widow to inherit and continue the business. Inherited real estate could be run as a lodging house, with the widow either taking in boarders or renting out properties that they owned.
Following on several waves of proto-feminist sentiment starting in the early modern period, women were realizing how marriage had the potential to turn wives into unpaid servants with few rights or recourse. That experience of marriage led many widows to decline to enter it again, even if their late husband had not been particularly tyrannical. Intelligent, educated widows often found marriage constraining and tedious and saw few benefits to resuming the state. Some went so far as to argue against the institution of marriage entirely. But marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal share in family wealth into a livable independent income. All it required was the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right sort of children, and good financial choices at all stages.
How Widows Work Differently in F/F Romances
As we’ve seen from our historic survey, there are many commonalties for widows across the centuries, but just as many shifts in their specific life expectations. And the differences between social classes can sometimes be as important as variation across time and culture. But overall, from the point of view of creating single female characters with agency and social power, the figure of the widow is a very enticing choice. So now let’s look again at some of the primary dynamics of the widow as romantic heroine that we listed for mixed gender romances, and see how they work differently for female couples.
The question of sexual experience becomes more complicated for sapphic romances, and I’ll expand on that in a little bit. Sexual experience within marriage might suggest a general erotic awareness, but doesn’t imply any specific prior experience with women. Conversely, it doesn’t exclude possible erotic experience with women, because that would not necessarily have been categorized as “extra-marital sex” in people’s minds. On the other hand, in the version where a widow’s prior sexual experience has been less than satisfactory, that experience might be an incentive to consider whether a relationship with a woman could be more satisfying. (Assuming that it’s something she can imagine in the first place.)
Aside from the specifically sexual aspect, the potential comparison a widow might make between her late husband and a new suitor undergoes a seismic shift due to the difference in gender. A widow who was unhappy in her marriage would not automatically project that experience onto a relationship with a woman because of the role that gender would have played in her experience of marriage. So rather than potential obstacles being “I had a happy marriage, why would I risk an unhappy one?” or “I had an unhappy marriage, why would I want to repeat that?” the widow is unlikely to think of a sapphic relationship as being in the same category of experience. She’s paid her marriage dues; she doesn’t need to do that again. But a romance with a woman wouldn’t be “doing that again.”
One aspect of the widowed character that remains the same is that she is likely to be older than the typical expectations for romantic heroines – or at least, she is allowed to be older without needing special pleading. She likely has a fair amount of life experience, she’ll have interests, commitments, and presumably a set of established social connections. But whereas the widowed heroine’s interactions with unmarried men will be viewed as inherently significant and laden with meaning, her interactions with women of all social conditions will be viewed as expected and typical – the basic background of society. She will generally have social permission to cohabit with another woman without rousing scandal or needing excuses. And she may enjoy a broad range of physical expressions of friendship and affection with a woman before either of them needs to consider whether their relationship has shifted gears.
The Issue of Sexual History
I said I’d come back to a question of sexual history that can have more to do with the concerns of modern authors and readers: the fact that a widow comes with the assumption of a past sexual history with a man.
I’m going to veer a little into personal commentary here. I hope we’ve gotten past the era when sapphic romance heroines are always required to be devoid of any past romantic or sexual relationships with men. If you prefer to write or read characters who either have never been involved with men or whose orientation towards women is so strong that a past relationship with a man would be inherently traumatic, then maybe a widowed heroine isn’t the best choice for you. I’m not saying that there’s no place for plots where the widow’s motivation is “my marriage was so awful that I’m never going to commit myself to another person again” – after all, we see those in mixed-gender romances. But I personally have read too many sapphic widows whose late husband was cartoonishly dreadful and existed only for the sake of motivating her to give women a try. After all, that doesn’t say much for the inherent attractions of sapphic romance if it’s only presented as a rebound option!
Also within this context, let’s consider that in many of the ages that have left evidence about attitudes towards same-sex relations, there was a baseline assumption that people were inherently bisexual (although that specific word wasn’t used). People might have personal preferences within a spectrum, or might be attracted to different categories of people for different reasons. In a social context where marriage was the normative life pattern, it doesn’t take any special pleading for a woman to have gotten married to a man (because that was what one did) but then seek different pleasures when widowhood left her free to choose.
Given the non-romantic nature of many marriages in the medieval and early modern period, even a woman whose romantic urges are focused entirely on women might consider heterosexual marriage a necessary life passage. At the same time, given the attitude in many of those same eras that women were most likely to have close emotional bonds with other women, it doesn’t take special pleading or even an exclusive orientation for a widow to decide to focus her romantic life on other women rather than risking re-entry into the restrictions and hazards of marriage.
There are, of course, ways to widow a heroine without giving her a sexual history with men. A fake marriage of convenience, an extended absence with no prior consummation, a tragically convenient death. One plot that came immediately to my mind would be a variation on Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow, this time with a woman engineering another woman’s marriage to her dying relative to fix the inheritance, after which the two in-laws find themselves falling in love. Just make sure to get those inheritance contracts set up airtight first!
Opportunities for Widows in F/F Romances
But let’s look at some more typical cases and spin a few scenarios.
People love their aristocracy romances, whether it’s in a medieval castle or a Regency ballroom. While widowhood isn’t the only means for an upper class woman to have maneuvering room to engage in a long-term sapphic romance, it’s the easiest. A widowed queen’s closest companions will be her ladies in waiting, often themselves unattached in order to make the queen their highest priority. There’s fertile ground. A good number of queens of England had special passionate friendships among their ladies in waiting or close confidantes, with Queen Anne being only the most notorious example. Or perhaps the widowed aristocrat will be employed as a loyal and canny diplomat to a foreign court, only to find herself enjoying the sparring with a nominal rival a bit too much and questioning those loyalties.
We needn’t consider only queens and princesses. I have a plot I’m noodling set in Restoration England where two aristocratic women who had an intense platonic friendship in their youth (a la Katherine Philips) found themselves on opposite sides of the English civil war, but are thrown together again, now that both have been widowed. The 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for non-romantic aristocratic marriages, where widows, having secured themselves a solid inheritance, found solace with a dependent female companion.
