(Originally aired 2023/06/17 - listen here)
This installment in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s series on “Our F/Favorite Tropes” once again pairs two tropes that make an interesting “compare and contrast” set: titled aristocrats and billionaires. These two character-based tropes revolve around the premise that power and privilege is sexy, whether that power derives from a fixed social hierarchy or from extreme wealth. But these tropes intersect with gender issues in historic settings in very different ways, as we shall see.
What Is a Trope?
Let’s begin by reviewing what we mean by “trope.” In the context of romance novels, it means a conventional story element that is used regularly enough to have acquired a whole context of meaning that connects the story to others using the same trope. The trope may be a type of character—as in the current instance—or it may be a situation, or a sort of “mini-script” that the characters engage in.
In this series, we begin by examining the structure and assumptions around a trope as it typically plays out in male-female romance plots, and then reviewing how that structure or those assumptions change when a female couple is involved. The changes may depend on the specific historic and cultural context of the story. In general, I’ll be looking primarily at Western culture, and especially stories set in the British Isles, due not only to the way my research skews, but also because of the popularity of those settings.
Let’s put some cards on the table right off and note that when we’re talking about aristocrat romances, we’re talking about the fantasy of hot, young, wealthy, single aristocrats. Or at least three out of four. Within a male-female romance, the aristocrat is almost always the man (and we’ll get back to that topic in just a moment), while the female love interest is very often (though not always) not of the same class. A large part of the appeal comes from the “Cinderella” framework—a deserving woman of lower social status is given access to the world of aristocratic wealth and privilege via marriage to a duke…or whatever. Often, the plot tension comes from her rejection of the attraction of that privilege, such that the aristocrat needs to woo her on the basis of personality, rather than being able to leverage his wealth and social power to get what he wants.
In contrast to the billionaire (which we’ll get to later), there will be considerations of family status and lineage: he needs to think about producing heirs, he needs to maintain the honor and dignity of his name. These factors may either drive the plot directly, or may be explicitly violated. Or perhaps the aristocrat has taken advantage of his social privilege to get away with bad behavior and the love interest is either put off by this or is the one woman who sees through to the heart of gold within.
The romantic resolution in a marriage plot provides the love interest with two things that, in a male-female romance, come bundled together. She gets access to the social power and privilege that accompany her partner’s aristocratic title, and she gets elevated to his social rank and given her own aristocratic title.
How it Works (or Not)
But when we apply the aristocrat trope to a romance between two women, we need to separate out those two benefits because we run into two major obstacles: one merely inconvenient and one insurmountable.
The insurmountable problem is that, until very very recently, there is no social context for same-sex marriage to be a conduit for gaining aristocratic status. Now there’s a delightful emerging genre of queer “royal romance” novels that take advantage of the massive social changes in the last couple of decades. (And I’d be curious to know if there are any real-world same-sex marriages where one partner held an inherited aristocratic title, and how that was handled.)
But within the field of historic romance, it just isn’t possible. If you want to do that, you’re going to need to write a secondary-world historic fantasy, or introduce a gender-disguise element—which is a bit tricky for a character whose life will have been under the type of scrutiny that an aristocrat usually gets. I’ve been holding off on discussing how gender-crossing characters interact with tropes because I plan to cover that issue in its own episode. So forgive me for treating this as an absolute at this time.
For a same-sex aristocrat romance, the closest you can get to a marriage plot is the equivalent of an official mistress or favorite. And—mind you—some mistresses of aristocrats were de facto spouses, with a lot of power and privilege rubbing off on them. Royal mistresses might even be granted an aristocratic title for “service to the crown” though since the creation of new titles tended to reside at the top, this option wouldn’t be available for dukes and earls and whatnot. But what you can’t have is the romantic partner of a woman who holds an aristocratic title in her own right automatically being granted an equivalent title by virtue of that relationship.
The second obstacle, which is more nuanced, is the existence of your titled protagonist in the first place. The possibilities here will vary greatly by country and, to a lesser extent, by era. An aristocrat may acquire a title by inheritance, by marriage, or by grant.
Due to the sexist nature of Western history, it’s a fairly solid trend that only women acquire titles by marriage—an untitled man who marries a titled woman does not automatically acquire her title. (There are exceptions—evidently in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the husband of a titled heiress was given a courtesy title.) And, as we’ve noted, a same-sex partner can’t acquire a title by marriage in any case. If a romance heroine has a title by marriage, then either she has a living husband, which complicates the structure of the romance plot. (It’s perfectly historic for her to engage in a romantic liaison with a woman on the side, but that isn’t a classic romance novel plot.) Or she’s a widow. And if she’s a widow, then she will hold a dowager title by courtesy, but she will not be the primary holder of the power and status of that title. So again, we’re straying from the central prototype of the aristocrat trope.
The possibility of a woman inheriting a title depends strongly on country. For example, the custom in the German states excluded women entirely from inheriting titles. In France, it was hypothetically possible if there were no male heirs available, but whether this would be carried out in practice varied from region to region and from era to era. (I found a delightfully detailed study of this question in an article that I’ll link to in the show notes.) A woman inheriting a French title would likely have no siblings of either gender, and might be best served by having no uncles. Often it would also require a specific royal grant. And legal theories began pushing back even more strongly against these exceptions in the 17th century, upholding the principle that only men should inherit titles. I’ve found references to instances of women inheriting titles in some regions of Italy.
In the United Kingdom, which is statistically prominent in historic romance aristocracy, the question of whether a woman may inherit a title in the absence of male heirs depends on the specific title in question or on the process by which the title was originally created. The largest category that allowed this was “baronies created by writ, rather than by letters patent,” which is getting far too technical for this podcast, but be aware that it was extremely rare for the higher titles such as duchies and counties to have this allowance. For technical reasons involving female inheritance, a woman can only inherit the title (as opposed to the status) if she has no sisters. So if you’re setting up your heroine for this situation, she needs to be the only surviving child of her family.
Now the third way for a woman to gain an aristocratic title is for it to be granted to her directly, either as a title for life only, or as a permanent title that could be passed on to her heirs. These creations included titles of all ranks: duchesses, countesses, baronesses, marquesses. Some monarchs seemed to hand these out like candy, other created none at all. The reasons why a woman might be granted such a title don’t always work well for a same-sex aristocratic romance plot. Being the favored mistress of a king was a popular path to a title, either for life or as a permanent title (as in Barbara Duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II’s mistresses). Another motivation for granting a woman a title, especially in more recent centuries, would be to honor her deceased husband who had inconveniently died before being ennobled. Or, in an interesting dodge, to honor a husband who was a prominent politician in the House of Commons and would have lost that office if given a peerage directly. By granting the title to a widow or wife, she could then pass on to the man’s heirs. But there are occasional examples of women being granted a personal title, usually only for life, due to their own personal merit and service. Examples include being the mother of the king’s best friend, being governess to the princess royal, being a loyal courtier of the future Charles II during his exile, being the mother to prime ministers, or being a courtier and artist. I found no examples of grants of this type to a never-married woman, although often to widows. (Of course, in the 20th century and after, the creation of female “life peers” has become commonplace, especially as women have entered the highest levels of the government.)
So, as you can see, in order to end up with an unmarried woman holding a title in her own right, you need to do some social engineering, but it can be done. Now that you have her, what are the parallels and contrasts with a man in the same position? A common feature of aristocrat romances is the mandate to marry and produce heirs for the title. In a male-female romance, this mandate is aligned with the romance plot. But in a same-sex romance, the two are in conflict. Your titled heroine will be under perhaps more than that usual pressures to marry and produce children, but her romantic entanglement with a woman will be viewed as a distraction, even if the intensity of that relationship is not generally known. This provides useful plot developments. Rather than the marriage imperative being treated as the driver of a marriage of convenience, or as off-putting to a heroine who doesn’t want to be viewed as just a baby-maker, it becomes the obstacle course that our titled heroine needs to maneuver while trying to win the heart of her beloved. Or being won over against her wishes and perhaps even her better judgment. (And there are certainly historic cases of women who inherited titles and never married, thus leaving the legacy to a collateral line.)
So the elements of the traditional aristocratic romance that can be retained (within a suitable cultural context) are: one character with status and presumably wealth, a second character that lacks those features, the whole gamut of personality clashes that have to do with each of their assumptions and attitudes about that disparity, the usefulness of social status when flouting convention, and a resolution in which the less privileged character gains stability and protection from being associated with the titled character. It is hypothetically possible that your second heroine might be granted a personal title for her services to the state, thus elevating her to the same rank as her partner, but this approach requires a bit more suspension of disbelief unless she’s an ex-mistress of the king.
When I talk about a “billionaire” trope, I’m not limiting it to a specific amount of wealth, but rather using “billionaire” to stand in for whatever resources represent complete freedom from economic constraints.
The typical heterosexual billionaire romance plot involves a character—most often the man—with extreme wealth, but who has discovered that (in the words of the Beatles song) “money can’t buy you love.” They may have a well-founded suspicion that potential partners are gold-diggers. They may have been so focused on managing their financial life that they have neglected to build personal relationships. They may simply represent a fantasy of luxurious living.
Most typically, the romantic partner contrasts greatly in financial status. They are poor—perhaps in dire need whether on a personal basis or for the sake of a family or organization. Or perhaps they aren’t desperately poor but simply of typical income, meaning that their financial life operates on an entirely different level. The billionaire represents either the answer to desperation, or access to a fantasy lifestyle. But at the same time there is a structural power imbalance that can contribute barriers to the romance.
