Skip to content Skip to navigation


Monday, May 16, 2022 - 07:21

One of the most fraught endeavors of literary analysis is the attempt to suss out the gender of an anonymous or pseudonymous author. Everything we assume, believe, and project about gendered writing gets applied in ways that cannot help but confirm our biases, absent a "reveal" from the living author, or from previously unknown evidence. (A notorious example from the world of science fiction and fantasy is when author Robert Silverberg published the opinion that pseudonymous author James Tiptree must be a man, because the writing style was "ineluctably masculine", only to have Alice B. Sheldon revealed as the author behind the name.)

When examining texts of the early modern period, there are the competing dynamics that men were far more likely to gain publication than women, but on the other hand, women were under much higher pressure to publish in a form that concealed their identity. To what extent can the quest for author identity rely on gender clues in the subject matter or point of view? Is it reasonable to conclude that a polemic attacking misogyny stands a better than average chance of having been written by a woman? And does that matter in how we interpret the content of the text, apart of questions of the social history of authorship?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Wayne, Valerie. 1999. “The Dearth of the Author: Anonymity’s Allies and Swetnam the Woman-hater” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Wayne, Valerie. “The Dearth of the Author”

The article starts off the section of the collection titled "Emerging Alliances".

This article pokes at the problem of “anonymous” authorship of early modern works. Given that there were strong social pressures against women writing and publishing publicly under their own names, might it be reasonable to put more weight on the possibility of female authorship for “anonymous” works, especially when the views expressed are sympathetic to women’s position? The specific work under consideration is an early 17th c play Swetnam the Woman-hater Arraigned by Women, a direct challenge and response to the misogynistic work Arraignment of Lewd, Idles, Froward, and Unconstant Women by Joseph Swetnam. The play was preceded by three prose responses to Swetname, at least two of which are clearly pseudonymous authors (the attributed feminine names being clearly allegorical) with one considered to accurately identify the female author. Note that Swetnam originally published his work under an allegorical pseudonym too.

Wayne doesn’t take a direct position on the gender of the author, but addresses the general question of “gender indeterminacy” in authorship of the early modern period.

The play clearly takes down Swetnam and misogyny in general in its conclusion, but the question of female agency in doing so is muddled by the central figure of (male) Prince Lorenzo disguised as the (female) amazon Atalanta. (Compare the disguised-as-amazon motif in Sidney’s Arcadia.)

The article concludes that regardless of the gender of the play’s author, they operate as an “ally” to women (in the play and generally). The article is fascinating and worth a read, but not directly pertinent to the Project except in how it depicts the range of possible attitudes of the time to feminist issues.

Time period: 
Sunday, May 15, 2022 - 07:39

There is a long association of women-run girls's schools with homosocial bonding (among both students and faculty) that often shades over into romance. Although this article isn't examining the romantic potential of Mary Ward's organization, there are some interesting symbolic parallels in the "closeted" nature of their work in 17th c England as a Catholic organization.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Gallagher, Lowell. 1999. “Mary Ward’s ‘Jesuitresses’ and the Construction of a Typological Community” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Gallagher, Lowell. “Mary Ward’s ‘Jesuitresses’ and the Construction of a Typological Community”

This article looks at the women’s religious educational communities founded in the early 17th century by Mary Ward, the School of Blessed Mary. As an English woman setting up Catholic institutions during a period when Catholicism was out of favor in England, and as a woman becoming a prominent religious leader in the Catholic Church at a time when women were not encouraged to take leadership positions, the hierarchies of both sides found Mary Ward problematic.

Part of the focus of the authorities’ objections to Ward’s communities were their focus on the education of girls, aiming for a broad liberal education more traditionally associated with men, as well as traditionally feminine skills relevant to household management. Ward’s female-organized institutions were self-governing, electing their leaders internally and answerable only directly to the pope. (A structure set up with papal approval.) This set them in contrast with the usual model for female religious orders, which put them under local episcopal authority. Despite modeling her institution on existing religious communities, in particular the Jesuits, Ward’s schools were specifically not religious orders, neither maintaining the cloistered life nor adopting a religious habit.

In England the risk of official persecution led to practices of integrating into the fabric of society rather than standing out as an identifiable religious group. Teachers might live in the households of their students, or find Protestant patrons and protectors. Ward’s schools and teachers were often highly mobile to avoid trouble, but this very free mobility, and living within secular society, was part of what annoyed the Catholic establishment. Teachers might adopt the appearance of a variety of classes, moving between the clothing and habits of working class women and more elite women as it suited their needs.

Both Catholic and Protestant leaders were disturbed by the reputation Ward’s institution had for encouraging women to engage in public preaching and to hold opinions in matters of conscience. Though fairly conventional and orthodox in her religious opinions, Ward’s institution was clearly feminist and its approach and in its goals of making women equal in intellectual fields.

Time period: 
Saturday, May 14, 2022 - 11:37

OK, this time I'm aiming for the "brief summary" approach. This is hard.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Gim, Lisa. 1999. “’Faire Eliza’s Chaine’: Two Female Writers’ Literary Links to Queen Elizabeth I” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Gim, Lisa. “’Faire Eliza’s Chaine’: Two Female Writers’ Literary Links to Queen Elizabeth I”

This article looks at the difficulties of viewing Queen Elizabeth as an example of female lives, and the ways in which she was treated as both an anomaly and as the epitome of female accomplishment by her contemporaries and near contemporaries. The article looks at two 17th century texts written by women that used Elizabeth as the focus of arguments in favor of women’s education. The author points out that women, more often than men, held up Elizabeth as a model for other women, as opposed to viewing her as an isolated exception, or as being essentially masculine in her accomplishments.

Time period: 
Friday, May 13, 2022 - 16:31

OK, so honestly? When I decide to "blog the whole thing" for some of these collections, it may be hard to see the relevance to the Project, as such. And the real answer is that I like symmetry and follow-through. So if I've decided to "blog the whole collection" I prefer not to change my mind in the middle, even if -- in retrospect -- I probably should have just stuck to the two papers of obvious relevance. Another part of this is that it's hard to do anything between a one-sentence topic statement and a more detailed content summary. (Although there have been times when I've jotted down dozens of post-it notes as I read and then later decided to edit it down to that one or two sentences.)

And yet, I do believe there's a value for authors who want to write sapphic historical fiction in knowing the patterns of women's lives in general. Especially the patterns of how women interacted with women. Would your character have sewn samplers as a girl? (And save me from the stereotype of heroines who have to prove they're "not like other girls" by hating sewing.) Who would she have learned from? Who might her fellow learners have been? What might they have talked about while practicing their stitches? Parallel work is always a good time for sharing secrets and desires. All sorts of hidden messages were stitched into the designs of samplers. Fictional inspiration can be found everywhere!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Frye, Susan. 1999. “Sewing Connections: Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, ELizabeth Talbot, and Seventeenth-Century Anonymous Needleworkers” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Frye, Susan. “Sewing Connections”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, needlework was a strongly associated with the category of “woman” as well as being a significant marker of class in how it was created, used, and imitated. The motifs – both on large and small scale – provided a symbolic vocabulary to express multiple layers of meaning and offered a means of expressing identity, community, and subversion, as well as the more obvious symbolism of the designs. Elite embroiderers might have access to professional designers, but printed design books were becoming more general and patterns were shared within communities.

Because the symbolic language embedded in needlework was intended for public display, it was a medium through which women’s alliances could be claimed and advertised. This article looks at several prominent upper-class embroiderers of the 16th century and how such meetings to peer in their work, as well as more humble anonymous work of the 17th century.

New Year’s gifts from the young Elizabeth Tudor to her father the king and to queen Katherine Parr included embroidery-covered bound books of her own multilingual translations of religious and philosophical works meaningful to the recipients. The gifts thus demonstrated her scholarly accomplishments, her physical accomplishments, and her support of the recipients’ religious positions.

But her gifts to Parr had an additional purpose to express a filial bond to her stepmother and to emphasize their common interests, as women and especially as learned women. The texts she chose for the gift emphasized female authors and Elizabeth’s connection – both familial and symbolic – two female antecedents that connected her to Parr. As Elizabeth lived in Parr’s household after Henry’s death, this alliance was especially significant to her security, both were good and ill.

