Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 193 - Fiction Special: A Soldier in the Army of Love by Diane Morrison - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/01/30 - listen here)
I’m so happy to present the following story as the first fiction episode for 2021. Obviously, since the submissions period is still open for another day, I bought this one last year. So it’s been a very long wait for the author to hear her work appear.
This is very much the sort of story I hoped to see when I opened submissions to including fantasy elements integrated into the historic setting. “A Soldier in the Army of Love” is set at the beginning of the 13th century in the Languedoc region of France, in the midst of the era of troubadours, courtly love…and the violent repression of the Cathar religion. I felt like I was reading a medieval romance, full of wonder and danger, where the otherworld is just a few steps away and you never know whom you might meet while riding through the woods. Our story this month doesn’t shy away from the tragedies of history. The protagonist’s love for another woman is not part of that tragedy, but I’d like to advise listeners that this story contains graphic descriptions of war and its aftermath, including sexual assault (though not of the protagonist). If those topics would be difficult for you to listen to, please make an informed choice about listening to this episode.
Our story today is written by Diane Morrison. Diane lives in Vernon, British Columbia in Canada with her partners and a three-legged cat. In addition to writing and editing fiction, she is a musician, blogger, gamer, medieval re-enactor, and manages the official YouTube channel of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Our narrator is Laura Pinson, who is a mid-thirties classicist, doting cat parent, and all-around nerd. She has the same opinion on the best number of languages to know as on the best number of bookshelves to own: always at least one more.
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.
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A Soldier in the Army of Love
by Diane Morrison
“It’s impossible to love your husband,” I told Cécile as we curled up together in the vineyard. Sun sparkled on the green beryl grapes.
“Nonsense,” she scoffed, her porcelain visage a mask of pique. “Let me see.” She seized the book from me.
“Here.” I pointed out the verse from over her shoulder.
Cécile read, “The man says: ‘I admit that I have a wife who is beautiful enough, and I do indeed feel such affection for her as a husband can. But since I know that there can be no love between husband and wife, and that there can be nothing good done in this life unless it grows out of love, I am naturally compelled to seek for love outside of the bonds of wedlock.’” She studied me with oceanic eyes. “My father loves my mother dearly.”
I waved my hand. “Perhaps, but the obligations of husband and wife to one another, especially within the noble classes, destroy all opportunities for Love to grow.” Of course, I knew this. My father was a landed knight and troubadour. He courted the Lady of Ceret; my mother was courted by the Lord of Frades. They were discreet, but my father often said I was too curious. I was happy enough to keep their secrets.
Cécile looked troubled. “But God commands that a wife cleave to her husband.”
I sat up, eager to argue my point. “Cleave, yes. Love, no! A wife has duties, but her heart is her own. Does the Saviour not command that we all love one another, because love is born of God? That’s what the Bishop said.”
Cécile nodded reluctantly. “Perhaps you’re right, Brun. He might still love her, but…”
I said nothing. Viscountess Philippa de Foix was known to speak unkindly of her Lord in his absence. In the Languedoc, we have long understood lovers, but even so, part of a Lady’s duty is to support her Lord.
But I had upset Cécile. I hated to see it. Her finger nestled in the petal of her mouth. Her other hand twisted the embers of her wimpled braid. When it was loose and flowing, it cascaded over her milky shoulders like sunset in a river. Cécile had such unusual colouring in my world of olive skin and chestnut or raven hair.
“Don’t let it trouble you.” I touched her cheek. “Perhaps it means a troubadour courts her.”
I meant to comfort, but Cécile moved away. “My mother is a good Catholic woman.” Her eyes flashed indigo as the sea before a storm.
I shrugged. “My parents are good Catholics, too. But they are also in fealty to the Court of Love.”
“My mother says that’s a Pagan myth, intended to draw people away from the Church.”
I blinked, aghast. “The King and Queen of Love serve God as appointed!” I gestured to the book, so precious and valuable. My father was kind indeed to let me take it out of our library. “Andreas Capellanus explains that.”
She smiled. “Let’s not fight.” She took my hand. “The day is too lovely! Will you sing me a canso while I finish this embroidery? I do so love to hear you sing!”
So I tuned my lute and sang the great Belenguier de Palou’s “T’ante m’abelis,” though I’m sure mine paled by comparison. It was then I realized that I loved Cécile, so I sang it to her.
The Church would have frowned on our love. But Sir Capellanus wrote, “easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized,” so I was not deterred. I doubted briefly, because he also wrote, “thou shalt not choose for thy love anyone whom a natural sense of shame forbids thee to marry,” but it was not shame that forbade me, just custom. Who am I to fight Cupid’s dart?
I wrote a canso for Cécile in secret, as is proper. I praised her kindness and beauty, her passion and patience, and I confessed the dearest desire of my heart: to be near her always. She had become my sunlight, my air, my milk and bread. I sang it only to her, one night as Mediterranean waves lapped the distant shore.
She gazed at me for so long afterwards, stardust in her eyes, that I feared I’d frightened her. But at last she smiled. Like a proper soldier in the Army of Love, she took my hand. Delight shivered through me. There was no mistaking such a direct gesture! “My dear trobairitz, I would like nothing more than to give you the solace you seek, especially since we are already such dear friends, and I know you are of the most exquisite character. But my father has already planned my marriage and I would not bring my mother to shame.”
“How could granting me Love’s solace bring shame?” I argued, rising with joy to the chase. “The Laws of Love demand discretion. Your husband may still know all the joys of your body, and you may bear him as many children as might be wished, but never could the seed be mine.”
She took her hand away, but I knew it was part of the dance. “I am not of such low character that I would immediately yield to bodily pleasure,” she said with just the right note of haughtiness. Her head lifted to expose the swan’s grace of her neck.
“I presume no such thing,” I countered with a smile. “You are indeed, a lady of highest virtue. I can only lay my heart before you. Perhaps I ask without hope.”
“I will think on your words. In the meantime, you must speak to me no more of these things.”
“Oc, mi dons – if you will permit me to call you mi dons. I shall obey you in all things. But I pray you do not tarry overlong in your decision!”
Cécile led me a merry chase. With our constant proximity, this was a torment, perhaps to us both. Six months passed, and many albas and lais were written, before she yielded at last. Thus, she indeed proved to be a lady of high character and most noble bearing. The solace of her embrace was like honey after a famine – as it should be.
I was in Béziers when it fell.
Rumours of a Crusade against the Cathars saddened me, but I gave it little thought at first. Count Raymond was friendly to Cathar, Jew, and troubadour alike, and even entertained a few Moors at his court. He was powerful – ruler of three other counties, and Duke of Narbonne. No one believed anyone would dare raise hand against him.
We underestimated the anger and fervour of the Crusaders. Many were soldiers from the disastrous Fourth Crusade; second, third, and fourth sons, with no prospects and no lands to match their lofty titles. And the new Pope – ironically called Innocent III – wished, it was said, to become suzerain of the whole world.
My first inkling of the war on my homeland came when Cécile’s father rode through Béziers and commanded that we fortify the town.
Viscount Raymond Roger de Foix was a dark, impressive man, very much of his mother’s Trencavel blood. I curtseyed as he approached my father. He was uncharacteristically disheveled and reeking from hard riding, which alarmed me. My father held our small fiefdom under his rule.
“My lord,” father said with a bow.
“Aribert,” he said, “it’s come. I’m away to Carcassone to fortify my holdings. Will you join me, or remain?”
My father blinked, surprised. “I’m bound to the court of Toulouse for the next three months, my lord.”
He nodded. “The French are on their way. Count Toulouse has joined their number. I tried, but was refused. You must lead the defense of Béziers if you stay.”
“Surely they would not march on Béziers, my lord!” I cried.
“They mean to, Brunissende. Will you come with me, or remain with your father?”
I was torn. “I am my father’s jongleur, my lord. If he remains, then I must.”
“Then God have mercy on us all.” He clasped my father’s wrist, and, I’m honoured to say, mine. “I’ll send reinforcements as soon as I’m able.”
“Please give my love to Cécile!” I called to his back.
My father obeyed his lord’s command, but no one truly believed Béziers would see fighting. Fortifications were made, but they were rushed and sloppy.
My father begged Bishop Renaud de Montpeyroux to intervene. To his credit, he tried. I held my breath from the battlements as he went out to the encamping Crusaders. He was ushered into the bright blue and gold pavilion of the Duke of Burgundy.
He returned with a grim expression hours later. “They have agreed to spare the town if we turn over the heretics. I’ve been asked for a list of known Cathars.”
Father nodded. “Let’s convene a meeting at the Cathedral.”
The townsfolk gathered to discuss the Crusaders’ terms. I was not surprised when shouts of dismay and rage issued from the pews.
“Lady Montpelleur? Surely not! She’s the most influential voice at court!”
“Guildmaster Arnauld? But how would the guild function?”
At last my father turned to the Bishop. “We cannot meet these demands.”
He lowered his head. “Then will the Catholics at least come away to save themselves?”
“It’s not so simple,” said my father. “The Viscount has promised reinforcements, if we can withstand the siege until they arrive.”
In the end, a few Catholics went away with the Bishop. But my father remained, and so did I.
It was the 22nd of July. I was helping to reinforce the battlements, so I happened to see an armed band leave the gate at the River Orb. They made for what could only be mercenaries, with no devices or colours displayed.
I ran to my father. “There’s a sortie leaving. Did you authorize this?”
His black eyes widened. “No.” He thumped the shoulder of one of the Viscount’s men-at-arms. “Come, we have to stop them!”
I followed. By the time we arrived, the band was fleeing back through the Orb gate. “They’re coming!” cried a blacksmith with rough-hewn helm askew.
A roar like the snarl of a dragon resonated through the stone walls. “To arms!” my father cried. Seeing me, he grabbed my sleeve. “Get the ladies out of here, Brunissende!”
“Oc, my lord!” I ran to obey.
I found as many ladies as I could and sent them from the town. I don’t remember how many, but they say perhaps thirty escaped. It seems such a paltry number. I wish I had been able to do more. I will never forgive myself that I didn’t.
For those who failed to flee, there was only horror. The screams went on for hours, days, as mercenaries, lacking even the thin discipline of chivalry, rampaged through Béziers. They raped every woman and girl they found, before butchering them as they did the men. They looted and pillaged. And the smell… I have never smelled so much blood.
They didn’t find me. I wedged myself in the cupboard where the Host was kept. God sheltered me in His tabernacle, indeed! Blasphemous, but I was desperate, and presumably as Catholics, they would not violate the sanctum.
I was wrong. Soldiers broke into the Cathedral. I shivered and bit my bleeding tongue as they smashed the pews, murdered the priests, and raped and murdered the nuns and old women right before the altar. Peering through the cracks, I saw everything.
I trembled there for I know not how long. It got dark, then light, then dark again. I’m ashamed to say it was long enough that I ate some of the Host and drank sacramental wine, but I could not make myself leave.
I finally emerged when I smelled smoke. There was too much of it. I knew it meant the town was to be sacked. I had no choice but to flee.
The slaughter in the Cathedral nearly undid me. Flies buzzed around the corpses and drying crimson stains. I pray you will never see such a sight! It still haunts my nightmares.
When I emerged into daylight, the flames were already consuming the town. I fled before them. Around sunset I found myself lost in the woods, with only the tattered dress on my back. Even my lute was gone, abandoned to the tender mercies of the invaders.
I fell to the ground and wept.
The sound of singing pierced my stupor.
I thought at first I must be imagining it, for it was so transcendent! But soon I heard soft thuds of many hooves on mossy forest paths. Sudden fear it might be Crusaders drove me to my feet, but that thought soon fled. They sang albi and cansos. Why would Crusaders sing the songs of Love?
Hoping I had found a friendly army marching in our defense, I stood and prepared to greet them.
The man who led the cavalcade emerging from the thicket was surely not human. He was clad in the finest silks and velvets. His complexion was radiant. Indeed, he seemed to emit soft light all around him, and not from the golden diadem set at his shining brow. He rode a fine courser, white beyond the white of fine linen, and he plucked the most beautiful lute I had ever seen. Its wood gleamed golden. Its intricate rosette was delicate as a spider’s web. The sound he drew from its silken strings was both resonant as deep earth and ethereal as the moon.
He was followed by court ladies, each with a gold-embroidered cloak, sitting fat, beautiful horses with gentle gaits. Each lady was accompanied by a knight for her right and left hand, and one to lead her horse like a servant.
I knew immediately whom this must be. “You do me great honour by showing yourself, my liege,” I said, wiping my dirty, tear-streaked face to make myself more presentable.
The King of the Court of Love dismounted. I bowed, but he took my face in his long-fingered hand and kissed away the tears. “You need not make such obeisance, Brunissende.” His dulcet tones thrummed through my very bones. “You have always been faithful to Love, and I have come to give you aid and succor.”
I was long healing in the Court of Love. I entertained them with my songs and lais, and I rode just behind His Majesty at his command. When I asked how I had earned this honour, he said, “You have dared to love with more purity and audacity than most of your generation. Besides,” he swept his arm over his Court, “you don’t belong to any of the other courts, for you have neither been courted by a troubadour, and thus, cannot be judged by your command of that courtship; nor are you a knight, so you cannot stand in defense of the ladies; nor have you given your body indiscriminately, so you surely cannot be ranked among the low and base!”
I cast a glance over my shoulder, where ladies who had given themselves too freely were harassed by grovelling suitors; then at the court where ladies whose frozen hearts had denied Love were left to fend for themselves as best they could. I shuddered.