There are variations within this structure. Does the poorer partner know about the other’s wealth? Is there a dynamic to the relationship above and beyond money that makes it difficult for the poorer partner to walk away, or for the richer partner to trust their sincerity? Do they begin with something resembling an employer/employee relationship that develops into romance? Or do they fall in love first only to find that the financial contrast causes problems? Is the billionaire’s money based on an inheritance or have they accumulated wealth on their own? (And in our current, culturally-sensitive age, we should ask how that wealth was accumulated. Are there factors that a reader might consider problematic or are we going to sweep those questions under the carpet?)
But because this is a romance, we know they work out their problems and achieve a personal merger, bringing the love interest into the world of wealth and the privileges it offers, while perhaps inciting the billionaire to achieve a better work/life balance.
My perception is that billionaire romances more typically have a contemporary setting, rather than a historic one. In historic settings, the wealthy protagonist is more often merged with the aristocratic one, unless set in a country with no aristocracy, such as the American Gilded Age or the like. But in a plot where the privileged character is female, the dynamics of wealth versus aristocracy become more relevant.
How it Works (or Not)
So using the aristocratic role as a contrast, how does a wealthy woman fit into a same-sex romance plot? A key difference is that wealth is less restricted than titles in how it is acquired and how it may be shared or transferred. If two women enter into a long-term romantic partnership, there are a variety of ways in which the wealthier woman can ensure her partner will enjoy financial benefits. While marriage may be the prototypical outcome of a heterosexual billionaire romance, it isn’t essential for the structure and function of the trope in the way that it is when a title is involved. Furthermore, while inherited wealth is universally the most common way for any protagonist to become wealthy—and while women tend to be disadvantaged under many systems of inheritance law—it’s still easier for a woman to inherit a fortune than to inherit a title, and it’s much easier for a woman to acquire a fortune through her own efforts than to be granted a noble title. So, to the extent that the aristocracy trope and the billionaire trope have strong thematic parallels for male-female romances, it’s easier for female couples to inhabit the one based on wealth.
Once we have a female billionaire (or at least, fabulously wealthy person), the dynamics of the trope can proceed in parallel as for a male-female romance. How they meet, whether the potential partner knows about the wealth from the start, what part it plays in the enticements and hurdles of the relationship, how they each feel about the disparity in their situations. The differences in the dynamics will be those present for any historic same-sex courtship as compared to a different-sex one: the lack of social expectations for marriage between them, but potential external pressures on them to marry elsewhere; the greater ease in social access to each other during the courtship; the question of how others view the nature of their relationship and whether the couple feel the need to mask it under a more acceptable non-romantic arrangement.
But we should return to the question of how our female billionaire acquired her wealth and how she maintains it, because these are issues that will be greatly affected by the specific culture and era of the setting. If she has inherited wealth, what sort of family background would be necessary for her to be a significant beneficiary? Has she inherited it from the direct line (in which case must she be an only child?) or is it a bequest from someone outside the immediate family (if so, who and why?). Or has she inherited it from a late husband? (See the episode talking about widows for this scenario.)
Presumably we want her to have personal control over her wealth, so what is necessary for this to be possible rather than having executors who have control of it. (A male heir might also have executors, especially if fairly young, but women were more likely to have only conditional access to their inheritances.) Keep in mind that when we’re dealing with an unmarried woman with significant fortune, she will probably need to deal regularly with men who see her as an ideal wife. But in many historic contexts, a married woman’s property goes under her husband’s control, so this trope doesn’t work well if you try to mix it with a husband on the side, regardless of how open-minded he may be. And for that matter, any relatives of hers who might expect to inherit from her will have a personal interest (though not necessarily a legal claim) in how she ties up her fortune to benefit a partner whom they see as a stranger.
This is yet one more situation where we can see many of the complexities play out in the relationship between Ann Lister and Anne Walker, in the specific context of England in the early 19th century.
If our heroine has earned the wealth through her own actions, what fields were open to women for this purpose? It was often much harder for a woman to establish herself in trade than for a man to do so, and often they were more restricted in what trades were available. Alternately, a business might (again) be inherited from a late husband and then managed directly by the widow. In many contexts, smart management of real estate was a path to wealth. When banking and lending became more acceptable as a practice, women could turn a small nest egg into a significant income through micro-lending among her community, thus gaining the capital to expand into other fields. Investments were always a hazardous field, with great chance of gain being balanced by risk of loss. Whether it’s investment in shipping cargos or building projects or—as previously noted—real estate, we can make allowance for our heroine to rise by a combination of luck and shrewdness.
All of these questions will be affected by the specific context of the story, or perhaps the context of the story must be tailored to make possible the particular backstory we want to give our heroine. The scope is too broad to offer more than vague outlines.
In sum, both the aristocrat trope and the billionaire trope can be adapted for female couples in historic romances, but the effects and constraints are different—more so than for male-female couples. The titled aristocrat trope suffers from the dual problems that it is far less plausible (though not impossible) for a woman to hold a title in her own right, and that it is impossible for her partner to acquire a matching title via their relationship. The billionaire trope is much more flexible and adaptable, if sufficient care is taken in setting up the source of her wealth. Both offer the opportunity to explore the romantic dynamics between a couple who have significant disparities of social status or income, while providing a wide variety of roads to that happily ever after. Even if it’s a slightly different ever after than a heterosexual couple could look for.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2023/06/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2023.
It’s Pride Month
Pride month rolls around again and it’s always curious to see whether we get higher numbers of queer books released in June. I’ve had a vague impression that this is the case, but when I looked at the actual numbers for the last several years, it doesn’t necessarily prove true. June was among the most prolific months in 2021 and 2022, but not in 2020. I don’t have the full numbers yet for this year, because it’ll be a couple months before I can pick up all the June books that didn’t have pre-release listings, but the June numbers look somewhat skimpy this year.
It occurred to me this month to leverage NetGalley as another source of information about upcoming books, but the advance review site has no way to do the complex search intersections I need. You can look at lists of LGBTQ+ books but there’s no way to filter that by genre—not even by fiction versus non-fiction—or by character representation. Or I can look at lists of historical fiction but can’t filter for character representation. And there’s only a single category for all romance, so I can’t even filter for historic romance.
I’m not sure why I keep bringing up the difficulties of book discoverability, except to emphasize both to authors and readers how important this aspect is to getting books in front of the eyeballs that most want to read them. This is particularly the case for a small, marginal category like the one this podcast covers. If you’re an author of sapphic historical fiction, it’s absolutely key to use your toolbox to communicate your book’s market position. And if you’re an avid reader of sapphic historical fiction, the best thing you can do to ensure a continuing supply is to help get the word out—not only about the small handful of books that already get the buzz, but about the more obscure titles, especially from indies and small presses.
Every year when pride month rolls around, we see listicles and promotions for queer fiction, but with the tardy expansion of the major publishers into the field, more and more often those lists focus exclusively on the “Big 5” publishers and ignore the authors and presses that created the viability of the field in the first place. So this is just to say that a good way for a bibliophile to celebrate pride is to buy, read, and publicly endorse indie and small press books.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
I had quite the vacation from my day-job in May, taking off three entire weeks. (And—believe me—my co-workers were overjoyed to have me back this past week.) I didn’t quite have enough leisure time to get a preliminary glimpse of what retirement will be like, though I was able to get some advance work done on the podcast. The cornerstones of my time off were two science fiction and fantasy conventions: the Nebulas conference, which is the annual professional conference of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and WisCon which is a general convention focused on feminism and marginalized identities.
In addition to hanging out with my book peeps and participating in panel discussions, I had several delightful encounters relating to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. At the Nebulas, I was sitting around a lunch table with maybe 10 other people, discussing current projects and trading business cards (as you do), and it came out that fully half of the people at the table were already aware of the Project. And one author noted that they were hoping to submit a story to the fiction series at some point. (So I guess I should go ahead and commit to doing the fiction series again in 2024!) At WisCon there were a couple of times when someone came up to me out of the blue and told me how much they enjoyed the podcast, and in one case, how important the new book listings segment was for them. It’s hard for me to express how much it means to me when people tell me these things. I can keep going for quite some time on one unsolicited moment of appreciation.
So (ahem) take this as the official confirmation that there will be a fiction series in 2024. I’ll try to get the Call for Submissions post updated and posted on the website and update the various places where I can publicize it. It’s never too soon to start writing!
Publications on the Blog
With regard to the blog, I’m still in a bit of a slump with respect to posting publication summaries. I have the notes for several articles, but have gotten out of the rhythm of getting things written up and posted. Maybe this month!
But the book shopping is proceeding apace, boosted by my usual May shopping spree when all the academic presses run their sales in conjunction with the International Medieval Congress. (I skipped the Congress this year due to conflicts, but I never skip the book shopping.)
On the light-hearted side, I picked up a pop history book Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch. A look at women of the English Regency era who were far from the proper and respectable ideal. Of course I bought Jill Liddington’s new book, As Good as a Marriage: The Anne Lister Diaries 1836-38, that she came on the show to talk about last month. Somewhat less clearly pertinent, is Lucy M. Allen-Goss’s Female Desire in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance. The summary of this book indicates that it touches on same-sex desire, though my experience with Chaucerian scholarship is that studies often stretch a very little data into somewhat tenuous interpretations in that area. So we’ll see.
On the side of general women’s history that I expect to find useful, but without a specific homoerotic aspect, I picked up Sandra Ballif Straubhaar’s Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds. This collects up the sadly small corpus of Old Norse poetry that is attributed to female authors, either directly or embedded within sagas. I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance at it, but it sounds intriguing. And finally, I came across an older book, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, by Mohja Kahf which covers a wide timespan beginning in the middle ages. When an author with a western cultural background (like me) is writing characters that have been traditionally viewed as outsiders, it can be very useful to know about the relevant stereotypes and myths, in order to avoid perpetuating them. Books like this are part of my eternal project to try to decolonize my historical imagination.