But let’s broaden our scope to more ordinary widows. As I noted in the episode on spinsters, the dynamics of a pre-20th century household meant that few people literally lived by themselves. Our middle class widow will be considering the options, not only for companionship, but for financial stability in combining households with other unmarried women, or taking in lodgers, or finding someone to help with the household management if she finds herself taking over the running of her late husband’s business. If you listened to the podcast on Anne Lister’s courtship scripts, you might remember the somewhat hothouse environment of the women-only Paris boarding house where she begins several seductions. A widow running a boarding house for unattached or adventurous women could be quite the player up to the point where she meets “the one.”
Or our widowed businesswoman may be looking more directly for a business partner and is looking out for a woman with experience or investment funds. How about a Regency romance where the struggling innkeeper’s widow has a chance encounter with a female guest, traveling alone for…oh…mysterious reasons, and romantic chemistry leads to an impulsive offer to this near stranger, whose past later comes back to haunt their budding romance.
In the Victorian era, widows might plunge into charitable works, turning female social networks into fundraising or volunteer resources. Those networks are another fertile ground for passionate devotion to a cause evolving into a passionate devotion to each other.
In general, widowed romantic heroines offer scope for second-chance romances, whether the two heroines were originally school-friends separated by family differences, young women in a passionate friendship separated by marriage, or any of the other dynamics that separate women whose husbands have the power to direct their life paths.
Two widows with children can fit easily into some of the romance scripts for blended families, particularly if there are economic pressures involved. Many of the “friends-to-lovers” options for widows take advantage of the social acceptability of two women sharing a household where that same option would be unthinkable for a mixed gender couple.
The eccentric, autocratic, wealthy widow is a mainstay of fiction across a wide span of time, and there are lots of ways to maneuver her into a position where she needs to learn more empathy and humility to win the heart of the less powerful woman she’s fallen for. Imagine Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh if she were softened just enough to be redeemable by true love!
In summary, the widow has some serious advantages when it comes to agency in her romantic choices. She is generally free from an automatic expectation that she will re-marry, and similarly free from the expectation that she will live under the authority of a male relative. It is trivially easy to design a widowed character’s backstory to give her financial independence, regardless of her social status, if that’s what your plot needs. But at the same time, it’s easy to give her economic reasons to share her household with another unattached woman and let proximity do its work. The widow is assumed to have some degree of erotic experience, so it’s no surprise if she’s looking for an erotic outlet that will not compromise either her reputation or her freedom. And widows have long had a reputation for eccentricity, outspokenness, and knowing their own minds. All useful characteristics in a romantic heroine who is about to break with normative expectations the next time she falls in love.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2022/12/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2022.
Usually I try to start the On the Shelf episodes with a bit of general chat or philosophical introspection, but since I found myself ranting a bit on various topics later in the show, I’ll just note the turning of the seasons and a hope that you’re all getting through your to-be-read stacks for the year.
Publications on the Blog
After the blog marathon in October to present the edition and translation of the Grandjean trial record, I feel like I was slacking a bit in November, just covering four journal articles. The first was a delightfully image-filled exploration of classical Greek vase paintings showing female pairs in the context of romantic and erotic symbolism. The article by Meryl Altman has the in-joke title “Parthenoi to Watch Out For.” Not an article, technically, but the text of a conference paper which—alas—never seems to have been expanded into the more detailed study the author promised.
After that I covered three articles all touching on medieval Arabic topics. The first, “From Semantics to Normative Law” by Sara Omar, looks at the logical structures and argumentation behind how charges of same-sex acts were treated in Islamic law. The other two look at homoerotic topics in the 1001 Nights. Zayde Antrim’s “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” discusses how early versions of the tales feature ideals of beauty and desirableness that don’t follow a gender binary, raising the question of whether attraction itself could be considered gendered in that context. The other article, “’I Am Not Good at Any of This’ Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights” by Frank Bosman, was less relevant than I thought it would be, as if focuses mostly on apparent scenes of male same-sex erotics.
In December I expect to continue cleaning up some of the random journal articles in my to-do folder. And then, perhaps in the new year, I’ll pull something from the bookshelf for a deeper dive. I haven’t been doing any serious book shopping for the blog lately, which means I really should go look at some of the academic press catalogs and see what’s come out while I haven’t been paying attention.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction and Publishing Dynamics
In the context of the new and recent releases of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I’m doing something a bit unusual this month and holding off on including one title, due to the ongoing strike by Harper Collins employees. The Harper Collins Union has indicated that one way to support the strike is for reviewers and readers to hold off on promotion of Harper Collins titles until an agreement is reached. Therefore I’ve taken note of the books that I’d otherwise be including in this list and will cover them in a later episode.
There was a time when queer books were mostly the province of small independent presses and maybe we figured that the doings of major publishing houses were irrelevant to us. But even though the majority of the books I include in these listings come from small presses or are self-published, the “big five” publishing conglomerates make up a substantial fraction – close to a quarter of the titles I mentioned in 2021. And the visibility of queer books from those major publishers has a wider effect on the market and on reader expectations. Some of the issues being raised by the Harper Collins Union include diversity and inclusion among publishing staff, which can definitely have an impact on what books get chosen and how they get promoted. It behooves us, as book-lovers, to care about the larger dynamics in the publishing world, whether it’s an openness to queer characters in mainstream books, or the ways in which monopolistic systems depress author income, or how technologies help or hinder the distribution of books in ways that benefit those who create them.
We’ve been getting some strong reminders recently about not entrusting our communities to corporations that are primarily concerned with making a small number of very wealthy people even richer. Twitter has been an enormous benefit for community building, for publicizing work, for networking with other authors and readers. And despite the long ongoing struggle around trying to improve the safety and usefulness of the platform, most people assumed it would continue more or less as a fixture. Now we’ve seen how fragile those Twitter communities and dynamics were. It only took one obscenely wealthy man to decide he wanted Twitter as his plaything, and now it’s broken and we’re all scrambling to rebuild those networks. The most vulnerable and marginalized are scrambling the hardest. In this context I should note that I’ve moved most of what had been my Twitter activity over onto Mastodon, where you can find me as @heatherrosejones@Wandering.Shop. The Twitter accounts for me and the Project will remain for now, but socializing will be on Mastodon.
