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Saturday, April 16, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 227 – Charlotte Charke - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/04/16 - listen here)

It is, perhaps, an odd coincidence that there are two prominent actors of the English-speaking stage named Charlotte whose lives are of interest to the topic of queer history. You’ve probably heard me go on at length about 19th century American actor Charlotte Cushman and the complex community of feminists, performers, and sculptors that she was enmeshed in and supported. But today I want to talk about another Charlotte on the stage, 18th century English actor Charlotte Charke.

I think we can say with confidence that Charlotte Charke was queer, but it’s less possible to sort out with any certainty how to describe her gender and sexuality. Charlotte Charke’s life and career raises issues of the multiple functions that cross-dressing had in the 18th century, and the ways it was interpreted by its various audiences. We see the ways that gender presentation interact with economic factors, and the fluidity with which some people moved within the gender spectrum. And we see how difficult it is to try to apply modern sexuality categories in a context where people engaged with gender identity in different ways than we’re used to. Finally, there is the challenge of interpreting the evidence—even first person evidence—in a context where candid truth was a ways down the list of functions that the narrative was meant to fulfil.

Charke left us an autobiography that—while written for public consumption and therefore of questionable reliability—offers some evidence for what we might consider today a transmasculine identity. But Charke also begins by stating that her narrative is “the product of a female pen.” On that basis, I’m going to feel free to identify Charke with female pronouns in this podcast by default, while using male pronouns in contexts when Charke is choosing a masculine presentation. In so doing, I’m not committing to any particular interpretation, but rather emphasizing the complexities of identification. My alternation in reference is not meant to confuse or to misrepresent, but to acknowledge not only the ambiguity of the evidence, but the potential fluidity of Charke’s identity.

Charlotte Charke was born in 1713, the twelfth and last child of actor-playwright Colley Cibber and his wife, actress and musician Katherine Shore. As was not unusual in that era, most of her siblings had died in infancy, and Charlotte came along fairly late at a time when her mother had hoped to be done with children. From a combination of factors, she was left much to her own devices as a child, and in addition to a rather classical education at a girls school, she was attracted to male-coded hobbies and activities such as shooting, horse racing, science, gardening, and medicine.

But the family as a whole revolved around the theater, and it was perhaps inevitable that she would enter the family business. Her father, Colley Cibber, was the manager of the Drury Lane theater, a prolific writer and adapter of plays, and best known for his comic parts. In the later part of his life, he was named poet laureate of the United Kingdom, somewhat to the dismay and ridicule of contemporary poets such as Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips who felt it was a political appointment.

The social politics of the theater community of the time were prominent influences in Charlotte’s life. Charlotte’s marriage at age 16 to musician Richard Charke was short-lived due to Charlotte’s conclusion that Richard was far more interested in being Cibber’s son-in-law than her husband. But marriage gave Charlotte entrance to an acting career—something less acceptable for an unmarried woman. Her stage career was briefly interrupted by pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Catherine within the first year of her marriage. When she returned to the stage, Charlotte began specializing largely though not exclusively in breeches roles---male parts played by a woman.

While the English theater of the 16th and early 17th centuries was characterized by the female roles being played by young men, later in the 17th century it became acceptable for women to appear on stage to play female roles and men cross-dressing to play female roles fell out of favor except as broad comedy. But the pendulum kept swinging and by the early 18th century it was common for women to cross-dress to play male roles. While part of the appeal was the erotic attraction for male audiences of seeing a female performer’s limbs revealed in male clothing, the dynamics were more complicated than that. As hinted at in Charke’s writings and in the general reception of “breeches roles”, female audiences were also open to enjoying the erotic delights of appreciating the female form within the socially licensed context of a male role. In the mid-18th century, a writer noted male and female audience members might debate over whether a particular performer was “the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.” As we’ll see, this dynamic played out for Charke off-stage as well. And despite Charke’s position that the women who were attracted to her male presentation were ignorant of her assigned sex, this may be simply a convenient trope to deflect the accusation of being an “improper object” of desire. Charke was not the only female actor of the time who cross-dressed offstage, on occasion, as well as on. In Charke’s own writing, we may be seeing some of the careful negotiation of how such behavior was understood and made—if not entirely acceptable—then at least not directly challenging to heterosexual norms.

In the next half-dozen years after her debut, Charlotte’s professional life was tumultuous. Her father sold his interest in the Drury Lane Theatre and without that connection, Charlotte’s somewhat boisterous personal life and tendency to quarrel with theatre managers made it difficult for her to find steady work. Her estranged husband fled debts by leaving the country and died shortly after. So at age 24, Charlotte Charke was a widow, a single mother, and a largely unemployed actor. It was also around this time that Charke began to adopt a male presentation regularly off the stage as well as on-stage.

In her autobiography (which, it should be noted, was written and published largely to raise money and so may be suspected of playing to public tastes and opinions to some extent) Charke suggests that her transmasculine interests began at an early age. She was given an education “such indeed as might have been sufficient for a Son instead of a Daughter” and suggested that she disdained needlework. She recounts dressing up to mimic her father at age four, putting on his breeches, waistcoat, wig, and hat—which was taken as an amusing entertainment by her family. As noted before, she recounts her love for masculine-coded pursuits such as horses, hunting, and medicine.

These broad interests and her willingness to take up occupations normally restricted to men served her in good stead when acting roles dried up when she left the Drury Lane Theatre. After a brief stint running a traveling puppet theater, sold to pay off medical bills, she was reduced to begging for donations from friends and was imprisoned for debt, her bail being paid—according to her autobiography—by a consortium of coffee-house keepers and prostitutes from the Covent Garden neighborhood that was theatre central in London.

The circumstances of her arrest, as recounted in her autobiography, provide a vivid example of her gender-crossing. She explains that her accuser identified her “by Dint of a very handsome lac'd Hat I had on, being then, for some substantial Reasons, EN CAVALIER; which was so well described, the Bailiff had no great Trouble in finding me.” (“En cavalier”—that is, as a cavalier—was an expression for cross-dressing women at the time.) Charke immediately set to the complicated business of finding someone willing to stand as bail, but was stymied by the need to also cover the original debt. “I had not been there Half an Hour, before I was surrounded with all the Ladies who kept Coffee-Houses in and about the Garden, each offering Money for my Ransom: But nothing then could be done, without the Debt and Costs; which, though there was, I believe, about a dozen or fourteen Ladies present, they were not able to raise. As far as their Finances extended, they made an Offer of 'em; and would have given Notes jointly or separately, for the Relief of poor Sir Charles, as they were pleased to stile me.

There were many more economic opportunities for a man than a woman, and Charke’s interest in cross-dressing became something of a profession at several periods in her life, taking up the identity of Charles Brown, which gave him access to a succession of jobs he could not have had as a woman: pastry cook, sausage-maker, farmer, grocer, even valet to the Earl of Anglesey.

Charke recounts close brushes with romantic entanglements as Mr. Brown, though (in the autobiography) presenting them as amusing and embarrassing misconstruals. Here is one episode.

Notwithstanding my Distresses, the Want of Cloaths was not amongst the Number. I appeared as Mr. Brown, …in a very genteel Manner; and, not making the least Discovery of my Sex by my Behaviour, ever endeavouring to keep up to the well-bred Gentlemen, I became, as I may most properly term it, the unhappy Object of Love in a young Lady, whose Fortune was beyond all earthly Power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been, what she designed me, nothing less than her Husband. She was an Orphan Heiress, and under Age; but so near it, that, at the Expiration of eight Months, her Guardian resigned his Trust, and I might have been at once possessed of the Lady, and forty thousand Pounds in the Bank of England: Besides Effects in the Indies, that were worth about twenty Thousand more.

The matter went farther than Charke was willing to risk and, having been maneuvered into a private conversation with the lady:

With much Difficulty, I mustered up Courage sufficient to open a Discourse, by which I began to make a Discovery of my Name and Family, which struck the poor Creature into Astonishment; but how much greater was her Surprize, when I positively assured her that I was actually the youngest Daughter of Mr. Cibber, and not the Person she conceived me! She was absolutely struck speechless for some little Time; but, when she regained the Power of Utterance, entreated me not to urge a Falshood of that Nature, which she looked upon only as an Evasion, occasioned, she supposed, through a Dislike of her Person: Adding, that her Maid had plainly told her I was no Stranger to her miserable Fate, as she was pleased to term it; and, indeed, as I really thought it.

I still insisted on the Truth of my Assertion; and desired her to consider, whether 'twas likely an indigent young Fellow must not have thought it an unbounded Happiness, to possess at once so agreeable a Lady and immense a Fortune, both which many a Nobleman in this Kingdom would have thought it worth while to take Pains to atchieve.

Charke may well have been playing up the woman’s interest and confidence that Mr. Brown was an acceptable prospective suitor. It’s something of a trope in gender-crossing narratives of this era for the transmasculine figure to be depicted as quite attractive to women, while disclaiming anything more than a hypothetical desire on his side.

On another occasion, Mr. Brown approached a woman who had known Charlotte as a child (and was aware of his dual identity) for assistance in finding work. “The Woman herself knew who I was, but her Husband was an entire Stranger, to whom she introduced me as a young Gentleman of a decay'd Fortune; and, after apoligizing for Half an Hour, proposed to her Spouse to get me the Waiter's Place, which was just vacant, at one Mrs. Dorr's, who formerly kept the King's-Head, at Mary-la-Bonne.

Brown gave such good service in this job, and was so personable, that Mrs. Dorr let it be known, through a maid-servant, that she would welcome a romantic advance from her new employee. Mr. Brown returned the polite disclaimer that he had no intention of re-marrying, to avoid the risk of giving his daughter a step-mother. (Much of Charke’s financial difficulties were compounded by the need to support a child.) But yet further complications arose.