The second example involves the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and the Countess of Shrewsbury during the period when the Shrewsburys were Mary’s keepers during her imprisonment in exile in England. The two had opposing political goals but close contact produced – among other things – joint needlework projects in which their differences were on display.

Mary’s needlework revolved around emblems representing her identity as a queen (and former queen of France), her claim to Scotland, as well as her status as heir to England, and the circumstances of her exile. Some of these messages were so pointed that an embroidered cushion given as a gift to a supporter was later entered into evidence at that supporter’s trial for treason.

Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury – more familiar to needlework aficionados as Bess of Hardwick, similarly expressed her own identity and ambitions. Three marriages of increasing rank expanded the ountess’s domestic connections and ambitions. These were symbolized in the embroideries she created to embellish furnishings depicting strong mythic female figures such as Diana, Penelope, and Lucretia. Elizabeth did not perform all the work herself, but directed the design and participated in the creation.

Samplers constituted a different level of needlework than the gifts and furnishings discussed above. In theory, a sampler served both as a pattern reference and as an advertisement of the maker’s domestic skills. As student work, they represented the connection between teacher and student – both women by default. The materials and execution of the sampler indicated status and personal skill. Repeating motifs and designs indicate the sharing of patterns among families. But there was also personal expression in the choice of scenes to illustrate, typically focusing on female biblical figures representing some virtue.

This paper feels somewhat cobbled together of disparate parts without a clearly sense of a central thesis. I think it can be be summed up as “Needlework was done by women. Needlework allowed for personal expression in the choice of motifs. That choice inherently communicated messages about the identity and image women wanted to show to the world.”

Time period: 
Thursday, May 12, 2022 - 16:16

For those of us of a Certain Age, who grew up in a Certain Cultural Context, there is a birthday that comes with a default soundtrack.

When I get older losing my hair, many years from now

Some sentiments in the song mark the point of view as strongly gendered—and gendered within certain specific cultural expectations.

Will you still need me?

The speaker assumes that the value they provide will eventually decline—

Will you still feed me?

--while the listener is not granted the respite of age. Nuturing and service are expected to continue.

If I’d been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door?

And only the speaker is framed as socializing freely outside the home, with the expectation that this will be tolerated. The queries and images assume a highly specific life script.

Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear; we shall scrimp and save. Grandchildren on your knee

Knowing the authors, this image of respectable working-class conventionality carries an inescapable edge of satire, but a kindly satire. And today—both in the British society that spawned it, and in my own American society—the image of an idyllic, relaxing retirement in which only a little scrimping and saving is necessary to enjoy a few pleasures is out of reach for too many. Retirement age creeps upward and the equivalent of a summer cottage on the Isle of Wight may be only a fantasy. Even for those of us with traditional retirement plans, nothing is certain.

You'll be older too, and if you say the word, I could stay with you

How many people still assume that they will find a relationship in which you can expect to grow old together? My parents, and both sets of my grandparents all celebrated 50th wedding anniversaries. As a lesbian, I always knew that the legal system would deny me even the theoretical possibility of achieving the same feat. But that paradigm was always what I measured my life against and found it wanting.

I can be handy, mending a fuse...I can knit a sweater by the fireside...Sunday [usually Saturday] mornings go for a ride...Doing the garden, digging the weeds

It’s a good life. Truly it is.

Who could ask for more?

Yes. Yes, sometimes I could.

Will you still need me?

I do, you know, want to be needed—or if not “needed”, at least valued. One of my persistent psychological failure modes is the belief that I must provide value to people in order to find social acceptance. It doesn’t matter how often people assure me it’s not the case, this is a fixed part of my personality and unlikely to change.

Will you still feed me?

Feeding takes a lot of different forms. Nutrition is far from the most important way we feed each other.

Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view

I’m bad at the whole spontaneous casual communication thing. I remember, when I was much younger, coming near to having panic attacks at the thought of contacting someone out of the blue without a specific purpose “just to chat”. How did people do that? Social media makes it easier today (and I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if the internet had existed when I was young), but throughout my life I’ve tended to drift away from people if there wasn’t a structural context that brought us together. It’s on me; it’s not other people’s job to telepathically determine that I’d like to keep in contact. And social media still defaults to passive consumption, rather than interaction, much of the time. I’ve always hoped that being a “content creator” would fulfill my part of the reaching process and inspire people to drop me a line (see previous comment about being valuable).

Yours sincerely, wasting away

But all in all, it’s a good life. And I’m not sure it would have been possible for me to take any road but the one I’m walking.

Mine for evermore

Birthdays can be a time for taking stock—for looking backward and forward. For asking those eternal questions.

Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?

(With apologies to John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Major category: 
Tuesday, May 10, 2022 - 08:09

Another paper that explores aspects of the informal--but vitally important--webs of connection between women in pre-modern societies in which they lacked formal power.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Robertson, Karen. 1999. “Tracing Women’s Connections from a Letter by Elizabeth Ralegh” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Robertson, Karen “Tracing Women’s Connections from a Letter by Elizabeth Ralegh”

This paper considers the difficulty of tracing female alliances, due to gender differences in the types of records created and preserved. Women’s bonds are less commonly traceable in formal documents than men’s. Women’s letters provide one source for connections, even though many are written to men. The letter under consideration was written by lady Ralegh after her husband’s conviction for treason. It has a list of female names as endorsers on the back, and identifying the signatories maps out an informal alliance network largely organized around kinship, especially women with experience with legal conflict rooted in inheritance and widowhood.

Lady Raleigh tries to salvage some economic protection for herself out of the treason verdict (which would have made Ralegh’s property forfeit to the crown). She argued that the property had been transferred to their son before the conviction, and so was exempt.

A one-time lady in waiting to Elizabeth, her secret marriage to Ralegh resulted in a break. So other support for her various legal difficulties was essential. The Tudor court aristocracy was complexly intermarried providing women with options to leverage when alliances were needed. Marriage and childbearing may have been the foundation of women’s power in that context, but the power came from how they employed those connections. Appeals may have been directed toward male gatekeepers, but support often came more from women’s peers who saw parallels to their own interests, especially in matters of inheritance and property rights. With Ralegh imprisoned and abandoned by former allies, the power in the marriage shifted to Lady Ralegh.

On Lady Ralegh’s letter of appeal to Robert Cecil, 19 women appear endorsing her position. The women did not sign the letter personally – their names were added by someone else, perhaps acting as an intermediary. The remainder of the paper works to identify how the endorsers were connected – socially or by family – to Lady Ralegh, as well as noting the difficulties in doing so due to the small pool of given names popular at the time and women’s surname changes on marriage.

Time period: 
Monday, May 9, 2022 - 18:33

Back in the saddle, after inadvertently taking a month off. I'm not sure that this article convinced me of the comparability of ladies in waiting in Shakespeare's plays versus Queen Elizabeth's court. But it does provide a useful reminder that the personal household of a reigning queen provided a context for interesting forms of female power and influence -- as well as an environment where remaining unmarried (and having primary connections with other women) might be advantageous to one's status and success.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Brown, Elizabeth A. 1999. “’Companion Me with My Mistress’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Their Waiting Women” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Brown, Elizabeth A. “Companion Me with My Mistress”

Drama often draws on contemporary dynamics to depict historic stories, and in this article Brown uses the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her female courtiers to examine the depiction of Cleopatra’s court in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. And, given the focus of this collection, it particularly looks at the types of alliances within the court between a queen and her waiting women. Brown’s position is that these relations strengthened Elizabeth’s position and goals, while Cleopatra is depicted as weak in this department.

Elizabeth’s female courtiers had both practical and ceremonial duties, which notably included controlling access to the queen. Although they were technically forbidden from participating in politics, their position as gatekeepers made political involvement difficult to avoid. The senior female courtiers were a relatively stable group, including both married and unmarried individuals. (The “maids of honor” were more changeable, younger, and famously forbidden from marrying.) Many of these women were drawn from the extended network of Boleyn relatives including members of the Howard, Carey, and Knollys families.

The existence of the power of these positions is documented in how others commented on it: seeking support and favor from those close to the queen, who in turn worked to promote the interests of friends and relations. But Elizabeth also used this female “fence” as a way to distance herself from petitioners. There was less need to say no to someone’s face if she could simply decline to respond to the intermediary.

The female courtiers also provided an emotionally supportive circle for the queen who, in turn, often had strong emotional ties to them, not surprising as some of the ladies were part of her household from the time of her ascension to their deaths. Given both personal and familial ties, the queen’s women functioned to extend her “presence” more widely than one woman on her own could manage.