The queer book community has an unfortunate habit of piling our eggs into too few baskets, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Amazon. Self-publishing and e-book distribution have been wonderful for readers and writers of niche genres. But I wince every time I’m putting the new book lists together and see a book that is only available through Amazon. In the time that I’ve been actively working on using non-Amazon links in the show notes, fully one third of the books I mention are relying solely on Amazon for distribution. And, of course, if we’re looking at self-published books, the rate is much higher. What happens to those books if – no, not if, when – Amazon decides to mess with the availability of queer books? What happens if Jeff Bezos decides books in general don’t have a high enough profit margin and disappears that part of the business after having leveraged his clout to drive other options out of business? This is the devil’s bargain that people make every day when they trade healthy, complex economic systems for convenience and the simplicity of one-click.
This, I confess, is the socio-political rant I go off on most often. When we fail to be mindful of the sum consequences of all our individual decisions as producers and consumers, we are complicit in our own eventual destruction.
That being said, here are the new and recent books falling generally in the category of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction. There’s one October book that, while not technically having a historic setting, may appeal to fans of historicals.
Julie & Winifred's Most Excellent Adventure by Heather Massey from Crackerjack Creatives
In 1838 England, spinster mathematician Winifred Blackburn helps her inventor brother build a time machine as an instrument of good for science, only to discover his diabolical plan for using it to manipulate history. To stop him, she steals the device. But when her heist goes wrong, she uses the time machine to avoid capture—and accidentally leaps to the year 2030. Meanwhile, in 2030 America, Julie “Queen of All Geeks” Sherman enjoys a lucrative job, an adorable cat, and a treasure trove of comic book collectibles, but finding the love of her life is the one achievement she hasn’t been able to unlock. What good is her golden nest egg if she can’t share it with anyone? One fateful day at a comic con, Julie encounters a disoriented Winifred and helps her recover. The situation takes a wild turn when Winifred proves she’s a genuine time traveler. This time-crossed couple wins the romance jackpot, but danger threatens their happily ever after when a mysterious intruder appears, bent on stealing the time machine at all costs. To help Winifred escape back to Victorian London, Julie has to act fast—even if it means losing the woman of her dreams.
The majority of the new books this time are catching up on November books.
Observations on the Danger of Female Curiosity by Suzanne Moss from Aesculus Books is inspired by real life female scientists of the 18th century.
Thea Morell, Georgian heiress and eligible lady, is not normal. At least, that’s what she has come to believe. She loves nothing more than spending hours at the study of natural history, collecting fossils, insects, dead fish, bones and even the odd spider. Up to now, she has held off her mother’s entreaties to marry, but this year something has changed and the pressure is growing. While observing and experimenting in her search for scientific truth, Thea also begins to acknowledge a truth about herself. A most inconvenient one which sparks at the lips of the electrical venus and bursts into flame in the presence of the very proper Lady Eleanor Harrington. Has her obsession with the male-dominated world of natural history caused the unnatural tendencies she can’t seem to control? And more importantly, what is she going to do about it?
And if that sounds intriguing, the author has a free prequel story, “A Defence of Astronomical Curiosity for Ladies,” offered to those who sign up for her newsletter. The show notes have a link to her website where you can sign up.
This prequel tells the story of aspiring astronomer Harriet Nichol, her intended – the dastardly Courtenay Marriott, and the significant complication of socialite Emma DeClere.
A slightly different take on the “Roaring 20s” than some of the books we’ve been seeing lately is: My Life with Rachel: A Tale of Two Women in 1920's New York self-published by Ariel Archer.
June 29, 1921. Ariel Archer and Rachel Selinger, two “sisters,” arrive on Ellis Island from Europe… beginning new lives in America. Finding that they must keep the true nature of their relationship (and indeed other aspects of their actual identities) a secret, they embark on a journey of discovery in a new home… New York. A place they call home for the next 9 years. My Life with Rachel, told in the first person through Ariel’s point of view, is a story about confronting the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate, chance, and choices as part of the Human condition, about living amidst the changes of progress but also trying to cope with things that hold us back, and ultimately about the power of friendship, companionship, and love… especially when that’s all you have left and you have to start over again. Step back a century into the Roaring Twenties. Prepare for some history, some drama, a bit of romance… and a few surprises!
From the cover copy, it isn’t entirely clear that this next love triangle ends up with the two women together, but I think we have enough variety of stories that it’s ok to take a risk. So check out: Elsie Sees It Through self-published by Derek Ansell.
London, 1943. The War in Europe is raging. After Elsie bumps into a young soldier, they are both attracted to each other and in time, become close friends. Elsie lives with her widowed mother in a small North London house and has a close relationship with her long-time friend, Julia, who would like that relationship to become more personal and intimate. After the young soldier Brian proposes marriage to Elsie, she doesn't know who to choose. Conflicted, Elsie doesn't know what she wants, or what she believes is her destiny. While sweeping changes take place across England and the rest of the world, Elsie must come to terms with her life and her future, and navigate a difficult, thorny path to happiness.
I am still grumpy that Jeannelle M. Ferreira—who has been one of our fiction series authors—let me find out by chance on Twitter that she has a new collection out from Nekyla press, The Fire and the Place in the Forest: Collected Stories and Poems.
The circle is always closing. In crazy times, this essential selection of the fiction and poetry of Jeannelle M. Ferreira holds out a branch of lights kindled from chosen futures and pasts always close behind, where history never confines itself to one familiar face and selkies and demons offer as much inheritance as memories, bodies, or ghosts. Intimately Jewish, integrally queer, these are tales for holding on to. They know how to remember and to change. Eighteen years of stories and poems from small queer presses, 'zines, podcasts and other corners of the universe are collected here, alongside new work, for the first time.
I wanted a more concrete description of the contents and asked Jeannelle if the collection fit into the “historic lesbians” theme. And she replied (and I quote directly):
"I think historic lesbians is really all I do at this juncture but yes, we gotcher gaslamp New Bedford lesbians, yer steampunk New York garment district lesbians, yer 1816 Virginia lesbians, yer Of Course I Wrote a Holocaust One lesbians and, as you know, yer Pale of Settlement lesbians, with a smattering of Young Dyke of the Nineties poetry, mostly because poetry zines die fastest."
Meg Mardell has trained me to look forward to her annual Christmas Masquerade series from NineStar Press and hasn’t failed me yet. Volume #3 is A Chaperoned Christmas and as usual features a broadly queer cast while centering a romantic couple that will appeal to sapphic readers.