In the Interim Somebody happened to come, who hinted that I was a Woman; upon which, Madam, to my great Surprize, attacked me with insolently presuming to say she was in Love with me, which I assured her I never had the least Conception of. No, truly; I believe, said she, I should hardly be 'namour'd WITH ONE OF MY OWN Sect: Upon which I burst into a Laugh, and took the Liberty to ask her, if she understood what she said? This threw the offended Fair into an absolute Rage, and our Controversy lasted for some Time; but, in the End, I brought in Vindication of my own Innocence, the Maid to Disgrace, who had uncalled for trumped up so ridiculous a Story.

Mrs. Dorr still remained incredulous, in regard to my being a Female; and though she afterwards paid me a Visit, with my worthy Friend (at my House in Drury-Lane) who brought my unsuccessful Letter back from my Father, she was not to be convinced, I happening that Day to be in the Male-Habit, on Account of playing a Part for a poor Man, and obliged to find my own Cloaths.

She told me, she wished she had known me better when I lived with her, she would, on no Terms, have parted with her Man Charles.

Mr. Brown’s repeated insistence that he had no romantic interest in the women who were attracted to him must be considered in the context of publication. This was an autobiography being created to explain and redeem Charke’s career and reputation. Romantic adventures involving the sort of mistaken identity that also featured in comic drama on the stage would further this goal. Admissions of what could only be perceived as unnatural desire would not have benefitted Charke’s purpose.

During this period, Charke sometimes had stints with acting companies, either in London or on the road. She wrote and produced plays of her own, and worked as a puppeteer and prompter. Sometimes Charke worked as Charles Brown, sometimes as Charlotte Charke, and there is some evidence that even as Brown, Charke might be perceived as a cross-dressing woman rather than as a man. On other occasions, Charke admits to using the Mr. Brown alias to dodge creditors she had gathered as Charlotte Charke.

A common theme of gender-crossing narratives is the advantage to the transmasculine figure of having his gender identity confirmed by the presence of a female partner. For an extended period during Charles Brown’s itinerant career, he was accompanied by a woman identified in the autobiography only as Mrs. Brown. The chronology of the narrative is uncertain enough that it isn’t clear whether Charles Brown took his name from that of Mrs. Brown, or whether the woman referred to as Mrs. Brown took her name from Charles. And, if so, it isn’t clear that Mrs. Brown was using that name in contexts when accompanying Charlotte Charke—Charke had been acting under both names at various times when Mrs. Brown makes her first appearance by name. But it’s clear that the existence of Mr. and Mrs. Brown, presenting as a married couple, was not purely a fiction in support of Charles Brown’s existence.

The two were part of a touring company of actors and we have our first clear discussion of Mrs. Brown while they are in Gloucestershire. In introducing her, Charke notes, “I happened to be taken violently ill with a nervous Fever and Lowness of Spirits, that continued upon me for upwards of three Years, before I was able to get the better of it. ” She is assisted in various ways by, “my Friend, the goodnatured Gentlewoman … to whom I am most infinitely and sincerely obliged for her tender Care in nursing me in three Years Illness, without repining at her Fatigue, which was uninterrupted, and naturally fixes on me a lasting grateful Sense of the Favour.

We hear of several adventures the two experience while traveling together as Mr. and Mrs. Brown: barely escaping being defrauded by some thieves who befriended them, Mr. Brown’s hapless venture into setting up as a pastry chef and farmer in Chepstow. Mrs. Brown rescued them from that debacle by means of a convenient legacy from an aunt in Oxfordshire. That stop-gap, too, soon ran out and Mr. Brown lamented, “the Winter growing fast upon us, we had no Prospect before us, but of dying by Inches with Cold and Hunger; and, what aggravated my own Distress, was having unfortunately drawn in my Friend to be a melancholly Partaker of my Sufferings. This Reflection naturally rouzed me into an honourable Spirit of Resolution, not to let her perish through my unhappy and mistaken Conduct, which I meant all for the best, though it unfortunately proved otherwise.

The support was not all one-sided, and when Mr. Brown comes into a minor windfall, he records that he chose to “consign it all to the Use of one, to whom I should have thought, on this Occasion, if every Shilling had been a Guinea, I had made but a reasonable Acknowledgement, after having immers'd her in Difficulties which nothing but real Friendship and a tender Regard to my Health (which, through repeated Grievances, was much impaired) could have made her blindly inconsistent with her own Interest to give into, and so patiently endure.

But only a couple pages later, Mr. Brown “was obliged to strip my Friend of the ownly decent Gown she had, and pledged it to pay [a debt]

Mrs. Brown slips out of the narrative at that point and the story shifts to a discussion of Charke’s now-married daughter and the tribulations of another acting troupe they appear to be collectively involved in, with Charke once more going through the world as a woman.

It is probably not possible to be certain of how Charke viewed her endeavors as Mr. Brown. Now returned to the stage as Charlotte Charke, she recounts the following:

Before I conclude the Account of my Bath Expedition, I cannot avoid taking Notice of a malicious Aspersion, thrown and fixed on me as a Reason for leaving it; which was, That I designed to forsake my Sex again, and that I positively was seen in the Street in Breeches. This I solemnly avow to be an impertinent Falshood, which was brought to London and spread itself, much to my Disadvantage, in my own Family; where I was informed it was delivered to them as a Reality, by an Actress that came to Town, soon after I quitted Bath. I guess at the Person, but, as I know her to be half mad, must neither wonder or be angry at her Folly; yet, as she has sometimes Reason sufficient to distinguish between Truth and Falshood, am surprized she should meanly have recourse to the latter, to make me appear ridiculous, who never gave her the least Provocation to do me so apparent an Injury.

No, Charke says, the reason she left Bath at that point was not because she had been seen cross-dressing off the stage, but because she was disgusted with the low quality of the actors she was expected to work beside. If the woman referred to as “my friend” is the same as Mrs. Brown (which appears to be the case) then they were still together at that point. As Charke explains that when the acting company at Bath dissolved “My Friend and I went with another Manager” and continued touring, though the friend reproaches Charke for abandoning what had apparently been a good gig in Bath.

At this point in her life, Charke returned to London and decided to open an “oratorical academy” to train actors, and to focus on writing, including the autobiography that provides many of the more sensational details of her life. And although this final portion of her autobiography has several references to “my friends” there is no mention of “my friend” that can clearly be connected with her references to Mrs. Brown using that term.

I’ve spent so much time quoting the passages involving Mrs. Brown because they are the most strongly suggestive that Charlotte Charke (or Charles Brown, or both) had a long-term mutually supportive and emotionally committed relationship with a woman, and that they presented themselves, at least on some occasions, as a married couple, and that Mrs. Brown clearly was familiar with the entirety of Charke’s life and identities. Was this relationship specifically associated with Charles Brown’s masculine identity? Or were the two facets of Charke’s life independent of each other? Some historians have offered a number of events in support of interpreting Charke as heterosexual and a situational cross-dresser, including her marriage to a man, and a lack of evidence that she shared a bed with Mrs. Brown. But there is a clear double standard here. If a man and woman engaged in the relationship depicted in Charke’s autobiography, few would raise doubts that it was a romantic and sexual one.

Charlotte Charke returned to London and gave up the life of a traveling actor in 1754 when she was 41 years of age. But poverty and a lifetime of medical problems had taken their toll and she died of an illness only 6 years later. With all the questions of accuracy that her autobiography raises, we can be sure that without it we would know far less of the details of her life. And her life was packed full of the sort of queer details that are so often silently erased from history. We’re lucky to know her.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The decidedly queer life of 18th c English actor Charlotte Charke
  • The full text of A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke…Written by herself can be found through Google Books
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Charlotte Charke

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Thursday, April 14, 2022 - 10:25

Happy book birthday to my thorny little fairy tale! I'm really enjoying seeing posts from readers as they devour their copies -- some have even gotten their hands on hard copies already, which is ahead of me! (I'm waiting to do my ceremonial post-release re-read until I have the physical copy and can enjoy the interior illustrations.) Most likely, if you're reading this blog, you're already a fan of some subset of my writing. So I'm going to do a big ask, even though I always feel very self-conscious about this sort of thing.

The Language of Roses has a chance to really bump up my visibility as an author. I think it's a great book -- the best I've written to date. It has strong and targeted publisher support. It falls solidly in the middle of a recognized sub-genre (fairy tale retellings) rather than falling between fuzzy boundaries of categories. And I even dare to dream that people might nominate it for awards.

But what I need is help making the book visible to its potential audience, and that's where the ask comes in. (I know not everyone is comfortable or in a position to do this, so please don't take this as a personal imposition.) What will really help is if people are willing to go the extra steps to help spread the word and increase visibility, whether that's posting reviews, or recommending the book, or simply squeeing in public about how much you like it (assuming, of course, that you like it). If you have a local bookstore, see if they'll carry it. If you know of lists of books it might belong on, see if you can add it. (Always, of course, without being obnoxious about it!)

I hear other authors talk about their "street team" of fans they can mobilize to create buzz and I've always felt really weird about that concept. I don't have a formal team. But I do have friends and enthusiastic readers. And I'm asking you to help The Language of Roses find its place in the world, with the knowledge that success creates more opportunities for my writing in the future.

Major category: 
The Language of Roses
Saturday, April 2, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 226 - On the Shelf for April 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2022.

News of the Field

Spring is turning my mood around a little. I can look out the window from my home office here and see the apple tree blooming, the mourning doves billing and cooing at the feeder, and the first promise of the apothecary roses framing the herb garden. Soon enough it’ll be a hot California summer, but for the moment everything is green and growing.