The representation of Cleopatra’s court, in Shakespeare’s play, gives the two waiting women Charmian and Iras similar functional roles to Elizabeth’s women—greatly expanded from the characters they are based on in Plutarch’s history--but they are depicted as isolated and connected only to the queen, without the extensive family connections that shaped the real-world court. The article goes into some detail of how Cleopatra’s women act and function. (Which I’m going to skip summarizing.)

In both cases, there is a tightly-knit relationship between the queen and her women, which is somewhat mutual despite the differences of status and control. It is an entirely different type of relationship than the queen has with her male courtiers. The author points to the contrast in connectedness for Cleopatra’s women, but I wonder if this is a fair comparison—given that they’re fictional characters for whom complex back-stories would only muddle the plot.

The relevance of this article to the Project lies in the contemplation of the woman-centered culture of Elizabeth’s private life (to the extent that she had one). Within such a context, a never-married woman such as Blanche Parry could achieve an influence and functional social status that ordinarily would come only through marriage. And emotional connections between the women of the court would not raise the same concerns regarding loyalty and influence that marriage sometimes did.

Time period: 
Saturday, May 7, 2022 - 19:25

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 229 - On the Shelf for May 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/05/07 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2022.

May tends to be a special month for me. It’s my birthday month, which makes the other parts feel like they’re scheduled as part of the celebration. It’s when the International Medieval Congress is held, which is my regular connection with my secret identity as an academic. The congress will be all-virtual for the third year in a row, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve found that format to work so well for an international conference that they’re going to keep it.

May is a good month for science fiction and fantasy conventions, and this year I’m making my first venture to WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin. The convention has always focused on feminist and progressive themes and I’ve been meaning to go for quite some time with the primary stumbling block being my primary commitment to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan – it’s daunting to contemplate two separate trips across the country in the same month, and the two events aren’t scheduled closely enough to turn it into a single trip. Given the relatively small size of this podcast audience, there’s a low probability that the listeners I bump into at conventions won’t be people I already know, but if it happens that you’re at WisCon, or BayCon in July, or the Chicago Worldcon in August, I’d really love for you to introduce yourself and chat.

May is also when my garden really starts going. It being California, the roses have been going full speed for over a month now, which was perfect timing for lots of promotional posts for my novella “The Language of Roses,” which came out in April. I had a lot of fun finding blossoms that matched references in the book and posting them all over my social media. But May is when the edible garden starts coming in. I already have scallions and artichokes and the first radishes. Soon the berries will start coming ripe. The strawberries are here already, then raspberries and blackberries and blueberries and this year I’ve just put in some currants and gooseberries, which I should get at least a taste of. The tomatoes are still a ways off, but there are always the fresh herbs and citrus fruits year-round. Growing things makes me happy, and growing things to eat gives me a special connection with the world, even though I have no ambition or ability to supply a substantial part of my own table.

May is also the month when I can start counting on the weather being good enough to eat outdoors regularly. So imagine me sitting on the stone bench under the grape arbor, surrounded by orange and lemon trees, listening to the play of the fountain, and digging into one of the fabulous novels that are coming out faster than I can keep up with.

So all in all, May is a great month for feeling like the world is conspiring for a birthday celebration. And if you’ve ever wondered what a podcast host would love to receive as a birthday present, the answer is always: spread the word about the show. I love it every time I see people I don’t even know recommending the show to someone on social media, or posting links to an episode to contribute to a conversation. And another great present is to post a review on a podcast app. Apple podcasts is a convenient metric for buzz about a show and the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has only one lonely little review at that site. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re wielding disproportionate social power, boost a podcast!

LHMP Fiction Series

Looking ahead, it may feel a bit early to start cheerleading for next year’s fiction series, but since I’ve already made a firm commitment to continue the series next year, no reason not to. I don’t have a new page of submission information up yet, but expect the requirements to be functionally identical to this year’s requirements, which are still posted. Sometimes the best story ideas lie fallow because you have no idea where you’d publish that story. Think about us, if it fits the theme!

Publications on the Blog

While April was full of many things, what it wasn’t full of was reading articles for the blog. So I still have the second half of Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens to finish up. I guess, in retrospect, I needed a little vacation.

Book Shopping!

Regardless of the amount of reading I’ve done, there’s always shopping! I did pick up a couple new publications to add to the list. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd is a collection of studies looking at different aspects of material that can reasonably be classified as “lesbian literature” across time. About half of the material focuses on the 20th century, when works that self-consciously identify as “lesbian” start appearing, but a quarter of the book focuses on pre-20th century literature, with the rest addressing more general theoretical issues, such as the question of what we mean when we call a work “lesbian.”

The other new book falls between my personal interests in 17th century history and the Project’s interest in deep background research on contexts for women’s independence from marriage. Ingenious Trade: Women and Work in Seventeenth-Century London by Laura Gowing digs into archives and records to trace the lives of female apprentices, and especially of those apprenticed to women. An apprenticeship in the 17th century could not reasonably be called an “independent life” in the sense a modern woman would recognize, but it provided a door to at least a little economic power, and the combination of household and business formed when an established businesswoman took on female apprentices provides yet another model for imagining storylines that don’t make heterosexual marriage the center of women’s lives.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of imagined storylines, let’s look at the new and recent books! We have one April book to catch up on and 6 books coming out in May. (Looking ahead to June, I already have 14 books on the list. Possibly a Pride Month effect? Who knows.)

Fractures and Hinges by Edith Zeitlberger from Launch Point Press has the fascinating setting of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

It is the year 1903 and Eleanor, the Duchess of Darnsworth, is the envy of many—a beautiful and sophisticated woman, happily married mother of three, well-respected lady of society and an accomplished horse-breeder. But beneath the perfect surface lurks the memory of a tragic loss that haunts Eleanor’s every waking moment. On a visit to Vienna, she encounters the independent-minded and strong-willed Countess Sophie von Hagendorf, who, with her academic pursuits and unconventional lifestyle, has chosen to break through the rigid confines society has set out for her. She, too, has had to create a façade towards the world as loss and a fateful accident have left their scars. Sophie’s brusque manners both exasperate and intrigue the Duchess, but with closer acquaintance, the two women discover a sympathy beyond anything expected and the prospect of a love that could redeem them both…but can they forge a relationship in European society?

I’m trusting the tags and keywords for The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave from Picador. Very much as for the previous book of hers that I read, The Mercies, the book’s cover copy makes no overt reference to sapphic content, and the advance reviews feel like they’re being deliberately coy and treating any sapphic content as if it were a spoiler. But people’s tags definitely hint that it’s there, and The Mercies definitely had a strong sapphic theme, though I suspect that The Dance Tree will be similarly emotionally fraught and definitely not a capital-R romance by any means.

In Strasbourg, in the boiling hot summer of 1518, a plague strikes the women of the city. First it is just one – a lone figure, dancing in the main square – but she is joined by more and more and the city authorities declare an emergency. Musicians will be brought in. The devil will be danced out of these women. Just beyond the city’s limits, pregnant Lisbet lives with her mother-in-law and husband, tending the bees that are their livelihood. Her best friend Ida visits regularly and Lisbet is so looking forward to sharing life and motherhood with her. And then, just as the first woman begins to dance in the city, Lisbet’s sister-in-law Nethe returns from six years’ penance in the mountains for an unknown crime. No one – not even Ida – will tell Lisbet what Nethe did all those years ago, and Nethe herself will not speak a word about it. It is the beginning of a few weeks that will change everything for Lisbet – her understanding of what it is to love and be loved, and her determination to survive at all costs for the baby she is carrying. Lisbet and Nethe and Ida soon find themselves pushing at the boundaries of their existence – but they’re dancing to a dangerous tune.

I often comment on the frequency of cross-time stories where the historic storyline runs in parallel with, and is connected to, a contemporary character who is discovering that history. Don't You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love self-published by Gayla Turner puts a slightly different twist on this sub-genre by having the author stand in for the contemporary character. (Although I’ll point out that historic research contradicts the claim in the opening line of the blurb that newspapers a century ago never mentioned LGBTQ people.)