Candida Damerell avoids two things at all costs: her former hometown, Salcombe Bay, and her former lover, Broderick Carlyle. She’s worked too hard to shake off her sad family history in Devonshire and become a premier London hostess. To think she nearly threw it all away for a bohemian charmer like Broderick! He never understood Candida’s need to keep their secret romance, well, secret. Unfortunately, this holiday season, the fates seem determined to thwart her best efforts at self-preservation.
Broderick Carlyle is not surprised to see his estranged lover on the same coastal railway platform a fortnight before Christmas. Who else could tempt him into such a backwater at this dangerously jolly time of year? Not the country rustic whose need for Society chaperones is the alleged reason for the visit. What Broderick is not prepared to learn is that this windswept bit of coast is where Candida grew up. Even more alarming? The “country rustic” is none other than an earl’s daughter from the neighbouring estate.
Lady Sophia Luscombe has no intention of leaving her beloved Devonshire and her new horse breeding business for smelly, snobby London, especially not under the guidance of two Society chaperones. What if they managed to get Sophie married at last? No, she will distract her sophisticated visitors by making them fall in love with each other. The intimate entertainments of a West Country Christmas will make it easy to force the two together. It would be the perfect plan—or it would be if only the too-perfect Candida were not Sophie’s secret first love. Just as the web of cross purposes frays to breaking point, a masquerade ball arrives to give these fierce spirits one last opportunity to tell the truth in time for Christmas. Is it too late for a second or even a third chance at love?
I suppose we could count that last as functioning as a December book, but there are only two titles officially released in December.
The Captain's Choice: A Sapphic Seas Romance by Wren Taylor from Epicea Press follows the usual sapphic pirate romance storyline.
Wales, 1707 Mona Lloyd is desperate to escape a wedding and a future with a man she doesn’t love. When she stows away on the only ship to visit her sleepy village of Ogmore-by-Sea, she learns the ship isn’t all it seems, and neither is the beautiful, aloof captain that helms it. As Mona fights for acceptance among the ship’s crew, she is also fighting a growing attraction to the alluring captain. Captain Elinor Davies promised herself she would never fall in love again. She has everything she ever dreamed of: a ship of her own, a loyal crew, and wealth beyond her wildest dreams. But when a pretty, young stowaway appears on her ship to challenge everything she holds dear, she has to choose between her responsibility to her crew and her heart’s true desire. Can the two overcome their differences and a tragic past, or is history doomed to repeat itself? Follow Mona and Elinor to the Caribbean for this steamy, swashbuckling romance filled with adventure, danger, and desire in the Golden Age of Piracy.
Edale Lane’s Wellington Mysteries series from Past and Prologue Press diverges from the previous volumes in presenting a collection of shorter works under the title Daunting Dilemmas.
Stetson has been fooling London for ten years while her fictitious alter-ego solves crimes. But could a criminal mastermind put her carefree days of sleuthing in jeopardy? Evelyn longs to be recognized for her talent; will her music prove to be the key in helping Stetson solve a mystery? While Jack the Ripper terrorizes London, Stetson closes in on the art thief she has been after for months; however, will catching him place her in an impossible position which threatens to expose her? A collection of five sequential novellas, each encompassing its own exciting mystery while furthering the story of Stetson’s life in London.
So those are the new books for the month. Another new thing I’ve started doing recently is boosting these new titles into my social media feeds. Discoverability is the biggest hurdle for queer books and I strongly encourage you-all to mention the books you’re reading and the books you love in your social media to help people find them.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been consuming? I’m still focusing far more on audiobooks than print, mostly for the multi-tasking potential. This month I took in Olivia Atwater’s Victorian faerie romantic adventure, Longshadow. This is a sequel to a previous book Half a Soul, which I haven’t read yet, but the book fills you in on the backstory you need.
Another series where I jumped in on book two is A Restless Truth by Freya Marske. This is, again, a sort of magical Victorian romantic adventure—which we seem to have been seeing a lot of lately. As with a prior series where I dipped in on book 2, the overall series focuses on a series of queer romances, but book two is the only one with a female couple.
When I included Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk in the new book listings, I wasn’t sure exactly what the historic setting was. Now I can assure you that it’s 1930s Chicago complete with supernatural gangsters and deals with demons. And a very very central sapphic romance that drives all the protagonist’s choices.
I don’t mention my tv and movie viewing as religiously as the books, but here are some items worth noting. I want to give a very strong recommendation to The Woman King a fictionalized treatment of the Dahomey “Amazons” in the mid 1800s. Even aside from providing a strikingly different view of colonial West Africa, the central aspect of the story is the tight bonds of loyalty, friendship, and love between the women of the Agojie warror band. If you like the energy and power of the superhero movie Wakanda Forever (which I also saw and recommend) then I recommend you seek out The Woman King which adds in some overt sapphic elements.
For the aforementioned movies, I wish I could get the same vibes with a bit less emphasis on violence and fight scenes. I’m not getting that from the Netflix series Warrior Nun, which is about a secret convent of demon-fighting nuns, with bonus science-fictional elements, Vatican intrigues, and angels…maybe. Again, lots and lots of violent fight scenes, sufficiently mitigated by overt sapphic threads in the plot. And you just have to forgive a show when its willing to include casual lesbians.
Another very queer series that just released its second season is Young Royals, which follows the entirely-too-realistic struggles of a teenaged heir to the throne, exploring same-sex love and heartbreak at an upper crust boarding school. There’s a temptation to shout at the kids, “Dial it down, chill out, adolescence isn’t forever!” But that’s really the point of the drama and angst and the series handles contemporary issues in realistic ways.
I haven’t decided on a podcast topic for the December essay show yet. I’ve been trying to space out the trope shows a bit to make sure there’s some variety in content. But if you have a favorite trope that you want to make sure is included, speak up.
We’ll close out the end of the month with our last fiction episode of the year, “From the Bird's Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko. I felt that Jennifer really captured the dynamic of a later 19th century romantic friendship in this epistolary story and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. And, of course, in January we’ll be open for submissions for next year’s fiction series. Wait… how can that be coming up so soon! I hope that the choices are just as hard as they were last time! Spread the word and point all your author friends to the Call for Submissions linked in the show notes.
I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of having an author guest every month, helped by having interviews set up for our fiction series authors. This month I invited Marianne Ratcliffe to talk about her recent gothic romance, The Secret of Matterdale Hall.