I’m suspended in that uneasy place between starting to do pre-pandemic things again, while keeping up a lot of precautions. I have several in-person convention trips planned for this summer, as well as a handful of online events. I love the flexibility and access that online conventions provide, but I’ve really missed the spontaneous person-to-person parts. And trying to do book promotion purely as an online thing just doesn’t have the same thrill as meeting readers face to face. So I’m glad I’ll have a couple of in-person events in the months following my book release this month.

Oh, did you know I have a new book coming out this month? What is the use of having one’s very own book-related podcast if one doesn’t take the opportunity for a little self-promotion? My novella The Language of Roses is being published by Queen of Swords Press, a small publishing house founded by author Catherine Lundoff that specializes in—to quote the website—"swashbuckling tales of derring-do, bold new adventures in time and space, mysterious stories of the occult and arcane and fantastical tales of people and lands far and near.” Queen of Swords has been collecting high praise for its small-but-growing catalog and I’m thrilled to find my work in such company.

The Language of Roses is new take on Beauty and the Beast that asks the question, what happens when an aromantic Beauty collides with an unredeemable Beast? Here’s the cover copy:

A Beauty. A Beast. A Curse. This is not the story you know. Come on a new and magical journey into the heart of a familiar fairytale. Meet Alys, eldest daughter of a merchant, a merchant who foolishly plucks a rose from a briar as he flees from the home of a terrifying fay Beast and his seemingly icy sister. Now Alys must pay the price to save his life and allow the Beast, the once handsome Philippe, to pay court to her. But Alys has never fallen in love with anyone; how can she love a Beast? The fairy Peronelle, waiting in the woods to see the culmination of her curse, is sure that she will fail. Yet, if she does, Philippe’s sister Grace and her beloved Eglantine, trapped in an enchanted briar in the garden, will pay a terrible price. Unless Alys can find another way…

In my highly-biased opinion, I think The Language of Roses may be the best thing I’ve written to date. And though I wouldn’t have chosen to spend three years trying to find the ideal home for it, I’m glad it ended up at Queen of Swords.

What Makes a Historic Fantasy Historic?

One might validly ask if a retold fairy tale is “historic” in the context of this podcast. That’s a question that comes up for a number of fantasy genres. When I’m putting the new book listings together, often I find myself making individual judgments based on how well the frame of the story connects with real-world history. Sometimes the characters and plot of the fairy tale are translated into a realistic story, and then the question is only a matter of what era has been chosen for that translation. Sometimes the author embraces the “fairy” part of fairy tale and uses an entirely fantastical secondary world. When I wrote The Language of Roses I chose to frame it in a realistic depiction of mid-18th century France, intersecting with the realm of faerie, but one as imagined by people of that era.

I sometimes have a harder time deciding whether to include a book if the setting is clearly modeled after a specific historic culture but is clearly indicated as not being that culture. This type of setting can make my judgments more inconsistent, because the degree of familiarity I have with the analog culture can affect whether I perceive the setting as being more invented or as being more borrowed. It’s something I try to stay aware of but I’m sure that on occasion I’ve failed to include books that were just as historically grounded as ones I did include, simply because I didn’t know enough to recognize those historic underpinnings.

There’s one category of cross-time story that I very rarely include, and that’s the “adventures of an immortal character across time.” A lot of “ancient vampire” stories fall in this category. This may simply be a prejudice of mine, but even when this type of story includes scenes set in the past, it rarely reads to me as a story set in history. So if your favorite ancient vampire novel fails to appear in the new book listings, chalk it up to my idiosyncratic prejudices.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent the month working through the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. Only a couple of the papers in this collection specifically address topics related to homoeroticism, but very much like my interest in books on singlewomen, this type of history can be both grounding and inspiring when creating stories about lesbian-like characters in history. Too many historic novels envision their sapphic protagonists in isolation, at best making common cause with a love interest to create a cozy cocoon. But women lived lives rich in interconnections with other women—indeed, for most of history, other women were far more relevant to a woman’s life than any man was, even a possible husband. And those interconnections had plenty of space within them for emotional and romantic bonds. So understanding the feminine matrix of womens’ lives—regardless of sexuality—is essential for composing stories with the rich detail of the past. I’m trying to get through this collection at a relatively fast clip, so I’ve covered half of the 18 articles so far, including one of the two that first caught my eye: Jessica Tvordi’s “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim in As You Like It and Twelfth Night

Book Shopping!

The one new book that I bought in the last month also focuses on the general subject of women’s lives rather than lesbian-relevant topics in particular. This is the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World, edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. I know that one article touches on evidence for female homosexuality, but as usual there will also be interest in the study of contexts in which women lived outside of heterosexual marriages.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The new book listings for this month are half late additions from March and half April publications. I’ve decided to implement a new policy that will be invisible to most listeners. In the past, the show notes have linked the new books to their listings, because it’s the simplest way to provide at least one direct link for the book. But given that I’ve long been an agitator against the monopolistic practices of Amazon, I figured it was time to put in the extra effort to put my podcast where my mouth is. So going forward, the show notes will prioritize links directly to the publisher’s website, or to the author’s own website for self-published works. The next choice will be a universal book link page, if the author has set one up and I can find it easily. Third choice, especially for books from major publishers, will be And only if none of the previous are available will I use the Amazon link. (And, of course, this will be the link for books that are published only through Amazon. Which is really a bad idea for the health of the book ecosystem, but I know why some people choose that route.)

So what are the March books that I haven’t previously listed?

Promises in Pompeii (Ancient Ashes #1) self-published by Violet Morley looks delightfully different from the majority of stories set in classical Rome. As far as I can tell, it only seems to be available from Amazon, so I may have to grit my teeth and buy it there. Here’s the cover copy.

Helvia doesn’t want for anything, but being wealthy can come at a cost. Navigating through her papa’s disinterest and trying to dodge her bully of a brother, Helvia is already learning how lonely life can be—until Octavia comes bursting on the scene, ready to help provide support, laughter, and companionship that Helvia desperately needs. Octavia’s family doesn’t have wealth, but they certainly aren’t short on love. She is taught early to stick up for what is right and work hard for those she cares about. As Helvia and Octavia grow, so does their friendship. Moving from childhood to adulthood while navigating the expectations of women in Ancient Rome, their connection navigates unexpected bumps and turns. Life has a way of shaking up even the most solid foundations. With promises of their future shattered and secrets held tight to the chest, Helvia and Octavia have to ask themselves how their connection can equal a happy ending.

And somehow last month I almost missed a new short historical from Karin Kallmaker: Cowboys and Kisses from Romance and Chocolate Ink, which seems to be Kallmaker’s personal publishing imprint.

Shunned by her family, a girl is sent west on a one-way ticket. Penniless, she takes up the only profession open to her. Years later she encounters a cowboy she can love, and her first taste of pleasure—and happiness. Cowboys, however, are born to wander, and their kisses are as brief as the lives of young women without family or means. Accepting that her days will be numbered too few, Darlin’ escapes into her scribblings for hope. Until she recognizes her own truth and a chance for love in the longing gaze of a townswoman.

Pre-WWII Berlin is a popular setting for queer fiction, including Once in Berlin, self-published by Jo Havens.

It’s 1938 and Europe teeters on the edge of war. In Berlin, life for Mila Nessian – genius mathematician, billionaire and womaniser – is one long party. A spot of rocket science by day, the Third Reich’s prettiest daughters by night. She knows what they whisper behind their hands – that Germany’s most dazzling mind has nothing but a calculator where her heart should be, a sliver of ice instead of soul. She smirks through yet another boring cocktail party and hopes they’re wrong. Cecelia Balfour is dragged to Berlin by her socialite mother – and it’s the last place she wants to be. Cecelia has lost a lover and worries that her heart is too bruised to ever properly love again. To distract her, to maybe get her back in the game, her cousin at MI6 sets up a play: flirt with Mila Nessian, capture her secrets, lure her back to London. Because what Mila is working on could steer the course of the coming war. The Nazis want her brilliance, British Secret Intelligence wants her silence, and Cecelia – once she has laughed with her, slept with her, sipped champagne on a zeppelin with her and lost her heart to her – Cecelia wants her love. Can she win Mila’s trust and save her from the powers that control both their lives?

This next book also uses the second world war as a setting, but in an alternate timeline where evidently Germany has managed to get the upper hand. This is: The Undesirables, self-published by Lumen Reese.

By day, Maren Abernathy is a lovely and helpful telegraph operator, working in the Nazi-occupied town of Marquet in the American Rocky Mountains. At night, she's a secret agent of the revolutionary British Liberties organization. She hates Hitler, but happily salutes a painting of der führer when she receives a promotion to the International Communications department, where she’ll handle coded German intelligence of utmost importance. What she doesn't know is that the promotion she worked so hard to get puts her on a trajectory to unearth a deadly secret; and with all American boys shipped off at age seventeen to serve in the German military, that leaves only the women and Maren's team of those historically wronged by the Nazis to fight back. Her girlfriend Beatrix, a secret Jew from the neighboring mining town of Pine Hills, would be referred to as a 'smart rat' in the Nazi code that Maren transmits. She warns Maren about the town's mayor, who recommended her for the promotion and works closely with her. Sterling Stratus -according to small-town gossip- killed his wife and mangled his son. Andrew Stratus lost a hand, that much is indisputable, but to reveal the Nazi secret, Maren has to get to the heart of the fifteen year old cover-up.

The April books start with Walks with Spirits by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press. I am somewhat uneasy about this book, as I am in general when books depicting seriously marginalized cultures are written by people with no personal stake in those cultures. This book is specifically labelled historic fantasy, but it also claims to depict Native American culture, without specifying a particular tribal tradition. With that in mind, here is the cover copy.