"Don't You Dare" … weaves together a current-day journey of discovery and a true-life love story between two women that took place over a hundred years ago. Newspaper headlines and stories back then didn't mention LGBTQ people. The LGBTQ community loved and lived in the background of society because it was too dangerous to do otherwise. All were hidden, just like the wedding photos belonging to author Gayla Turner's grandmother – Ruby. This … book begins with the discovery of these hidden wedding photos dated June 8, 1915. As these photos unveiled an awe-inspiring secret, Gayla Turner embarked on a seven-year journey to find out more about her grandmother and the woman standing next to her dressed as the groom. Curiosity led to extensive research that uncovered a love story between Ruby and the mystery woman in the photos. The author also uncovered a secret lesbian social club that was formed in the early 1900s by a local businesswoman. Women from as far away as Chicago traveled by train to the little farm town of Amherst, Wisconsin, to attend her exclusive parties. The local town people thought Cora held private tea and card parties so single young ladies could talk about how to find a husband. Little did they know, finding a man was not a subject of their conversations.

The Wicked and the Willing by Lianyu Tan from Shattered Scepter Press continues the author’s exploration of erotic horror in historic settings.

1927, colonial Singapore. Monsters don’t scare Gean Choo. And there are monsters aplenty among the Europeans on sultry Singapore island, all of them running away from something—or someone. When she starts her new job as a lady’s companion, she can’t imagine falling for the impassioned, demanding mistress of Ambrosia Hall, nor the gruff, brooding woman who serves as her lady’s majordomo. The latter holds her heart; the former, her body, blood, and loyalty. Both want her. Both need her. And one of them will die for her.

Nghi Vo previously layered fantasy and the Asian immigrant experience over a retelling an American classic in The Chosen and the Beautiful. Many of the same elements are present in her new book, Siren Queen from, inspired by the experiences of Chinese-American actresses in early Hollywood.

"No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers." Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill―but she doesn't care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid. But in Luli's world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes―even if that means becoming the monster herself.

Based on some early reviews, I’ll suggest that readers might want to check out content advisories for That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan from Penguin. It appears to involve some difficult themes.

1955: In a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side, school teachers Dovie and Gillian live as lodgers, unable to reveal the truth about their relationship. They guard their private lives fiercely - until someone guesses their secret. 1975: Twenty years on, in the same apartment, Ava Winters is desperately trying to conceal her mother's fragile mental state from the critical eyes of their neighbours. But, one sweltering July morning, Ava's mother escapes. Alone after her mother's departure, Ava takes delivery of a parcel. The box is addressed only to 'Apartment 3B', and contains a photograph of a woman with the word 'LIAR' scrawled across her face. Seeking refuge from her own crisis, Ava determines to track the owner of the photograph down. And, in so doing, discovers a shocking chain of kindnesses, lies and betrayals - with one woman at the centre of it all...

The themes of teachers and the era of closeted relationships also appear in The Teachers' Room by Lydia Stryk from Bywater Books.

The year is 1963, and even though the times they are a-changin', the timeworn ways of the past still hold their suffocating grip. Karen Murphy, fresh from college, takes on her first teaching job in a small Midwestern town. Despite her best efforts, she can't seem to stick to the subjects in her school books, helped along by the antics of a girl who upends all her lesson plans. Karen has a lot to learn about the teaching profession, and her female colleagues are there every step of the way to offer their advice, especially the enigmatic fourth-grade teacher, Esther Jonas. As Karen soon discovers, the idea of the devoted spinster teacher with no life beyond her classroom is a myth―the school is teeming with hidden passions and illicit stories stretching far beyond the classroom, her own explosive passion for Esther Jonas, included. As the two women begin to carve out a secret life together, a shocking betrayal rocks her world, putting everything she holds dear in jeopardy.

It's always interesting when coincidence creates themes among the books released in a given month. Have you ever noticed that sort of clustering of similar books coming out at the same time, when there’s no way it could have happened deliberately?

What Am I Reading?

And what am I reading? I mentioned earlier that I seem to have taken an inadvertent non-fiction vacation in April, but that definitely wasn’t the case on the fiction side. On the page, I finished The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. While I definitely hadn’t been expecting a capital-R Romance, I wasn’t quite expecting the direction it ended up taking. Definitely a sapphic book, but more along the lines of Portrait of a Woman on Fire in its resolution. I quickly devoured T. Kingfisher’s fantasy romantic adventure Swordheart and am looking forward to the promised sequels to it. I started on Kate Bloomfield’s historic romance Passing as Elias involving a woman cross-dressing for a career as an apothecary. The cover copy had intrigued me enough to buy the book when I first encountered it, but the writing style ended up not working for me well enough to finish it.

Following my recent pattern, I’ve been binging audiobooks of various genres. I came up to date with Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series with books 5 and 6 in the series: Murder on Cold Street and Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Unlike book 4, no queer content in these, alas.

I don’t tend to pick my reading based on what other people are raving about—my tastes tend to be too idiosyncratic for that to work well—but I did pick up The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, I think because it was part of an Audible sale. Wow, this book. It would have been an interesting enough story even if it were just a chronicle of the life of a closeted bisexual actress in Hollywood, but the story lays out a trail of clues for a hidden but intertwined story that provides a powerful twist at the end.

For something completely different, I listened to Kate Elliott’s mil-sci-fi space opera Unconquerable Sun, which she pitches as a gender-flipped queer Alexander the Great in space. If you like lots of casual queerness in your space opera, this may be your jam. While I admire Elliott’s writing and have loved some of her other books, I find that space opera focusing on lots of technical details of ships and battles just isn’t my thing. Great characters but…I guess this is what drives some fans to write coffee shop AUs. I want to spend more time with the characters, just not when they’re fighting battles.

Because my to-read list is so long, sometimes I’ll pick just one book in a series to sample, and in the case of C.L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle—which might reasonably be described as “alternate-England Downton Abbey with magic and lots of politics”—I picked book #2 as my sample because that was the one advertised as involving a sapphic romance. My conclusion is that this series is not one that can be read piecemeal or out of order. While I was able to jump in and keep up, because that’s one of my reader super-powers, I doubt most people would have that experience. The romantic subplot was sweet and satisfying, but overall I’m not fond of plots that revolve around protagonists frantically running around thinking they have to save the world single-handed. So I’m not sure I’m going to circle back and pick up the other volumes.

I dunno. As time passes I find that I grow more opinionated about what I’m looking for in a good read, and I’m trying to give myself permission to filter out books that aren’t likely to hit the spot. And often it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books, as such! It’s just that there are plots and characters and settings and prose styles that just aren’t my jam. And I wish that there were more book s that were both my jam and my peanut butter—where the structural elements of the book hit the spot and I could get the sapphic content I crave. Like: lately I’ve been indulging in my long-time love affair with historic mysteries, and what I want is an entire genre of historic mysteries that also have female same-sex romances. Please write them?

Author Guest

We finish up this month’s On the Shelf with an interview with Ursula Whitcher, the author of “The Spirits of Cabassus,” our most recent fiction episode.

[Interview transcript will be added when available.]

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Ursula Whitcher Online

Major category: 
Saturday, April 30, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 228 - The Spirits of Cabassus by Ursula Whitcher - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/04/30 - listen here)

There are several things that caught my interest about Ursula Whitcher’s story “The Spirits of Cabassus” in addition to the beautiful writing. One is the way that she picked up several threads of actual history to braid together into a story. The love spell – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “obsession spell” – that underlies the haunting is inspired by surviving magical inscriptions from Egypt that try to compel a return of affection. Two such inscriptions are clearly cast by a woman on a female object of desire. Ursula also drew in a thread from a passing reference to same-sex desire between female pilgrims on the Byzantine pilgrimage trail. Ursula will talk more about her inspirations in an interview in the next podcast episode. The other item that caught my interest was the handling of disability—not as a central theme of the story, but simply as one more facet of the main character that has shaped her life and will shape her choices.

This story is set in 4th century Cappadocia in what is modern-day Turkey. It was an era when Christianity had become well-established but was only beginning to evolve familiar forms and practices. Devotion often centered around specific communities and charismatic leaders. A network of pilgrimage sites had evolved across the ancient world with the side effect of encouraging travel and communication among ordinary people. Among other effects, it provided an approved context in which women could travel and see the world—all for a spiritual purpose, of course.