[Interview transcript will appear here when available.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Marianne Ratcliffe Online
Sometimes an article looks really intriguing and then you feel cheated by the actual content. This isn't necessarily the fault of the author -- sometimes it's the fault of my pre-conceptions that "read in" assumptions based on my own interests. I find this happening a lot with novel descriptions. Because my social media feeds combine streams with different defaults (SFF, queer, romance, historical) I have a tendency to fill in any unmentioned characteristics in a book description with my own particular interests. If the book is a historic romance and the blurb doesn't specifically indicate that it's m/f, my brain will tend to default to filling in a f/f story. And so on. My assumptions aren't anyone else's fault. (Though they do help me exist within a world of queer female possibilities that aren't always fulfilled.) So when an article is titled "Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights" and specifically mentions the story of Princess Budur, I'm going to make some pretty strong assumptions. Which, alas, were not fulfilled in this case.
Bosman, Frank G. 2021. “’I Am Not Good at Any of This’ Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights” in Religions 12: 480.
This article looks at two stories within the 1001 nights that set up scenes of apparent homoeroticism due to gender disguise. In two romances—that of Qamar and Budur, and that of Ali Shar and Zumurrud—the woman disguises herself as a man during a period when the lovers are separated, and then when they are reunited and the disguised woman is in a position of greater social power, she teases her lover (who has not recognized her or even realized she is a woman) by demanding that he submit to her sexually (believing he is submitting to a man). The focus of the article is on how scenarios like this play with the idea of homoerotic encounters, while returning to, and reinforcing heteronormativity in the story’s conclusion.
I confess I was disappointed that the article focuses almost entirely on apparent male-male interactions. The discussion of the part of Budur’s story when she marries and has a sexual relationship with the princess Hayat is treated dismissively—even though it is the one scenario of those discussed that involves a knowing, consensual same-sex relationship. The author describes their relationship as “unintended—a strange convergence of circumstances” framing the cross-dressed Budur as a “victim,” asserted to be in contrast to the dominant position of the cross-dressing women when dealing with their oblivious male lovers.
I feel that the article missed the chance to draw some more interesting conclusions due to what I consider to be a bias on the part of the author against taking female same-sex desire seriously.
One of the interesting through-lines in the history of female same-sex desire are the parallel strands of "attraction based on similarity" versus "attraction based on difference." If you will: femme-femme and butch-femme. (It would be interesting to look for historic antecedents for butch-butch attraction, which would also fall under the similarity model, but the primary examples tend to be femme-femme.) But these models of attraction or desire aren't limited to same-sex couples. Indeed, one could see the same-sex versions as being licensed by similar dynamics withn the larger society affecting all romantic attraction. If beauty is viewed as not dimorphic, and if one is expected to be attracted to someone similar to you--not merely because of non-gendered beauty standards, but as a basic principal--then surely same-sex attraction is a natural outcome?
This article looks at the motif of non-gender-specific beauty standards (and their implications for romantic desire) within medieval Arabic literature, but we find a similar phenomenon in medieval European romances, where it also impacts the depiction of gender disguise. (See the "similarity" tag for this motif in general.
Antrim, Zayde. 2020. “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” in Al-Usur al-Wusta vol. 28. pp.1-44 [Note: journal title has multiple diacritics not included here]
This article looks at how beauty and attractiveness and desirability are framed within the early manuscripts of the 1001 Nights as involving similarity rather than gender difference. While later editions, and especially translations and adaptations into western languages, tended to insert a more binary-gendered aesthetic into the descriptions of characters in the thousand and one nights, this is a conceptual shift from the early versions.
Descriptions of beauty for both male and female characters show striking similarities in the language used and the ideals of appearance attributed to them. Further, romantic couples in the tales are often specifically described as being highly similar in their beauty and attractiveness using the same vocabulary for men and women. This observation does not contradict the importance within the tales of the gender binary within the realms of marriage inheritance and social structures. But it contrasts with the real-life divisions in society between elite adult men who were at the top of the social pyramid and all others including both women and lower status and younger men. This social structure is not idealized within the tales, which leads to interesting speculations about audience and reception.
This emphasis on similarity and a lack of emphasis on binary gender differences has caused problems of interpretation for those either looking to find romantic relationships structured around contrasts of power and gender, or by those looking for concepts analogous to same-sex orientation. If desirability is portrayed in essentially identical terms for both male and female objects of desire then is it relevant to look for a concept equivalent to same-sex desire? This ideal of similarity is particularly celebrated in the context of erotic love within the tales, and when distinct differences between potential romantic partners are emphasized, it is often for the sake of humor or mockery. (There is a section of the article somewhat later that reviews a number of stories in which imperfect or racialized bodies are used to derail expected romance structures.)
The aesthetic ideal depicted in these stories uses the full moon as a symbol of beauty and often describes a romantic couple is being like twin moons. Facial features are idealized as: dark eyes, arching brows, rosy cheeks, and white teeth, framed by black or curly hair. The descriptive language is not gendered even though grammatical gender is unambiguous in Arabic. (That is, there isn't the equivalent of describing women as "beautiful" but men as "handsome" using different words.) And the descriptions of the ideal features of a beautiful body do not focus on gendered aspects such as the genitals or breasts. Beautiful bodies are slender and supple, but curved and fleshy, described as quivering or full to bursting, as well as being idealized as soft and smooth. While one might view the men being described in these terms as being feminized or depicted as youths, the language does not emphasize them as being young or adolescent.
This idealization of similar--though not necessarily androgynous--beauty interacts in interesting ways with the common motif of cross-dressing within the tales. Certainly if a man and woman are depicted as being close to twins in appearance then the audience may be more primed to believe that one could carry off a disguise as the other.
Romantic couples in the 1001 Nights are not simply described using the same language and the same ideals but are often explicitly described as similar or having a resemblance where the similarity in appearance is echoed in the mutuality of their love and an unexpected equality in the power they wield within the story.