I think there are a couple more books that I’ve ordered that haven’t arrived yet. If they seem relevant, I’ll include them when they show up.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
I’ve decided to try something a little different with the new and recent book releases. More and more often, I find myself dithering over whether a book can reasonably be classified as lesbian or sapphic if the gender identity of one or more characters doesn’t clearly align as a woman. I don’t want to misrepresent characters that can be perceived as female but are presented as non-binary or as falling more on the transmasculine side. And similarly, when dealing with historic settings that did not necessarily have social categories for trans men, there can be a fair amount of ambiguity between a woman choosing to pass as a man for pragmatic reasons and a trans man.
So in order to respect these ambiguities and uncertainties, I’m going to be presenting books in two categories: titles where the characters are clearly presented as women with lesbian or sapphic identities, and titles that I feel would be of interest to people looking for lesbian or sapphic books but where I feel less certain about applying that label. So in addition to the list of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I may have a second list of “books of interest.”
This is also where I’ll put books that aren’t technically historical but that may be of significant interest to readers who enjoy historicals, such as one of this month’s titles involving love in a historic re-enactment setting.
So let’s start with the lesbian and sapphic historicals!
I came across two books, which appear to begin an ongoing series, inspired by Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night. The author is Hannah Miyamoto, but the conceit of the books is that Miyamoto is editing a lost manuscript by a fictional early 20th century author “Lady Vanessa S.-G.” This was a bit confusing until I found a blog post in which the author discusses the series! The series title is The New Countess: A Story of Sexy 16th Century Sapphists of Shakespeare and book 1 is titled Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia. I’ve edited the cover copy to skip the bits about the fictional author.
Young, rich, and beautiful, Contessa Olivia di Castellamare has just announced that she will not marry for the next seven years. Why then, does she fall in love with the first boy she meets? Does she know that the boy she loves is really a girl? Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia retells the story of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night from the perspective of the three young women that the play leaves silent: Viola, the girl passing as a boy, Countess Olivia, and Olivia's faithful lady of the bed-chamber Maria. Transferring Shakespeare’s mythical Illyria to a real kingdom during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), this story conveys the fears, anger, lusts and loves of Countess Olivia, as she wields her kiss and her sword with equal ability.
The second book in this series is If I Should Tell my History .
Beautiful young Countess Olivia has just married Sebastiano by accident: She thought he was Viola, his twin sister, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. Meanwhile, Viola loves a man in love with Olivia, and Sebastiano’s friend is in love with him. The course of love has never run less smooth.
I don’t usually comment on the writing style of the cover copy that I include in this segment, but I have to confess that I’m confused by some of the word choices for this next item. I’m going to read the copy as-written, but it doesn’t always make sense. The book is Sicili and the Penniless Lad by Rachel C. Neale from Spectrum Books and it appears to be set in the English Regency.
Ivy Ferthing has been out of society for five years due to famous, engorged rumors that destroyed her reputation. Now, just shy of nineteen, she has promised to play the part of propriety for her mother’s sake, but Ivy is an outlandish force to be reckoned with, and her true nature knows no shame––especially when it comes to an answerless beauty like Sicili Windihill.
Sicili Windihill is answerless, and never more than in the presence of Grace, the defiant half-naked painting that haunted her childhood. Now, having returned to the gossiping county of Wiltshire after six years of living in London, she is once again at the mercy of her father’s scheming ways. No sooner is she reunited with Grace and the tumultuous feelings it brings up then she discovers her father is harboring a grand, obnoxious plan––one that involves a devastating ultimatum.
They meet at a ball. A tantalizing tryst of wit, courage, fear, and unspoken admiration are quick to follow.
Geonn Cannon has a new book that looks like it’s independent from any previous series: Do Unto Others from Supposed Crimes.
Professional grifter Tinker and her apprentice, Penny Chaplin, have been conning their way across America for the past five years. They rob from the rich and corrupt and give to the deserving: themselves. There aren't many rules to being a grifter. Don't get greedy. Always trust your partner. Never fall for a mark. In the summer of 1945, killing time between jobs in Albuquerque, they're going to break all three.
Books that blend the English Regency with magic are common enough to practically form their own sub-genre. Alexis Hall has an entry into the field with Mortal Follies from Del Rey.
It is the year 1814, and life for a young lady of good breeding has many difficulties. There are balls to attend, fashions to follow, marriages to consider, and, of course, the tiny complication of existing in a world swarming with fairy spirits, interfering deities, and actual straight-up sorcerers. Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into high society hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at a high-profile ball, a scandal she narrowly manages to escape. However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, Miss Mitchelmore must seek out aid, even if that means mixing with undesirable company. And there are few less desirable than Lady Georgianna Landrake—a brooding, alluring young woman sardonically nicknamed “the Duke of Annadale”—who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune. If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress. Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs. With the Duke’s help, Miss Mitchelmore delves into a world of angry gods and vindictive magic, keen to unmask the perpetrator of these otherworldly attacks. But Miss Mitchelmore’s reputation is not the only thing at risk in spending time with her new ally. For the reputed witch has her own secrets that may prove dangerous to Miss Mitchelmore’s heart—not to mention her life.
Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens from The Dial Press looks like it’s packed with all your favorite Wild West tropes, as long as you don’t mind a protagonist who takes up sex work.
It's the spring of 1877 and sixteen-year-old Bridget is already disillusioned. She's exhausted from caring for her ne'er-do-well alcoholic father, but when he's killed by a snakebite as they cross the Kansas prairie, she knows she has only her wits to keep her alive. She arrives penniless in Dodge City, and, thanks to the allure of her bright red hair and country-girl beauty, is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. Bridget takes to brothel life, appreciating the good food, good pay, and good friendships she forms with her fellow “sporting women." Then Spartan Lee, the most legendary (and only) female gunfighter in the region, rides into town, and Bridget falls in love. Hard. Before long, though, a series of shocking double-crosses shatter the Buffalo Queen's tenuous peace and safety. Crushed by the devastating consequences of her actions and desperate for vengeance and autonomy, Bridget resolves to claim her own destiny.
There are some historic persons and events that attract fictional interpretations over and over again. Killingly by Katharine Beutner from Soho Crime is not the first treatment of its subject. Reviews and tags indicate that there is sapphic content, but it isn’t prominent. You may want to review content warnings on this one, too.
Based on the unsolved real-life disappearance of a Mount Holyoke student in 1897. Bertha Mellish, “the most peculiar, quiet, reserved girl” at Mount Holyoke College, is missing. One cold November morning the junior is spotted walking through the Massachusetts woods; then, she vanishes. As a search team dredges the pond where she might have drowned, Bertha’s panicked father and sister arrive at the campus desperate to find some clue as to her fate or state of mind. Bertha’s best friend, Agnes, a scholarly loner studying medicine, might know the truth, but she is being unhelpfully tightlipped, inciting the suspicions of Bertha’s family, her classmates, and the private investigator hired by the Mellish family doctor. As secrets from Agnes and Bertha’s lives come to light, so do the competing agendas driving each person who is searching for Bertha. Where did Bertha go? Who would want to hurt her? And could she still be alive?
The ”magical circus” is another theme that has its own micro-genre, and we get an entry with casual sapphic content in The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson from Tor Books.
Welcome to the Circus of the Fantasticals. Ringmaster – Rin, to those who know her best – can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. With the scars of World War I feeling more distant as the years pass, Rin is focusing on the brighter things in life. Like the circus she’s built and the magical misfits and outcasts -- known as Sparks – who’ve made it their home. Every night, Rin and the Fantasticals enchant a Big Top packed full with audiences who need to see the impossible. But while the present is bright, threats come at Rin from the past and the future. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their Big Top and everyone in it. And Rin's past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow Rin can’t fully escape. It takes the form of another Spark circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin's circus has something he wants, and he won't stop until it's his.
Moving to more recent history, we have what sounds like a mystery with a gothic flavor in The Gulf by Rachel Cochran from Harper.
In Parson, Texas, a small town ravaged by a devastating hurricane and the Vietnam War, twenty-nine-year-old Lou is diligently renovating a decaying old mansion for Miss Kate, the elderly neighbor who has always been like a mother to her. Mourning her brother’s death in Vietnam, Lou dreams of enjoying a more peaceful future in Parson. But those hopes are crushed when Miss Kate is murdered, and no one but Lou seems to care about finding the killer. The situation becomes complicated when Joanna, Miss Kate’s long-estranged daughter and Lou’s first love, arrives in Parson—not to learn more about her mother’s death but for the house. Her arrival unearths sinister secrets involving the history of the town and its residents . . . revelations that may be the key to helping Lou discover the truth about Miss Kate’s death and her killer.
Other Books of Interest
As it happens, after setting up the category of “other books of interest,” I don’t have any this month that fall in the category for gender identity reasons. But I thought people might be interested in a new book from Jenny Frame that plays with the idea of love in a historical style: Just One Dance (The Regency Romance Club #1) from Bold Strokes Books.
Taylor Sparks is sick of swiping left or right. Online dating, where a casual glance at a profile forms your opinion of a person, has no sparkle. She has a business idea to make dating special—the Regency Romance Club. Guests fall in love in the regency style, with grand balls and regency pursuits, while enjoying some of Britain’s most magnificent stately homes. Jaq Bailey is mourning the death of her best friend. She wants to feel every inch of the pain and guilt she deserves for their death. A professor of early modern history, Bailey has sequestered herself in her study writing books and articles. Life is lonely and unchanging, until her publishers ask her to meet with Taylor, who is looking for a historian to help with her new business. As they start working together, Taylor’s bubbly personality and Bailey’s guilty angst clash, but as Bailey gets dragged into the magical, regency romance world, Taylor’s sparkle brings hope back into her life. They’re working to help others find their true loves, but they just might find it for themselves too.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? When I checked my spreadsheet, I was surprised to see that I’ve finished eight books since the last podcast, all but one of them audiobooks. This is a bit less startling when you consider that my vacation travels included a road trip from the SF Bay Area down to LA and back, plus a plane and bus trip to Madison, Wisconsin. That’s a lot of time to fill.