Long ago, in an age of mysticism, Walks with Spirits, a two-spirit woman, perceives voices whispering on the wind and they empower her with the gift of calling animals. But who she truly wishes to call to her side is her childhood friend, Laughing Brook. Daughter of a shaman and an herbalist-midwife, Laughing Brook holds a prominent place in her society and bears the responsibilities it entails. She is training to be a healer like her mother, but her most compelling desire is to spend her life with Walks with Spirits. When a misunderstanding crushes their dreams of happiness, both women must learn to face the trials that await them in a land where danger lurks behind every tree and honor means more than life. Will the spirits intervene on their behalf, or are they fated never to manifest their visions of love? Walks with Spirits is a historical fantasy set in an ancient time.

For those who enjoyed Nicola Griffith’s historic novel Hild, there’s a new story set in a somewhat more mythic early Britain. Spear from tells the Arthurian tale of Peretur, but a female Peretur.

She left all she knew to find who she could be . . . She grows up in the wild wood, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake drift to her on the spring breeze, scented with promise. And when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she decides her future lies at his court. So, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and sets out on her bony gelding for Caer Leon. With her stolen hunting spear and mended armour, she is an unlikely hero, not a chosen one, but one who forges her own bright path. Aflame with determination, she begins a journey of magic and mystery, love, lust and fights to death. On her adventures, she will steal the hearts of beautiful women, fight warriors and sorcerers, and make a place to call home.

Something Bright self-published by R. Cooper looks like an ordinary Wild West cross-dressing romance, but since it’s situated in a series of stories with supernatural characters, I expect that not everything is what it seems in the cover copy.

Left on her own at a young age, Batch grew up in logging camps as a rough-and-tumble tomboy in men’s clothing, and kept all her soft and tender impulses carefully hidden. Even her name is a joke to most, and she used to drink to keep herself from minding. But with the area quieting down into orderly farms and civilized towns, complete with stricter notions of propriety, and her mind finally clear and sober, Batch is starting to wonder, and worry, about who she is, and where her place in the world might be. It’s a bit of a shock to encounter Olivia Hooper again in the middle of her worrying. Like Batch, Hooper dresses in pants and does work most women don’t. But Hooper is something special. She wears her hair short and carries herself so confidently that few attempt to argue with her on the matter. She befriends everyone Batch cares about, and tells fantastical stories about true love, and destiny, and the town where she grew up; a place where no one cares how she dresses—or who she might step out with. Hooper talks a lot of nonsense, but Batch is intrigued. Maybe it’s Hooper’s eyes that sometimes, almost, seem to glow, or the way no one can sneak up on her. Or maybe it’s the bold way Hooper declares that she’s in search of a wife, with her fierce gaze fixed right on Batch. The idea is as impossible as Hooper’s mythical hometown. But less than a day under Olivia Hooper’s careful attention and Batch finds herself feeling almost like she’s someone special too, someone delicate and soft and admired for it. As if Hooper’s stories are real, and there is a place for Batch if Batch could only dare to imagine it.

The ultimately unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of the mid-20th century is the setting for This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke from Knopf Books. The book has fantasy elements and is promoted as having queer representation, although it’s hard to tell exactly what that representation is from the cover copy. I’m including it on faith.

In the middle of Budapest, there is a river. Csilla knows the river is magic. During WWII, the river kept her family safe when they needed it most--safe from the Holocaust. But that was before the Communists seized power. Before her parents were murdered by the Soviet police. Before Csilla knew things about her father's legacy that she wishes she could forget. Now Csilla keeps her head down, planning her escape from this country that has never loved her the way she loves it. But her carefully laid plans fall to pieces when her parents are unexpectedly, publicly exonerated. As the protests in other countries spur talk of a larger revolution in Hungary, Csilla must decide if she believes in the promise and magic of her deeply flawed country enough to risk her life to help save it, or if she should let it burn to the ground.

And, of course, the last April book is my own title, The Language of Roses from Queen of Swords Press, discussed previously.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading in the last month? It wasn’t until I put together this list that it hit how thoroughly I’ve pivoted to audiobooks lately.

I’ve been pretty much binging Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, having listened to books 2 to 4: A Conspiracy in Belgravia, The Hollow of Fear, and The Art of Theft. Completely unexpectedly and rather delightfully, I discovered that The Art of Theft revolves around a sapphic relationship of one of the main side characters. I had no idea I had that in store when I started the series. One of the other books also has a minor sapphic twist to a side plot with an entirely happy ending. So I feel somewhat more vindicated in loving the books this much.

I took in another K.J. Charles m/m Regency, Band Sinister. The plot reminded me a bit of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia—one of my favorites—in how an injury to one of a pair of close siblings pitches the other sibling into forced proximity with a man whose libertine reputation is both well-deserved and utterly sympathetic.

I rounded off the month’s listening with Jae’s Backwards to Oregon. I never have gone back and finished listening to K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Phoenix Empress, and at this point should probably consider it given up on.

I’m also still reading Samantha Rajaram’s The Company Daughters. It’s a hard story—full of angst and tragedy—but I’m eager to know how it all comes out. The main reason I haven’t done as much other reading in text this month is that I’m part of a book club doing a read-through of Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, using the very literal, rather than verse, translation by Guido Waldman. I may put my thoughts on Orlando into a review later. For now, let’s just say that if the Monty Python crew had done a movie version of this book, it would probably need to be a bit tamer and more coherent than the original. But despite Orlando getting to be the title character, the central organizing figure in the adventure is the woman warrior Bradamante. And she isn’t the only female warrior in the text. There are also some surprisingly feminist moments—if brief ones—which make a sharp contrast with the fate of most of the non-martial female characters. The podcast episode I did on women warriors includes some bits from Orlando.

Author Guest

For those who have missed the author interviews on this show, you’ll be happy to know that I have a couple of interviews recorded and another couple scheduled, so I have hopes of getting back to having interviews as a regular feature for On the Shelf. Let me know if there’s an author you’d love to have me try to get on the show!

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

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Thursday, March 31, 2022 - 17:09

I haven't mentioned this anywhere except on my Discord previously, because I wasn't sure what the timeline was, but...

Daughter of Mystery is going to be an audiobook!!!

It's being put out by Tantor Media with a released date of June 7 listed. Spread the word to everyone who's been asking if Alpenia would ever be available in audio. Sales of the first book will affect whether they decide to pick up the rest of hte series.

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Daughter of Mystery
Friday, March 25, 2022 - 07:00

Every once in a while, you figure it’s time to read a book because it’s considered by many to be a classic and you want to see what the fuss is about. And besides which, it was on sale at Audible, so I finally checked out Backwards to Oregon by Jae. This is marketed as lesbian historical romance though, like a number of other reviewers, I have significant discomfort with that label. My one-sentence plot-summary might be “novelization of the classical ‘Oregon Trail’ computer game, centering a queer relationship.”

The story is very slow-moving. As in: at the pace of an ox-drawn wagon crossing the prairies slow. I think I figured out that the pacing is aimed at readers who delight in things like 500K coffee-shop AUs of their favorite characters. It isn’t the destination, but the journey. We encounter almost every milestone, obstacle, and disaster that one might find when emigrating west. The research is adequate—though one might quibble over details like how reasonable it is to be enjoying lemonade in the middle of a primitive trek through the Great Plains—and the writing is solid, except for a tendency to repeat descriptions, character thoughts, and reactions over and over again. Which…I’ll get back to.

But I can’t recommend this book. It’s a book that had a fleeting moment of zeitgeist between the time when a queer historical novel became a marketable possibility and when reader expectations around the depiction of gender and sexuality became more nuanced. Because if you listen to what the characters are thinking and saying, this isn’t a lesbian romance, this is the story of a trans man, and of a woman who never actually respects his stated identity or his personal boundaries. A woman who has a (historically accurate) obliviousness to the concept of consent. And a relationship made excruciating by everyone’s refusal to make any attempt at genuine communication.

Luke regularly thinks (and eventually says) that he thinks of himself as a man, he is most comfortable living as a man, and (though he doesn’t use the specific terminology) he has significant dysphoria around anyone, including his partner, viewing him disrobed. This situation is “solved” in the story by Nora wearing him down and insisting on interacting with his body as a female body until he stops protesting. When Nora believed him to be assigned-male, her disregard for his boundaries involved repeatedly trying to initiate an erotic component to their marriage despite Luke’s refusal to do so. Nora, mind you, has her own issues as a former prostitute who entered into the marriage understanding it to be a mutually-beneficial business relationship. She wants a future for herself and her child (soon to be children) away from the brothel; Luke wants a beard and the doubling of land allotted to a married settler versus a single man.

Luke is a gentleman and a great guy, and seems to be the perfect husband for a woman who’s had quite enough of men’s sexual needs for a lifetime. Yet Nora repeatedly mulls over how it isn’t a “real” marriage because they haven’t had sex. (Insert asexual wince here.)

Because of the repetitive structure of the prose, we experience these issues over and over again. We get to hear repeatedly about how and why each of them has trust issues. About how their past trauma informs their present reflexes. About the mistaken ideas each has about the other’s motivations (that overwhelm every bit of actual progress they make along the way). Over and over again. And then – all of a sudden, we get the requisite extended sex scene, a final crisis, a bit of plot-whiplash that comes out of nowhere, and it’s done. And they live happily ever after with their horse ranch in Oregon.

This book needs all the content warnings: domestic violence, cliff-hanging peril, secondary character death, homophobia, the aforementioned trans erasure and violation of personal boundaries, oh and also cartoonish Hollywood-style portrayals of Native Americans. Even with all that, I can see why the book is popular among the people who like it. And back in 2007 when it was first published, the issues around the treatment of gender and sexuality wouldn’t have been quite as out of step with the times. But today all those issues can’t be ignored.