The article uses the story of Qamar al-Zaman and the princess Budur, whose names both refer to the moon as an indication of their ideal beauty, to illustrate the importance of similarity in the romantic structure. The two are brought together by two supernatural creatures who are each championing one of the couple as the most beautiful person in the world, in order to determine which is right. The couple fall in love during this comparison and then, after being separated, spend the rest of the story pursuing a reunion. The author argues that the interlude in the story in which Budur disguises herself as her absent lover and finds herself married to a king’s daughter does not so much insert a lesbian Interlude into the story as it points out the immateriality of gender to erotic desire. When Budur gazes on her wife after their marriage, the sight reminds her of the beauty of her husband. This episode, then, is not a transfer of desire from a male object to a female one, but an extension of desire from one beautiful object to another equally beautiful. (In this, the author disagrees with Sahar Amer’s framing of the text.)
The emphasis on similarities is foregrounded in the 15th century texts of Qamar and Budur’s story, but the 19th century Arabic printed editions that have been a significant means of disseminating the story in modern times, and translated editions of a similar date, modify the descriptions and omit or add passages to downplay the similarity theme and attribute more gender distinction to the characters, especially with a focal emphasis on the genitals during erotic scenes.
The narrative consequences of Budur and Qamar’s similarity play out further in a concluding episode to the tale when Qamar is reunited with Budur (still in male disguise) and she teases him by using her new status as “king” to demand that he submit to her sexually. Qamar protests but the descriptions continue to emphasize the impossibility of recognizing Budur’s gender until they get sufficiently intimate that Budur finally lets him in on the joke. In contrast, the 19th century versions frame Qamar’s response more in terms of a “homosexual panic” and emphasizes his rejection of the request.
In conclusion, the author emphasizes the need to interpret texts as the texts present themselves, and not to retroactively apply later assumptions about gender difference and the dynamics of sexual desire.
I've been sorting out the collection of pdfs of journal articles that I haven't blogged yet, so I can get them all taken care of and start some fresh collections. There were three I spotted that were loosely associated with same-sex issues in the medieval Islamic world, so I figured they'd make a good cluster. This one looks at the internal logic of legal texts discussing the appropriate classification and punishment of same-sex acts. The primary focus is on acts between men, but the ways in which women were treated differently is interesting on its own.
Omar, Sara. 2012. “From Semantics to Normative Law: Perceptions of Liwat (Sodomy) and Sihaq (Tribadism) in Islamic Jurisprudence (8th - 15th Century CE)” in Islamic Law and Society 19. pp.222-256
This paper looks at the structure of legal arguments in medieval Islamic law that covers male and female homosexual acts. The author examines how different schools of law structured their analysis regarding categorization and punishment either through analogy to illicit heterosexual sex or with regard to the social roles of those involved in the sex act. This is not an analysis of how same-sex sexuality is treated in literature or poetry but specifically within the genre of legal argumentation. The analysis also looks at why and how jurist came to different conclusions about the appropriate punishments for male and female homosexuality. The historical literature is far more concerned with male activity than that of women, and there has been less scholarly interest in exploring the treatment of female homosexuality.
Legal argumentation focused around several general topics. One is analogy to the concept of zina, the label for illicit sex between a man and a woman. Another is the definition of sexual intercourse as being specifically an act of penetration by a male organ. The third factor is the relevance of the social status of the individuals involved in their relationship to each other. Within the commentary on these legal concepts there are also discussions regarding whether the technical legal terms involved or being used literally in their formal sense or metaphorically in a non-binding sense.
There are relatively few legal judgments and opinions relating to sex between women. The three hadith that appear to touch on the subject include one that refers to sihaq (“rubbing”) between women as being zina. Another indicates that skin to skin contact between two women lying next to each other is forbidden that they must be wearing clothing for fear the contact would excite them. The third hadith is related to cross-dressing and forbids men who dress like women and women who dress like men but that’s not specifically touch on sex.
Another key element of the legal reasoning is the assignment of offenses and therefore of punishments to two different levels of severity, those that are specifically forbidden in the Qur’an which are punished more severely, and those that are not mentioned in the Qur’an where the punishment is at the judge’s discretion.
One key question in determining the appropriate approach to unlawful sex is whether it is categorized as zina, which in its narrowest interpretation refers to the vaginal penetration by a man of a woman he does not have legal rights to. Appropriate punishment for zina also depended on the context of the act with regard to the age, social status, marital status, and mental competence of the participants. as well as a very technical definition of what constituted penetration.
When the participants in an illicit sex act were a man and a woman there were clear definitions of how to apply these rules. Where legal approaches differed was in whether those rules applied by analogy to same-sex acts and if so how they applied. One school of thought argued that because different words existed for zina and liwat, where the latter indicated anal penetration, regardless of the sex of the participants, that they could not be treated the same under law because what is named differently cannot be identical. By this reasoning, because liwat was not forbidden in the Qur’an, any punishment was at the judge’s discretion. Another school of thought viewed liwat as being a subcategory of zina and therefore subject to the more severe punishments. However, both categories were defined in terms of penetration and therefore were viewed as something that only a man could perform. This meant that for both types of acts punishment was determined with regard to the individual status and relationship of the participants, but sexual acts between women were entirely excluded from consideration.
The word sihaq does not appear in the Qur’an. Some have interpreted a word in a Qur’anic passage non-specifically meaning “lewdness” as referring to sex between women, but this interpretation is note generally accepted. Therefore, those who viewed erotic activity between women as criminal needed to use a different rationale. This was available in general prohibitions against immodesty, or improper contact between people who did not have a relationship that licensed such contact. The offense was transgressing against the requirement to protect your genitals. This was categorized as a sin, but not as a crime. And, in essence, the punishment treated both women as having transgressed by being the passive partner in an illicit sex act.
This inability to define sex between women as something that fell within the most forbidden categories of sexual crimes did not mean that sex between women was considered acceptable or meaningless but it did protect those who engaged in it from the most dire consequences, by virtue of the social assumptions that sexual crimes required the illicit use of a penis.
(Originally aired 2022/11/19 - listen here)
Welcome to another episode of the occasional series “Our F/Favorite Tropes,” in which the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast explores various popular historic romance tropes within the context of lesbian and sapphic history. In the sense used here, a trope is an identifiable, recurring motif that connects our understanding of a story to other stories that use the same trope. It can be a character type, a situation, or even a mini-plot that treads familiar ground and sets up – or subverts – reader expectations. Today we’re looking at the “kissing lessons” trope, in which two characters practice or learn the techniques of romantic kissing, only to find themselves falling in love.