I finally consumed The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, which is every bit as amazing as the series’ 3 Hugo awards indicate. I’d been putting this book off due to reviews indicating that it was dark and traumatic. Those reviews weren’t wrong, but the flavor of the darkness wasn’t the sort that booted me out of the story. The premise involves a world of massive seismic activity, whose inhabitants include people who can psychically control or manipulate that seismic activity and who thus become pawns or scapegoats in the politics of how to maintain civilization during the periodic ecological collapses resulting from quake and eruptions.
On a somewhat lighter side—if one can call murder mysteries “light”—a friend’s mention in their blog set me on the track of a new historic mystery series by Claudia Gray, with the premise that all of Jane Austen’s characters exist in the same story universe. The two titles so far are: The Murder of Mr Wickham and The Late Mrs Willoughby. Some very unlikeable canonical characters are murdered and two original characters—the son of Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy and Elizabeth, and the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry—team up to investigate. The mysteries are fun, though the writing is repetitive at times. The two central characters are engaging, leading one to root for their eventual romance. Young Jonathan Darcy is clearly—if sometimes clumsily—depicted as on the autism spectrum and Juliet Tilney’s cheerful acceptance of his “oddities” is refreshing. It’s not for me to say if an autistic reader would consider it good representation, but it’s an interesting example of how to do such representation in a historic context. (For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered Austen’s depiction of Mr. Woodhouse in Emma to be someone recognizably on the autism spectrum, though of course Austen had no diagnostic manual as guidance.)
My drive to LA was perfect for taking in a novella on each leg, which brought me Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, an homage to Chinese martial arts movies, with a fantasy twist, and T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride, a re-making of the Bluebeard story with a lot of fantasy and fierce feminism, and Kingfisher’s usual application of no-nonsense young women to knotty problems. Both books have background sapphic elements.
While I was at the Nebulas conference, I picked up Tempest Bradford’s middle-grade sci fi story Ruby Finley vs the Interstellar Invasion, which went on to win the Nebula award in its category that weekend. I don’t often buy middle grade books for my own reading, but I do buy them sometimes to put in my Little Free Library, which means I take the opportunity to read them first. This is the story about how a young girl with a scientific bent and a fascination with insects investigates a peculiar bug that turns out to be an interstellar visitor. Highly recommended for the young scientists in your social circle.
(Hmm, this reminds me of another middle-grade title I picked up for the same purpose, Ursula Vernon’s Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1) which is an utterly delightful and feminist fairy tale. Ursula Vernon is the same author as T. Kingfisher, but the Kingfisher name is for her adult fiction.)
I’ll finish this roundup with two lesbian historic romances. The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood was a bit hard to sort out. If I had to describe it, I’d say an allegedly Regency setting, tackling more Victorian-flavored social issues, with a modern thriller/caper plot and a side order of “here are some fun facts I learned from books about lesbian history.” There’s significant explicit sexual content, although in general the romance takes a back seat to the action. It didn’t quite hit my sweet spot, although mostly in being all over the map historically.
I was very impressed by An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera. This is part of the Las Léonas romance series, focusing on a group of young women, all Caribbean heiresses, attending the 1889 Paris Exposition together to further their individual personal goals and, incidentally, to find love. This is the second book and the only one with a sapphic romance, but I’ve enjoyed it so much I just might pick up the rest of the series too. The heroine has come to Paris for one last sapphic fling before the marriage that will repair her family’s fortunes and reputation. The central couple are the perfect mismatched-but-actually-perfectly-matched pair, and each came complete with a posse of fiercely loyal and non-nonsense friends. There’s some fairly steamy content starting around the mid-point, but I’ll note that while I’m usually fairly “meh” about sex scenes, the language was so lovely that I thoroughly enjoyed them.
This Month’s Essay
Thanks to my vacation time, I actually already have this month’s essay show completed. I’ve gotten out of the habit of announcing the essay shows in advance since I’m often scrambling at the last minute. The June show will be another episode in the “F/Favorite Tropes” series looking at romances involving aristocrats and billionaires. I’m having so much fun with the trope series and I hope you are too!
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
(Originally aired 2023/05/20 - listen here)
This episode is an interview with historian Jill Liddington, whose book Female Fortune inspired Sally Wainwright to create the Gentleman Jack tv series about Anne Lister.
A transcript will be posted when available.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jill Liddington Online
(Originally aired 2023/05/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2023.
As I’m writing this, a couple weeks in advance of air time, my part of California has very abruptly decided it’s summer now. A week ago it was cold and rainy, now it’s time to turn off the thermostat and start up the irrigation system. Looking out my office window, the bees are buzzing around the apple blossoms, the lemons are hanging heavy on the tree, and the apothecary roses are starting to bloom.
This May is going to be a bit of a landmark month for me, given that I’ll be turning 65. I think at this point I officially get classified as “an old.” You never really know how you’re going to feel about such things. I’ll be celebrating the event with a spa weekend in Napa with my best friend and a three week vacation that also includes two SFF conventions. So I guess you can conclude that I won’t be slowing down.
And if you’ve ever wondered, “What would the host of my favorite podcast appreciate getting as a birthday present?” The answer is always and ever: leave us a review on your favorite podcast site, or talk us up to your friends on social media, or tell people about how the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has changed your life. Well, ok, don’t go overboard. But be assured that spreading the word about the podcast does make a difference. I can always tell from the listener numbers when people have been talking us up.
Speaking of spreading the word, I have a lead on a very exciting interview prospect that I can’t wait to share with you all. I won’t jinx it by mentioning names before we have the details nailed down, but let’s just say that my response to the query fell somewhat short of being cool, calm, and collected.. There’s nothing quite like being taken seriously as a venue by people you admire in the field!
The blog still doesn’t have any new publications up, alas, but I happened to be in Berkeley doing some shopping yesterday and decided to drop by Moe’s Books to browse through the gender and sexuality section and see what I could turn up. I found two new-to-me books on historic cross-dressing, one older and one recent.
Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough have a number of publications on cross-dressing in history and this book Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender includes a rather extensive historic survey through western culture. The articles I’ve read by the Bulloughs tend to feel very outdated, particularly when they address social interpretations of cross-dressing, though that’s not at all surprising given that the publications I’ve covered were written 30 to 50 years ago.
Much more up-to-date is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag, which looks at cross-dressing of all types within the later part of 19th century America, and the ways in which that aspect of the American West was deliberately erased from popular history with shifting understandings of sexuality at the turn of the century. Within the last decade, there have been a number of excellent studies around this topic that I’d consider essential reading for anyone contemplating writing a cross-dressed woman in a “Wild West” setting.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
New and recent book listings are a bit more sparse this month than they’ve been lately, but there’s a lot of variety. And—you know that thing I was complaining about Amazon a few months ago, the thing where my “lesbian historical fiction” keyword searches were turning up hundreds of re-issued classic novels with identical generic covers? It looks like just maybe Amazon is doing something about that, because this time the search only included one of those. Though when I posted about it on social media, someone else mentioned that they’d run a search for lesbian romance just a couple days ago and were inundated with “classics spam” as usual. So the jury is still out on whether they’ve found a way to address the problem.
Serendipitously, when I was checking out that person’s search using “lesbian romance” as the keywords rather than “lesbian historical” I turned up an April book that I would have missed. Folks: here’s the importance of proper keywords in your book listings! I can only boost the books that I can find.
That April book is the historic fantasy A Wound Like Lapis Lazuli by Melody Wiklund. The cover copy mentions the baroque era, but not a specific year, and the setting seems to be an invented Italian kingdom.
Ricardo Montero is a painter of great repute, favored by the king of Salandra and chosen by him to paint the ceiling of a temple dedicated to a sea goddess. When he mysteriously goes missing, his friend Beatriz enters a competition to paint the temple in his stead. But when the sea goddess herself gets involved in Beatriz's painting, and in her life, Beatriz finds herself in over her head. Hopefully the woman she's falling in love with can help keep her afloat. Meanwhile, Ricardo has been kidnapped by one of the king's enemies, a woman who claims the kidnapping is purely to spite the king but who seems obsessed with Ricardo himself. Under pressure and learning secrets he never wanted to know, Ricardo fights to maintain his loyalty to the king and control over his feelings and his life.
The May books start off with a story in one of my favorite centuries: The Disenchantment by Celia Bell from Pantheon. I’ve picked up the audiobook for this and it’ll probably get moved to next in line to listen to.
In 17th century Paris, everyone has something to hide. The noblemen and women and writers consort with fortune tellers in the dark confines of their salons, servants practice witchcraft and black magic, and the titled poison family members to obtain inheritance. But for the Baroness Marie Catherine, the only thing she wishes to hide is how unhappy she is in her marriage, and the pleasures she seeks outside of it. When her husband is present, the Baroness spends her days tending to her children and telling them elaborate fairy tales, but when he’s gone, Marie Catherine indulges in a more liberated existence, one of salons in grand houses, forward-thinking discussions with female scholars, and at the center of her freedom: Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti, the androgynous, self-assured countess who steals Marie Catherine’s heart and becomes her lover. Victoire possesses everything Marie Catherine does not—confidence in her love, and a brazen fearlessness in all that she’s willing to do for it. But when Victoire’s passion results in a shocking act of murder, she and Marie Catherine must escape from the tight clutches of Paris’ eager chief of police. As they attempt to outwit him, they are led to the darkest corners of Paris and Versailles. What they discover is a city full of lies, mysticism, and people who have secrets they would also kill to keep.