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Thursday, March 24, 2022 - 17:00

I had expected Tvordi's analysis of the homoerotic elements in these plays to follow the conventional path and consider the erotics of cross-dressing. But I rather loved this different look at agency and power differentials within the two couples it examines. This is, of course, one of the two articles that led me to discuss this collection in the blog.

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Full citation: 

Tvordi, Jessica. 1999. “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim in As You Like It and Twelfth Night” 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

Tvordi, Jessica. “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim”

Tvordi’s article digs into the importance of female alliances for characters in early modern drama, and how those alliances represent a whole range of relationships including family, friendship, service, marriage resistance, and even desire. [Note: the topic of f/f desire in early modern drama is even more deeply examined by Walen 2005] But given the imperatives of the “marriage plot,” these alliances are often broken or left behind in the play’s resolution. More rarely, pairs of female characters make a space for f/f alliances entirely apart from heterosexual marriage, as with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It and Maria and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Within these bonds they support and rely on each other, even as one member of the pair is pursuing a heterosexual goal. Tvordi’s argument is that these persistent, supportive f/f relationships also involve an intense emotional bond that shades into the erotic.

As I get to this point in the article, my immediate reaction is surprise and curiosity that it is the Maria-Olivia bond that is being considered, not the Viola-Olivia bond, which is the more obvious site of homoeroticism in Twelfth Night. But Tvordi addresses that in a brief review of the state-of-the field of early modern female homoeroticism (in 1999). Female transvestite figures, rather than helping to shed light on images of, and attitudes toward, female homoeroticism, tend to create the potential for male characters “to cross erotic boundaries through their interactions with the transvestite figure”. That is, despite the illusion of f/f desire created by female characters interacting with cross-dressed women, Shakespeare’s cross-dressed women are all solidly pursuing heterosexual goals (under the superficial appearance of m/m eroticism).

The verbal expression of desire between women in Shakespeare comes from more traditionally “feminine” characters, and can rival the romantic speeches of m/f couples. These characters do not overtly challenge gender roles (and within the plot, rarely successfully challenge heterosexual imperatives) which has led to their homoerotic aspects being overlooked. Both Celia and Maria challenge standard gender roles and the boundaries of sexuality, not only in regard to Rosalind and Olivia respectively, but with other characters.

But female “erotic alliances” aren’t necessarily symmetric and entirely supportive. Both Celia and Maria act to interfere with their partner’s heterosexual ventures in part to maintain the importance of their own role: Maria with respect to her role in Olivia’s household, and Celia as friend and ally. There are significant differences between the two pairs: Maria-Olivia involves differences of class and status while Celia-Rosalind are close kin and nominally equal in class. Celia makes regular verbal expressions of her love for Rosalind, while Maria demonstrates her devotion primarily through acts rather than words. [Note: On the other hand, as I noted in the Shakespeare podcast. Shakespeare is unusually coy with respect to explicit reference to f/f sexual possibilities, in comparison with his contemporaries.] But Tvordi suggests that the verbal expressions in As You Like It can be used to fill in the silences in Twelfth Night regarding how the relationship between Maria and Olivia may have developed before the play, or in offstage moments. [Note: I’m a bit uneasy about applying this idea to a work of literature, as opposed to applying it to biography. The characters do not technically have a life other than what’s in the script.]

The plays also contrast in that As You Like It overtly promotes heterosexual goals (imperiling the f/f alliance) while Twelfth Night is overtly hostile to heterosexual pairing (leaving space for a sympathetic treatment of the Maria-Olivia bond). As You Like It contrasts Rosalind’s overt gender transgression as Ganymede with Celia’s verbal expressions of love for Rosalind, and her actions to create and maintain a homoerotic alliance. Whereas Rosalind does not return similar expressions and her actions are in pursuit of a heterosexual bond (or at least reflect a heterosexual obsession). From the very beginning of the play, Celia drives the actions, motivated by her love for Rosalind, and consistently acts in support of that alliance.

The Celia-Rosalind bond is framed as a “girlhood friendship” (similarly to Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to the somewhat more passoinage Emilia-Flavina in The Two Noble Kinsmen), the language of these friendships is passionate and erotically charged. The imagery of these friendships is that of similarity, of love that is inspired by equality and likeness. And in As You Like It other characters comment on the intense nature of Celia and Rosalind’s love “dearer than…sisters.” But the friendship is asymmetric: although they are of equal birth, Celia has more power due to her father’s usurpation of the throne, and Rosalind has clearly cooled somewhat toward her as a result.

Thus the alliance is in the process of re-negotiation, where Celia offers Rosalind continued love and personal support in exchange for Rosalind turning away from the pursuit of heterosexual alliance and accepting their new power differential. When Orlando enters the scene, Celia repeatedly tries to discourage Rosalind’s attentions to him. Although Rosalind is typically attributed to have more agency, due to her decision to disguise herself as a man, when the actual actions in the initial scenes of the play are examined, it is Celia who acts with more agency. But when Rosalind crosses the gender boundary, conventional relations give her (back) the greater power between them. In the presence of others, Celia plays the subservient woman, returning to her more assertive personality only when she is alone with Rosalind.

At Rosalind’s emphatic choice of Orlando, Celia essential disappears from the play, returning with no explanation as a romantic door prize for Orlando’s brother, an abrupt turn of events that even Orlando questions.

In Twelfth Night, acting as Olivia’s waiting woman, Maria supports her rejection of male authority and courtship, including when it comes in the form of the cross-dressed Viola. There is no direct evidence of an erotic aspect to this bond, except perhaps in seeing a parallel with the eroticized master-servant relationship of Duke Orsino and the disguised Viola, the asymmetric attraction of Olivia for Cesario/Viola (playing a servant), and perhaps more overtly, of Viola’s brother Sebastien and his servant Antonio. Within this complex of eroticized cross-class relationships, the erotic potential of the Maria-Olivia alliance can be seen as implied, even if not expressed.

Maria’s defense against the male suitors can be seen as a two-sided defense of female sovereignty: of Olivia’s independent single state, and of her own position administering Olivia’s household. All the male figures in the household hold less power (and indeed are presented as comic figures). But Olivia’s bending to the attractions of Cesario/Viola proves the weak spot in their defenses, and Maria is sent away so that Olivia is free to open negotiations.

Even the ultimate marriages of both women renegotiate, rather than disrupting, their bond. In marrying Sir Toby, Maria relinquishes the servant-mistress bond that gave her authority within Olivia’s household, but gains social rank and the claim of kinship to Olivia. And Viola, too, is welcomed into an alliance of female equals (her disguise being left behind) rather than being resisted as a male intruder.

Tvordi posits that there is a direct relationship between the degree to which the play is invested in heterosexuality, the degree to which homoerotic relations are expressed overtly, and whether those homoerotic relations are maintained or disrupted by the play’s conclusion. If the core of the play is less about the imperative of marriage, then there is less need to depict the female homoerotic alliance as being clearly present and challenged.

Time period: 
Tuesday, March 22, 2022 - 08:00

I just had to say that, ok? This is an interesting analysis, and tangentially Project-relevant with its focus on a female household, but there were a few odd clunkers in the author's reasoning. It felt a bit like the author is too focused on questions of literary symbolism and not quite familiar enough with gendered aspects of material and social culture. The one example I'll give is when she interprets a scene where a woman is spinning thread as part of a magical ritual as representing appropriation of male power via the subversion of a "phallic" spindle and production of "ejaculatory thread." Yes, the phrase "ejaculatory thread" appears in print there. For anyone familiar with the overwhelming power of the spindle as a female symbol, and indeed one so strongly bound to the female sphere that the favorite way of depicting an emasculated man was to show him using a spindle...well, let's just say it seemed like an unlikely interpretation.

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Full citation: 

Ostovich, Helen. 1999. “The Appropriation of Pleasure in The Magnetic Lady” 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

Ostovich, Helen. “The Appropriation of Pleasure in The Magnetic Lady

So, Ben Johnson is a massive misogynist, we know that, right? This analysis of gendered roles and alliances in his play The Magnetic Lady, reveals a complex feminine world, despite the hatred and disgust shown for any female character who is not a well-born, passive, virtuous cypher. Women acting together, in a variety of strongly female-coded roles such as midwife, nurse, and widowed householder, try to subvert the patriarchal establishment by taking ownership of their own sexuality and acting to further female goals in marriage. This, of course, by the logic of the play, makes them the villains.

The potential relevance of this article to the Project comes in how female-headed, female-centered households of the early 17th century were depicted within misogynistic satirical literature. They must have been a significant enough feature of society to provoke male anxiety. We see themes like widows having an active (if covert) sex life without binding themselves in marriage, female alliances to deal with the consequences of unwed motherhood, and the ways in which male relatives held legal power over women’s finances and strategized to retain that power.

Time period: 
Saturday, March 19, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 225 - A History of Lesbian Sex in Pornography - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/03/19 - listen here)

(For the video version of this show, see our YouTube channel. Video includes explicit sexual images.) - Apologies for the sound quality of the original upload.


I love the opportunity to make a project do double-duty, so when Sheena asked me to contribute to an event on lesbian erotic fiction with something on the topic of sapphic erotica in history, I jumped at the opportunity because I already had something along that line on my list of podcast ideas. This presentation will be available in two versions: one with and one without the slide show, so there are a couple references to images that won’t make sense in the audio-only version. Also, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title, this presentation will include explicit language and images.

The only major stumbling block to this topic is that, in the pre-20th century material that I study, lesbian-friendly erotica (within a modern understanding of those terms) isn’t very thick on the ground. Prior to the later 20th century, you don’t see much in the way of sexual literature featuring female couples that is written by or for women.