From time to time we picked up other wandering troubadours and their ladies. I begged them for news, but it made little sense. Toulouse, Carcassone, Albi and Montréal were taken. The people of Carcassone had been driven naked from the city and Albi and Montréal surrendered without a fight. I couldn’t blame them, after Béziers. I asked after Cécile, but none could tell me of her fate.
Not long after, it was said that Count Toulouse, enraged by the massacres, had taken arms against the French, and Viscount de Foix marched with him. They had taken back most of their holdings.
Talk of de Foix filled me with thoughts of Cécile. The gilded glamour of the Court ensorcelled me, and I admit, my fears made me reluctant to leave. But now, I could think of nothing but mi dons. I went to the King and begged to be allowed to return to the world to search out my beloved.
He smiled. “I knew we could not distract you long, Brunissende. But I have come to treasure your company. Are you sure you cannot stay?”
I had been happy there, but now my sleep was tormented, and all joy was soured. I knew I would not serve Love if I didn’t try. “My liege, you know I cannot.”
He nodded. “Then take my lute. It bears such enchantments as my Queen was able to impart. When you play it, your words will have great power of persuasion. And if you play it upside down, with your right hand upon the neck, it will disguise you as a man.”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “But my liege, why should I need such a charm?”
“The churchmen do not see women as their equals, and they control most of the Languedoc now. You may be barred from places you need to go. I would not see that happen.”
The only place I had ever been barred from for my sex was a battlefield. “Your Majesty is most generous.” I bowed again.
“Bring her back, Brunissende. And if she will not come, promise that you will return.”
What soldier in the Army of Love would not come to the King’s Court when summoned? It seemed an easy pledge to make. “I will return as soon as I’m able, my lord. I promise.”
“Then go with my blessing.”
I mounted my fine courser and rode from the cavalcade. When I turned to wave farewell, they were gone.
They say in Faerie, time does not pass as it does in the world. So it would seem. I had dwelled with the Court nine years. Nine years!
I did not recognize my homeland. So many places I had known and loved, smelted in the crucible of battle! Castles scorched, towns eaten by thickets. Everywhere, monasteries, Cathar and Catholic, in rust-stained ruins.
Armed with elfin lute, astride my elfin steed, I wandered through the Occitan countryside, as trobairitz have always done. I searched, shared news, and carried messages, and sang and composed as my patrons bid. I was received everywhere, even monasteries, so long as I used the power of the lute.
Eventually I came to the house of great trobairitz Lombarda, and begged news from Bernart Arnart as he fruitlessly courted her and she riposted elegantly.
“Cécile de Foix?” he echoed. “I haven’t heard! The Viscount fled to England when Toulouse was occupied, but he took only his son.”
“But what of the Viscountess? Surely she has not been abandoned to the Crusaders!”
He blinked. “You have not heard? Viscountess Philippa took the Consolamentum. Years ago, now; I think the war had just started.”
In retrospect, it explained much. The Viscountess was one of the Perfecti, who foreswore all earthly pleasures. Inasmuch as the Cathars had leaders, she would be one. The Viscount had no choice but to fight the Crusaders, no matter what Count Toulouse did.
“I hear an army under Simon de Montfort marches for de Foix, and Toulouse is again besieged.” His mouth was tight.
“Then I must go.”
He shook his head. “It's a fool's quest, Brunissende.”
I said nothing. I had to try.
Arnart was right. Even upon my fleet courser, when I arrived, de Foix was in ruins. I wept for the shattered castles, the cinders of green-beryl vineyards and golden fields of wheat and rye, and the black rows of poles thrusting from pyre-ashes, as if they had raped the whole land.
I asked at each smoking village, each ruined hovel, but no one knew. At last I happened upon a wounded knight waiting to die in an abandoned stable. He thirsted, so I fetched water before I presumed to ask.
“They’re in Toulouse,” he rasped. “I’m sorry, but you must give her up for dead. She has joined the Cathars and the Crusaders are too many. The siege has held all spring. Toulouse will fall again.”
“I cannot do that. I am bound by Love.”
He smiled. Blood trickled from his mouth. “True trobairitz! You may be the last! Then sing to me of Love and Beauty, and when I have passed, take my sword and armour, and may God protect you.”
The knight passed sometime in the night. I could only wear his chain shirt and tabard, which I had to shorten. I stuffed his boots with torn pieces of tunic, and wrapped my skirts into trews. Then I played a backwards chanson, and made my way to Toulouse.
I shivered when I saw the Crusaders encamped, and it worsened the closer I came. My courage almost failed me. “For Cécile,” I whispered to gird my loins.
“Who comes?” demanded the perimeter watch.
“Brunard, man-at-arms to Lord Phillippe,” I lied. He had been the one to wound the knight. “He’s dead.”
This seemed to suffice. One of the knights nodded.
“May I help you with your armour?” a camp follower asked, laying her hand upon my shoulder.
I knew Cathars would have been disgusted by such worldliness from those who ostensibly had taken the Cross, but I was saddened for her sake. “Thank you, but I fear we must be ready should the damned heretics push to escape.”
“That’s the spirit!” said a Hospitaller. I resisted the urge to put this sword I knew ill how to use through his heart.
“I should report,” I said instead.
He nodded back. “Montfort is in his pavilion.” I thanked him.
All around, rough men with bloodstained armour diced or dueled or cavorted with camp followers. Sullen men ate hard bread and watched me pass with harder eyes. Trembling, I forced myself on. I was unchallenged. I made my way to this giant, terrifying man Montfort, leader of my enemies, who had been at Béziers.
“My lord,” I said, “I must be allowed to speak with the heretics.” I strummed my lute to work Faerie wiles upon him. “Viscount de Foix wishes to discuss surrender. Perhaps the heretics will give themselves up if they know.”
Tales of Montfort’s astute mind were true. He squinted suspiciously. But the Queen of Love’s sorcery was more than his match. “Oi, of course! Carry my seal. Tell them if they give up the heretics, all good Christians may go free.”
“Oi, my lord,” I said, hating the sound of this invader’s word for “yes” on my tongue.
“I come under flag of truce!” I cried at the wall, strumming hard so the ragged men on the battlements could hear. “Open the gate!” I was less afraid than I had been among the Crusaders, although at any moment, boiling oil or a volley of arrows could end my life.
“Open the gate!” someone cried. Soon the drawbridge lowered and my courser took me across.
“Close the gate,” I said, plucking strings to release the glamour. The guards started in surprise. “I am no man of Montfort’s; I am Brunissende, trobairitz. I seek the Viscountess Philippa.”
They blinked at me a long moment. Then one laughed. “Perhaps it’s just as well!” His voice was bitter. “The French give us little reason to hear their ‘negotiations!’ Oc, trobairtiz, follow me.”
They took me to the Viscountess. Head shaven, stick-thin, clad in the white shift of the Perfecti, she smiled upon seeing me, and I felt poorly for having ever thought ill of her. “Brunissande!” She opened her arms to me.
I came into them. “I am so pleased to see you, Your Excellency. But please, where is Cécile?”
“Brun!” exclaimed my beloved then. She threw herself into my arms.
I nearly forgot myself and wept. Cécile, at long last! I clutched her to my breast and drank in the rose scent of her body.
But cold crept into my heart from my bowels. I realized that I had not seen her because she, too, wore a white shift, and had shorn her sunset hair.
“No,” I breathed. “Oh no.”
“What is it?” asked Cécile.
I pushed her gently away. “You…” I fell silent. It was not appropriate for me to speak of our love before all of these people. “I’m overjoyed to see you,” I said at last, “but I am saddened. You have taken the Consolamentum, and are beyond earthly things.” Such as my Love. Tears pricked my eyes.
She looked down. “Not yet.” Her gray-green ocean eyes met mine. I read so much that remained unspoken; longing, light, and Love. Her hand fluttered at her side, as though she wished to reach for me.
Renewed hope flooded my veins!
“We thought you dead!” Now her eyes were a tempest of accusation. “Where have you been?”
This, I could give tongue to. “In exile, in the Court of Love. You have been offered a place.” With me, I would have added, had we been alone.
She hitched in her breath. I felt her agony. She had her duty, and her mother had need of her.
Yet so did I. I waited. I longed to use the lute to bolster my words, but Love must always be a choice of free will.
“I will go,” she said at last.
My heart thrilled with joy!
“But… the siege,” said the Viscountess, her hands in knots. I was sorry for her. Of course she feared to lose her daughter.
“Then we must break it,” I said.
Raymond VII, Count Toulouse’s son, was in command. Cécile and I went to him first, then among the soldiers. I strummed the lute and sang first my own lament for Béziers, then a sirvente of love for our homeland.
Their Occitan blood stirred! War-weary faces fixed into determined countenances. Hands slack on weapon hilts tightened. Even the women and children were swept along! Perfecti did not fight, but the Cathars who had not yet taken holy vows were ready to spill Crusader blood.
“The false Pope is dead,” Raymond VII said to his father once I had finished playing. “The Crusaders cannot last much longer. We must break the siege now.”
The Count chaffed against his words. “There are too many Crusaders and not enough Occitan men.”
“Then the women must fight too,” said Cécile.
It was as though lightning had struck him. His eyes burned. “My lady, how rightly you speak! We shall arm every man and boy, and the girls and women shall man the artillery.”
So it was that on that day at the end of June, we stood with the women of Toulouse, and took up arms against the enemy.
I now know why men sing of the glory of battle. My temper was sanguine indeed as the gates came down and the men surged forth, screaming their battle cries! Cécile and I cranked our mangonel, and loosed its deadly stones into the bright-pennanted teeming mass, until it became only ritual.
It went on for hours or days, or perhaps years. My arms trembled with the effort. Sweat ran in my eyes and the hand that wiped it away gave no solace, for it was caked with filth and soot. The reek of fire and blood made it difficult to breathe.
There was horror, too. A girl next to us was crushed by a stone. Her blood stained my makeshift trews and splattered Cécile’s shift. Tears ran down mi don’s soot-stained cheeks as she continued to load the mangonel.
But God was with us! The siege collapsed, and the Crusaders fled in disarray!
We brought the wounded in. The Perfecti went among them, cleaning wounds and bandaging, and when no healing was possible, giving the Consolamentum to all who wished. Hard though it was, I found this healing more to my liking. “Sing to me, trobairitz,” many begged, and I did, until the light faded from their eyes and my voice was a raven’s caw.
Then they brought in the dead. I could hardly bear to look at them.
But a cheer rose up. “It’s Montfort!” a knight cried. “Here is his tabard!”
It was! Three lions rampant argent on a field rouge. This awful man who had devastated my homeland was dead, crushed by a mangonel stone. Who’s to say if it was ours?
“It is done, then,” said Cécile, taking my blistered, bloodied hand. “Innocent III is dead, Montfort is dead, and I may now put my heart at ease. Take me from this place, Brun, before I lose my courage.”
“What of your mother?” I found myself asking, regretting it as soon as I had spoken.
“I cannot know.” She sighed, and squeezed my hand more tightly. “But she is Perfecti now. She has forsaken the world, as her faith commands. Should she die, she will be with her God in Heaven. Without you” – she swallowed, and her eyes glistened – “I was finished with the world too. But now that you’re here… I can no longer seek Consolamentum, for I no longer wish to forsake worldly things. I want to love you, Brun, for as long as God gives for us to Love.”
And here in Love’s Court we remain. There is Cécile, with a knight for each hand. I am the one who guides her horse, since I have proven my courage. I am perhaps the last trobairitz, for the Languedoc is no more.
But Eleanor of Aquitaine has brought our songs to Normandy and even distant England. His Majesty thinks perhaps one day soon, we will vanish into Faerie, but first, we will wander, as we have always done, and perhaps visit those far shores. For now, God has given us this place to love one another. That’s all anyone can ask for, is it not?
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This quarter’s fiction episode presents “A Soldier in the Army of Love by Diane Morrison, narrated by Laura Pinson.
Content Note: This story contains graphic descriptions of war and its aftermath, including sexual assault (though not of the protagonist).
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Diane Morrison Online
In an era when men intrested in homosexual encounters were creating subcultures, meeting places, and social institutions such as "molly houses," there are vanishingly few indications that women with sapphic interests had anything similar. Except in the popular imagination. In fictional works such as L'Espion Anglois and in satirical political tracts, the image of an entire secret society of lesbians was developed. Was there any foundation of truth to these imagined lesbian sex clubs? Likely not on the scale depicted, though perhaps on a smaller more personal level. But the ability to imagine such a thing is telling in itself, and the separatist "Anandrine sect" entered the popular imagination.
Lanser, Susan. 2001. “’Au sein de vos pareilles’: Sapphic Separatism in Late Eighteenth-Century France” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Lanser, Susan. 2001. “’Au sein de vos pareilles’: Sapphic Separatism in Late Eighteenth-Century France”
The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)
Lanser’s argument in this article is that during the 18th century, this understanding shifted from tribades being “man-like’ to an awareness and concern that female homoeroticism might be an alliance of like with like, excluding the male entirely. As part of the shift in how gender was conceived of during the Age of Enlightenment, the ideology of sexual difference implied and required that women could not act “like a man” because the sexes were inherently different.
This developing view of female homoeroticism operated in parallel with the libertine depiction of female same-sex intimacy, which treated it as operating in relation to heterosexuality: women engage in lesbian sex because of proximity to women and the unavailability of men, but the act exists either to prepare them for heterosexual relations or as entertainment for a male voyeur (either within the text, or the reader). Libertine philosophy proposed that all women were capable of enjoying sex with women, but that it inevitably existed in relation to men.