Jane Walsh is starting a new Regency-era series at Bold Strokes Books with The Accidental Bride (The Spinsters of Inverley #1).
Miss Grace Linfield has resigned herself to life as a lady’s companion as the only path to respectable security. At least it allows her to visit the beautiful seaside town of Inverley with her charge, Lady Edith. Passions flare when botanist Miss Thea Martin whirls into town —and into Grace’s bed for a scandalous night of passion. Disaster looms when Lady Edith elopes with Thea’s brother. Prim-and-proper Grace and wildly outrageous Thea each wish it was anyone else by their side as they race after them to Gretna Green. In the midst of attempting to stop a wedding that will incur the wrath of both their families, they discover their passion for each other is too strong to resist. A chance at a real relationship was the last thing either of them expected. When Grace and Thea return from Scotland, will the honeymoon be over? Or will love finally be in full bloom?
I have a bit of an idiosyncratic prejudice against treating vampire stories as “historical” if the primary story is set in the present day and the historical element comes in only via the vampire’s immortality. But A Long Time Dead by Samara Breger from Bywater Books is set entirely in the early 19th century, so it fits this podcast’s remit more closely.
Somewhere foggy, 1830 . . . Poppy had always loved the night, which is why it wasn’t too much of a bother to wake one evening in an unfamiliar home far from London, weak and confused and plagued with a terrible thirst for blood, to learn that she could no longer step out into the day. And while vampirism presented several disadvantages, it more than made up for those in its benefits: immortality, a body that could run at speed for hours without tiring, the thrill of becoming a predator, the thing that pulls rabbits from bushes and tears through their fur and flesh with the sharp point of a white fang. And, of course, Roisin. The mysterious woman who has lived for centuries, who held Poppy through her painful transformation, and who, for some reason, is now teaching her how to adjust to her new, endless life. A tight, lonely, buttoned-up woman, with kindness and care pressed up behind her teeth. The time they spend together is as transformative to Poppy as the changes in her body, and soon, she finds herself hopelessly, overwhelmingly attached. But Roisin has secrets of her own, and can’t make any promises; not when vengeance must be served. Soon, their little world explodes. Together and apart, they encounter scores of vampires, shifty pirates, conniving opera singers, ancient nobles, glamorous French women, and a found family that throws a very particular sort of party. But overhead, threat looms—one woman who is capable of destroying everything Poppy and Roisin hold dear.
As I mentioned earlier, there have been a number of relatively recent historical studies that look at cross-dressing and transing gender in the American West that can inspire new angles on queer historical stories. Another relatively recent shift has been in how characters who previously would have been characterized as “passing women” are treated in fiction, given contemporary understandings of gender performance. They Ain't Proper by M.B. Guel from Bella Books signals that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the gender of one of the protagonists.
1880s, The Wild West. An easy, solitary life on the outskirts of Ghosthallow is all Lou Ramirez wants. They want to buy their house plans and live their quiet life far from townsfolk’s prying eyes. That plan, however, hits a bump when instead of house plans, a house wife is delivered to their door instead. Florence Castellanos desperately needs a way out from under her family debt, and it seems as though selling her services as a wife is the only way to do it. Expecting a rough, harsh man to be her new husband, Florence is pleasantly surprised to instead be dropped off at the ranch of an equally surprised Lou. Lou would rather Florence leave them to their lonely existence, but Florence is too charmed by the quiet and mysterious rancher to give up. She may have come into Lou’s life easily, but she certainly isn’t planning to leave that way. Undeterred by Lou’s prickly demeanor, Florence is determined to get her reluctant spouse to open up to her. When the past comes back to haunt the pair, the fight for their independence—and their love—may become more deadly than either of them ever expected.
When the first book in the Las Leonas historic romance series came out, I kept trying to figure out why it showed up with a tag for “lesbian,” because the cover copy sure sounded like a male-female romance. So I dropped it from my spreadsheet and chalked it up to over-zealous keywording. But now that the second book in the series is out, I guess they’re just tagging the entire series as lesbian because one of the component books is. I guess? Anyway, Las Leonas book 2, An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera from Canary Street Press looks absolutely delicious. It, too, has gone into my audiobook queue.
One last summer. For Manuela del Carmen Caceres Galvan, the invitation to show her paintings at the 1889 Exposition Universelle came at the perfect time. Soon to be trapped in a loveless marriage, Manuela has given herself one last summer of freedom—in Paris, with her two best friends. One scandalous encounter. Cora Kempf Bristol, Duchess of Sundridge, is known for her ruthlessness in business. It's not money she chases, but power. When she sees the opportunity to secure her position among her rivals, she does not hesitate. How difficult could it be to convince the mercurial Miss Caceres Galvan to part with a parcel of land she’s sworn never to sell? One life-changing bargain. Tempted by Cora’s offer, Manuela proposes a trade: her beloved land for a summer with the duchess in her corner of Paris. A taste of the wild, carefree world that will soon be out of her reach. What follows thrills and terrifies Cora, igniting desires the duchess long thought dead. As they fill their days indulging in a shared passion for the arts and their nights with dark and delicious deeds, the happiness that seemed impossible moves within reach…though claiming it would cause the greatest scandal Paris has seen in decades.
Considering the thriving community of lesbian romance authors in Australia, there are surprisingly few historic romances set there, but this month we get one more addition to that short list: House of Longing by Tara Calaby from Text Publishing.
Charlotte has always known she is different. Where other young women see their destiny in marriage and motherhood, the reclusive Charlotte wants only to work with her father in his stationery business; perhaps even run it herself one day. Then Flora Dalton bursts through the shop door and into Charlotte’s life—and a new world of baffling desires and possibilities seems to open up to her. But Melbourne society of the 1890s is not built to embrace unorthodoxy. When tragedy strikes and Charlotte is unmoored by grief, she finds herself admitted to Kew Lunatic Asylum ‘for her own safety’. There she learns that women enter the big white house on the hill for many reasons, not all of them to do with lunacy. That her capacity for love, loyalty and friendship is greater than she had ever understood. And that it will take all of these things—along with an unexpected talent for guile—to extract herself from the care of men and make her way back to her heart’s desires.
Kim Pritekel’s Wynter series, from Sapphire Books, includes both contemporary and historic stories, all revolving around the town of Wynter, Colorado. The fifth book in the series, Showing Mercy is only the second book with a historic setting.
Fifteen-year-old Mercy Faulkner is hit with the hardest blow of her young life when her beloved father is killed in an accident. Now, she must leave all she knows to move with her mother, a hard woman that she feels like she barely knows, to the small mountain town of Wynter, Colorado. Her mother has been offered a job there and a place to live and start over for the two. Bethany Wynter, seventeen, gorgeous and the granddaughter of the founder of Wynter and early residents, Justice and Thea Kilkoyne, she has everything going for her. She and her twin brother, Billy are at the top of their game - popular, well-loved in the community and dominate in academics and athletics. But, when the beautiful and shy Mercy shows up in town, a sibling rivalry will begin that will split the twins for the first time in their life. When World War II hits the shores of the United States, everything changes for everyone. Who will go off to war, who will come back, and will any of them ever be the same?
As usual, the new releases this month include a reminder that I can only include the books I know about, and knowing about books either means that they get talked up in the social media I follow, or someone lets me know about forthcoming releases directly, or they have the right keywords to turn up in my searches on Amazon (which, alas, is still the most efficient place to run such searches) and have cover copy that make the sapphic content clear. If you have a book coming out—or know of one—that you think might fall within the scope of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, please drop me a note. I’m sure there are books I miss unintentionally.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading lately? It’s been a thin month, in part because I’m writing the show a bit earlier than usual, but in part because life has been hectic. Although I have several books in process, I only completed listening to two audiobooks.
The latest installment in Sherry Thomas’s “Lady Sherlock” series, A Tempest at Sea, follows the pattern set previously with a lot of non-linear storytelling, unreliable narrators, and revisiting key scenes from different points of view to gradually unlock the story. This particular method of building a mystery story may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s absolute catnip for me. This volume is a sort of locked room mystery on board a ship, with Charlotte Holmes spending the entire story arc in disguise. The various twists are satisfying as identities and motives are sorted out. And, as in previous books in the series, the casual inclusion of historically-appropriate queer characters makes me feel much at home even without any central queer romance.
The second audiobook I completed is more overtly sapphic but comes with a warning for character death. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is set in Ireland during the Spanish Flu pandemic in the early 20th century. Reading it while still in the midst of Covid is unsettling in the parallels. (The novel was written prior to Covid but was expedited to release once the pandemic started.) The story spans only a few days in the life of a nurse in a combination flu/maternity ward and packs a lot of drama into that short period. One of the many sub-themes is harsh criticism of the treatment of unwed mothers and their children. This was a hard and painful book to read, but pandemics aren’t exactly a bed of roses to live through—or die in.
Last week, we aired Catherine Lundoff’s story “The Pirate in the Mirror” and today we have her on the show to talk about that and her other projects.
[Interview transcript will be available at a later date.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Catherine Lundoff Online
In the interests of continuing to add value to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I've put together an index of all the author interviews from the podcast. Have I interviewed your favorite sapphic historical author? Check them out!
This is an index of all the people who have been interviewed on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. This includes both interview episodes and shorter interview segments as part of the On the Shelf episodes. This index is manually updated.