The Structure of the Trope
The “kissing lessons” trope has a certain structural similarity to the “fake relationship” trope, in that it relies on the misalignment and then realignment of the sincere and performative aspects of an act. We may recognize that, historically, there have been many motivations and understandings behind the contract of marriage, but romance novels revolve around the subset in which romantic desire aligns with the legal contract. Even more so, kissing is an activity that exists in a liminal and ambiguous space: an act that can have many meanings and functions, depending not only on the identity of the people involved, but on the social context in which it is performed.
There’s a wonderfully detailed article on this topic discussed in the blog: Helen Berry’s “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720.” It was published in a collection entitled The Kiss in History, which sounds like an excellent resource for historic romance novelists in general. While the article focuses on a very specific context in time and space, it points out the wide variety of meanings that kissing can have simultaneously. It could act to seal a legal contract, as ritual performance of a hierarchical relationship, as a symbol of communal bonds as in the “kiss of peace” used in Christian ceremonies, as an expression of familial affection (or the illusion thereof), as a ritual act in greeting or leavetaking, and—of course—as a component of intimate erotic activity, whether as a prelude to intercourse or as an accompaniment to it.
Kissing is, inherently, an intimate gesture—far more intimate than clasping hands or other gestures that might be used in similar social situations. And the multiplicity of meanings the activity could carry resulted in complex social rules about the contexts in which kissing was authorized, and those contexts in which it was transgressive. Berry’s article notes that, in the 17th century, the increasingly popular genre of etiquette manuals included guidance on how to navigate those rules, giving us a window into all the various meanings and functions of kissing.
As a romance trope, the idea of “kissing lessons” focuses specifically around one particular function—kissing as an erotic act—and around the idea that one can learn the mechanics of erotic kissing separate from experiencing an erotic response to it. But the “kissing lessons” trope can also rely on all those other licensed contexts for kissing to give cover or to reduce the sense of transgression when a kissing lesson is proposed.
The Trope in Male-Female Romances
In male-female romances, the “kissing lessons” trope often revolves around a contrast in experience levels. The excuse for kissing is either that the less experienced person simply wants to know what kissing is supposed to feel like with someone who knows what they’re doing, or they want to learn to be a better kisser in order to win the heart of some third party. The lessons are “safe” not only because they are specifically framed as non-romantic, but often because there’s some reason that the two participants are considered not suitable as a romantic couple.
And then, of course, mock kissing sparks genuine erotic response in one or both parties, which disrupts the contract and leads to their eventual mutual confession of desire.
But beyond those outlines, the roles don’t tend to be fixed. The student may be a naïve young woman who secures the cooperation of a teacher because she wants a better basis for evaluating suitors. Or she may be less naïve, but awkward and wants to appear more sophisticated. Her teacher may be someone considered a platonic friend that she considers “safe” or she might approach a notorious rake with the confidence that he wouldn’t take the lessons as a serious commitment. But the set-up may also be the reverse: the student as a naïve young man, embarrassed by his lack of experience, or the awkward nerdy sort who thinks he needs to up his game to impress the diamond of the season. And his teacher, once more, might be someone familiar—perhaps the girl next door—that he’s never considered seriously as a romantic partner but who will keep his secrets, or it might be a woman with a daring sexual reputation who would never be considered a suitable marriage partner in ordinary circumstances. And there are many possible variants beyond those scenarios.
But in all cases, the kissing lessons contradict the expected script, that first comes love, then comes kissing, then comes marriage (or sex, depending on the specific flavor of book). Instead of being the main performance on stage, the kissing lessons are a rehearsal of the script with a stand-in. The twist comes when the rehearsal sparks desires that fall outside the original agreement.
The Trope in Female-Female Romances
When discussing ways to play out marriage-related tropes with female couples, there is always an understanding that in the historic settings in question, actual legal marriage is not an option for two female-presenting people. That’s not an issue with the “kissing lessons” trope, because the formal nature of the resulting romantic relationship isn’t an inherent part of the trope. Instead, the basic structure can be closely parallel to that of male-female couples. Two people “practice” kissing to enhance their knowledge or skills in the activity, with the surface understanding that they are not engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship, but when the kisses generate an erotic or romantic response they work their way toward communicating those feelings, resulting in forming a romantic or erotic couple.
There are two primary ways in which the trope operates differently for female couples. The first is the degree to which the society of the story’s setting assumes that women don’t engage in romantic or erotic relationships together. Rather than the lessons being considered “safe” because the teacher is categorized as not being eligible as a partner, due to the past history of the couple or due to the social persona of the teacher, instead the lessons may be “safe” because it is assumed there’s no romantic or erotic potential in the first place due to the gender of the participants.
Keep in mind that this attitude is far from universal. Many historic societies recognized and even embraced the idea of two women enjoying a romantic relationship that included kissing and other physical expressions of affection. Other historic societies defaulted to assuming that kissing between women would only be a matter of formal social interactions. Some societies openly acknowledged the possibility that women’s romantic relationships might include an erotic component, and might either accept that or discourage it. Other societies might embrace a model in which romantic and erotic relationships were not linked, and that women’s romantic feelings towards each other would never lead to erotic desire (or if they did, it would be unacceptable).
All this comes on top of the question of the variety of acceptable social functions for kissing in your story’s setting. So in order to know how your characters will approach the proposal of kissing lessons, how they will go about engaging in their practice, what their expectations of the outcome will be, and how they will react when their emotions go in a different direction than expected, you’ll want to dig into the normative practices around kissing and expressions of affection. And you’ll want to understand what types of relationships between women were publicly accepted and where the lines were drawn. It’s possible for a sapphic historical romance to employ a kissing lessons trope and never have the characters step outside behaviors that their culture considered openly acceptable and even praiseworthy. Guilt and shame are not obligatory components of a historical sapphic romance.
The Unfortunate History of “Just Practicing” for F/F Couples
The second difference for female couples engaging in a “kissing lessons” trope comes with a bit of cultural baggage. It has been a recurring theme throughout history that erotic activity between women can be overlooked because it’s “just practice” for heterosexual relationships. We see this in discussions of romantic friendships in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the intense expressions of love and devotion that young women were allowed to express toward each other were dismissed as “practice for what she should feel for a husband.” Similarly, the schoolgirl “crushes” popular in boarding schools of the later 19th and early 20th century could be considered acceptable as a rehearsal for married life. Women had license to kiss each other with a fair amount of intensity as long as it could be categorized as “just practicing.”