Ursula Whitcher photo

Our author for this episode, Ursula Whitcher, is a mathematician, writer, and editor whose work can be found in places including Cossmass Infinities, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the American Mathematical Society's Feature Column. I’m delighted and very proud that Ursula’s sale of “The Spirits of Cabassus” to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast became part of her qualifications to join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.

Ursula can be found on twitter as @superyarn, or through her website

The narrator for today’s story is your host, that is, me.

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.

The Spirits of Cabassus

By Ursula Whitcher

Read by Heather Rose Jones

Prisca’s journey from Ancyra to Cabassus was one long fog of mud and cinnamon. Her hips and thighs ached from balancing on donkey-back and the spring damp crept inside her boots. Her brother alternated between praising the virgins of Cabassus for their sanctity and enumerating their family connections: “Holy Eunomia was mother to a bishop, have you not realized? And cousin to a senator as well.”

Prisca had read the bishop’s letters about the shrine the virgins tended and, stranger and more miraculous, the community they created, where senators’ cousins and wandering beggars lived alike in dignity. She nodded, softly at first, then vigorously enough to make the movement legible beneath her traveling shawl. The pain inside her temples pierced deeper, twisting like a cobbler’s awl, and the roadside fell into shadow.

“We’ll be there soon,” her brother said. But he grimaced at Prisca clutching her saddle horn and pushed his mount forward. He left a cloud of resin and hot spices, the scented oils he had smeared to take away the stink of mule-sweat. Behind Prisca, his servant grumbled and coughed.

They reached the virgins’ house in late evening, when true dusk layered over the clouds in Prisca’s vision. She was vaguely aware of two women, one tall and stern, one round-shouldered and wide-eyed. They were dressed alike, in plain dresses and dark, mannish cloaks.

Prisca’s brother began an oration of gratitude for hospitality. Her headache flared with each gesture, like a lantern-flame in the wind, if her skull was a wick. Prisca tried to focus on her feet, the clamminess of her boots, the pressure of cold stone—anything to keep from swaying. Voices echoed and throbbed. At last, through some wisdom she could not discern, the holy virgins made her brother stop talking.

Prisca found herself trailing the stooping woman into a room hung with a simple linen curtain. She managed to say, “Please convey my thanks to the holy widow Eunomia.” 

The woman’s smile flashed, sharp as a well-honed knife. “Sleep, little sister. Sleep, and thank God, if you will.”

Prisca collapsed upon the narrow, rug-covered cot. It smelled a little like damp sheep, but there were none of the layers of rose-oil and travelers’ sweat that soaked into wayhouse beds. She did not think her headache would let her escape, but whether by divine providence or sheer exhaustion, she slept deep.

In the morning, Prisca’s headache was gone. She lay for a moment not crediting it, keeping her eyes closed, for fear light would reveal the shimmer of pain in abeyance. Instead she found slanting sunbeams and a phantasmic garden. The room’s walls were painted with vines and flowers, leaping fish and drooping bunches of grapes, all shaded so cleverly they seemed to spring out from the walls—but there was none of the damply green smell of a garden, only cold stone and that memory of a sheep. The room was huge, even divided by the curtain, more appropriate for the master or mistress of an estate than for one solitary guest. Prisca peeked to the other side and saw a bed like hers, empty, with a rough rug folded at the feet.

Her traveling bag was by the door. Prisca did her best to make herself presentable, pinning up her hair and shaking out her tunic, marveling all the while at the lightness of moving without pain. She whispered thanks for the continuing small miracle and went out into the courtyard.

The tall woman from the night before stood by the fountain. In the sunlight her face looked mottled pink, in the way that happens to very fair people. Her hair still showed some blonde, though most of it was cloud-white. “Come!” she told Prisca. “Let us make some bread.”

Prisca blinked with all the perspicacity of a newly awakened kitten. She had never made bread; it was not one of the duties of a well-born woman. But the surprising thing was not the task, which must be a part of the virgins’ ascetic practice, but the confidence with which the woman assigned it to her. There was no solicitude, no dampened cloths or snappish comparisons, simply a calm assumption that Prisca was capable of the work placed before her. She had never dared to pray for such a grace.

But as Prisca hesitated, the woman’s brow furrowed. “Your brother thinks this is a convenient place for women who have not found husbands. That is not what we are. We are making something new.”

Prisca had hoped that proximity to holiness would change her somehow, making the trials of existence easier to bear. She had failed to imagine what else she might do, besides survive. She dipped her head. “I fear I am still disoriented from the journey. Forgive me. You make a place where all people share in work alike—holy Eunomia?”

The woman’s smile was swift and cutting. It accentuated the deep lines in her face. “My name is Balsamea.”

She was named for balsam, that sweet and precious resin. It was a name for a prized possession. A name for a slave. But in that cutting smile, Prisca saw also a flash in the lamplight, the night before. The wide-eyed woman who showed Prisca to her room must have been Eunomia. And that trick of resemblance, the knife-edge smiles—the women must be sisters. Not in the sense of the virgins’ community, nor in the legal sense, but in the literal sense of children born to a man who owned many slaves.

It was easy to speak in the abstract of beggars praying side by side with senators’ cousins. It might be easy, in some ways, to be an unknown beggar: Prisca was learning that strangers meant new beginnings. But to be Balsamea, to grow up in the midst of family who denied her, to make herself a sister in faith instead of unacknowledged blood—this was a transformation as grand as the Eucharist.

“I would be honored by your instruction, holy Balsamea. Because truly, I have no idea where to begin.”

The woman’s laugh was kinder, now. “I suggest washing your hands.”

The bread they made was rough. It took stirring and pounding and a rest beside the fire. In the days that followed, Prisca’s arms ached and her hair filled with kitchen smoke. Her jaw grew strong from chewing. She learned the names of the other holy virgins and the rhythms of their days: the time spent spinning or sorting stones from lentils, the time spent standing with hands outstretched to God.

The weeks and months had rhythms too. On Sundays, they pressed into the dark church. On holy days, they went to the cemetery and remembered the martyrs of Cabassus, tipping communion wine into their graves and listening to the thrumming call of doves. When Prisca walked from the church into the glare of afternoon, she felt a pressure in her head like heavy thumbs. But otherwise, her headache stayed away.

At first, Prisca checked behind the curtain in her bedroom every morning, admiring the other half of the mural and wondering when another visitor would arrive. As the summer wore on, she stopped looking, content with the sisters she had already gained. But with the first rain of autumn, Prisca slipped back to her room to find a shawl. She heard, rising and falling with the drum of raindrops on the roof, a keening voice.

A woman was sprawled upon the other bed. She had pulled the pins out of her hair and scattered them by the window, so her dark curls spilled around her like a thundercloud. She was not classically beautiful—her eyebrows slashed up rather than forming a graceful arch, her nose was tilted, her cheeks displayed no blush, her mouth skewed wide—yet she was striking. More striking, perhaps, because in watching emotion flow across her face, one had the feeling of unique discovery.

In Prisca, that discovery was mixed with pain. Half of it was sympathetic, for the woman’s mobile face suggested agony of a sort Prisca had often felt and rarely dared display. The other half was bleak anticipation. There was a second cloud around the woman, a kind of darkened mist, clinging about her shoulders like her hair.

That rippling vision meant a headache looming. Prisca walked softly to her own bed and lay down. Sometimes, if she was very still, the pain passed quickly.

In this case, though she lay for an hour, fighting the urge to toss and turn at every sob from behind the curtain, the headache never arrived.

The woman’s name was Taesis. She came from Egypt. She had visited the hermits in the desert and the cities of Palestine in search of healing. At meals, the other virgins crowded about her, greedy for accounts of sacred places. Taesis’ face was stretched by pain, but she raised herself up like a queen among her maidens and told stories. She had been in Jerusalem before Easter. She walked among the graves on the Mount of Olives on Good Friday—“I could see the whole city scattered before me, like dice from my brother’s cup”—and followed a procession into the city, walking toward the climbing sun. Prisca struggled to find tasks that would prevent her from staring at the shadow wrapped around Taesis’ shoulders.

On the third or fourth evening, as they lay on either side of the curtain in the dark, Taesis asked, “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all!” Prisca said, too brightly.

There was a sigh and a soft thud. Taesis must be sitting up, attempting to stare through the curtain. “I know I am a temporary marvel. If there is some friendship I’ve disrupted, some long-planned meditation I’ve disturbed—tell me, and I will try to make it right.”