There’s also the question of definitions. There’s a lot of fuzzy overlap between literature and art that simply has sexual content, material that is specifically intended to arouse the consumer, and satirical or political works whose sexual content is intended to shock or disgust the viewer. When doing a historic survey of material within the general category of erotica and pornography, there’s always a question of what purpose it was intended to serve within its original social context. And I’m completely side-stepping any distinction between the labels “pornography” and “erotica.” Too often, all that distinction ends up meaning is “erotica is the good stuff I like and pornography is the bad stuff you like.”

So this tour through time will cover a variety of genres of sex-related art and literature, with a variety of purposes, focusing specifically on material featuring sex between women. But be aware that very little of it can reasonably be labeled “lesbian erotica” as that term would be understood today.

The Theory of Pornography

The words “pornography” and “erotica” both derive from Greek roots, although both words were coined in more recent centuries by scholars who wanted an elevated vocabulary for talking about sexual material. “Pornography” literally means “writings or pictures concerning sex workers” while “erotica” comes from the root eros which referred to love in the sense of sexual desire. In general, we use those terms when one of the purposes of the material is to create a sexual response in the consumer. So, for example, a medical treatise with illustrations of the genitals that discusses reproductive health generally does not fall in the category of pornography. Art depicting semi-clothed bodies in sensual poses may be considered pornography or may be considered a neutral adherence to the prevailing artistic tastes, depending on the culture. Art that depicts a sex act with a focus on showing the genitals will usually be considered pornography, regardless of other considerations.

While art and literature that depict sex acts has been around more or less since the invention of art and writing, the creation of material intended to cause arousal is more dependent on what a particular culture considers arousing. And the production of works that combine the intent of sexual arousal and the breaking of cultural taboos is even more recent. The concept of “pornography” as a defined category of sexual material is rooted in a specific cultural and political context. And I should note that this discussion is focused on Western culture because that’s the context I know enough to talk about. I don’t even know enough to know whether the concept of pornography has any meaning in pre-modern, non-Western cultures, given that one of the forces that produced it was the sexually repressive attitude of Christianity. The meaning and uses of explicit sexual material in other historic cultures can differ wildly and are worth study on their own.

The concept of pornography exists in counterpoint to the idea that sexual content in art and writing should be controlled or censored by some sort of authority. This approach has its roots in 16th century Italy, when the creativity of Renaissance humanism, combined with the revival of the body-positive artistic traditions of classical art generated a boom in explicitly sexual works that were met by growing concern and censorship by the Vatican.

An example would be I Modi, the popular manual of sexual positions using the engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi for which Pietro Aretino wrote a sequence of bawdy sonnets. Aretino also wrote a set of dialogues or Ragionamenti in which women discuss sexual topics—a genre that was prominent in early pornographic works. The name “Aretino” became a byword for sex manuals and related concepts in later ages, but his work was part of a wider 16th c Italian humanist tradition of obscene writing for the masses, in addition to the more educated tradition of literature that used sexual allegories to discuss politics. Raimondi was imprisoned for the publication of I Modi which, alas, only illustrates heterosexual couples, although he also created at least one image of a woman using a dildo. To some extent, what drew the attention of the authorities was the opportunity for mass distribution that printed books created, and control over pornography acted primarily though control over the authorization of printed matter. In the era when pieces of art and literature were individually created by hand, distribution had natural limits.

Although the word “pornography” didn’t come into widespread use until the 19th century, the concept—as a legal and regulatory category—developed during the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France and England. Specific social and political concerns in those countries (which I’ll get to in a moment) resulted in French and English works dominating the genre until the 19th century, when translations and original works in other languages also became popular.

The concept and popularity of pornography was intertwined with intellectual movements that emphasized free-thinking and the challenging of cultural control. Just as the rise in popular sexual media was a byproduct of the Renaissance, the rise in concern about pornography came in the wake of the Age of Reason and the age of revolutions. Pornographers stood with heretics and libertines in defying political absolutism, and pornographic texts were often as much direct challenges to political authorities as they were to moral authorities. To some extent, the concept of pornography has always emerged from the act of suppression. But the nature and preoccupations of pornography have also been shaped by the specific cultural context, and this is rarely more evident than in how the topic of sex between women is treated. Because those free-thinking, libertine, heretical movements were often wildly misogynistic, and women’s roles in the history of pornography were more often as abstract subjects than as creators or intended consumers.

Regardless of topic, men’s voices are over-represented in the historic record compared to women’s voices, due to the structures of the production and distribution of art and literature being dominated by men. This is even more the case for sexual material, as cultural double-standards tended to discourage women from expressing their sexual desires, and suppressed their work or punished them personally when they dared to do so. In eras when men were writing and publishing a wide range of content from non-sexual to pornographic, women tended to stop short of the more explicit end of the scale if they wanted their work to be taken seriously. Even when pre-modern pornography is expressed from a female viewpoint, it is most often written by a man and reflects male attitudes toward sexual relations. When those relations are between women, we are far more likely to be seeing male fantasies than accurate reporting of women’s experiences.

Keep this in mind as we trace themes and examples of lesbian pornography across the centuries. And make no mistake, sex between women holds a significant position in the history of pornography.

Classical Material

Although depictions of sex between women are a through-line in the history of Western pornography, it isn’t a given that every culture that produces art or literature intended to produce sexual arousal will use female couples for that purpose. The erotic works of classical Greece and Rome are a counter-example. The reasons are complex, but there is a near absence of art depicting sexual scenes with female couples, or written works where sex between women is depicted in a way that the consumer is intended to find erotic.

One scene from a fresco in Pompeii depicting a series of sex acts shows two women (although the condition of the art means you’ll have to take my word for it). But when viewed within the context of the whole sequence, there is a sliding scale from positively framed sex acts to deprecated sex acts, with this image falling toward the latter end, grouped with depictions of oral sex (which the Romans considered filthy) and depictions of a man simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated by sexual partners (which was considered logically incoherent).

This attitude was not a general ambivalence toward depicting same-sex acts, as depictions of male pairs were common and popular, as long as the defined roles were observed. Nor was there any reticence in classical Greece and Rome around erotic work in general. Rather, it was specifically that the men creating these works—primarily for a male audience—did not find the idea of two women together attractive. This is useful to keep in mind when we look at early modern pornography where such scenes were commonplace.

Medieval Material

Medieval literature is notorious for its bawdy humor and did not shy away from depicting sexual situations. But it would be odd to characterize such works as pornographic, as works with sexual content were not set apart from ordinary literature, and sexual humor was not treated as distinct from scatological humor or other types of transgressive texts. To oversimplify somewhat, medieval literature was more inclined to use sexual content to poke fun rather than to arouse. Art depicting sexual situations in general treat them as part of everyday experience, without an exaggerated focus on the genitals or the mechanics of the activity.  There were sexual taboos, but there was not yet a genre that violated them as an act of defiance or resistance—the dynamics that gave rise to the idea of pornography.

Depictions or descriptions of same-sex activity tend to illustrate religious prohibitions and avoid explicit details, more often showing the partners displaying physical affection but not the sex act itself. For example, the image from an illustrated Bible that I use in the logo for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project shows a female couple and a male couple, each in erotic embrace, but fully clothed. The image is intended as an illustration of the text about forbidden sexual acts, but it is not explicit or transgressive in any other way.

Early Modern Material (16-17th century)

Art and literature of the Renaissance and early modern era see a rise in both a focus on sex and an anxiety about it. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare, for example, is aware that bawdy sexual humor was a staple of the era. Anxieties about gender roles and relations between men and women in general show up in a wide variety of material, and medical literature that focuses on sex and reproduction can have a rather fuzzy boundary with more prurient literature, especially as they were more often published in vernacular languages and easily accessible editions.

Sexual or romantic relations between women were part of this wealth of material, but were not necessarily viewed as a separate category, even when given their own labels such as “fricatrices”. Sexual literature might discuss female couples as a sort of curiosity, or as a type of apprenticeship for heterosexual experience, or as a natural consequence of women’s stronger libidos (as was then believed).

For example, in the 1638 play “The Antipodes” by Richard Brome, a still-virgin wife of three years is complaining to a friend about not knowing how to get her husband to perform, while recalling a same-sex erotic encounter in her past. There is no concept that a male versus female sexual partner indicates a particular orientation or identity, although “spouse” versus “non-spouse” is a relevant category. Similarly there is no hint that her friend might react negatively to this revelation of same-sex experience. The only aspect of the scenario that is considered problematic is her husband’s sexual indifference.

Medical literature embraced the theory that female orgasm was essential to conception, as well as to female health in general, and therefore professional advice included techniques for clitoral stimulation and other activities that could be used for non-procreative sex. Engaging the help of an experienced woman or midwife to achieve orgasm “for one’s health” was an approved practice. In this context, the substitution of a dildo for the male organ completes the shift from procreation to pleasure. But with this shift, we move from medical and behavioral advice to obscenity, from the merely bawdy to the pornographic.

In this context, the image of women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always -- in the literature -- for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal). In terms of activities, equipment, and effects, medical literature and pornography are very little distinguished. And there was a constant anxiety that medical writings would be condemned as obscene. Medical works were often censored in later editions (especially the parts on female anatomy) due to fear that they would put ideas into the reader’s mind.

And, of course, not all works with sexual content had more than a pretense of anything but prurient interest, such as the 16th century French courtier Brantôme’s, Lives of Gallant Ladies, which purported to be an educational treatise on women’s adultery. An entire section of the work concerns sex between women, presented with a sort of fascinated distaste. But Brantôme certainly considered images of lesbian sex to have erotic potential. He relates an anecdote about a group of “ladies and their lovers” admiring a painting of women at the bath who were portrayed embracing and fondling each other in so stimulating a way that one lady demanded that her lover take her home to satisfy her immediately. We can’t know exactly which painting he was referring to, but Jean Mignon’s mid-16th century engraving of women in a bathhouse shows the type of scene he had in mind.