In erotic literature, this motif goes further, with depictions of one woman initiating another into sexual activity as a prelude to heterosexual relations. Sometimes it’s explicitly framed as training the student so that she will be sexually experienced in her first encounter with a man. This motif shows up in the family of 16th and 17th century novels and plays based on the Spanish work La Celestina, in which an older woman prepares a younger one for work as a prostitute by initially seducing her herself. Similar scenes occur in the 18th century French novel Thérèse the Philosophe, and in John Cleland’s novel Fanny Hill, from a similar era, in which the title character is initiated into sex by her fellow brothel workers but considers the experience nothing more than training.
This backdrop means that a sapphic historical romance may want to tread carefully around having the characters treat kissing lessons between women as “safe” because they’re only practicing for future male suitors. While the attitude may have solid historical roots, it invokes a long tradition of dismissing the importance of erotic interactions between women. And yet, that long tradition can also provide a context for layers of romantic angst if both of our heroines believe the other one is “just practicing.”
Exploring the Possibilities
That said, there are a lot of narrative options for using “kissing lessons” to introduce a character to the erotic possibilities with women. Or to have some self-discovery around how she really feels about that best friend. Let’s look at some of the options, keeping in mind that the specifics will depend on the era and culture.
The naïve, inexperienced ingenue who decides she wants to know what all the fuss is about before entering the world of courtship and matchmaking can turn to another, more experienced, woman to learn the mechanics of erotic kissing and explore her responses to it. This could be a near age-mate who, perhaps due to being slightly older, or due to having mixed in society more, seems a bit more worldly. Perhaps they’ve already established a close friendship. Perhaps they don’t know each other quite as well but are thrown together in proximity for some reason.
Then one or both feels the chemistry between them, but is hesitant to act on it because that wasn’t the deal. Perhaps there was already a potential suitor for one or the other and the hesitation has to do with interfering in those future plans. The lack of societal expectations for female friendships to turn into lifelong partnerships can make it awkward to negotiate expectations and plans. But, oh, that kiss! It’s so hard to forget that kiss.
Or we can look at another variant of the heterosexual trope: the rakish, transgressive instructor who isn’t taken seriously as a potential partner. In a male-female version of the trope, often the daring reputation of the teacher is exactly what makes them “safe” – because they are expected not to be interested in commitment. When the student is an ingenue, there’s the hazard that her reputation will be damaged by contagion, and that same dynamic is available for a female pairing. The “good girl” who approaches a fallen woman for romantic instruction is risking her own reputation in way that doesn’t apply to a young man in the same situation. On the other hand, when an ingenue approaches a fallen woman, the risk is different than if she approached a male rake for the same purpose. The difference between damage and ruin. There’s a literary example of this in the 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons, in which the cynical and experienced Marchioness de Merteuil is manipulating the innocent girl Cecile in order to take revenge on her ex-lover. But at one point, the Marchioness suggests taking Cecile on as her “pupil in love,” taking advantage of opportunities to embrace her and expressing jealousy of the man that she’s setting up to seduce Cecile. Cecile, in turn, feels an attraction to the Marchioness that goes beyond innocent friendship. Although nothing comes of this in the original novel, we could easily turn the story into one in which the romance plot takes a sharp turn to the sapphic.
But the student needn’t necessarily fall in the “young and innocent” category. A more mature woman may also be wondering what all the fuss is about if the men courting her never sparked the response she had been led to expect. She might feel less risk in seeking out a woman infamous for her romantic exploits and asking for instruction. Alternately, she might confess her curiosity and frustration to a long-time female friend who seems to have figured things out a bit more and who can be depended on to be discreet. In the early 17th century play The Antipodes by Richard Brome, two women are discussing their experience of marriage while lying in bed together (see the episode about the “only one bed” trope for context on how normal this was). Martha complains that her husband of three years has never done “what a man does in child-getting” and she’s clueless about what it is she’s missing. She suggests to her friend Barbara, “I’ll lie with you and practice, if you please. Pray take me for a night or two.” Martha’s intent is to learn how to make love so that she can teach her husband in turn. But at the same time, Martha does have previous erotic experience. She explains, “I remember a wanton maid once lay with me, and kissed and clipped and clapped me strangely, and then wished that I had been a man to have got her with child.” The entire scene speaks to the idea that women might turn to other women for erotic instruction.
While kissing-lesson tropes in male-female romances typically require some sort of asymmetry of knowledge and experience, there is more scope between female couples for the exploration and practicing of kissing techniques to involve an equal starting point. There needn’t necessarily be teacher and student roles—the historic “just practicing” motif can involve a mutual exploration as often as it involves the transmission of experience. Kissing between women might begin as a routine expression of close friendship and then be expanded to something more intense.
The kissing lessons might occur in the context of role-playing. Amateur theatricals, anyone? One is reminded of the scene in Shakespeare’s As You Like It when Rosalind—disguised as the boy Ganymede—instructs Orlando into how to court a woman by practicing with her (in male disguise) as his object. I’m now imagining the tangled possibilities of an all-female amateur production of As you Like It where the women playing Rosalind and Orlando find excuses to practice their scenes extensively. Kissing might be part of light-hearted games and social frolics, where such activity was acceptable specifically due to a removal of gender expectations. There were any number of “parlor games” in which losing the round might require forfeiting a kiss.
Conversely, not all kissing-lesson plots need be sweet and innocent. The very license given to women to kiss without an implication of eroticism means that the activity offers a back door for seduction. Here we may see a pushing of boundaries or deliberate use of ambiguity. The offer of kissing lessons becomes an opportunity to deliberately evoke an erotic response, rather than the response being an unexpected surprise. This is a technique that Ann Lister details in her diaries when she’s sounding out potential partners. Social kissing slides easily into using “a little more pressure of the lips” and checking to see how this is received.
In conclusion, the popular “kissing lessons” trope has a vast potential for driving the romantic arc in sapphic historical romance, specifically due to the ambiguous nature of kissing as an activity, and because women often had a broad allowance for kissing as an expression of the bonds of friendship, including at times some fairly passionate activity. The specific social understandings of kissing, and the cultural rules around appropriate kissing behavior will vary depending on your setting, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a historically appropriate way to use this trope no matter where, when, and who you’re writing about.
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Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
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