Prisca’s face burned. She was not used to being observed, but Taesis would be—there was no way to ignore that fluid loveliness. The mist that clung to Taesis was probably some trick of Prisca’s mind, the headache only partly in abeyance, but speaking of it would sound arrogant, as if Prisca thought herself some sort of prophet.

She offered up a different kind of guilt: “I have found healing in this place, and you have not. It isn’t fair.” And it might, in a way, be Prisca’s fault. Had not her brother written letters near and far, bragging of Prisca’s blessing in recovery as if he had created the miracle himself? Perhaps that had drawn Taesis on a long and fruitless journey.

Taesis’ laugh held the murmur of the turtledoves. “Nothing is fair! Will you bear the burdens of the whole world by yourself?”

Prisca huffed her own laugh, startled. She did sound arrogant, by that description, yet Taesis’ tone had been kind. In apology, she asked, “May I have a tale of your journey?”

“Because you missed the best parts?” But Taesis softened her teasing by continuing, “I will tell you the true best thing, though I fear there is not much in it of holiness. I took passage from Alexandria to Jerusalem on one of the great grain ships. I slept beneath a tarp on the deck, and the cat that ate the ship’s mice slept at my feet. I stood at the prow in the mornings, feeling the wind blow against my face. I thought it would blow the thorns away from me, leave all that in the past, with the crying of the gulls.”

“But it didn’t.”

“It didn’t. But the pain is always better when I am going somewhere new. What of you? How was your journey here?”

“Too ordinary to speak of.”

“Try me. Did your donkey bite?”

“Never. Except—” Except it had bitten Prisca’s brother once, while he was trying to recollect a quotation of Plutarch, and he had nearly dropped a saddle-bag in the mud. Prisca found herself telling the story, which somehow led into the childhood game where her brother portrayed a martyr and she was all the lions. “We should have found a cat like your ship-friend, for realism.”

“I hope you had better friends than your brother and stray cats!”

Prisca, by and large, had not. She felt as if that might be changing—but this was an illusion born of Taesis’ charm. The other woman would be off to the next holy site soon enough, no matter how much fun it was to trade stories of the impossibleness of brothers.

All the next day, Prisca tried not to wonder when Taesis would go. But the only question she had to puzzle at instead was the nature of the cloud that wrapped around her. If it was not a headache, might it be a demon? Was it heresy for Prisca to believe she might see such a thing? At other times, she had noticed shimmering lights, but those had always proved the headache’s harbingers.

At last, Prisca decided that the foolishness of dwelling on her worries was outweighed by the foolishness of ignoring the wisdom all around her. She took her tale to Balsamea, who said wryly, “This sounds like an enthusiasm, not a stormcloud.”

Prisca blushed ungracefully—she was sure her nose was reddest—and explained again about her headaches and the visual distortions they brought with them.

“And your headaches come from smoke?”

“They have followed me ever since I grew into a woman. I don’t know where they come from.”

“They come from smoke. I’ve seen it when you step inside the church and the purifying resin wafts your way. You look toward the altar joyfully, but your face grows tight.”

“But I’ve been breathing kitchen smoke since my first morning here.”

“Well, then we’ll ask the priest to burn bread instead of myrrh, next Easter.” Balsamea punctuated her joke by slamming dough into the table.

Prisca burned a loaf in earnest, while pondering Balsamea’s suggestion. If wafting incense kindled her headaches, then the cloud around Taesis must be something else. But perhaps the source of her headaches was the smell of incense, and not the literal smoke?

Prisca had a little pot of oil scented with lilies, myrrh, and saffron. She had not anointed herself since coming to Cabassus: the holy virgins were not given to primping after baths. She uncorked it carefully, and breathed deep. The sweetness was bewildering, almost unreal, though cut through with the green hum of myrrh.

Pain crept up gradually, beginning with an uneasiness in the stomach and an unwillingness to stoop over desks or walk quickly. Lights did not shimmer, though any light seemed too bright, and soon Prisca found herself lying on her bed again, cursing her own doubt. The headache was simultaneously dull and excruciating: in a few short weeks, Prisca had forgotten how boring it was to do nothing but hurt. She should have trusted Balsamea’s wisdom, and not tried to double-check.

Prisca arose the next day muzzy-headed but determined. She would imitate Odysseus in the legend and stop up the offending organ—in this case, her nose—with wax. If Taesis was wreathed in perfume made visible, blocking the scent should make its shadow disappear.

Shaping wax so that it plugged her nose without falling out or making an unsightly mess was harder than Prisca expected. It took multiple attempts, all the while peering into her little round mirror like a girl awaiting a suitor, before Prisca managed something she was satisfied with, and by then Taesis had gone to join the others at morning prayer. She had to do it all over again that evening. She drew back the curtain cautiously, feeling cool night air on her tongue. Shadows leapt everywhere in the lamplight. The mist around Taesis caught and hold the light, turning almost gold.

Prisca bit her tongue in frustration. The plan had seemed so good.

“Come sit by me,” said Taesis.

Prisca obeyed, resting gingerly at the edge of the bed. When Taesis rested an arm over her shoulders, she jumped, making an ungainly splurting sound in an effort not to snort out the wax.

Taesis straightened. “Prisca, why have you been gazing at me, if you do not wish to embrace in friendship?”

The splurting turned into choking. Prisca had to flee behind her side of the curtain and wipe her face with a handkerchief. At last she returned to Taesis’ side and said, cautious, “There is a kind of cloud around you.”

“Oh! Do you believe it is a demon?”

“But it isn’t—in this holy place—I can’t believe that your own actions—”

The smile dropped from Taesis’ lips. Sitting this close, Prisca could see the starkness in her face, the hollows that the floating mist had smoothed. “Do you not know how desperately I have wished that my enemy had a name and a shape, so I could battle it?”

Prisca clasped Taesis’ hand. In some odd corner of her mind, she was surprised to find her own hand was smaller. “I feared I saw my own pain, instead of your true face.”

“But there is something there, and you can see it? Your insight is greater than every holy man in all Jerusalem.”

“It cannot be a demon, then. One of them would have recognized it.”

“Some other kind of spirit, perhaps? Oh, I wish I knew its name.”

“Perhaps...” Prisca had tried once, shamefully, to cast a spell to take away her headache. It had failed, and she had shuddered at her own foolishness, but she still remembered what she had learned. “I memorized the names of angels, once. Perhaps if we called upon them?”

Hope swept across Taesis’ face like branching lightning.

Prisca and Taesis prepared their ritual in the Cabassus cemetery, because it was the holiest place that they could go. They said prayers on behalf of the martyrs first. Then Prisca arranged three lines of clay lamps, lifting up their wicks and filling them with sweet oil. Her fingers felt thick. She was terrified she would spill oil on the ground, but when she glanced at Taesis she saw a face intent, confident. Confident in her.

Prisca made a triangle of vowels, those powerful sounds that gave a soul to every word, beginning with alpha and expanding—a, ae, aeê—until she reached omega. On the page, those letters had looked like so many pebbles. Now they gathered momentum, so as her chant continued, Prisca felt less and less like a child scattering rocks, and more like an avalanche, rushing downhill.

At the final recitation of omega, she lit the last wick, enclosing Taesis in a triangle of flame. Prisca took a deep breath and called upon the heavenly host: “Saot Sabaoth!” Then, holding her hands open, she issued a command: “Reveal yourself! Reveal yourself! Reveal yourself!”

The flames leapt. Taesis’ features fell into ordinary shadow, and shame swept over Prisca, leaving heat between her breasts and in the hinges of her knees. How had she dared to set herself up as a magician? Was she so starved for any word of kindness?

But when Prisca looked up, a second woman stood beside Taesis, on the ground between the candles. She was shorter and rounder than Prisca, the kind of woman who wore her strophium wide for comfort. Her hair was formed into many braids, clinging tight to her head, and her tunic was kilted up around her knees. Her eyes must have been brown in life, but they burned now like banked embers. She raised her chin to stare at Prisca, revealing harsh bruises in the hollows of her throat.

Those were thumbprints. The woman had been murdered.

Prisca looked at Taesis for one long, agonizing moment, but her eyes were wide with wonder, not with guilt.

Very well, then. It was Prisca’s task to understand the ghost that she had summoned. The spirit’s awful death must have forced restlessness upon her, so that she could not sleep between death and the resurrection. Perhaps the curse had transferred. “What is your name?”