This shift in understanding begins to be reflected in dictionary definitions of “tribade” in the mid 18th century where, in contrast to earlier definitions, the word is defined as the “name given to lascivious women who try to obtain among themselves pleasures they can receive only from the other sex.” (1755). The tribade is no longer behaving “like a man” but she also is no longer allowed the possibility of achieving or providing full sexual satisfaction (as that would require the presence of a male analogue). Even that partial satisfaction is denied in the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française which defines tribade as “a woman who violates another woman” introducing a predatory theme. Other texts of the era describe “an inexplicable passion”.
Lanser asserts that this represents a change in understanding from the tribade as a man-like figure to the tribade as rejecting men and creating exclusively female spaces. In the 17th century, sapphism was attributed to women due to “masculine” ambitions and intellectual accomplishments, and especially to those holding feminist positions. But by the later 18th century, rather than feminism implying sapphic interests, sapphism is treated as essentially feminist. This manifests in the 1770s and 1780s in texts that depict tribades not as isolated individuals or couples, but as voluntary communities and secret societies.
The foremost example of these is the story within Mairobert’s L’Espion anglois in which the woman-only sapphic Anandrine sect is presented and described. The word “anandrine” (literally “without men” or “without husbands”) reflects this image of tribades as not simply lovers of women but haters or rejectors of men. They form societies to support each other and to protect other women from men by bringing them into the sect.
The Anandrine sect is envisioned as a complex expansive community, given an ancient history, and with a clearly defined mandate to expand its influence. Sapphism is no longer a matter of isolated sex acts but has become an entire way of life in a separatist society. (Keep in mind that this text is almost certainly fictitious, as Lanser notes.) But the realism of the narrative, and its references to actual women known to have had sapphic relations, encouraged widespread belief in the truth of the Anandrine sect at the time and after.
The image of the organized and collective Anandrine society was taken up in fiction at the end of the 18th century, appearing as a positive and supportive experience for the characters (though within either a pornographic or satiric context for the overall narrative). Underlying this positive experience for the female participants was the implication of hostility toward men. But the narratives undermine the attraction of separatist society either by revealing it to be a lie, or by having the young accolytes leave for the attractions of heterosexuality (even though those attractions may turn out to be treacherous).
In contrast to previous associations of female power with sapphism, in which same-sex attraction was depicted as a hazard of all-female societies, this late 18th century trope depicts sapphism as an essential foundation for a feminist utopia. Lanser explores the connection of these texts with the political polemics against Marie-Antoinette that depicted her (supposed) sexual relationships with women as being founded on destructive impulses toward society in general, in revenge for their love being despised.
Another connection the pre-revolutionary sapphic texts make is with the place of women in Freemasonry. Although 18th century Freemasons generally excluded women, France authorized some women-centered lodges whose ceremonies sometimes invoked Amazon symbolism and called for rejection of the patriarchy. There are symbolic parallels between the women’s lodges of the mid 1770s to 1780s and the Anandrine rituals depicted in texts of a similar era. A direct connection was made in a 1775 reference to a Masonic “Lodge of Lesbos” that implied same-sex erotics via a reference to Roman author Juvenal.
Lanser suggests that the use of Masonic imagery to describe sapphic societies reflects anxiety about both groups. The female Masonic groups were, in actual fact, carefully managed to maintain male supervision and control, and were never exclusively female. But the fictitious sapphic separatist societies could be viewed as the hazard that control was meant to ward off in the face of hypothetical principles of equality. But in some ways, the homosocial nature of organizations like the Freemasons may have precipitated a gender segregation, in contrast to the gender-integrated salons, which resulted in both the reality and the fantasy of women banding together in separatist organizations. In combination with the rising theory of gender difference that viewed men and women as inherently incomprehensible to each other, the same principles meant to support modern patriarchal structures may have inadvertently promoted the conditions for sapphic separatism.
(Lightly adapted from the original twitter thread. My first draft included more detailed descriptions of the books, but I edited ruthlessly to make (most of) them fit into individual tweets.)
25 recommended texts from the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. This is in response to a twitter request for suggested reading on pre-20th century queer history. My specific specialty is on sapphic/lesbian history, though some of these works are broader in coverage.
The list is limited in that it draws from texts I’ve blogged. Not a “best of all time” just “my favorites of the 320 publications I’ve read in the last 6 years.” The blog is rather Anglo- and Euro-centric. I’ve focused on books rather than individual journal articles.
There are 6 groups: texts that inspired me, medieval and pre-modern, specific eras in British history, primary source material (primarily British), books focusing outside of Britain/France, and studies of specific topics. Links are to my blog entries.
My Inspirations. These are the three publications that convinced me that studying the history of female same-sex love was possible and exciting. I encountered each of them pretty soon after they were published, so that’s 40 years of being a lesbian history fan-girl.
#1 Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4564]
The relationship between female same-sex desire and “romantic friendship” in the 18-20th centuries in England and the USA.
#2 Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4359]
A ground-breaking work. Donoghue exploded some of the myths about “lesbians are a modern invention.”
#3 Bennett, Judith M. 2000. "’Lesbian-Like' and the Social History of Lesbianism" in Journal of the History of Sexuality: 9:1-24. [https://usc.academia.edu/JudithBennett]
Bennett’s paper was mind-blowing for me in how to think about studying lesbians in history. (Link is to download.)
Medieval and Pre-modern Topics: The farther back you go in time, the more you need to re-think exactly what “same-sex desire” means, and how to study it. These books draw together themes and motifs that don’t neatly map to our modern concepts of homosexuality.
#4 Sautman, Francesca Canadé & Pamela Sheingorn (eds). 2001. Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. Palgrave, New York. [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4370]
An excellent collection of topics. The book might have been designed just for me!
#5 Bullough, Vern L. & James A. Brundage. 1996. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Garland Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-8153-3662-4 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/3922]
Little lesbian content, but includes Murray’s “Twice marginal and twice invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages.”
#6 Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4795]
Primarily male topics, but includes an excellent consideration of the intersection of same-sex and transgender motifs.
#7 Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt (eds). 2011. The Lesbian Premodern. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5065]
A very dense and theory-heavy collection but some of the papers made me think a lot of interesting thoughts.
Era-specific books with primarily British content: The Anglo-centric nature of the publications I blog comes from several sources – my own interests, the way books come to my attention, and perhaps even a greater interest in queer history among historians studying Britain.
#8 Jennings, Rebecca. 2007. A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500. Greenwood World Publishing, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-84645-007-5 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4513]
A truly excellent popular-oriented history of women’s same-sex relations in Britain.
#9 Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4366]
How the motif of lesbianism reflects and shapes social concerns. Dense but readable.
#10 Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4372]
Similar coverage as Lanser. Also dense and maybe slightly less readable for the non-academic.
#11 Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5868]
An enjoyable read on f/f eroticism in 17-18th c England and France.
#12 Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. 2010. Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/3896]
A collection that leans strongly to literary analysis. Not as accessible to the non-specialist.
Primary sources with mostly British content: Sometimes looking at primary source material can feel dreary & depressing, since it so often involves persecution and hostility. But leavening that are personal letters, love poems, passionate philosophical arguments.
#13 Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4356]
Not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people then.
#14 Loughlin, Marie H. 2014. Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8208-5 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5500]
Highly recommended. Just read it.
#15 Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/3995]
Skewed to male topics, but provides a counterpoint to the British sources.
Very convenient in being available on the web.
Breaking Outside the England/France Zone: Several of these books could as easily have gone into other categories, but I wanted to highlight some of the better works I’ve found that *don’t* focus on north-western Europe.
#17 Habib, Samar. 2007. Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations. Routledge, New York. ISBN 78-0-415-80603-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4363]
#18 Habib, Samar. 2009. Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality: 850-1780 A.D. Teneo Press, Youngstown. ISBN 978-1-934844-11-3 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4364]
Combine narrative history with extensive source texts (in translation). The sources cover a broad swath of the Islamicate world in the pre-modern era. Habib also includes a biting analysis of the problems of bringing Western attitudes to the study of Islamic cultures.
#19 Thadani, Giti. 1996. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. Cassell, London. ISBN 0-304-33452-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5399]
A political analysis as much as a historic and literary one, tracing the “invisibility” of lesbianism in modern India.
#20 Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4949]
Includes some material from colonial Spanish America. Makes a nice change from “all England/France all the time.”
#21 Williams, Craig A. 2010. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-538874-9 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5357]
The book that helped me finally grasp classical Roman attitudes toward homosexuality.
Special Topics: This group contains books that focus on some fairly narrow and specialized subject, but that do it in a fascinating way.
#22 History Project, The. 1998. Improper Bostonians. Beacon Press, Boston. ISBN 0-8070-7948-0 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4979]
A companion volume to a museum exhibition on the queer history of Boston Mass. Lots of pictures of artifacts.
#23 Bennett, Betty T. 1991. Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-4984-5 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5343]
If you would enjoy a really twisty and convoluted academic mystery, this is a lovely and engrossing read.
#24 Walen, Denise A. 2005. Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6875-3 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4373]
The English stage worked out philosophies and anxieties about gender and sexuality as public culture.
#25 Donoghue, Emma. 2010. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 978-0-307-27094-8 [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4360]
A history of female same-sex desire in (English-language) literature organized around six “plot types.”
So that’s it: my personal suggested reading list. Check out the links to my blog for more detailed opinions and summaries of the books. And tell your friends about the Lesbian Historic Motif Project!
It's entirely coincidental that I'm covering this article on "The Italian Taste" (i.e., homosexuality) in late 18th century France right after airing the podcast on Anne Lister's courtship strategies that included her slang term "going to Italy" for engaging in sexual relations with women. It was fairly common for historic cultues to attribute either the practice or the origins of homosexual relations to some other neighboring culture. The English tended to view France as the origin of non-normative sexual practices, while France looked to Italy. (Though it depended to some extent on which specific practices were under discussion.) So while it's unclear to me whether Lister had picked up on an existing phrase, or was simpy following an existing trope that same-sex relations were more prevalent or more tolerated in Italy, I can't help but think that there's a connection here. And while Blanc's article leaves room for wondering how much of his discussion is genuinely relevant to f/f relations (as opposed to the annoyingly frequent tendency of male authors to assume women's experiences follow men's, and not bother to question the matter), there is no doubt that Lister is specifically discussing women.
Blanc, Olivier. 2001. “The ‘Italian Taste’ in the Time of Louis XVI, 1774-92” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Blanc, Olivier. 2001. “The ‘Italian Taste’ in the Time of Louis XVI, 1774-92”
(A great deal of this article focuses fairly specifically on male same-sex relations, so I have cherry-picked the details relating to women. Some of the generalizations included her may not be applicable tom women.)
This article looks at the topic of “libertinism” in the definition of “sexual relations outside marriage” during the era of Louis XVI in France. There is a problem with sources in that significant rapid shifts in public morals in the aftermath of the revolution meant that later memoirists often self-censored events of the author’s youth. And contemporary writings often had political motivations for satire and exaggeration. But there are also more reliable records, including legal contracts drawn up between lovers that gave some sort of formal standing to non-marital relationships.
Ca. 1780, extramarital relations were common and practiced publicly within the court and urban centers such as Paris, by both men and women. For the nobility and the wealthy, marriage was for economic and dynastic purposes, with little concern for personal emotional fulfillment. In contrast, the common people tended to follow traditional moral teachings under which adultery was discouraged and carried on in secret. This was even more the case for same-sex relations, which were condemned among the middle and lower classes but tolerated among the aristocracy.
While the terminology of same-sex relations generally had a negative tone, one phrase “the Italian taste” treated them positively, alluding to the sophisticated history of Italy. And the existing legal statutes against homosexuality were often bypassed when the offender was of high enough social status. (Most of the specific persons mentioned in this discussion are male, perhaps due to the major focus of legal persecution being male same-sex relations.)
Despite the prevalence of same-sex relations among the court and nobility, Louis XVI himself was more conservative and often had to be dissuaded from dealing more severely with offenders, as detailed in the often scandal-filled records of the royal court.
Certain salons were known for attracting those of “Italian taste” and publications of their habitués sometimes included support for same-sex desires. Among the salons, the duchess de Villeroy (Marguerite-Henriette d’Aumont) was known for organizing dinners for women and for her patronage of the actress Mademoiselle Clairon with whom she had a sexual relationship. De Villeroy was known for hosting a wide circle of aristocratic women known to have sapphic relations. (Once again, the vast majority of this section deals with men.)
In addition to the semi-private space of the salons, libertinism flourished in public spaces such as clubs, cafes, bath-houses, gardens, bookshops, and theaters (though many of these may be relevant only for men). Women such as Madame Joly de Fleury (the “Madame de Furiel” of the pornographic novel L’Espion Anglois which started the “Anandrine Sect” motif) and the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt appeared in public in men’s clothing accompanied by their female lovers. In addition to Raucourt, other actresses known for taking female lovers included Carline (Gabrielle Malacrida).
Somewhat contradictorily, under the Empire, although homosexuality was decriminalized, it also became less socially acceptable, along with the decline in tolerance for heterosexual libertine relations. The tide had turned and bourgeois morality became the norm for those in power.
(The footnotes for this article reference a great many primary sources for the details, in case the reader wish to follow up…and reads French.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 192 - Anne Lister’s Courtship Scripts - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/01/16 - listen here)
I haven’t done a podcast specifically focusing on Anne Lister yet, in part because the topic is massively daunting. In contrast to most biographies of women who loved women before the 20th century, we not only have a wealth of knowledge about Anne’s life and circumstances, but we have her own candid record of her loves, her experiences, and what she thought about them. She is not always entirely honest with herself in her diaries, any more than she is honest with her friends and neighbors. But even in that dissembling she gives us fascinating glimpses of how she felt and what she believed.