I previously mentioned the “conversational” work of Aretino, in which two women discuss sexual topics in a series of dialogues. In the 17th century, this genre embraces the motif of the sexual initiation of one woman by another, leading eventually to the less experienced woman being introduced to heterosexual encounters and, in many cases, to increasingly debauched forms of sex involving multiple partners, flagellation, and other elaborations. This sexual initiation motif continues over the following centuries to be a way of introducing lesbian scenarios in a context that is non-threatening to the male reader, as it is explicitly presented as an apprenticeship to heterosexuality.

One of the foundational works in this vein is L’Académie des dames (The Academy of Women) attributed to Nicholas Chorier and published in 1660. The French work is a translation and adaptation of a slightly earlier Latin original, Satyra Sotadica, whose authorship is much debated.

The work is structured as a dialogue between two women: the older, experienced Tullie and her younger cousin Octavie who moves from fiancée to wife in the course at the book. The book begins with Tullie providing sexual advice and coaching to the inexperienced Octavie and moves on to discussions between them of their experiences with the increasingly kinky sex they experience with their husbands and others. The text balances a libertine rejection of social norms with just enough portrayal of shock or disgust on the part of the women to give the reader a frisson of transgression. (And to give the author, perhaps, plausible deniability regarding the work’s morality.)

There are distinctions in how heterosexual and homosexual encounters are treated in the work. In particular, although male-male sex is discussed and hinted at, it is never portrayed directly, despite ample opportunity, given the scenarios. Sex between women, on the other hand, is plentiful and foregrounded (naturally enough, given that the main conversations are between women). It is introduced as a way to initiate the younger woman into sexual pleasure to prepare her for marriage, but continues even as Octavie enters into her heterosexual adventures.

The women's same-sex activities are clearly framed as being irrelevant to their marriages. Lesbian activity is presented as not constituting adultery and furthermore as not deriving from any specific orientation or preference, but being available to (and typically desired by) all women. The work avoids depicting women who are solely or predominantly attracted to women as an acceptable option, though examples suggesting this are played for humor.

In Chorier’s text, sex between women is generally presented as non-penetrative, and when penetration is hinted at, it is the only context in which an act between women is characterized as adultery.

We have an unusual window on the reading context of a similar work, the anonymous L’Ecole des filles (The School for Venus) published in 1655. This book is mentioned by Samuel Pepys who noted that he planned to burn it after reading so that no one would ever list it among the books in his library. A coded entry in his diary indicates that he masturbated while reading it. I haven’t been able to confirm whether the dialogue in this work includes sex between the two women, but the episode demonstrates how such books were received and used. The image here is a frontispiece form a 19th century edition, not the original 17th century one.

Another stock theme of early modern pornography featuring female couples was the convent seduction, which combined outraging sexual morals with satirizing religious morals. One example that also uses the dialogue format is Jean Barrin’s Vénus dans le Cloître (Venus in the Convent) originally published in 1683 and later republished and translated in expanded editions. The work takes the form of a dialogue between two fictional teenaged nuns, Sister Agnes and Sister Angelique, in which the elder, Angelique, comes upon the newly arrived Sister Agnes in the middle of masturbating and decides to give her a more formal instruction in sexual pleasure.

As is typical in this sort of “sex education” genre, we find an older, sexually experienced woman initiating a younger, sexually naive one who makes a show of being reluctant or embarrassed. Angelique’s past sexual experience is not limited to women, but the convent setting provides the context and excuse for the description of same-sex acts. The work has a certain air of criticizing the sexual repression encouraged by the convent structure, but this is largely window-dressing. An English translation of the work in the early 18th century may have been the subject of the first legal conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom.

The 18th century and the Rise of Pornography

Across the18th century we see several shifts in attitudes toward sex that shape the content and reception of pornography. The relatively pansexual libertine attitudes of the later 17th century begin to give way to a narrowing of the acceptable options for male sexuality. Even among the more adventurous parts of society, male same-sex encounters become less accepted and we see the rise of a sense that male desire for men constitutes a specific identity rather than a polymorphous taste. Female desire continued to be treated as pansexual for a longer time, but the female narrators of pornographic works were increasingly limited to sex workers and the demi-monde rather than offering a sense that all women were expected to be sexually adventurous.

Pornographic works often have a secondary purpose of critiquing some social or political institution—increasingly so later in the century, but an early example is Delarivere Manley’s political allegories, including The New Atalantis (published 1714). Her work often satirized women with social and political connections to Queen Anne, and used implications of lesbian sex as one means of challenging the female-centered power structures of the English court. Lesbianism as political satire would become even more prominent later in the 18th century in a far more explicit form, but Manley’s satires were more in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge category, even when it was clear that the women were having sex.

Convents continued to be a popular setting for lesbian pornography, in both Catholic and Protestant cultures. Catholic writers were often satirizing what they viewed as the hypocrisy of the church and its institutions, while Protestant writers might view the entire institution as inherently corrupt, with the suppression of sexuality automatically leading to debauchery.

This religious pornography might fall in the “sexual initiation” genre, but more commonly we see the rise of a more predatory scenario in which an authority figure in the convent takes advantage of the required obedience of the novices to seduce them, or scenes of penance and flagellation are sexualized. Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse (The Nun) published in 1760 falls somewhat in the middle of the scale. We have the motif of an experienced, predatory, older authority figure taking advantage of a rather improbably naive religious novice. The novice’s initial bewildered innocence—even as she is brought to orgasm—turns to manipulation in order to receive favors and concessions in exchange for her compliance. Eventually, when pressured to admit the erotic nature of the affair, she flees the convent and comes to a bad end.

Pornography focusing on sex workers, and especially on the theme of a young girl being initiated into the profession by an established mentor, becomes prevalent across the 18th century. These works generally include a fairly brief lesbian episode at the beginning, followed by more extensive descriptions of the girl’s professional adventures. Two works both published in 1748 illustrate this genre. The French Thérèse Philosophe (Therese the Philosopher) follows a not-entirely-naïve country girl arriving in Paris, who is taken under the wing of a female neighbor who grooms her for prostitution by initiating a sexual relationship with her. The second is John Cleland’s famous Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill. Fanny is educated in sexual experience by a fellow prostitute who, it is stated, has a specific taste for lesbian sex, although Fanny herself finds it unsatisfying.

Lesbian episodes feature in passing in many works, such as the copiously illustrated French work Histoire de Dom Bougre, portier des Chartreux (published ca. 1748 and possibly authored by Jean-Charles de Latouche). The sexual adventures of the titular character, a lascivious priest, involve a wide variety of positions and combinations of participants, but at least one episode in the work involves a female couple with no man shown as being present.

The sexual memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, A History of My Life featured at least one scene in passing in which the author enjoyed a threesome with two women who engaged in sex with each other. Works such as these were very much in the libertine tradition which viewed women as open to all types of erotic activity, where lesbianism was simply an appetizer within the banquet.

In other material, sex between women is front and center, such as the novel Juliette by the Marquis de Sade. Juliette is the more licentious sister of de Sade’s more famous protagonist Justine. Having been seduced by a nun in the convent where the two sisters were being educated, Juliette embarks on a libertine life in which sex with women features heavily, along with the violent encounters to which de Sade gave his name.

French pornographic literature of the later 18th century increasingly became saturated with sequences of sexual encounters and obscene language, with only the flimsiest semblance of a plot connecting them. But threaded through the whole was rage at the political conditions in revolutionary-era France, and sexual writing was one means of expressing that rage.

As I detailed in my podcast about the Anandrine Sect, French anxieties around secret societies and the participation of women in politics were funneled into the image of a pseudo-Masonic lesbian sex club, as described in loving detail in the novel L’Espion Anglois, published in 1779 by Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert. The work is a collection of salacious anecdotes, one of which involves an adolescent country girl who, having inclinations toward sex with women, is sent off to Paris to be initiated into the Anandrine sect. The practices of this group are described in a fairly soft-focus manner, more talked about than presented in graphic detail. The description of the Anandrine Sect in L’espion Anglois is decidedly tame compared to the content of a political pamphlet from 1791 entitled Liberty, or Mademoiselle Raucourt to the Whole Anandrine Sect, which can best be understood as part of a connected series of raunchy political satires featuring a mythical “Committee on Fuckery” which has taken on itself the application of revolutionary principles to the sexual underworld of prostitutes, sodomites, and tribades. The intent of this sub-genre leans much more to simple shock value, where crude language and a steady stream of graphic descriptions satirize the over-the-top polemics of political pamphlets.

Lesbian imagery as political attack reached its peak in revolutionary France in the accusations brought against Queen Marie-Antoinette that various of her female courtiers had been her lovers. Whether or not the accusations were true—and it’s quite possible that they were—the hostility toward Queen Marie Antoinette in France derived from a number of themes. She was foreign. She was financially profligate. And for quite some time she failed to produce an heir to the throne. The aristocracy in general were viewed as licentious, and this immorality in turn was considered to underlie the political instability of the nation. Antipathy to political favoritism was expressed in exaggerated form via accusations of sexual favoritism.

An anonymous pamphlet published in 1793 titled “The Private, Libertine, and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette” consists largely of a chronological catalog of all the women and men she was claimed to have engaged in sexual relations with, starting with her sisters at age ten and continuing through most of her closest friends and supporters in the court, including the duchess de Polignac and the princess de Lamballe.

Political pornography in England operated on a more individual basis. The explicit and pornographic attacks in William King’s poem The Toast satirized a woman he considered an enemy as being the leader of a band of lesbians, among other things, but the purpose of the work was to disgust, not to arouse.