(Originally aired 2023/04/29 - listen here)
Our fiction episode for this quarter features returning guests—not only a returning author, Catherine Lundoff, but the return of her 17th century spy and pirate duo, Celeste Girard and Jacquotte Delahaye. This is the fourth story of Celeste and Jacquotte that we’ve hosted on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, which is a reminder of just how long this fiction series has been running.
Catherine Lundoff has worked her way through many roles: archaeologist, bookstore owner, author, publisher, and IT professional. As the founder and head of Queen of Swords Press, she publishes—as the website describes it—"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.” Or, as she sometimes puts it, “Stories that feel like Queen of Swords books.”
Her own fiction covers a whole gamut from historicals to fantasy to science fiction to erotica to horror, including a series of soon-to-be-three novels about menopausal werewolves: Silver Moon, Blood Moon, and a forthcoming title yet to be announced.
Catherine lives in Minnesota with her wife who is a bookbinder and artist, as well as with the cats that own them. The best one-stop-shop to find Catherine online is probably queenofswordspress.com, which gives you the opportunity to pick up some books while you’re at it. (I should add the truth-in-advertising disclaimer that this includes my own novella “The Language of Roses” which Queen of Swords published.)
The narrator for today’s story is yours truly. I love the chance to do some of the story narration for our fiction series, especially for stories falling in one of my favorite historical periods.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
“The Pirate in the Mirror”
by Catherine Lundoff
Celeste Adele Girard glanced up from the letter she was reading, her gaze moving automatically past the slow-moving waves that rocked The Lioness on a leisurely path through the Caribbean to the small huddle of pirates at the rail. Jacquotte Delahaye, their captain, was peering at something on the water through her spyglass and swearing loudly. That alone was not enough to distract Celeste. Jacquotte swore often and heartily and her men often gathered around her when they thought a fat merchant, or that greatest of gifts from the gods of the sea, a lightly guarded Spanish galleon, might be in sight.
It was not so much that the crew looked worried that captured Celeste’s attention at that moment. No, it was the flash of sunlight on Jacquotte’s red tresses, one that followed a thread of bright silver, that caught Celeste’s eye. It trapped her feelings in a net to realize that this life they led could not last forever and her heart ached at thought of giving up this wild freedom. And even more at the thought of trying again to convince the pirate captain that they must plan for a retirement that might come sooner than later.
But that was not the stuff of either her letter or of the crew’s concerns and she shook her worries about the future off with an effort. She walked across the swaying deck to the group around Jacquotte. The letter had taken two months to arrive, it could take a bit longer to address. She tucked it away in the pouch at her belt. “What is it?”
Jacquotte did not lower the spyglass, but Harcourt, the first mate, gave Celeste a worried look. “There is a ship pursuing us, Mademoiselle. The Captain believes that it may be one of Captain De Graaf’s fleet. Tigress is the one that his lover Anne Dieu le Veut, late of Tortuga, usually commands.”
Celeste’s blonde eyebrows rose. “Are we not all ‘late of Tortuga’? I thought all the pirates had been driven out. Is there something to fear from this Anne ‘God-Wills-It’ that we should be peering at her ship and swearing about it? I have never heard you speak of her before.”
Jacquotte’s thin lips twisted up in something like a smile, but wasn’t, not quite and her gaze suggested her thoughts were elsewhere. “If she is here, she has no great love for me. And De Graaf is likely to be not far behind. He would never let her ship sail so far out unescorted.” She handed the spyglass off to Harcourt and took Celeste’s arm. “Walk with me, my dear.”
Celeste simpered like a court lady and fluttered an imaginary fan in a futile effort to make Jacquotte laugh, but she dropped all pretense at joking once they were out of earshot of the crew. “What are we to do? Is she truly that dangerous?” She murmured the question softly, brushing some dirt off Jacquotte’s jacket collar as if they spoke of nothing significant.
“Alone, we should be able to outrun her. But it would be a near thing with so little wind. Our best hope,” Jacquotte frowned at the horizon, “is that this is pure chance and she does not recognize the ship.” She glanced down and gave Celeste a long thoughtful look, ice-blue eyes glinting in the later afternoon sun. “I could put you in a boat with a couple of strong men, send you off to Maracaibo. I’m told there is a representative from the King in port; you could ask for sanctuary.”
Celeste blinked in shock. Jacquotte had never proposed sending her off ship to safety before and she herself had never asked, always supposing the pirate’s strong arm and sword enough to protect both of them at sea.
And then there were her own wits to serve in any situation that didn’t involve an actual battle. Well, where are those wits now? She schooled her features into a blank expression. Her brain whirled, contemplating, then rejecting several schemes in quick succession. A rope snapped in the wind and she glanced upward.
Jacquotte followed her gaze to the Dutch flag flapping gently in the breeze, hung in lieu of her own fiercer flag to lure in merchant prey. “I’m not sure that being taken as a merchantman is an improvement. We’ll be just as dead if her crew decides to capture us.” She glanced back down. “So perhaps you are thinking of something else? What plot is spinning in your pretty head, my little spy?”
Celeste narrowed her eyes against the glare of the setting sun, wrinkles for once, far from her mind. “I think there is no moon tonight?”
The pirate gave the horizon and the ship that followed them a considering glance. “We might be able to pile on enough sail to outrun them until nightfall. If we went quiet and dark and avoided the reefs, we might be able to evade them until I can find a good harbor to hide in.” Jacquotte’s eyes went cold and storm-gray. “Or run them aground in the dark.”
Her lover tilted her blonde head back and gave her a narrow-eyed stare. “You know her well. What is this about?”
Jacquotte grimaced. “Later. I swear it,” she added, watching Celeste’s expression shift. “Escape first.”
“Indeed. Then we must begin at once. I know so little of your past, I would not wish to miss an offered morsel.” Celeste smiled slightly and went aft to talk to the other pirates to persuade them to do as she asked with a pretty word or two.
Jacquotte watched them gather a pile of expendable items to throw overboard to lighten the ship. She turned to the sails and the helm, barking orders to put on more of the latter and shift the former into the starboard to pick up more of the wind. Pirates tumbled on to the deck from all directions, tossing things overboard, clearing the decks, climbing the rigging.
It made Jacquotte’s heart sing a little to see it. Her crew. Her ship. And she would yield neither to Anne or De Graaf. She went to consult with her helmsman.
The Tigress was getting closer. Celeste didn’t need a spyglass of her own to see that. Not within cannon range, fortunately, but gaining in a way that suggested that a pirate captain had noticed prey and was giving chase. Celeste swore softly under her breath and glanced at the quarter deck and watched Jacquotte for a moment.
The captain was tense, angry in a way that Celeste had not seen her before other battles, other pursuits. She thought this chase was personal. Celeste felt a tiny flash of jealousy that made her grimace. For the first time, another woman was the focus of Jacquotte’s attention when she was only steps away. But more than anything, her spy’s brain whirled with questions about what had happened, what had pulled these two together and then, even further apart?
She could think of only a few things that spoke to the hearts of the pirates that she knew: love, revenge, or profit. Celeste tapped her chin thoughtfully. More importantly, what would dissuade an ardent pursuer motivated by all or some of those passions?
In a moment, she was moving swiftly across the deck toward Jacquotte where she stood talking to several members of the crew on the quarterdeck. Celeste asked softly, “May I borrow the captain for a brief conference?”
They looked for a moment as if they might object, but with a certain amount of grumbling, returned to other duties and left them to talk. “Why would Anne Dieu-Le-Veut pursue you at all? No, I don’t want to hear that you will tell me later. I want to know what drives her. We will need other plans if outrunning them in the dark fails.” Celeste crossed her arms and watched Jacquotte’s gaze shift down to her bosom. She bit back a small smile; going corsetless in a lad’s garb had its uses.
But this was hardly the time to be provoking that reaction in her pirate. “You do want me to help, correct? Not just hop in a row boat and go off to safety with crew that you will need if this ship is boarded?” She raised an eyebrow and dropped her arms, stepping up so that her golden-brown eyes met Jacquotte’s.
The pirate gave a wry grin. “For the shortest part: treasure and betrayal. I sailed with De Graaf for a time, years before I met you. I found Anne in Port Royal trying to figure out how to turn whore when she ran out of money after her fiancé turned out to be less appealing than his letters. I liked her spirit so I brought her aboard. We were wild and young and blood-thirsty and even then, Anne stood out. She was beautiful, fierce…and treacherous. We shared ships, crews, captured spoils, and more. I thought of her as the new family I had found here in this strange new world.”
Jacquotte paused and looked away. The sails strained in a newfound breeze and they could all feel The Lioness leap up over the waves with a will. The hands gave a small cheer while Jacquotte turned back to Celeste. “For a time, I fancied myself in love with her.” Here her face tightened. “Until we took the Santa Teresa. So much Spanish gold, chérie, you can scarcely imagine…”
Celeste shifted impatiently. “I can imagine quite a lot of gold. I take it they betrayed you?”
Jacquotte nodded. “They murdered most of my crew and would have done for me as well, but they thought I had drowned and De Graaf and Anne sailed away with the gold. By the time I floated to land and recovered enough to get a new ship of my own, they had a whole fleet and there was little I could do to avenge myself or the others.”
Celeste frowned. “Until now. You don’t want to run. You want to fight. But why does she follow you?”
“She’s hated me for surviving, for being respected in a way that she is not. Also, perhaps, a small issue with me seizing her former ship and marooning her and her crew some four years back. I imagine that she plans to finish what they failed to do before.” Jacquotte grimaced. “Yes, I want to fight. But this is not the ship to take on the Tigress. For that we need all my ships, especially if he comes to save her.”