This episode is not going to present an overview of Lister’s life—I’m going to make the possibly-overreaching assumption that anyone listening to this podcast is already familiar with her, either from the television series Gentleman Jack or simply from general chatter. But, in brief, Anne Lister lived from 1791 to 1840, solidly bracketing the period known as the English Regency. She was born into a well-to-do landowning family in Yorkshire. And she had a romantic and sexual orientation exclusively toward other women, which she recognized and wrote about in her extensive diaries, protected from casual revelation with a cypher-code.
Lister records a fairly large number of flirtations and sexual courtships. She had a determined goal to find and secure a permanent marriage partner—she uses the word marriage regularly and unselfconsciously—and many of her flirtations were aimed at sounding out women with this in mind. But she also had ongoing sexual relationships with women she had deemed unsuited to the role of wife. It may disrupt some listeners’ images of what lesbian experiences in the past were like to know that she moved through a broad network of women who loved women. Women in her close circles who were aware of each other’s sexual interests; women less closely acquainted who used carefully coded language to elicit and confirm their common interests; complete strangers who picked up on a sort of 19th century “gaydar” and engaged in socially-acceptable flirtation to identify potential partners.
This is the focus of today’s podcast. Given a woman whom we know to have been engaged in sexual relationships with women, what were her courtship scripts? How did she approach other women to elicit information about their knowledge and interest in the same? And given a show of interest, how did those courtships progress?
The Belcome and Norcliffe Relationships
Anne Lister’s most intense relationship, with Marianne Belcome—fractured by Marianne’s marriage to Charles Lawton—begins before the detailed diaries start and so fall outside the scope of this episode. Anne’s ongoing devotion to Marianne, and her vain hope that Marianne would at some point become free of her marriage and become her life partner, haunts every other relationship Anne engaged in. But the realistic understanding that Marianne was not available for anything but occasional sexual encounters, and the eventual realization that Marianne was no longer interested in something more, made Anne turn to other, more apparently available candidates.
Anne’s most regular alternate sexual partner was her neighbor Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe, but once again this relationship pre-existed the detailed diaries so we don’t get a glimpse into how it was initiated and its early progress. Tib is taken for granted as a fuck-buddy but although Tib might have been interested in a more primary relationship, Anne had concluded they wouldn’t suit.
Interestingly, there are other women in the Belcome and Norcliffe families that Lister seems to have had occasional erotic encounters with. Marianne Belcome had several sisters that Anne either flirted with or more. In November 1818, Anne was visiting the Belcomes in York and discussing with Marianne’s sister Lou how she “could not live comfortably without a female friend and companion.” Lou told her “You should not have let Marian marry.” And several days later when the subject comes up again between them Anne records, “Lou plainly said she liked me and in telling my sentiments towards her, when I talked of esteem and high opinion, she said she would rather have my love than esteem. I told her she did not understand my love and that she was too cold for me.” [Here it feels like Lister is hinting at a lack of sexual desire.] “She owned she appeared so but said she could convince me to the contrary but would not – fancied she could not tell me. She fancied from my conversation I wished to invite her to Shibden (in reality, no such thing ever entered my head).”
While Anne—whether sincerely or not—disclaims an interest in Lou, this is the flavor of conversation where such negotiations of interest took place. It feels very much like Lou is communicating knowledge of, and interest in, a more intimate relationship.
Ellen Empson and Miss Browne in Passing
Earlier in November, Lister had visited an old friend, Ellen Empson, and talked about feeling in low spirits due to the longing for a “companion—someone to take care of me” at which Ellen responds, “Why did you let me marry?” “What could I do?” Anne replies “You never asked me.” “Well,” said she, “That is true enough. I never asked anybody.” Anne thought Ellen was “a good deal interested.” She notes “Said I was odd but hoped I would not change.” This conversation gives no indication of any previous erotic encounters but shows how the topic of a life companion might be approached, as well as using possible code words like “odd”.
Part of what spurred these discussions of the search for a companion was the winding up of an interest in a local Halifax woman, Miss Browne. After asking mutual friends to arrange an introduction over tea, Anne began courting her with long walks and conversation. She sounds her out about tastes in poetry, asking if she likes Lord Byron. She gave Miss Browne the classical nickname Kallista and asked mutual friends what Miss Browne thought of her. Their friendship became the subject of local gossip, not for being too intimate, but rather because it was not a friendship of families. They did not visit in each other’s households, largely because Anne considered the Browne family vulgar and somewhat beneath her. After half a year or so, it comes out that Miss Browne has a gentleman suitor whom she greatly admires and Anne begins to cool toward her. But she was still enough interested that after half a year of cooling relations, Tib teases Miss Browne while the three of them are walking in a garden by kissing Anne, which gives Anne the excuse to kiss Miss Browne “on her lips, a very little, moistly” which embarrassed her and she said people would make queer remarks about kissing. Anne isn’t very quick about taking the hint even though Miss Browne is, at this point, engaged to her young man, but keeps trying to convince herself that Browne is secretly more interested than she lets on.
Playing Off Miss Vallance and Anne Belcome
There is a flirtatious encounter with another of the Belcome women, another Anne, in October 1820, when visiting with friends in York. Lister is making up to a different woman when Anne Belcome “observed my doing so with rather jealous eyes. She thinks me making up to Eli. Am certainly attentive to her but cautiously, without any impropriety that could be laid hold of. Yet my manners are certainly peculiar, not all masculine but rather softly gentleman-like. I know how to please girls.” And evidently using these methods to please a different girl made Anne Belcome jealous. A year later, there is evidently still something going on with Anne Belcome, for Lister has occasion to tell her she “had set me all wrong, unnerved me for the day, at which she seemed nothing displeased,” but Lister notes that although she felt something for her, she is “much altered in these matters since my more thorough engagement to Marianne.” There is more to it than that, for several years later, in June 1824, Lister is ruminating on several past relationships and mentions “my intrigue with Anne Belcome,” at which she comments, “Oh, women, women!” She continues, “I thought too, of Miss Vallance who, by the way, is by no means worse than Anne, who took me on my own terms even more decidedly. … I am always taken up with some girl or other. When shall I amend? Yet my taste improves.”
And who is Miss Vallance? In September of 1820, while visiting the Norcliffes Anne puts Tib’s nose a bit out of joint by paying a great deal of attention to a Miss Vallance: walking in the garden, talking. Tib—and let us note that Anne and Tib are sharing a bed during this visit, in all senses of the phrase—Tib “very kindly told me I was beginning to be too pointed in my attention to Miss Vallance, that observations might be made and I had better take care. Indeed, Charlotte joked and told me, a while before, she supposed the cronyism had now got to such a pitch I could not live without the sight of Miss Vallance.”
Now we come back to those “intrigues” with Anne Belcome, who was also visiting. To divert suspicion, perhaps, Lister paid some attention to Belcome. “Went to Anne…and stayed two hours. At first, rather lover-like, reminding her of former days. I believe I could have her again in spite of all she says, if I chose to take the trouble. She will not, because it would be wrong, but owns she loves me and perhaps she has feelings as well as I. She let me kiss her breasts.” But Lister is clearly distracted and thinking of Miss Vallance and Belcome calls her on it. “Now you are doing all this and perhaps mean nothing at all.” Yet several days later, “One and a half hour with Anne after she was in bed. Talking, at first, much in the same style as in the evening, just before, but then got more loving. Kissed her, told her I had a pain in my knees – my expression to her for desire – and saw plainly she likes me and would yield again, without much difficulty, to opportunity and importunity.” And a few evenings later, “Anne then came to my room, having expected me again in hers, and stayed almost till I got into bed. Her love for me gets quite as evident as I could wish.”
Lister parts with Miss Vallance in January with a “very affectionate” note from her. Anne is running hot and cold: she notes that she was not very tender to her and feeling lukewarm about the flirtation, and yet she gives Miss Vallance a copy of her cypher code, which she gives to very few correspondents and only those she plans to write indiscreet things to.
Fencing with Miss Pickford about Miss Threlfall
We see a different type of coded interaction in the beginning of 1823—not a flirtation this time, but a woman who pings Anne’s gaydar leading her to strike up a friendship and sound her out. Miss Pickford is something of a bluestocking—an intellectual—and she is accompanied by a friend, Miss Threlfall who has an independence and has chosen to remain unmarried.
Miss Pickford isn’t Anne Lister’s type. Lister herself leans to the butch side and is attracted to conventionally feminine women, while Miss Pickford, much like Anne, doesn’t embrace feminine performance. She declines to wear a bonnet and goes about in a riding habit and hat. Anne comments in her diary, “She is better informed than some ladies and a godsend of a companion in my present scarcity, but I am not an admirer of learned ladies. They are not the sweet interesting creatures I should love.”
But she senses common interests and drops hints into the conversation. When discussing linguistic gender, Anne brings up the gender-switching Tiresias in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They discuss romantic poets such as Byron and Milton while attending a lecture together. Anne toys with the idea of making up to Miss Pickford for lack of any more suitable companion but keeps running into the problem that she isn’t romantically attracted to her.
The subject of Miss Threlfall comes up between then and Miss Pickford asks what Anne thinks of her. Anne notes, “This I would not tell for fear of being wrong, for I would not make a mistake in such a case for sixpence. Talking in such a manner that if there is anything particular between them, Miss Pickford might possibly suppose I had it in mind.” During a later conversation, Anne “rattled on as usual…in a style which, if she has much nous on the subject, might let her into my real character towards ladies, but perhaps she does not understand these things.”
After half a year’s acquaintance, their conversations begin hinting more directly. Miss Pickford talks of being of a romantic disposition and hints that Miss Threlfall might have cause to be jealous of Anne. A few days later, Pickford is uneasy at what she might have let slip. “She told me the manner in which I had spoken of Miss Threlfall on Friday evening had rather bothered her. I think, from her manner, she had something in her head about my alluding to a particular connection between [them], which she seemed to wish to contradict. I said she took my meaning too far, but I would be more careful in future. I certainly did allude to this but so covertly, I can talk it off.”
But two weeks later the subject of Miss Threfall comes up again and Pickford “allowed, or rather encouraged it a little, that I told her she coquetted on this subject and she did not deny that perhaps she did do so; that my remark was not unjust. She had been talking about being whimmy.” I’m guessing from the context that this means “having whims, being whimsical.” There’s a hint that it might be a coded phrase suggesting eccentric behavior? Anne continues that people thought her “whimmy.” “I said I was more whimmy in speech and appearance than reality. We agreed there were some subjects one could not be whimmy upon. Not, for instance, in early-formed close connections. The tie was strong. Said Miss Pickford, ‘I could not be so for I know I could break Threlfall’s heart.’ I took no notice of this but thought to myself, more than ever, what the connection between them must be. Miss Pickford has read the Sixth Satire of Juvenal. She understands these matters well enough.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that conversation, but we see the negotiation of hints and denials, gradually approaching a mutual understanding of recognition and knowledge. Juvenal’s sixth satire may be an odd choice for a sapphic touchpoint—it’s an extended misogynistic polemic—but includes at least one implied same-sex encounter.
A few days later comes solid confirmation. “Got on to the subject of Miss Threlfall. … Talked of the classics, the scope of her reading, etc. and what I suspected, apologizing and wrapping up my surmise very neatly till at last she owned the fact, adding, ‘You may change your mind if you please,’ meaning give up her acquaintance or change my opinion of her if I felt inclined to do so after the acknowledgement she had made.” Anne assures her that her opinion hasn’t changed, and notes, “I mused on the result of our walk, wondering she let me go so far, and still more that she should confide the secret to me so readily. I told her it would not be safe to own it to anyone else, or suffer anyone to talk to her as I had done. I think she suspects me but I fought off, perhaps successfully.” Anne dissembles and dodges the suggestion that she too desires women. Pickford, however, is not entirely put off, and a few days later she tells Anne that she had heard gossip about her and Marianne. Anne denies the relationship repeatedly, but in a friendly way and their friendship is cemented. She tells Pickford that she considers her connection with Miss Threlfall to be a “marriage of souls” and says many other things to show her approval. She wonders to herself how many more Miss Pickfords there are in the world than she ever before thought of.
This might seem a lot of detail to go over in this context, given that Anne was not technically courting Miss Pickford, but their interactions reflect many of the same strategies and progressions that we see the next year when Anne spends time in Paris and encounters Mrs. Barlow. And that is where our story turns next.
Courting Mrs. Barlow
This was at a time when Lister was estranged from Marianne and spent an extended stay in Paris to try to clear her head, as well as to see the sights. Mrs. Barlow, it is clear from context, is also sexually experienced with women, though Lister does not know this for certain when the courtship begins. The women are both residents at an all-female boarding house and much of the courtship takes place in public spaces with other women present, including Mrs. Barlow’s teenage daughter. As it progresses, it may take place in one of the women’s bedrooms. For Lister it seems to begin simply as an amusement to pass the time, though eventually they seriously discuss the possibility of becoming “married.” I’ll include some markers of the passage of time to get a sense of the progression of what was likely a very rapid courtship for her day and age.
Day 1: Lister arrives at the boarding house and meets Mrs. Barlow.
Day 20: They have progressed to mutual flattery. Lister has mentioned that she prefers the company of women to that of men, but this could be interpreted as meaning socially.
Day 32: Lister has begun flirting with Mrs. Barlow and with another woman (Mademoiselle de Sans). Lister describes this as “making love to her” but it’s clear this means only verbal interactions and perhaps some caresses.