“I am Mesiesis, daughter of Tapollos.” The ghost spoke Greek with a thick accent, blurring her alphas and omegas together. Acquaintance with Taesis made it easier to decipher.

“I am Prisca, daughter of Petrus.”

Mesiesis smiled, revealing flame between her teeth. “The other one was not nearly so polite.”

“What other one?” Prisca asked, heart sinking.

“Why, the first person who burned incense and set commands upon me.”

“Tell me,” Prisca said, with the false gentleness used by every doctor who had ever tried to heal her, “what commands you have been given.”

The ghost turned her eyes toward the sky, remembering, and recited, “Give me advantage over Taesis, whom Nilogenia bore. Burn her, set her on fire, inflame her in liver, heart, and spirit. Torment her body night and day, and force her to rush forth from every place and every house, burning, until she comes again to me with love.”

“It’s real,” said Taesis softly, cupping her hands above a candle flame. “I did not think the fire could be real.”

“Do you know what man might have cursed you?” Prisca asked.

Even before she saw her friend’s bitter smile, she knew that it was hopeless. Anyone and everyone would love Taesis.

“What will you give to me,” Mesiesis asked, “if I tell you the name?”

What would a ghost want? Prayers? Revenge? It was probably a sin to bargain with her—but that was arrogance. The greatest sin against Mesiesis happened before she was laid in the ground.

Perhaps Prisca was approaching this the wrong way. What was it like to be a ghost? To haunt a place, unseen and unacknowledged? It must be rather like being sick, the crushing unavoidable boredom. Mesiesis might have been dead for longer than Prisca had been alive.

Could Prisca offer distraction? “I will read to you, tales of the saints and histories of far-off places, so even if you do not sleep, you may still dream.”

Mesiesis blinked, and then narrowed her eyes, considering. “Would you teach me to read?”

How did one give a lesson to a ghost? She could not shift a stylus or hold a scroll open. Prisca envisioned herself muttering letters, with all the repetitiveness of prayer, and none of the glory. But how selfish would it be not to try? “I will do my best.”

The ghost regarded Prisca for a long moment, and then nodded. “It is a bargain. I was commanded by Anastasia, born of Syra.”

Taesis keened, raising her face to the sky and flailing her arms, loud enough to wake the martyrs. Mesiesis tried in vain to hold her.

“Don’t!” cried Prisca. “You’ll light your dress on fire!”

Taesis subsided in a weird giggling lump. Prisca wanted to go to her, but she was afraid to cross the lines of lamps. Mesiesis sat cross-legged and patted Taesis’ shoulder, or the air above it.

“Who is Anastasia?” Prisca asked, once Taesis seemed calmer. This set off another round of keening, but at last she learned the tale.

Anastasia had once been Taesis’ friend. “I know—at least, I hope—you find me beautiful. But Anastasia seemed to have every blessing of God upon her. She could embroider a bird that seemed ready to leap from the cloth, and sing like that bird’s song.” Their parents had neighboring estates, and the girls were in and out of each others’ houses from nearly the time that they could walk. “Once we reached womanhood, our friendship turned to love. We used to cling to each other and ask whether our souls could fuse.”

Mesiesis rolled her eyes and pointed to her tunic, which partly overlapped with Taesis’ knee.

“But you fell out?” asked Prisca.

“She married my brother.”


“Our fathers were so proud of themselves. They were neighbors. My brother loved her almost as much as I did. Maybe because I did.”

“So you went to Jerusalem?”

“I went first to Alexandria. I stayed with a cousin. I made so many friends. Anastasia told me that nothing had to change—she would love me forever—but I could not. I loved my brother. At first she wrote me teasing letters. She drew pictures of falcons.”

“And then?”

“And then the claws sank into my heart”—Mesiesis looked abashed—”and I began my journey.”

“But you can write to her now, can you not? Your suffering—she cannot let it last, if she still loves you.”

“I hope that would have been true. Anastasia’s life had been so blessed, she treated pain like something out of legend.”

Beside her, silent, Mesiesis mouthed, “Very large estate.”

“But why not now?” Prisca insisted.

Taesis took a long, shuddering breath, her keening exhausted. “I had a letter from my brother when I was in Tripolis. Anastasia died while bearing his son.”

Prisca longed to hold her. But if she broke the line of flames, Mesiesis might disappear, and she still had questions. “These curses, they are often anchored by a tablet or a scroll. Perhaps, if we went to Mesiesis’ grave, we might destroy it.”

Mesiesis drew herself up, eyes burning like the sun, tunic caught in an invisible stormwind. “You cannot! You must not!”

“Why not?” asked Prisca, forcing herself to calm.

“I lived my whole life in the same mud town, and then decades of death underneath the mud in the same town, and now you want to send me back? I am not a broken pot, that you can frown at and toss in the trash heap!”

Prisca’s fine words about the joys of reading had been discarded, the moment she saw a solution to the puzzle. She was abashed.

“I see,” Taesis said slowly, “why the pain lifted when I traveled to a new place.”

“I sent you rushing forth the first time by command,” confessed Mesiesis. “But the second time, that was for joy.”

“So if I continue to travel, you will lift your torments? Or tease me in gentler ways than with claws of fire?”

“Your friend must teach me to read, first.”

“She could come with us.”

Taesis’ face was wreathed in smiles now, forgotten tear-tracks glittering like starlight. Prisca felt long slow warmth, like the sun. She could go forth, invited for herself and not out of obligation, with her dear friend and a curious, stubborn ghost. She could see the towers of Constantinople and the churches of Jerusalem.

Prisca imagined standing at the prow of a ship, as Taesis had described it. She had to guess what the ocean might be like: a great flat expanse, perhaps, like a river multiplied, reflecting the brightness of the sky. It was easier to envision her companions. Taesis’ hand would curl around hers, pressing each finger as if remembering a song played on the lyre. Mesiesis—Mesiesis would soar like a bird. Every evening Prisca would make a record, describing the places they had visited and the holy people they had met, to share with her friends here in Cabassus.

But even in imagination, the sunlight on the water hurt. Travel meant the rose-oil and dirt of wayhouses, and the long slow grind of her headache returning. Prisca contemplated stuffing her nose with wax every morning and evening, the way other women arranged their hair. Eventually, she supposed, it would become routine.

But that was not the rhythm Prisca wanted for her life. She loved the feeling of flour between her fingers and the careful planning for each holy day, the gleam of Balsamea’s smiles at a precise observation. She did not want to leave the holy virgins and the community they made. She wanted to teach others how it worked. She was growing into this place.

In truth, Prisca thought, she might not have known how to listen to Mesiesis, had she not first learned how to hear Balsamea. “Cabassus is my home.”

Taesis sighed—but only temporarily. “Still, I can visit! And write letters. Perhaps Mesiesis might even consent to haunt you with a message?”

Mesiesis grinned. “You are learned women. You can invent a spell.”

Prisca wanted, in this moment, to find something much simpler. She picked her way gingerly between the lamps, until she was at the center of the triangle, holding Taesis close. She felt a strange hot breeze around and inside her.

They were, of a surety, making something new.

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Ursula Whitcher Online

Major category: 
Tuesday, April 19, 2022 - 07:41

People have been asking about the meanings of the various rose colors and flowers mentioned in The Language of Roses. I thought about doing a multi-part social media campaign, like I did with the lead-up to the book release, but then figured it made more sense to put it all in one place.

There are a lot of different traditions of flower “meanings” and it can be hard to pin down when particular meanings were established. The association of roses with romantic love in medieval times can be seen in works such as The Romance of the Rose in which the rose is both a symbol of love and the name of the allegorical lady who is its object. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced some of the meanings of flowers, plants, and spices used at the Ottoman court where her husband was an ambassador. She wrote, for example, of how Jonquil meant “Have pity on my passion” and cinnamon communicated “My fortune is yours.” Wikipedia identifies two key publications in the early 19th century as codifying an extensive set of meanings for flowers: Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s Dictionnaire du language des fleurs (1809) and Louise Cortambert’s (writing as Madame Charlotte de la Tour) Le langage des Fleurs (1819), which has several hundred individual listings.