Celeste glanced toward the cage where the messenger doves were kept. One was missing. The ship rocked starboard, clearly changing course. “You’ve already sent the bird. Is there another plan that you’re not sharing with me?” Celeste frowned.
Jacquotte bit back a smile, knowing how much she hated to be left in the dark. They could not run forever, even if they lost Anne and her crew tonight. De Graaf might be anywhere nearby with more ships. And they were not the only foes Jacquotte had in these waters.
“I need to plan for something that will bring this pursuit to an end, once and for all, leaving us alive at the end of it.”
“And, perhaps, achieve some level of revenge?” Celeste gave her an
Jacquotte gave a rare, sudden grin. “Perhaps.”
Celeste tumbled into bed next to Jacquotte well after sunset, hands raw from the ropes. The sliver of new moon was on its up and the wind with it and The Lioness was still making good speed, at least for the moment. The closer they got to the reefs near Hispaniola, the slower they would need to move and the greater the chance that the Tigress would finally catch them.
Or they would get where they were going, wherever that was. Jacquotte was keeping mum about their specific destination but Celeste had her suspicions. In any case, she was too tired to ask, so she wrapped her arms and one leg around her pirate and sank into a deep slumber.
In the end, it wasn’t the sound of guns or the scrape of rocks against the hull that woke her. It was still dark and The Lioness was motionless, barely creaking in the waves. Noises from elsewhere in the room told her that Jacquotte was already getting dressed so she rolled over and lit the candle. “What is happening?” she murmured as she rubbed sleep from her eyes. “Where are we?”
Jacquotte gave her a cheerful, bloodthirsty grin. “We’re in a defensible spot in familiar waters and closer to my ships than we were. So now we wait. If they are foolish enough to chase us into the harbor, the rocks will tear the bottom from them while we rake them with all the shot we have. If they wait outside thinking to trap us, there will be four to one odds some hours hence.”
“And what of De Graaf’s ships? What if they come too?” Celeste rolled out of bed and began to put her lad’s clothes on again. They were much better for fighting than skirts, if fighting there was to be. She sincerely hoped it didn’t come to that. Spywork had its own perils, but getting skewered on a cutlass or smashed to pieces by grapeshot were not usually among them. She shuddered as she dressed and tucked her weapons into her belt.
Jacquotte was already out the door bellowing orders. The bosun handed her a cup of ale and some salt fish as she emerged on the deck, not sure what she was going to see. Behind the ship was a wall of greenery that stretched up the tall hill behind them. Celeste could hear creatures moving in the jungle that seemed so close that she could reach and touch the vines. She gnawed on her fish and sighed. Perhaps Jacquotte could be persuaded to visit Paris again after this.
The seaward view was not prepossessing. The waves dashed hard against sharp rocks lining the edge of the harbor and for a moment, Celeste could not imagine how they had sailed into it unscathed. But beyond that thin shield, was a ship twice the size of theirs, based on what the crew had to say, so she was grateful for what protection it provided.
“Of course, that’s not the only reason that we’re here.” Jacquotte had a faraway gleam in her eye. “The Santa Teresa’s gold is supposed to be buried on this island.”
Celeste took a startled breath. “And you know where?”
“An old man sold me a tale in Tortuga before we left. He may have been too far gone in drink to be reliable, but we’ll see what we can find.”
“What if Anne simply blockades us in and fires on us from there?” Celeste gestured at the rocky harbor opening.
“You worry too much, my love. We will fire back. Now, would you like to help me go look for a shiny golden distraction?” Jacquotte’s grin gleamed in the fading light. “We’ll have to go ashore in the dark since we don’t, as you point out, have much time before we’ll be in a battle of one kind or another. She’s bound to send her men ashore too.” She snapped her fingers at a pirate who started to light a torch and he blew out the flame with a muttered curse.
Celeste realized that the pirates didn’t want to make themselves an easy target. Which meant that she was about to clamber into a longboat and go ashore in the dark to stumble around the jungle with Jacquotte and her crew. She closed her eyes and thought of piles of gold. And Jacquotte’s joy when she triumphed over her enemies. She gave a hearty sigh, tucked her hair up under her hat and made ready.
In the end, it was just Jacquotte, Celeste and twelve of the more trustworthy pirates who went ashore. Harcourt and the others stayed aboard to watch for Anne, ready to fire the moment a boat was spotted in range. In the meantime, even the metal that gleamed in the moonlight was covered so as not to be a target and not a candle shone where it could be seen from harbor’s mouth.
Jacquotte closed her eyes, shutting out the boat and the rapidly approaching shore for a moment. It was just as well that none of her companions could see her face right now. She wasn’t bluffing about what the old man had told her, at least not entirely. But even if they found De Graaf’s hidden cache in the dark after fighting their way through the jungle and whoever Anne might send ashore, there might be nothing left.
The old pirate who had told her about it was far gone with drink and the pox. He had wanted his own revenge on De Graaf and his crew for their past sins and saw Jacquotte as a means to that end. Well, she’d do the old lad proud if she could. Avenging herself and the others on De Graaf and Anne had been long delayed and it dizzied her to see it within reach.
An idea half-formed, then blew away as the wind picked up and the boat scraped against the shore. She jumped out and walked the last couple yards to the shore, leaving her crew to haul the boat up and secure it. The dark mass of trees ahead of them was relatively quiet, apart from the occasional bird call. The day’s heat was fading, but it was still warm and there was a whiff of rain in the air.
Jacquotte looked around and oriented herself, letting her memories of what the old pirate had told her tumble into place before she beckoned to Celeste and the others. “That rock, the one up there between the two larger ones. That’s where we’re headed. Ready, my love? Good. Stay close.” She led them along the edge of the trees, hunting for the traces of an old trail that might still be there.
But if it was, they couldn’t find it. Two of the pirates stepped forward with long knives and began to hack a path through the lush forest growth. Ducking and weaving under vines and around trees, they made their way upwards in the dark. It felt like hours before they stopped to catch their breath and rest just below the top.
Something caught Jacquotte’s eye and quickly resolved into the gleam of moonlight on metal from behind a rock above them. Celeste must have seen it at the same time and threw herself at her back, knocking her over and rolling her into some prickly short trees and the shelter of darkness. The pirates scattered as a shot split the quiet of the night. More followed and Jacquotte drew her own pistol, trying to see a target in the dark.
She shoved Celeste away and pointed to a clump of rocks downhill, trying to get her to a safer spot. A woman’s voice rang out from above them, “Red! Come out before I hunt you and your boys down. If you surrender now, I might not kill you all.” Her voice was cold, distant and familiar. There was nothing in her tone that suggested that she wasn’t serious.
Jacquotte heard Celeste hiss softly between her teeth and utter a soft oath. She grimaced to herself in the dark. Of course, having one plan fail didn’t mean her next one would. Celeste was going to be very angry when she learned that there was a plan that she didn’t know about. Jacquotte looked forward to the argument almost as much as its aftermath.
Putting her fingers to her lips, she gave a sharp, shrill whistle that echoed through the woods around them as the guns of Anne’s men fell silent. It was an eerie sound, like a banshee’s call in the night and Jacquotte gasped a little when she finally stopped.
Then she jumped to her feet, running toward the sound of crashing branches and shouting men. Through it all, one woman’s voice could be heard yelling orders and cursing. Jacquotte followed that sound, pulling her pistol from her belt with one hand and her long knife from its sheath with the other. There would be bloody work tonight.
Celeste stared after her lover for a few seconds, her mouth dropping open. She’d suspected a trap and had a plan for that all along. But didn’t tell her. Celeste’s eyes narrowed as she, too, scrambled to her feet. If they survived the night, she was going to have a few words with a certain pirate captain.
She darted behind a tree as a huge pirate came crashing through the dark clearing where they’d been hiding. Was he one of Jacquotte’s men or one of Anne’s? It was hard to tell in the dark and now that the shooting had begun in earnest, the air was filling with smoke.
Someone charged into the clearing and there was a clash of blades, followed by a whispered, “What found we at Arnold’s Knoll?”
“Gold and blood,” the other answered and laughed softly. “Come on. The Captain said she’d pay a sack of gold for whoever brought her that redhaired bitch’s head. Let’s go find her and claim our prize.” They lumbered back out into the trees and rocks.
Celeste bit her lip and looked around. She could follow them, but barring ill-luck, Jacquotte could avoid or kill oafs as clumsy as those. But how many of them did Anne have? And how had a simple tale of betrayal and gold lust turned into a quest for Jacquotte’s head? There was much that she hadn’t been told about tonight’s doings, but there would be time enough to deal with that later.
She moved in the direction that Jacquotte had gone, listening for the sound of her voice. Or her blade, which seemed more likely. Smoke filled the trees and men ran to and fro, the sound of steel clashing amid the crack of bullets. This was a veritable pitched battle and for a long moment, Celeste thought about fleeing back to the shore and the boat. She was an adequate shot and a decent swordswoman, but neither would be enough to protect her in this chaos.
A huge hand shot out of the mist and grabbed her shoulder with a bellow. She kicked out hard, aiming for his knees, then slammed her elbow up into his jaw, just like Jacquotte had taught her. He howled in pain, but didn’t let her go until she kicked him again. Heart racing, she twisted, striking out and pulling the knife from her belt in one motion. With a yell, she slashed out, only to have her opponent drop like a stone.
Celeste squinted at her blade in astonishment. There wasn’t that much blood on it, was there? A motion caught her eye and she dropped into a defensive stance for the attack that was sure to come. A long-jawed, pale face topped with black hair bound in a scarf above burning dark brown eyes stared at her across the pirate’s body. “Come with me if you want to see the dawn.” The woman’s voice was raspy, commanding…familiar. Celeste hesitated and a bullet blew past her, embedding itself in a nearby tree. Her rescuer turned and vanished into the smoky darkness and Celeste followed a moment later.