Day 42: Barlow expresses jealousy of de Sans and refers to Lister as her “beau” (note that in French this is a male-gendered term). The flirtation with de Sans has included extending a purely social kiss with “a little more pressure of the lips.” Lister has not been open about her sexual past with women, but there is a sense that the other women in the boarding house have picked up on her interests and react with tolerant amusement.
Day 44+: A conversation among the boarding house residents turns to the subject of how Marie Antoinette was “too fond of women” with a clear sexual implication. Lister admits to having heard of this, but pretends that she doesn’t know how women could have sex together. They discuss how knowledge of sexual techniques and birth control comes to England from France.
Barlow mentions having read a book, Voyage à Plombières about “one woman intriguing with another.” Lister tells Barlow she is “half in love with Mademoiselle de Sans” and as this is while she is still disclaiming sexual knowledge, this should be understood as a thing one could say without suspicion. In this same context, Lister describes her longing for a permanent companion: “a person always at my elbow, to share my bedroom & even bed, & to go as far as friendship can go.” She has given Barlow a social kiss on the side of her neck and asks that it be her special spot.
While sitting with Barlow and de Sans, Lister “makes love” to Barlow by touching her repeatedly on the knee or with the foot. They stay up late talking about relationships and Lister puts her arm around Barlow. She interprets Barlow as being amoureuse (i.e., amorous). Barlow is present in Lister’s bedroom while she is having her hair done and Lister “put my arm round her waist & tried to pull her on my knee” but Barlow resists and Lister apologizes.
They alternate making moves and putting up barriers. Lister “jokes” about going to Italy to try the experiment of having sex with a woman. (There seems to be some implication that either willing women are to be found in Italy or that Italians don’t pay attention to what foreign women get up to.) At a later date, Lister uses the phrase “go to Italy” as a euphemism for “go all the way sexually” (whatever that means to her).
Day 51: While sitting together with Barlow and de Sans in de Sans’s bedroom, Lister puts her hand under Barlow’s petticoats almost up to the knee. Barlow whispers, “Do not yet,” but continues to allow it. When saying good night to Barlow, Lister puts her arms around her to kiss her and presses close to her “with her right thigh a little within my left, in contact – which she has never permitted before.” When they go out to the opera, Lister puts her arm around Barlow’s waist casually in public.
Day 71: Lister and Barlow invite each other to use their given names. If you want a symbolic touchpoint in the pacing of Regency-era courtships, I think this is a key event. They have negotiated a common erotic interest and begun kissing and petting. And just after this, the physical interactions jump up a notch. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sharing given names marks that turning point. In private, Lister kisses Barlow on the cheek sufficient to raise a hickey.
Day 72: In Lister’s bedroom, with the door locked: “I had kissed and pressed Mrs Barlow on my knee till I had had a complete fit of passion. My knees and thighs shook, my breathing and everything told her what was the matter. … I then leaned on her bosom and, pretending to sleep, kept pottering about and rubbing the surface of her queer. Then made several gentle efforts to put my hand up her petticoats which, however, she prevented. But she so crossed her legs and leaned against me that I put my hand over and grubbled her on the outside of her petticoats till she was evidently a little excited.”
I should note in this context that Anne uses the word “queer” to mean vulva, but rather than being related to the modern sexual sense of queer, some historians believe it’s a variant of the word quim.
Barlow reaches into Lister’s bodice to feel her breasts, but Lister makes a comment indicating that she prefers to take the lead and doesn’t like her partner to reciprocate. (This seems to be part of Lister’s personal sexuality. There is evidence suggesting that Lister was similar to a “stone butch” in that she got her own pleasure out of being the active partner but was averse to a reciprocal relationship.)
Both Barlow and Lister sometimes express doubts about moving forward with the relationship but it can be hard to tell which are sincere and which are negotiation. Lister has private doubts whether Barlow would make a good life partner for her. They use the word “marriage” to discuss that possibility.
Day 74: Lister tells Barlow about her sexual history, starting with Eliza Raine in boarding school. She explains that she considers her desires “natural” and says that no “exterior formation” caused it, presumably alluding to the motif of the enlarged clitoris. They discuss “saffic regard” and Lister explains her negative attitude toward the use of a dildo, calling it “artifice” and akin to self-pollution (i.e., masturbation).
Barlow makes an interesting speech about how if Lister’s father had brought her up as a son, Barlow would have married her “as she is.” (Evidently suggesting a “female husband” arrangement?) While once again discussing “Sapphic love” (which Lister again associates with the use of a dildo), they “became rather excited.” Lister fondles Barlow’s breasts and her vulva (through her clothing), and tries to put her hand up under Barlow’s skirt but is rebuffed. “I felt her grow warm and she let me grubble and press her tightly with my left hand whilst I held her against the door with the other, all the while putting my tongue into her mouth and kissing her so passionately as to excite her not a little.” Lister suggests they’ve gone too far to go back now. “On leaving me, her face looked hot, her hair out of curl and herself languid, exactly as if after a connection had taken place.”
Note: “connection” refers to the sex act. “Languid” is something of a code word for illicit sex taking place. Lister has made a comment in her diary about “perhaps I shall have her yet before I go” suggesting that what they’ve been doing so far doesn’t constitute “having her.” There are several points where Lister implies that there is some clear distinction that would constitute “having sex” that hasn’t occurred yet, but I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how she defined it. My best approximation would be “being naked in bed together and bringing Barlow to orgasm” though it also seems tied up in the desire for a marriage-like commitment.
Day 76: Lister asks Barlow, “If I had no hope of making her dearer to me before I went” (possibly meaning “before I went away from Paris”?) Barlow responds, “No, never, till we are married.” This is, again, a curious response. Lister has repeatedly used the language of marriage for her relationship with Marianne (including having exchanged rings), but this suggests that women of the time in general saw same-sex marriage as a recognizable concept (even if not one with legal authority).
They get in bed together, fully clothed, and make out: tongue-kissing, fondling through clothes, pressing a thigh between the legs. Lister says she wished she could marry her right away, “then I could have my own way.” (Again, this implies a clear distinction that hasn’t been crossed yet.) Barlow knows about Lister’s devotion and commitment to Marianne and raises significant doubts about going further in the relationship because of that pre-existing commitment.
Day 87: Lister confesses to Barlow about the venereal disease she got from Marianne (who got it from her philandering husband). This becomes another reason for not “going all the way.” (Lister uses the phrase “going to Italy” for this meaning. I don’t know if this is purely a Lister-ism or if this was a more widely used slang term.)
Day 117: After the relationship continues a while on pretty much the same basis, Lister and Barlow (and Barlow’s daughter) move out of the boarding house into a place of their own in order to have more privacy. They now routinely share a bed, but they begin quarreling regularly about the future of the relationship and Barlow’s inner conflicts come very much to the fore.
Day 137: The relationship is beginning to fall apart and Lister is looking for a way out, but it continues on in this state for quite some time.
Day 200: This seems to be the final straw after a long period of discomfort. They are still regularly sharing a bed and Lister is bringing Barlow to orgasm regularly. “A strong excitement last night just after getting into bed. She said again this morning, it was the best she had ever had. Had a very good one an hour before we got up, slumbering all the while afterwards. In getting out of bed, she suddenly touching my queer, I started back.” Lister is upset and unhappy that Barlow wants to touch her vulva and move to a more reciprocal physical relationship. Barlow says she thinks the reaction is because Lister is still “innocent” in that way, but Lister writes in her diary that it “womanizes” her too much. That is, Lister’s understanding of her gender identity precludes allowing herself to be the “passive” partner in sex.
Day 212: Lister leaves Paris, leaving Barlow behind. They pay lip service to meeting again in England, but the relationship is functionally over.
Total time from first meeting as strangers, through courtship, initiation of a sexual relationship, moving in together, discussing marriage, to breakup: 7 months. It took a third of that time to get to being on a first name basis and move from flirtation and sounding-out to the beginnings of serious erotic activity.
While Anne Lister’s experiences and strategies are unlikely to have been universal for women who loved women in the Regency era, her records give us a startlingly candid picture of how a woman might pursue sapphic relationships in a context where so much about sexuality went unspoken, both for reasons of social stigma and from the lack of a universal vocabulary to communicate such concepts. In many ways, Lister was startlingly forthright. In other ways, she was reticent and even disingenuous in order to manage what other people knew and thought about her. But if you’ve ever wondered how women in earlier eras might go about finding kindred souls, and how they negotiated the transition from friendship to desire, Anne Lister’s diaries are full of fascinating examples.
Note on the Sources
The quotations from Lister’s diaries used in this episode have been taken from two volumes of diary excerpts transcribed and edited by Helena Whitbread: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791-1840 and No Priest but Love: The Journals of Anne Lister from 1824-1826. The first is an overview of the entire run of diaries, while the second focuses on the period when Lister traveled to Paris and became involved with Mrs. Barlow, plus the period of their continued contact afterward.
A guided tour through the relationships of a Regency-era lesbian.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
History is littered with women-loving-women whose biographies would make excellent inspiration for dramatic interpretation. Not all of the women in question would be comfortable neighbors. The Countess de Murat was certainly a ... ahem ... colorful character, no matter whose opinion you consult. What this article doesn't touch on (perhaps because it assumes the reader is already familiar with her) is that de Murat participated in the late 17th century Parisian salons that created the vogue for literary fairy tales. Close to 20 fairy tales by her were published around 1700.
The fallout from the charges and scandal discussed in this article included estrangement from her husband, disinheritance by her mother, confinement in several different chateaus, a failed escape in men's clothing, and an eventual partial reprieve and release courtesy of the Countess d'Argenton. (See her Wikipedia entry for an outline of her biography and a list of her works.) That information fleshes out the scandal into something definitely worthy of the screen or of novelization.
Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Robinson, David Michael. 2001. “The Abominable Madame de Murat”
I first encountered Madame de Murat and here rather sordid escapades in another of Jeffrey Merrick’s projects, but this article fills in more of the details of her life. Extensive quotations from the police report can be found in: Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6.
Right at the turn of the 18th century (ca 1700), a Parisian police official collected a series of reports on the scandalous behavior of Henriette de Castelnau, countess de Murat. The official noted that it was particularly shameful for a noblewoman to have engaged in such actions. While a number of offences were detailed, the core accusation was her sexual relations with other women. In addition to “a monstrous attachment to persons of her sex,” the reported noted profanity, singing dissolute songs at all hours, pissing out her window into the street after a drunken carouse, and a blasphemous conversation with a vicar. The sexual relationships included an ongoing tempestuous affair with one Madame de Nantiat, and a violent attack on Murat’s portrait by a jealous ex-girlfriend.
The point of this report was a request that the king either exile her from Paris or put her in prison. (Though one wonders whether a man of similar rank singing drunken songs, pissing out a window, or blaspheming to a churchman would have been similarly harassed, absent sexual crimes.)
Setting aside the extremely negative tone of the references to lesbianism, the reports are intriguing for the details of the relationships and the difficulty the police had in obtaining testimony from witnesses.
In literature of the time, such as Nicolas Chorier’s Académie des dames, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, or Antoine Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count de Gramont, the attitude toward lesbian sex is more one of amused condescension. Authors and their audiences were quite aware of lesbian possibilities, but give the appearance of considering it as of little importance. Something to mock, but not to be concerned over.
In contrast to both the horrified reaction of the police official and the mockery of libertine literature, there were also texts that treated lesbian encounters almost neutrally, such as Madame de Villedieu’s novel Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, in which the queen mother takes the protagonist under her protection, noting that she “loved passionately beautiful women” and had befriended her in order to be able to kiss her regularly. Robinson also cites Aphra Behn’s “To the Fair Clorinda” as a positive expression of female erotic desire.
But possibly Madame de Murat has left us another such positive text, to contrast with her police record. Her presumably autobiographical novel, The Memoirs of Madame the Countess de M—,” while primarily focusing on refuting alleged heterosexual misconduct [which we note is not mentioned in the police report], include an episode where an enemy of hers wrote letters accusing Madame de Murat ad her friend Mademoiselle Laval (in somewhat vague but significant terms) of “horrible things,” bringing them to the attention of both women’s husbands as well as the queen. While the nature of the “horrible things” is not specified, the language and context strongly implies sexual improprieties. The parallels in language and the desired punishment (imprisonment through royal intervention) with the police report (which was written several years later) are noteworthy. [Note: Mademoiselle Laval is not one of the women named in the police report as one of de Murat’s lovers, instead listing Madame de Nantiat, though the vengeful ex-lover is not named.]
In de Murat’s Memoirs the two women thus accused are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent until the accusations can be settled. But in the police report, when the possibility of confinement in a convent is raised, the official advises that he is doubtful of the morals of any convent willing to take her on, alluding to the contradictory reputation of convents both as a place of chastity, and as a hotbed [ahem] of lesbian desire, as reflected in pornographic literature of the time. [Note: lesbian encounters by secular women staying in convents are noted in the biographies of women such as Hortense Mancini and Julie d’Aubigny.]
De Murat and de Nantiat were eventually placed under house arrest in separate chateaus as a result of the accusations, though de Murat is reported as continuing her former behavior there and corresponding freely with all her existing acquaintances.
Robinson suggests that the brief episode in de Murat’s memoirs—when combined with the more detailed and explicit accusation in the police report, as well as the larger social context of how lesbian activity was discussed, and the reputation of convents—is a lightly veiled in-joke, acknowledging the (likely) truth of the relationship with Laval and using it as an excuse for a temporary retreat to an all-female space where the relationship could be continued. This suggests a new context in which positive depictions of lesbianism might be found, if they can be decoded.