Similarly, the polemical pamphlet Satan’s Harvest Home included an Orientalist fantasy of lesbian encounters in a Turkish bath by way of accusing English women of taking up the same vice, but it was not directed at specific individuals and was not intended to be erotic (though readers may have treated it as such). But various travel writers of the 18th and 19th centuries spun a more erotic view of women-only spaces within the Ottoman Empire, and these orientalist fantasies made their way into art such as scenes of a bath house by mid-19th century French painter Ingres (to step somewhat out of chronological order).

Other satirical pamphlets and ballads of the 18th century focused on women’s use of dildos to satisfy each other, such as the anonymous epic poem The Sappho-an and the more popular-oriented ballad Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or Seignor Dildo’s Adventures in Britain.

Medical literature continued to be a potential venue for offering pornographic material with a veneer of respectability. Works such as Giles Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditus (A Treatise on Hermaphrodites, published 1718) fed prurient curiosity about the possibility of women engaging in sex with each other using an enlarged clitoris. And this theme recurs in a curious publication titled A Supplement to the Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, which purported to be a polemic against masturbation but reads more like the letters column from Penthouse. Sex between women was sometimes framed as a type of masturbation—perhaps less worrisome to men that way—and several lesbian encounters are presented in the work, framed as either being caused by, or leading to, clitoral enlargement.

The Decadent 19thcentury

As we come to the end of the 18th century, there is yet another shift in the place of pornography in society. But that shift occurs in parallel with several general shifts in the intertwined fabric of politics, society, and concepts of gender and sex.

As a very brief—and vastly oversimplified—summary: the understanding of gender was moving from a view that the differences between women and men were—shall we say, quantitative—to a view that those differences were qualitative. That women and men were, functionally, different species with entirely different biological, intellectual, and emotional lives. This was one driver behind the “cult of the domestic woman”—the image of women (and let’s be honest, we’re talking about middle-class Christian white women) as some sort of pure, virtuous, sexless domestic caretaker. Somehow, gradually, over the course of the previous long century, women were no longer viewed as having the same erotic desires and experiences as men (indeed, as being more sexually driven than men). Among women, active sexual desire became assigned to the lower classes and to sex workers. For a good, respectable, middle-class woman to admit to enjoying sex was now tantamount to admitting she had no morals at all. I mean, of course many respectable middle-class women did enjoy sex, but a social model had developed that denied this.

In parallel with this had been a gradual shift from viewing sexual desire as being potentially pansexual and diffused across a variety of possible erotic activity (at least for those who failed to control their appetites) to a narrow focus on penis-in-vagina sex and a marginalization of same-sex activity to specific people with an individual proclivity for it. This, of course, was setting the stage for the modern concept of sexual orientation.

Control of sexual and other morals had traditionally fallen to formal power structures: the state and the church. But those structures were either losing their moral authority—one fallout of the association of the aristocracy with licentious behavior—or were simply abandoning responsibility. Moral control increasingly shifted to patriarchal family structures and social “peer pressure”. In part, this was implemented via an equation of the state with allegorical female embodiment. The nation--coded as a chaste and virtuous woman--was depicted as being at risk from violent sexual attack. This image was then turned around to place the burden of national honor on the proper and acceptable behavior of women. Loose morals in women undermined the stability and honor of the nation.

As one might imagine, these ideas didn’t sit well with everyone. Reactions against the cult of domesticity and the respectability politics of the early 19th century gave rise to social and literary movements specifically intended to produce shock and disgust. France became a center and source of this “decadent” movement, and that fact also led to a strong association of France with non-normative sexuality by neighboring cultures such as England. The use of lesbian encounters in decadent art and literature assumed an outsider’s gaze, but increasingly the social climate that allowed the genre to become more visible also created a space for women with same-sex interests to develop their own culture and literature, although with the understanding that their lives were also viewed as a performance for voyeurs. In this context, we begin to see publicly visible works by women on the subject of lesbian sexuality.

But another thing happened across the 19th century. Behaviors and conditions that were viewed as “anti-social” (that is, outside the accepted norms) were increasingly medicalized and classified in minute detail, within a literary tradition that was almost as voyeuristic as overt pornography. In the later 19th century, “case studies” of same-sex desire could be hard to distinguish from the “true confession” style of pornography that had emerged in the 18th century. And access to books that discussed homosexuality from a medical and psychological point of view typically were as strictly controlled and regulated by moral authorities as pornography was. Women’s access to books with sexual content—whether academic or prurient—was of particular concern. The interest in “protecting” women from knowledge about sex was two-fold: a belief that such subjects would disgust their innocent sensibilities, and a belief that such subjects would corrupt them into an unthinkable desire for sexual experience.

The decadent movement produced a vast array of pornographic and erotic works featuring sex between women—both artistic and literary. I include only a small selection here, primarily of more familiar works. While there is an element of deliberate provocation in most of these works, many are specifically intended to generate an eroticized “fear and loathing” in the (primarily) male consumers.

Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (published 1835) is inspired only very very loosely by a historic women, retaining her name, her cross-dressing, and her bisexuality. The title character is presented as alternating between female and male presentation to engage in sexual relations with both men and women.

From the same date, Honoré de Balzac’s novel The Girl With the Golden Eyes follows a man’s shocking discovery that the secret lover of the woman he desires is his own half-sister. The story devolves into jealousy and murder.

The poet Charles Baudelaire, famous for his collection The Flowers of Evil, published several poems in the mid-19th century specifically focused on lesbian relations, including “Lesbos”, and a sequence of poems titled “Damned Women”. His theme of female couples tormented by their desires inspired a number of artists to create works echoing the title of the poem. Baudelaire’s work, like that of many of the decadent writers, was banned and suppressed at various times for creating “an offense against public morals.”

Many of the male authors using explicit lesbian themes reveal a deep insecurity about men’s ability to compete with women on a sexual plane. Adolphe Belot’s 1870 novel Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife features a male protagonist who discovers that his new bride’s reluctance to consummate the marriage is due to an ongoing lesbian relationship. In Guy de Maupassant’s story “Paul’s Mistress” (published 1881), a man is driven mad when his mistress abandons him for another woman.

But another strain of works, particularly somewhat later in the century, was inspired by a revival of interest in the poetry and image of Sappho and evoked a somewhat softer eroticism, though still operating within a social framework where sex between women had shock value. This group includes works like Paul Verlaine’s poetry cycle Scenes of Sapphic Love (published 1867) that depict love between women, somewhat positively, though rather voyeuristically. The most famous of this genre is the collection The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs (published 1894) which fictionally purported to be a newly-discovered set of texts by a member of Sappho’s community of women and include explicit descriptions of sexual desire.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the counter-culture interest in lesbianism had also created space for women to express their own feelings on the topic. That makes a positive note on which to end this survey, with a look at the novel Lila and Colette by Catulle Mendès (published 1885) which adopts a pseudo-Hellenic style to depict lesbianism in a classical Greek setting.


Prior to the mid-20th century, a combination of factors worked to exclude women’s voices from the explicit depiction of lesbian eroticism in public discourse. The precarity of women’s careers in art and literature meant that controversial or shocking topics were more likely to be tackled by men. This, in turn, meant that sex between women—when depicted at all—tended to be handled in a voyeuristic way by outsiders. But despite this, lesbian sex was not erased from the pornographic record, nor was it necessarily treated in qualitatively different ways from how other types of sex were treated. In some eras, sex between women was simply considered one of the many different types of non-normative sexual activity that might be included in erotic literature and art. But it should be kept in mind that the depiction of women’s sexual activity in public culture generally tells us more about the attitudes of the dominant culture toward women in general, and toward women’s control over their own sex lives in particular, than it tells us about what women may have actually been getting up to in bed.

Show Notes

Note: This episode has an accompanying slide show, which can be accessed through the YouTube version of the podcast. (See transcript link.) Please note that the video includes explicit sexual imagery.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Friday, March 18, 2022 - 21:09

Just because an article isn't relevant to the focus of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project doesn't mean it isn't interesting. This one is an incisive look into intra-household politics in Colonial Virginia--I believe the only article in the collection that doesn't focus on England.

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Full citation: 

Brown, Kathleen M. 1999. “’A P[ar]cell of Murdereing Bitches’: Female Relationships in an Eighteenth-Century Slaveholding Household” 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, Kathleen M. ’A P[ar]cell of Murdereing Bitches’: Female Relationships in an Eighteenth-Century Slaveholding Household”

Like the previous paper, this one--the first in the section on “Alliances in the Household”--is not of direct relevance to the Project. It focuses on the context of an infanticide trial in early 18th century Virginia in which the accused was a prominent landowning white widow. Within a female-centered household that included people of various races and positions, including both free servants and enslaved people, the inter-personal connections and the ways in which the participants managed the communication of knowledge about the dead child demonstrate a dynamic more complex than “a female community” or class and racial divides. The analysis is fascinating but I’ll leave it at that.

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Thursday, March 17, 2022 - 07:46

In any collection, even ones more centrally focused on topics relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, there are going to be some misses. This is one.

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Full citation: 

Morgan-Russell, Simon. 1999. “’No Good Thing Ever Comes Out of It’: Male Expectation and Female Alliance in Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho” 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

Morgan-Russell, Simon. “’No Good Thing Ever Comes Out of It’: Male Expectation and Female Alliance in Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho

The topic of this article involves the reputation that the town of Brentford had as a place of adulterous assignation for residents of London, and how the sexual sheanigans of a group of men in the early 17th c play “Westward Ho” were subverted by the women who were the target of their desire via a femal alliance to keep the upper hand. I just barely skimmed this, as it doesn’t have any identifiable relevance to the Project. Included only for completness’ sake.

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