The idea of a language of flowers seized the imagination of the Victorians, not only due to the fashion for sentimentality but from a love of elaborate social rules and catalogs. Dictionaries of flowers proliferated, including what may be the best-known by Kate Greenaway (first published in 1884 and continuously in print since then). Given the strictures on direct and candid communication during courtship among the middle classes in the 19th century, there may have been a genuine usefulness to using flowers to encourage or discourage romantic attentions, especially by women. (One hopes that the men were well-read enough to understand the communications offered to them.)

There was never a single, agreed-on vocabulary. Any given flower might be assigned multiple meanings (sometimes contradictory!) and a particular meaning might be assigned to multiple flowers. (Convenient, given that many flowers are highly seasonal!) Sometimes a meaning was inspired by the appearance of the plant (as with the meaning of chastity assigned to the mimosa, due to its habit of closing up at night), or derive from color symbolism (as with the range of rose colors from red through pink to white indicating the intensity of romantic or erotic passion being expressed).

So while there is something of a core set of flower meanings with general acceptance, one can’t rely on unambiguous communication unless the participants are working from the same glossary! Although I used a number of online and published sources for inspiration, the one I used most systematically for brainstorming was Claire Powell’s The Meaning of Flowers (Shambhala Publications, 1979). The idea was not so much for my readers to be able to identify the specific meanings I intended, as to have some sort of objective underlayer so that I wasn’t just making things up as I went along.

In my story, The Language of Roses, most of the communication is done via a single, enchanted rose that changes colors. But even the most elaborate list of rose-based meanings is fairly limited. So I allowed Lady Rose to express herself with some non-natural color patterns, taken from the meanings assigned to other flowers. Here’s a list of the references with their meanings and inspirations.

RED - “a deep crimson blush suffused the bloom” (chapter 2), "’The sign of truest love’ under a flower so dark and red it might have been heart's blood.” (chapter 13), “a spot of red at the tip of one branch…a reminder of what never needed words.” (chapter 20); “every bud burst in a crown of dark crimson petals” (chapter 27) – The primary meaning of a dark red rose is that of romantic love or passion, and this is the usual sense in which it is used. But a red rose can also mean “courage” and I’ve borrowed this meaning to create a new color pattern: “a pure soft pink…brushed inside with red” (chapter 4), “a warm shell-pink brushed with red at the center. ‘Have courage, all will be well.’" (chapter 13)

PINK - “a pale shell-pink [rose]” (chapter 2), “a dark pink with a delicate scent that reminded him of a time long ago” (chapter 3), “A pink rose that looked scarcely the worse for wear for having been carried in a saddlebag” (chapter 4), “A deep pink rose on a sturdy thorny stem.” (chapter 23) – A pink rose can generally mean affection, happiness, gratitude, appreciation (or grace, which makes a nice tie-in). In the story it tends to be a neutral communication, the color used when no specific meaning is necessarily intended.

PEACH - "’Thank you,’ I said. A bright, peach-pink blossom fell from my lips with the words” (chapter 28) – The more traditional flower catalogs stick to a narrow range of rose colors: red, pink, white, yellow. But some of the more modern lists (especially ones put out by florists trying to sell roses) suggest a peach-colored rose to mean “gratitude” and this was enough for me to use it in the sense.

YELLOW - "’A token of returned affection is requested’ with the image of a cluster of bright yellow flowers with golden centers.” (chapter 13) – The usual meanings for yellow roses are diverse and contradictory: friendship, joy, infidelity, platonic love, and health, as well as the “welcome” meaning discussed below. But I wanted something with the specified meaning, and the existing flower match that worked best was the jonquil "I desire a return of affection." Since the jonquil (a type of narcissus) blooms in clusters I added this growth habit to  distinguish it from the usual meanings of a yellow rose. I imagine it looking something like a yellow Lady Banks rose.

PURPLE – “a deep violet streaked with gold. … Below the image was written, ‘I desire conversation.’" (chapter 15), “the purple spread throughout the petals, all the way to the edges, and a golden glow grew from around the stamens” (chapter 19) – This is taken from the meaning and color-pattern for iris: “I have a message for you.” The symbolism comes from the Greek goddess Iris being the messenger of the gods.

BLACK – “Slowly, pulsingly, as if with great effort, the petals crimsoned and then turned almost black.” – Traditionally, black roses indicate loss or bereavement (or in some cases, more sinister meanings). Within my story, Lady Rose is trying to communicate “midnight” and there’s a suggestion that this is a non-traditional use.

WHITE – “the rose flashed back to the purest white. A caution? A white rose had so many meanings: innocence, purity...silence. It was listed last on the page, but it was the only one that made sense.” (chapter 19) – As the text notes, white roses carry a lot of different possible meanings.


  • “a cluster of small white blooms, seeded with red at the center” (chapter 2) – Inspired by the Guelder Rose (not a true rose) to which is assigned “good news”.
  • “A broad white simple rose, streaked with purple at its heart” (chapter 2), “the rose settled into a brilliant white with streaks of purple at the heart” (chapter 19) – I wanted something indicating a visitor or guest and borrowed this coloring from the nutmeg geranium whose meaning is “an expected meeting”.
  • “a pure white flower brushed at the heart with hyacinth blue and the inscription read, ‘I would share a path with you throughout the wide world.’" (chapter 13) – Blue hyacinth can mean “constancy.” (See also bluebells in the “other flowers” below.)


  • “[purple with] a deep gold at the base of the petals and it smelled faintly of licorice or basil” (chapter 9), “It was withered to a dark grayish purple now” (chapter 9), “the dull, leaden purple that I remembered meant fear” (chapter 25) – I wanted a meaning of intense fear and hatred, so I combined several elements. Sweet basil can mean “hatred,” wild licorice is one of several plants assigned “I declare against you,” and purple crocus (among several contradictory meanings) can mean “abuse me not.” But in describing the rose as fading to a “dull, leaden/grayish purple” I was also thinking of one of my own roses which has a somewhat pale grayish-lavender color and does not last long when cut.
  • “the petals had turned from pink to yellow and the bright red at the heart to pink” (chapter 9) – Yellow roses seem to have the widest variety of conventional meanings. In this case I combined one interpretation of yellow as meaning “welcome” with pink to indicate affection or friendship.

OTHER FLOWERS – Sometimes a non-rose flower appears with meaning.

  • "’Not without you," the words coming in jasmine and bluebells.” (chapter 12) – Bluebells (along with hyacinth) can mean “constancy” and Indian jasmine can mean “I attach myself to you”.
  • “In the shadows, a flash of white caught my eye: snowdrops out of season. A sign of hope. Another bit of color, this time heliotrope blue. That was for faithful devotion. Farther on, a spray of lily of the valley to mark a happy return”, “A patch of snowdrops. A trail of violets.” (both chapter 25) – In the story, these flowers mark a path and encourage the viewer to follow it. The meanings are traditional: snowdrops = “hope”, heliotrope = “faithfulness”, lily of the valley “return of happiness”, (blue) violets = “faithfulness”. I mention the scent of heliotrope in chapter 12, but there it’s simply inspired by the way my heliotrope will fill the air with scent on a hot summer day, and it isn’t meant to be a communication.
  • “the aroma faded—not a rose's scent but one that reminded me of forget-me-nots in the evening chill” (chapter 25) – The key element here is the obvious meaning of “forget me not” but since I was using a different color symbolism in this passage, I needed to invoke it in a different way. The tricky bit is that forget-me-nots are practically odorless during the daytime, but evidently they do have an aroma at night. I am dedicated to botanical accuracy!
  • “Thorns tore at my tongue and blood spattered the marigolds that fell from my lips.” (chapter 28) – I’m not sure why marigolds should symbolize grief and despair, but they do. A branch of thorns communicates “severity”. Lady Rose is kind of upset in this scene.
  • “Tiny spikes of pink betony flowers followed the words. Betony for surprise.” (chapter 28) – Just what it says on the label.

My favorite kind of world-building is where actual historic traditions or real-world practices for the basis for the story elements. (You can see this in the magical elements of the Alpennia series.) Sure, I could just invent things whole-cloth, but working with an existing system or phenomenon can add an unexpected randomness, or can create and make use of connections in the reader's mind. (I suspect that most of my readers are aware of some of the basic flower symbolism.) Those make it worth having done the data entry for a systematic speradsheet of flower meanings, complete with thematic categories and indexed by color. Because I am, after all, a geek.

Major category: 
The Language of Roses


Subscribe to Alpennia Blog