The article concludes with a discussion of the problems of reading “closeted texts” as Robinson suggests this to be, and the asymmetric effects of dismissing authorial intent when interpreting texts when the author may be constrained to speak obliquely. These effects create particular problems for queer history and the erasure of neutral or positive depictions of queer sexuality when historians insist on taking texts only at face value.
I waver between thinking that each period I read about it the absolutely most fascinating one with regard to gender and sexuality, and thinking that the period immediately before the one I'm reading about is. But every time I read articles about the 17th century (especially England or France, but let's be honest: that's where the publications skew) I come back to the idea that it was a fascinatingly queer era. In contrast (and, in many ways, in opposition) to the artificially glittering world of Versailles there was the woman-centered world of the French salons, and their export of precieuse culture to England. Beside the libertine activities of the court and family politics that ensured that love and marriage were largely separate experiences, there was the chaotic gender-transgressing culture of the common people, meticulously documented by disapproving preachers who considered the dissolution of clear gender signifiers to presage the apocalypse.
This is the context in which Madeleine de Scudéry ventured to write about the ideals of friendship and to dream about a different way for men and women to relate. One shouldn't take this as an actual blueprint for behavior, but more of a critique of the status quo. But underlying it is the firm principle of 17th century social politics that women's best and most lasting relationships were not with men, but with their female friends. (Even if social conventions required them to end up with men in the end.)
Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’”
This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.
But what was the context in which a 17th century French aristocrat understood the ancient poet’s life? The article looks at four questions. Why did Scudéry choose to work with Sappho as a subject? How as Sappho understood and represented in 17th century France? How did Scudéry adapt the story for French salon culture? And how did Sappho’s sexuality influence the depiction of female friendship and heterosexual love in the work?
Hinds references DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho (https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-144-dejean-1989-fictions-sappho-1546-1937) for a detailed answer to the first question. Scudéry uses Sappho as an entry to women’s role as author of heroic fiction (a newly popular genre at the time). Scudéry’s Sappho exists in a utopian space where a woman can not only claim the role of author, but can define the terms of her relationship with a man. But while the plot of the narrative accepts (a version of) the Phaon story, in which Sappho turns from the love of women to a man, the representation of sexuality and gender identity are complicated.
Taking up the second question, Hinds reviews the French translations and interpretations of Sappho available in the 17th century. Rémi Belleau’s 16th century translation of Fragment 31 (“he seems like a god”) retains the original’s female voice and female beloved, but other versions of the era substitute a male narrator, turning the triangle into two men in conflict over a woman. While many other French works allow Sappho to voice her same-sex desire, there is often a moralizing overlay, suggesting that pursuit of pleasure will be her downfall. By the late 16th century, Sappho is often depicted as a woman whose love of sensual pleasure has ruined her.
French law of the time included lesbian acts under the rubric of sodomy, and Sappho’s name comes up regularly in discussions of historic context for the laws. Though poetic texts may depict Sappho as indiscriminately licentious, legal texts focus specifically on her lesbian reputation. The application of these legal prohibitions appears to have been rare, certainly in comparison to prosecutions of male homosexuality. But several case studies, especially ones involving cross-gender presentation, appear repeatedly in medical literature of the time.
At the same time, Sappho’s role as a respected poet was being revived in the early 17th century, also including Ovid’s episode in the Heroides of the Phaon myth. The depiction of Sappho ashamedly turning from desire for women to the pursuit of Phaon resonated with French moral attitudes of the time toward same-sex desire.
Scudéry does not simply accept this interpretation of the Phaon episode, but rather models Sappho’s relationship with Phaon on female friendship bonds. Scudéry’s Sappho may be seen as a reflection of the author herself (she used Sappho as a nickname on occasion) and so we can see in the Histoire Scudéry’s vision for ideal relations between women and men, as well as her idealized understanding of female friendship.
Scudéry’s ideal friendship is steeped in the précieuse culture of propriety and decency, the use of refined language and adherence to proper behavior. Given this context, the Histoire focuses on emotion and sentiment as expressions of love, not on erotic desire, regardless of the genders of the participants. Traditionally-gendered characteristics and virtues are distributed to characters of both sexes in the word. Sappho is ascribed “male” virtues (as defined at the time) while Phaon is described in terms more conventionally reserved for women, focusing on refined physical beauty, while not being framed as effeminate.
In the Histoire, Sappho surrounds herself with women with whom she has intense platonic friendships, based on a free and equal sharing of thoughts and confidences. This alone, she asserts, is the basis for genuine love and friendship. Sappho confides to her friends that she prefers their company to a husband, who would be incapable of providing the same type of devotion.
It is Phaon’s ability to conform to these ideals of (female) friendship that allows Sappho to love him, while it is the passionate poems Sappho has written to her female companions that convince Phaon she is capable of the intense love he seeks. But Sappho recognizes that their love would be doomed within a conventional marriage and could not remain equal and true. The solution is found in a utopian land ruled by Amazons whose laws prescribe faithfulness between lovers. Phaon must swear never to ask for marriage, but also to remain always at Sappho’s side. He must become the “inseparable companion” so prized among female friends.
So Phaon wins over Sappho, and she accepts his love, only when he moves into the role of female friend, companion, and confidant, and abandons the framework of heterosexual marriage.
(Originally aired 2021/01/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2021. The New Year is most often thought of as a time for fresh starts, new beginnings, and revising one’s path in life. This year, it feels like we’re all still in the middle of the awfulness and it will still be a while before change will come. But for this podcast, at least, this month marks a shift in gears and some fresh directions.
We’re now broadcasting only through the new, independent show and it means we’ve lost a significant part of our previous listeners, though I hope it’s only temporary. Thank you to all the listeners who followed us over, or who recently joined. And thank you especially to all of you who talk the show up and help new listeners find us.
The big format and content change is that the interview segments will now be shorter and combined into this monthly round-up, reducing the schedule to twice monthly, plus the quarterly fiction shows. Another minor change is that the new book listings will include a brief description of the setting and plot rather than reading the cover copy. And there will still be occasional news items and discussions on the field of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction in general.
2021 Fiction Series
And speaking of the fiction series, it’s January so submissions are open for the 2021 fiction series! All month we’ll be accepting submissions of short stories up to 5000 words featuring sapphic characters in historic settings, including some types of historic fantasy. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year brings! See the Call for Submissions link in the show notes for full details and how to submit.
Publications on the Blog
The blog finally finished discussing Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends and I confess it became something of a slog, with the book turning into more literary and psychological analysis than the history of people. Rather than continue with my original plan, which was to tackle a book with a similar feel, I went through the shelves and grabbed several works that may be a bit more exciting. I’ll start with a collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture, edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis. Only a few of the articles focus on women, but I already found one of them quite valuable when writing the episode on the Anandrine Sect. That should take care of January and then I’ll see what catches my eye.
For this month’s essay, I’ve been inspired by reading through excerpts from Anne Lister’s diaries to take notes on how her courtships and sexual encounters were scripted. It’s an interesting study in the social dynamics of the early 19th century.
And this month we have our first fiction episode of 2021, with a lightly fantastic tale of medieval Provence, “A Soldier in the Army of Love” by Diane Morrison.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Last month I wondered where all the December books were, since I only knew about two to mention then, but this month when I looked, I found another five titles of interest, plus six January books. The eras cover a wide span of time and the settings extend outside of the anglophone world.
Three of the December books are continuations of previous series. Mary D. Brooks’ “Intertwined Souls” series has a new entry with Promise is a Promise, set just after World War II beginning with a promise made in an Egyptian refugee camp and ending with a Christmas surprise. This is an extended series following a group of continuing characters and may work best for those already familiar with the series.
Lee Swanson’s earlier novel of medieval merchants and gender disguise, No Man’s Chattel is now followed by a sequel Her Perilous Game, with the series title “No Man is Her Master”. In 14th century Europe, Christina Kohl takes on the identity of her dead brother to become a merchant of the Hanseatic League, encountering both political chaos and scheming rivals during a trading voyage to England. I’m always excited to see stories with authentic medieval settings and some day I hope to find time to read this series.
Renaissance Italy is the setting for the final book in Edale Lane’s “The Night Flyer” trilogy, Chaos in Milan. A combination of superhero adventure and romance, set among feuding city-states infused with the imaginative technology of Leonardo da Vinci.
Mariah R. Embry’s Beyond the Vines is a bit more down to earth and deals with independence and growing romance as well as trauma. In 1918, Amina flees an abusive husband with her son and travels to Washington state where she is taken in by vineyard owner Celeste. While struggling to establish herself and find a new path, she is surprised by an unexpected romance.
The final December book is a Christmas-themed novella set in Victorian England. The Christmas Chevalier by Meg Mardell is not a sapphic book, as the protagonists are a woman and a trans man who is enjoying the temporary freedom to be his true self. But because of the fuzzy edges of categories in historic contexts, I thought it might be of interest to some listeners. A masquerade dance provides the context for two friends to see each other in a different light.
The January books start off with this month’s author guest, Malinda Lo with Last Night at the Telegraph Club. In 1950s San Francisco, Lily Hu juggles being a good Chinese daughter, dreaming of a career in science, and sneaking off to a lesbian nightclub with her friend Kath…who she hopes will become more than a friend. We’ll be talking about the book later in this show.
From Lianyu Tan comes a book more on the mythic side of the fence than the historic. Captive in the Underworld is a sapphic take on the legend of Persephone, but this is a dark tale of coercion and abuse, not a romance. Content note for non-consensual sex.
On a very different note, Maxine Kaplan’s Wench has a medieval-ish setting in an unspecified location, with a spunky teenage tavern wench holding her own with the help of a little bit of magic. This is a YA story with what sounds like a loose connection with history but it sounds like a lot of fun.
Another fun working-class romance is the graphic novel Patience & Esther by S.W. Searle which tells the story of two maids in an Edwardian country house, falling in love in a rapidly changing world that offers them new opportunities. Bonus points for diverse ethnic representation. I supported the Kickstarter for this book and I’m looking forward to enjoying it.
A speculatively alternative wild west is the setting for Anna North’s Outlawed, which plunges our heroine into a seriously gender-bent version of the Hole in the Wall Gang who push back against an epidemic-ravaged society obsessed with female fertility. Don’t go into this book expecting a traditional western or a feel-good adventure, but rather a gripping dystopia steeped in queerness.
The final January book falls in the genre of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, but this one focuses and expands on the character of Anne de Bourgh, who is more or less a cypher in the original book. Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh traces Anne’s struggle to get out from under her mother’s thumb and the laudanum addiction imposed on her from childhood. With the help of cousins in London, she begins to invent a new life and identity for herself. The cover copy doesn’t touch on the sapphic elements but reviews confirm that one of the things she finds in London is love for a woman. This is Greeley’s second Austen-inspired novel, but the first doesn’t have queer elements.
Have a sapphic historical coming out? Or know of one that you think I might not know about? Drop the podcast a note to make sure we include it! Or drop us a note if you’ve found a book you loved through these listings.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? After my flurry of reading in November, I went back into my slump. But I did watch the new historical movie, Ammonite, based on the life of Victorian fossil-collector Mary Anning and her lifelong friend Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a leading geologist. Although the erotic relationship that the movie focuses on is interpolated into that friendship, Anning had several very close female friendships that supported her career, including her mentor, paleontologist Elizabeth Philpot. (The character of Philpot also appears in the movie, but I’d have to re-watch it to see if it’s the woman that Anning is implied to have previously had a romantic relationship with.) I’m not the one to complain about exploring the erotic potential of Victorian-era romantic friendships. But I do think the movie does a disservice to the historic Charlotte Murchison, who was a talented scientific illustrator and may have inspired her husband’s interest in geology, whereas the movie depicts her as a frail, neurotic dilettante. Given the historic facts of Anning and Murchison’s lives, I’m a bit impatient with the criticism of the movie as not having a “happy ending” for the romance. But if you know a filmmaker who wants to make a movie about female couples in history living happily ever after, I can give them a shopping list of ideas for inspiration.
Now on to our author guest!
[The interview with Malinda Lo will be included here when it has been transcribed.]
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 Malinda Lo Online
This finishes up Vicinus, just barely in time to complete it this year. (I need to get back to sticking to my LHMP-Monday thing.) I'm going through another phase of "why am I doing this? who cares?" which means I need to get back to blogging things that are fun for me, rather than having some grand plan. I hope 2021 brings you better things than this past year has. For me? At the moment I'll settle for 2021 bringing me lots of great submissions for the podcast fiction series. (Submissions open tomorrow!)
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 8: “A Love of Domination” – The Mannish Invert and Sexual Danger
This chapter examines several lives in the context of sexological theory and the rise of the binary homosexual/heterosexual model of desire. Psychologists pathologized previous models and patterns of same-sex relationships and focused on the sexually adventurous, dominating, “mannish” woman as the core prototype of the lesbian. At heart, these models revolved around “gender inversion” seeing the homosexual (male or female) as someone whose entire life and personality partook of a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth (to use the current terminology). [Note: it’s interesting that, in many ways, the sexologists forced homosexuals into a transgender framework, without allowing for transgender identity as a viable experience. This isn’t too different from many earlier gender-based understandings of same-sex desire. It was innovative only in couching the theory in a new, medicalized vocabulary.]
The chapter spends several pages on people and theories among the sexologists, then moves on social anxieties about homosexual dynamics in all-female school situations, as expressed both in advice literature and in fiction such as Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women. The works of Colette are offered as an illustration of the more neutral French treatment of the topic.
Radclyffe Hall was, in some ways, an iconic representative of the sexologists’ “invert”. Her classic novel The Well of Loneliness accepted the psychological models but argued for acceptance and tolerance. She used the “born this way” argument but seemed to accept that homosexuality was a sort of tragedy. (Though unlike her protagonist, Hall had a long-term partner in Una Troubridge, disrupted only by Hall’s infidelity.)
The chapter discusses the struggles around the publication of the novel and its reception.
Vicinus reviews the various models that women used to imagine and describe their same-sex relationships, including a variety of family analogues, as well as models that rejected conventional relationship types. She discusses how the social meanings of such concepts as friendship, marriage, love, and sex have changed and affect how women have understood their bonds. The changing fashions in women’s writing, as well as the perils of public writing about private matters, have affected what we are permitted to know about women’s lives and loves in the past. Examples are given of how women’s expression of their love has shifted among romance, passion, sensuality, and sexual activity at different times.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 190 - So You’re Writing a Sapphic Historical Romance: Questions to Consider - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/12/26 - listen here)
When I first got the idea that ended up becoming the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I envisioned putting together a simple sourcebook of background information for authors of lesbian historical fiction. How hard could it be, after all? It’s not like there was that much information available on lesbians in history. Silly me. I was so delightfully wrong. But as I began realizing the scope of the historic information available, and as I began thinking about the fuzzy edges of what a resource of that type should cover, I set aside the idea of a sourcebook and focused on a more granular approach to familiarize myself with the field.
That dream has never entirely left me. When I interview authors on this podcast, one of the questions I always ask is, “how did you approach researching how your characters would have understood and experienced their sexuality?” And time and again I get responses that focus on the difficulty of finding information and the need to extrapolate from modern experiences and to rely on imagination. I keep returning to that idea: just as there is a market for reference books that tell you about everyday life in historic settings like Jane Austen’s England, I think there’s a market for a reference book that tells you about the experience of women who loved women in historic settings. Not in all the academic ambiguity, but laid out in a practical way for authors who just want to get on with writing a story. And I think, just maybe, I’m ready to start working on it for certain times and places.
Any guide to writing sapphic characters needs to examine two different topics. What do we know about the specific experiences of women who loved women? And what was the range of experiences for all women in the chosen setting? So my outline falls into the following categories. For women’s experiences in general, we start with demographics and the sociology of family life. Then we look at the legal, religious, and economic context of people’s lives. Next we examine the range of women’s interpersonal relationships outside the family. This is followed by a gradual look at the norms of women’s physical relationships and displays of affection, starting from the very public, through more private contexts, and finally addressing the specific question of erotic behavior. Having broached the topic of erotic same-sex relationships, we look at the available social models for gender and sexuality, and how same-sex relations were viewed in popular culture. Finally, we step back a little to consider a slightly broader context in space and time.
What I’m discussing today is not the answers, but the questions. It may not be possible to answer all these questions for any given fictional setting. But thinking about them can get you started down useful pathways.
Demographics and Family Relations
Before we start thinking about the presence of same-sex love, consider simply the absence of heterosexual marriage. While it’s true that many women in history negotiated the complexities of both, in historical romance we tend to expect our protagonists to be free of other ties. So what proportion of women in our chosen culture were never married? What proportion were previously married but are now single, whether widowed or separated? What was the typical age at which women married? At what age would an unmarried status be seen to be outside the norm, or at least the ideal? What were cultural attitudes toward non-married women? Do we actually need to come up with extraordinary pleading for our heroines to be unmarried or is it something unremarkable?
To what extent do women feel able to make choices with regard to marriage? How much influence can they have over timing or the choice of a spouse? What are the reasons (other than lack of heterosexual desire) that a woman might put off or avoid marriage? How is the social context different for a widow as opposed to a never-married woman?
Looking at the lives of singlewomen as models for our characters goes beyond the simple question of marriage. Until very recently, a woman in a same-sex partnership would be treated by society as if she were single. So what were the circumstances in which a non-married woman might live outside the parental home? What were the plausible household arrangements? We often forget how the simple logistics of everyday life made living completely alone impractical. How common was it, and under what circumstances, for two or more non-married women to share a household? What circumstances might make that unremarkable?
For that matter, what were the typical or possible dynamics for relationships with her extended family? How did a non-married woman relate to her siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or more distant kin? What were the range of attitudes toward her?
Another very important question is how the answers to these questions differ based on family class and/or income. It’s popular to focus historic romance on the lives of the privileged, but might the story we’re telling work better in a middle class or working class setting? This question will come up time and again because differences in lives and attitudes by class or income can entirely change relationship dynamics.
Economics, Law, and Religion
The next set of considerations are related in that they are external forces that have both a strict, formal aspect, and a more variable practical aspect. These are economics, law, and religion.
What is the range of possible economic situations for a non-married woman? And how do these options affect her interpersonal relations? How do class and family wealth affect these options? Are certain economic possibilities closed to her due to class expectations? How does all this affect her possible living situations? This is one of several contexts where it’s important not to rely on popular culture to limit our expectations. I can think of lots of stories that started with a premise of “women couldn’t do X” – couldn’t work outside the home, couldn’t run a business, couldn’t have an independent income – when counterexamples can be found in history. Be aware of what is typical, but also of what is possible. Is your character being truly transgressive or only unconventional? Or can she do what the plot requires without even flouting convention? Conversely, we need to know what the constraints were. What ways of making a living would need careful justification as opposed to being ordinary? What options are so implausible you’ve used up your readers’ suspension of disbelief all on that one thing?
Narrowing the focus down to setting up a romance plot, what economic circumstances could enable or prevent two women from co-habiting? How do the economic possibilities shape our possible happily ever afters? This is a context where looking at the demographics of everyday life for all social classes can be an eye-opener. How did actual women make an independent household together and how did they come to that place?
The law is another context where we need to examine not only the letter but the practical application. And keep in mind that laws were not the same everywhere, or in all eras. Furthermore, application of the laws could change depending either on public mood or private whim.
The first question to ask is, were there any laws addressing women engaging in same-sex relations? The answer isn’t necessarily “yes”. But if so, what specific aspects of those relations was the law concerned with? When we look at historic cases when lesbian-like women ran afoul of the law, it’s rarely the case that the simple fact of being a lesbian was on trial. The law might concern itself with specific sex acts. Or with gender transgression.
Even when there were laws against certain acts, we need to know who was actually at risk of having those laws enforced against them. Was class a protection from either the suspicion or the accusation of those acts? Were women in certain professions either automatically suspect, or silently given a pass with regard to transgressions? If women got in trouble with respect to the law, were the authorities specifically looking for transgressions or did the matter only arise incidentally? Was homosexuality only brought in as an issue when there was some other complaint to begin with? What were the hypothetical and the actual penalties? Were legal penalties only enforced for very specific offences within the larger sphere of same-sex relations?
The legal questions are a major framework for how our heroines view their lives. For example, unusually in the European context, England never had laws addressing female homosexuality, very much in contrast to the legal position of male homosexuals, or the situation of women in some continental cultures. So a gay male historic romance set in England will involve some critical concerns that a sapphic romance in the same setting won’t deal with. Similarly, when you look at trials in France or Germany or other places in central Europe, the cases that were pursued and that involved the rare extreme punishments most often involved gender-crossing or penetrative sex using an instrument. Two women who presented as feminine and whose sexual activities did not mimic penetrative sex rarely seem to have been at serious risk under the law. So if we don’t want the fear of legal reprisals to be a part of our story, what are the ways that our characters could be functionally invisible to the law, within our chosen setting?
Religion is another context where it’s important to consider not simply what the official opinions were, but how they were applied in context, and how women’s same-sex relationships were interpreted within that context. (And remember that not all religions have had similar opinions about same-sex relations, and that attitudes have changed at times.)
How does our characters’ religion (whether their personal beliefs, or those of the culture they live in) view same-sex relationships? Do those attitudes focus on the sexual aspect or more broadly on romantic relationships? What is the range of attitudes our characters might have about how their lives fit into their religious beliefs?
Does the religion have formal positions on same-sex activity? Does it have informal positions? What aspects of same-sex relations are central to those positions? How do attitudes toward same-sex relations differ from those on similar opposite-sex relations? What is the range of opinions?
This is yet another context where it’s important not to look only at formal, learned positions, but on the interactions of everyday life. Even when the formal religious position is that homosexual relations are unacceptable, they may be viewed simply as a human weakness. Conversely, there have been eras in Christian culture when same-sex relations were considered one of the worst possible sins. At those same times, intensely romantic same-sex relationships could be treated as praiseworthy, as long as there was no suspicion of sexual activity. And individual people have regularly found their own philosophical accommodation between their romantic and sexual desires and the teachings of their religion. It’s rarely a clear black-and-white situation.
Emotional and Romantic Relationships in their Social Context
When plotting the problems and opportunities for your romantic couple, keep in mind how their experiences will differ from the courtship of a heterosexual couple. In many historic societies there is a presumption that male-female interactions will always carry a sexual overtone, but the same assumption is rarely made about same-sex interactions. It is usual for every society to have established patterns of intimate friendships – of close and enduring emotional bonds taken on by choice, rather than the chance of birth. These can provide fertile ground for how our characters might “try on” their romantic leanings.
Within our chosen society, what is the degree of mixing or separation of the genders in everyday life? In what context do women socialize in mixed-gender groups versus all-women groups? Is there any special meaning placed on a woman who primarily socializes only with women or is this typical?
Does the society have models for close emotional relationships between women who are not immediate family members? What is the range of possible relationships of this type? How are women expected to behave in them? What are their benefits and consequences? What is the vocabulary used to talk about them?
At what age, and in what context do women typically establish lasting emotional bonds with other women? How long are such bonds expected to endure? How are these bonds expressed? How are they described and characterized by others? What other models do people compare them to? What are the similarities and differences between relationships within the family and those with someone outside the family?
Just because a society has some established models for intimate same-sex bonds doesn’t mean those models are value-free. How are women’s intimate friendships viewed within the context of society? How are they viewed in comparison to marriage? How does class or income affect this? Are close friendships praised or viewed with suspicion? Are they expected to be fleeting or life-long? Are they expected to be exclusive or are women expected to have many close relationships?
What do people think about the erotic potential of close same-sex emotional relationships? Is it even considered a possibility? Is eroticism expected to be a normal part of intimate friendships? Or is it unimaginable—that is, to those not involved in them!
Whether erotic or not, how did women approach each other with regard to establishing a close relationship or increasing the intimacy of a relationship? Were there conventional rituals? Was there a vocabulary for the process? Were there rites of passage in establishing an enduring intimate friendship? How did women indicate the desire for an erotic relationship? How did they react to being solicited for an erotic relationship by another woman? Were there particular signals they might use?
In this section we’re presuming that the romance will involve some sort of romantic bond and not only a sexual relationship—which seems a reasonable presumption for writing historic romance—but we could ask some of the same questions about purely sexual relations. And not all romantic friendships had sex as a component or a goal. But in general, knowing how our target society feels about close friendships between women gives us a lot of useful information on what our characters will experience and what their options are.
Public Displays of Affection
You know that stage where you like someone and you want to give them a hug but suddenly you’re all self-conscious about how they’ll take it? Or you thought you were talking casually and you put your hand on their arm as you’re talking…and you realize that you’re feeling more than just the enthusiasm of making a point. Or you’re walking with your girlfriend in an unfamiliar place and you wonder how the people around you will interpret it if you two hold hands? How about if you hear someone address another person as “sweetheart” or “darling” or “beloved” and you’re trying to guess what their relationship is?
The societal norms of physical and verbal affection can vary enormously and shift subtly in meaning. What are the gestures and words that would be unremarkable between strangers who have just been introduced? Between casual friends? Between bosom buddies? What are the gestures and words that would unmistakably signal an intimate or erotic relationship? And who can use those in a general public setting without comment? And do any of these vary according to the apparent genders of the participants?
These questions are significant for three aspects of story development. Firstly, what is the “background noise” of affectionate interactions between women in our historic setting? What is the range of behavior that would be ordinary and unremarkable between two women with no erotic or romantic relationship? For that matter, what is the range of behavior that would be remarkable in its absence? Secondly, what are the subtle shifts in behavior that our characters can use to either initiate or recognize the developing intimacy in a relationship? Which of these would their society find unremarkable (and I use this word in the sense of “no one would think to comment on it”) and which might be considered significant to others? Thirdly, what are the behaviors that might be considered suspect or transgressive if done out in the public eye, regardless of who does them?
Are there differences between the gestures and language of affection used within a family versus those used with outsiders? In what contexts and with what meaning are these extended to non-family members? Are there differences between displays of affection that are assumed to be purely conventional and those that are always assumed to carry personal meaning? Are there systematic differences in the norms of how a woman displays affection to an unrelated man as opposed to an unrelated woman? This particular question can be useful not only in the sense of what two women can “get away with”, but also if one character is using masculine-coded behavior to signal romantic interests as opposed to platonic interests.
What is the catalog of specific actions used in our setting? Keep in mind that certain gestures may have fallen out of use, or may have only arisen recently, or the assigned meaning may have changed over time. As a specific example of what I mean, in Europe from classical times well into the early modern era, there was a conventional gesture known as “chin chucking” in which one person gently holds the other person’s chin in one hand. This was strongly associated with erotic love. If you see two figures in historic art using this gesture, you can assume the two people are either getting it on or are about to. It faded in more recent centuries to being more a signal of power or age differentiated invasion of personal space. And today it has largely faded from the social repertoire entirely. So we need to consider not only how our characters might have used or interpreted the displays of affection that we are familiar with, but whether they had ones we don’t use.
That said, consider the following types of physical gestures and what meaning they have for our characters and in our setting: embracing, holding hands, touching the hand, arms, face, etc., kissing the cheek, kissing a hand, kissing the mouth, sitting in close contact, sitting or walking together with arms around the shoulders or waist, sitting on someone’s lap. Does our setting have special terminology for any of these gestures? How would they describe them?
Similarly for verbal endearments: what is the range of use that is considered ordinary or typical between people who aren’t married to each other? Are there terms that one would only expect married people to use or that would signal a marriage-like relationship? How do people address each other directly (either face to face or in correspondence) and how do they refer to the other person when speaking to a third party? Are there clear differences between conventional social language and language that indicates an intimate emotional relationship?
All of these details can give us a context for showing the development of a romantic relationship within the conventions of the setting. Which is our couple likely to do first: address each other by the first name or kiss? The answers can be surprising.
Private Displays of Affection & Bedroom Behavior
Every culture has degrees of privacy in how affection is displayed, regardless of whether that affection is romantic in nature, or is within an approved relationship. The previous considerations were about how our characters might act out in public: on the street, at a social event, while traveling. But it’s also useful to know the accepted range of affectionate behavior in more restricted settings, while still considering both actions that would be unremarkable between platonic friends and those that would be understood as signaling a more intimate relationship. How do people behave within the family home? At a small party limited to close friends? How do women behave when socializing with each other in private, whether in small groups or in pairs? And which of those behaviors might provide an opportunity either to make or to respond to a suggestion of an even more intimate encounter?
The specific possible behaviors and language are similar to those considered for the public sphere, but we might find them carrying a different meaning in different contexts. The length of a kiss, the language used for flirtatious teasing. Are there affectionate gestures that are acceptable and “neutral” in private that are not considered appropriate in public? Are there gestures or forms of address that are considered merely conventional in public that become more personal in private? For example, a man who kisses a female acquaintance in public as a neutral greeting might find the same action taken differently if the two are alone together. Would the dynamic be the same between women?
Before we even get into the question of erotic activities, what meaning is placed on others entering one’s private space within the home? How does our culture define and manage privacy? What are the spaces in which one might interact with strangers? With mere acquaintances as opposed to close friends? Are there spaces reserved for only those most intimate friends? As an example, the French salonnières of the 17th century would often preside over their gatherings from their bed, when the bedchamber was a more public location that it would become in later centuries. How does the domestic geography of privacy intersect with the domestic geography of erotic activity? How much privacy do people expect or get? As always, how is this affected by class and status? For the wealthy and privileged, what is the place of servants in one’s expectations of privacy? For the lower classes, in what contexts might one expect to have privacy at all?
Is it normal or common for women of equal status, who aren’t immediate family members, to help each other dress and undress? Or to be present when another woman is dressing or undressing? So many opportunities!
Is it normal or common for women friends to share a bed without this having an erotic implication? “There was only one bed” is a trope that doesn’t carry the same significance if there is an assumption that people will share beds as an ordinary thing. But conversely, in our target culture, does bed-sharing have a symbolic importance within intimate friendships? What is the range of interactions that people have in bed together other than sleeping? Is it a place for conversation? For reading? Is it normal or common for people who share a bed, but do not have a sexual relationship, to cuddle together?
For that matter, do people typically share a bedroom whether or not they share a bed? If our characters employ servants, would a servant typically sleep in the same room? What is the expectation for privacy in the bedroom? For comparison purposes, do heterosexual married couples of an equivalent class to our characters typically sleep in the same room and bed? Or is it common for them to have separate rooms? To what extent is sexual activity closely associated with bedtime and sleeping?
And that brings us to the consideration of sex. In considering the sex lives of our characters within their cultural setting, it’s important to keep in mind that women in same-sex romantic relationships exist within a continuum of erotic and sexual expression. This is true for the present day and it’s true within history. The point of having a special section to talk about sex is not to say that all sapphic historical romances should include activities that we would today classify as sex, but rather to explore how sex was understood within that historic setting and to consider how our characters would engage with it if sex is part of their relationship.
A key question that should not be overlooked is how our target culture defines and classifies “sexual activity.” It can be possible for our characters to engage in a variety of sensual and erotic activities without thinking of what they’re doing as “having sex” within the understanding of their times. This can have a big effect on how they think about their lives!
Cultures can give us clues to how they define sex by what types of activities they talk about in conjunction with the central case of heterosexual procreative sex. Some cultures may define “sex” exclusively as male-female activity, and while that can be maddening on a philosophical basis, it can mean that our female couple don’t consider that any rules or taboos on sex apply to them. Similarly, some cultures focus very specifically on penetration as defining “sex” regardless of the genders involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that activities not classified as “sex” have no social significance attached to them. For example, masturbation may be categorized as “not sex” but still have social stigma attached. The idea here is to shake up our modern assumptions about how people think about sex and see what we can discover about what our characters would think. Or at least what some of their contemporaries would think.
The worm in the apple here is that it’s extremely rare in Western culture before very recent times for women to write candidly about their own sexual knowledge and sexual experiences. Given the double standards around gender and sex, it has often been common for women to hedge this information about with metaphor, coded language, or simple omission. On top of that, women’s writing was often prevented, suppressed, self-censored, or erased after the fact. This can mean that for some eras and cultures, the only recorded information about women’s same-sex practices that have come down to us has been filtered through men. And in some eras it has specifically been filtered through a male pornographic gaze. So when we’re exploring the information about women’s sexual practices, it can be very useful to sort things out into “what men thought or fantasized about lesbian sex,” “what women were willing to admit in public about their sex lives,” and “what women recorded about their sex lives in records that weren’t intended to be public.” All of this still leaves vast gaps where we must muddle though as best we can.
So having covered basic kissing and embracing and cuddling in previous sections, and having delved into the philosophical question of “what counts as sex?” let’s move on to thinking about some specific sexual practices women enjoy together. Are there specific practices that are associated with female couples? Is there evidence in this culture for “tribadism”, that is rubbing the vulvas together? Is there evidence for performing manual stimulation? What about digital penetration?
Is there evidence for using a dildo for penetration? If so, do we know what it might have been made out of? Would it be held in the hand or attached to the body? If a dildo is used, would it be associated with particular types of gender expression? Is there any specific social meaning attached to using one? Are they also used for solitary stimulation?
Is there evidence for open-mouthed kissing or tongue-kissing? Is this considered to fall under the category of sex? Is there evidence for oral sex generally regardless of the genders involved? How about between women? Is any special social significance attached to oral sex?
How does the culture understand female orgasm? Is it generally expected to happen during sex regardless of the genders involved? Was sex between women expected to result in orgasm? How did popular culture view sex between women, assuming it acknowledged the existence of such a thing? What did people think about it compared to heterosexual sex? What sort of social meaning was placed on the idea of sex between women? Why did people think women might engage in it?
What was the vocabulary of sexual anatomy, acts, and accessories involved in sex between women? Were there words specific to lesbian sex? Were there different levels of politeness available in talking about lesbian sex? What sorts of euphemisms were used? To what extent was there a common, shared vocabulary, or to what extent do women seem to be putting together their own language, based on borrowings from heterosexual practice and individual invention?
How did women negotiate the initiation of a sexual relationship? Did the culture have specific customs or rituals that might be used in this context? Is it something that women felt able to talk directly about before an encounter? How did they talk about it after a sexual encounter? Does there seem to have been a shared progression of how a sexual relationship developed?
What is the degree of general awareness of erotic potential between women? How is that awareness communicated within the society? Does it show up in literature or popular culture? Is there a general awareness of specific women in the culture known (or believed) to be engaging in same-sex erotics? How are they viewed? What sort of popular culture representations (if any) of women’s same-sex erotics are in circulation within the culture? Who has access to them? Do pop culture depictions of sex between women vary depending on the class or status of the participants, or of the audience?
Cultural Understandings of Gender and Sexuality
Having focused in on the specifics of sexual activity, let’s step back to consider the context of how relations between women were understood in our target culture. This takes the phrase “same-sex” and looks individually at the “sex” part and the “same” part. How does the culture (and our characters) understand gender and understand sexuality? How do our characters categorize male and female? How does the culture understand and deal with people who don’t fit neatly into those two categories? Is gender considered to be innate or performative – that is, is it something you are or something you do? Are there categories other than gender that are relevant for romantic or sexual relationships? How do class or social status interact with gender?
How does the culture view the dynamics of romantic or sexual desire? Are there default expectations of who will desire whom? To what extent is desire prioritized as a basis for formal relationships? What about for informal ones? Are people thought to have an innate tendency to desire a particular type of person? Are certain objects of desire more acceptable than others? Does the culture have a theory that explains individual preferences in desire? Do different groups in the culture have different models or understandings of desire?
Looking at some of the possibilities more specifically, does the culture include understandings of same-sex or same-gender desire that consider it to be “normal” or at least ordinary? Is same-sex or same-gender desire viewed neutrally, or is it given a positive or negative judgement?
Is there a model of desire based on gender difference? If so, are there understandings that view same-sex desire as caused by variant gender identity? (For example, that desire for a woman is “inherently masculine” and implies some degree of masculine identity in the experiencer?) Does this relate to other cultural understandings of gender, or of gender-appropriate behavior?
Is there a model of desire based on similarity? That is, is there an assumption that people will be drawn to those most similar to them? If so, what does this mean for same-sex relationships? Does the model cover sexual relationships or are they treated differently from non-sexual relationships?
If the culture has both difference and similarity models for desire, how do they interact? Are they applied in different circumstances or coexist as equal alternatives? Are there differences in how couples are perceived based on whether they involve gender-similarity or gender-difference? To be more specific, does the culture view the equivalent of butch-femme couples differently from femme-femme couples?
Does the culture have concepts equivalent to transgender identity? Is there a perceived relationship or continuum between female homoeroticism and transmasculine identity? If so, are there characteristics that distinguish within this continuum? Do we have evidence for how people understood their own identities within this context?
Does the culture expect couples to experience symmetry of desire or is there an expectation that one member will experience a more active desire and the other will accept that desire? If this model exists, how does it play out in courtship and in erotic activity? Does the culture expect an active/passive contrast or does it expect both parties to actively pursue the relationship? Are female couples different in this regard than heterosexual couples? If there is an active-passive difference, are people viewed differently depending on which role they take?
What is the vocabulary for women with same-sex desires? Is there a range of terminology that covers everything from platonic friendship to sexual partners? What sorts of nuance can be expressed with different words? Does the culture have explicit words that only apply to same-sex desire, as well as more euphemistic expressions? Are there cultural differences in who these words are applied to or who uses them?
Is there a belief or perception that certain physiological, behavioral, or sartorial traits are signs of lesbian desire? Are certain habits or actions perceived as communicating same-sex interest? Are they used deliberately to communicate interest or identity?
Women Loving Women in Popular Culture
That question merges seamlessly into the question of representations in popular culture, which we’ve touched on in several categories already. But it makes sense to gather some of the topics together.
What is the range of representations of women’s close emotional relationships in popular culture? How do those representations vary with class? How does access to those representations vary with class or other demographics? What sort of models do women encounter in their culture that help them put their own feelings and experiences into context?
More specifically, what is the range of representations in popular culture of romantic relationships between women, that is, relationships expressed using the same language and symbolism that would be used for a heterosexual couple? Similarly, what is the range of representations of erotic activity between women in popular culture? Who has access to those representations? What purposes do they have?
What are the boundaries between positive and negative depictions of all these categories? What types of relationships are depicted as praiseworthy and which as bad examples? Is there a social purpose to pop culture representations of female couples? Are they intended to shape behavior? To satirize? To entertain? To express the author’s experience?
Outside of fictional representations, were there women who had a reputation of being in romantic or sexual relationships with women? How was this reputation communicated? What language was used? And how were these women viewed?
General Historical Trends
No era or culture is an island. In every generation, there will be older people who remember when Things Were Different. Change around gender and sexuality may happen gradually or rapidly enough to create a generational clash. It can help to understand what attitudes or practices around gender and sexuality have changed leading up to the setting for our characters. What lingering ideas will they be exposed to? What stories about the goings on of the previous generation will they hear about? In what direction are things changing?
If one looks at only the last century or so, it can be easy to assume that attitudes around sexuality and gender have always evolved in the same direction, from more repressed to more open and accepting, but that’s far from the case. It seems like every couple of centuries attitudes revolve in a cycle. And those older attitudes will definitely affect our characters’ lives and experiences. For that matter, with hindsight, we can know how the culture will change after the period of our story. How will those changes affect their happy ending?
In addition to the larger context of time, consider the larger context of space. Cultures aren’t isolated from one another. What do our characters know about same-sex relationships in the countries they might visit? Or the ones that visitors come from? Might our characters be more or less comfortable if they traveled abroad? Might there be hazards in another land due to different laws and customs? Or might there be more freedom away from one’s own culture? Might our characters “get ideas” about the possibilities available to them from the people or popular culture of other places? What does our target culture think about their neighbors with respect to same-sex relationships? What do their neighbors think about them? Are those cultural beliefs true or are they embedded in stereotypes?
I realize that this discussion may feel daunting! Do you really have to know the answers to all these questions before embarking on a sapphic historical romance? Absolutely not! As I pointed out at the beginning, for many cultures, a lot of the answers are unknowable. But there are more answers out there than you may think. And sometimes it helps to know what the questions are.
I want to read all manner of historical romances that are deeply rooted in the settings they’re depicting. I want to read about relationships that are both positive and true to their times—stories that have happy endings that work for the culture they’re set in. I want to read stories that aren’t modern characters in fancy dress. And I will do my best to continue providing authors with help finding the information they need to write them.