The path ahead was a blur of men running and blades clashing right up to the moment that her escort came to an abrupt halt. “Here now, pretty. Where would you be taking my lady?” Jacquotte’s voice had a dangerous singsong croon to it that Celeste had only heard before when she was far gone in the heat of battle and she shivered.
Anne hissed softly, Jacquotte’s blade at her throat—she’d gotten a cutlass from somewhere, Celeste noted dispassionately—and Jacquotte’s pistol at her head. “I can call them off,” she began, her voice barely audible where Celeste stood.
Jacquotte laughed. “There’s my Annie! Always one to think you could stop the wind, once it started blowing. I couldn’t stop my own men now. They’ll fight until there’s a winner or there’s gold. Speaking of which, it’s time you told me where the treasure is.”
Celeste stepped closer and gasped at the sight of the two of them standing face to face in the moonlight. She blinked and the resemblance that had suggested they could be sisters settled into two hard-faced women, glaring at each other over drawn weapons while a battle raged around them. Celeste took the pistol from Anne’s hand and checked to make sure that was ready to fire.
“And don’t think to lead me on a merry chase in hopes that De Graaf will turn up. He’s as likely to be drinking and whoring in Maracaibo as he is to remember your grudges and where you’ve taken one of his ships. Tell me what I want to know or I’ll put you in our hold and leave you there until he sobers up enough to ransom you. Do you care to wager on that?”
“You could just shoot her.” Celeste murmured, suiting her actions to her words and firing at a pirate who was running toward them with a fearsome grimace. When she looked back at the women, they were both watching her, Jacquotte amused and Anne calculating.
“Yes, Red, you could just do that. But you want that gold more than you want my blood.” Anne gave Jacquotte a feral grin. “Come on then. Up the hill and I’ll show you where we buried it.” They turned and began walking.
So easy…Celeste bit back the thought before it crossed her lips. There was a game being played here, one that began on the sea and that might not end here. She knew that she could wait where she was to see what transpired. But her curiosity would never allow it. With a sigh, she scrambled after them.
Jacquotte stifled a flash of murderous rage. Betrayal, murder, theft and yet, somehow, the only person not to blame for that was Anne herself. Her litany of blamelessness was a low hum that got louder as they got further from the battle behind them.
“If you don’t stop whining, I’ll take your ear off,” she growled as Anne stumbled to a halt on a flat rock ledge. “Now, unless you chiseled into the stone itself, I don’t think this is the place.”
Jacquotte watched as Celeste walked cautiously past them to examine the stone wall in front of them. It appeared to be solid rock until she pulled back some of the shrubs and revealed a dark hole in the stone. A cave entrance, it had to be. Her heart raced and she reined in her imagination from picturing what that much gold could buy them. Far too soon for that.
“I think I found something.” Celeste leaned over, then slipped down into the dark space with a cry. Jacquotte winced but she looked back at them from the cave mouth a moment later as Anne laughed mockingly. Celeste’s eyes widened, visible even in the dim light. “Get down, Jacquotte!’
Jacquotte didn’t hesitate, throwing Anne to the ground and landing on top of her. The other pirate twisted hard and broke free just as a cannonball smashed into the rocks above their heads. Anne laughed again, the sound wild and echoing, as she scrambled to her feet, kicking away Jacquotte’s grasping hands as she ran to the edge of the cliff and the trail down.
Jacquotte cursed loudly and crawled over to the dark hole where Celeste had vanished. From below, she could hear a soft murmur of: “No snakes, please God. No snakes.” wafting up from below despite the noise and chaos around her.
“Can you reach my hand, chérie? Reach up and I will pull you out.”
“I think I’m better off down here.” Another cannonball whistling by overhead drowned out her next words. Celeste shouted up a moment later, “Come down here! It’s safer and likely to be more profitable.”
At the word “profitable,” Jacquotte slid into the opening, bracing herself for a sharp drop into the darkness below. “I’m coming down!” To her surprise, it was only a few feet.
She blinked until she could see Celeste outlined in the moonlight. “What have you found?’
“Not what you hoped, but enough to be useful, I think.” She guided Jacquotte to a couple of small chests tucked against a rock wall, well out of sight if one was looking down into the cave. As the noise escalated outside, she shot at the lock with the spare pistol that she pulled from Jacquotte’s belt.
The chest fell apart with a clang, spilling a few bags of coins, some jewelry and other valuables. Jacquotte grinned. “Not the full treasure by any means, but enough to buy us all a few comforts for our old age.” She glanced up. “Those of us who last that long.”
“I have an idea.” Celeste grabbed a bag of coins and scrambled back to the cave entrance. Jacquotte gave her a leg up and she stood up on the ledge with a mighty yell, “This bag of gold to the man who captures Captain Anne Dieu le Veut alive before Captain De Graaf blows us to bits! She is our ticket off this island if you stop her!”
The men on the mountain below bayed like a hunting pack. Celeste grabbed Jacquotte’s arm and tugged her up and out of the cave, and they ran off the ledge together. They darted down the slope in a wild rush, tumbling out into a sea of men and smoke and the occasional body, all yelling over the cannon fire, many of them still fighting each other, others looking wildly for Anne. Jacquotte grabbed a few of them and led them down the slope, heading towards the harbor, Celeste at her side.
Three days later, The Lioness sailed out of the harbor and they watched the Tigress make for the open sea. Celeste and Jacquotte watched her sail off, the latter with a distant thoughtful look on her face. “She’s not half the pirate that you are.” Celeste said finally, giving her a nudge with her shoulder as they leaned on the rail.
“I’m not half the pirate captain I was,” Jacquotte grimaced. “We’re fifteen men down, between the dead and wounded, and the rest barely fit to sail. If it wasn’t for my other ships, we’d be in irons in Anne’s hold. To have two plans fail is hardly a thing to be proud of.” She sighed heavily. “I don’t think there’s enough of the gold left to buy me a governorship like Sir Henry, but perhaps a small estate? We could settle down, raise sheep and chickens.”
Celeste laughed. “What did we know about sheep and chickens? An inn on the coast, gossip and news, smuggling on the side, some spywork when we feel like it—that’s the life for us. But not before we’re done with this one. She’ll be back, especially since we have the treasure now, and we’ll need a plan to deal with her then.”
Jacquotte squinted at the horizon, then glanced at her. “For now, let’s go home. I want to hear more about this inn of yours.” She leaned down to kiss Celeste and something crackled. The spy gave an odd frown and reached into the pouch in her shirt.
She held out a letter with a sigh. “I’m afraid I’ll have to tell you about it when I return from Paris. It’s a summons from the Cardinal. He says that the King’s life is in danger and I need to honor my oath to protect him.”
The pirate groaned and handed the letter back. “And I still have your letter of marque and sail under the French flag. Upon occasion. To Paris, then, with a stop at Saint Martin to refuel and bring on more hands. We may hope that your cunning fox of a Cardinal has more plans up his sleeve for saving the King than recalling you.”
Celeste nodded and kissed her. “I’ve been wanting to show you Paris. We had to leave so quickly last time. For now, let’s go talk about inns and smuggling.” They both laughed as Jacquotte gestured at the pilot to sail eastward.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Pirate in the Mirror” by Catherine Lundoff, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Catherine Lundoff Online
(Originally aired 2023/04/15 - listen here)
It’s never too late and you’re never too old. Well, at least in fictional romances.
This month we’re doing another installment in the favorite tropes series, looking at second-chance romances and older protagonists. The two don’t automatically go together. Second chances can happen at any age. But the two themes felt like they’d pair well together, sort of like caramel and salt.
A trope, in fiction, is a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, a specific situation, or a plot element. This series is looking at how many popular tropes in historic romance work differently for female couples than for other types of couples, as well as looking at how specific historic contexts affect the trope, or how they play out differently than in contemporary romance.
To some extent second chances and older protagonists aren’t affected as much by era, setting, and gender as some other tropes. They don’t necessarily have to awkwardly work around finding analogies for heteronormative structures, the way that marriage-based tropes do. But there are still nuances where gender is relevant.
The “second chance” trope typically has the following structure. The protagonists have had some sort of close personal relationship at an earlier point in their lives. It might have been romantic, but it might have been platonic friendship, or a once-sided romantic interest. In any event, it did not at that time develop into an acknowledged, mutual, romantic relationship. Or if it did, something happened and the relationship was broken. Now the characters have been brought together again and a romantic spark develops that successfully produces a long-term romantic relationship.
Within that general framework, there can be a lot of variation. Perhaps they were lovers but something prevented them from establishing a permanent relationship or broke up the one they had. Perhaps there was romantic interest on one or both sides, but circumstances either got in the way of expressing that interest, or got in the way of converting interest into a relationship. Generally “second chance” isn’t used as a label for something that fits better into “friends to lovers” even if there is a hiatus in the friendship, so let’s stick to situations in which at least one participant experienced romantic feelings the first time around.
The trope of older protagonists exists mostly in contrast to the default expectation that romance is a young person’s game. Numerically, the majority of romance novels focus on younger protagonists and the throes of first love. So the older protagonist isn’t quite so much a trope as it is a demographic. Stories using this theme will include considerations of the past experience of the characters – or the reasons why they have no past experience of romance. Stories may be shaped by the different expectations that people have going into a relationship later in life, such as less expectation that the relationship will produce children (and perhaps the existence of adult children as secondary characters in the story).
But these are considerations that exist regardless of the gender of the couple. So what additional factors come into play for female couples?
Second Chances for Sapphic Romances
I have to say that second-chance romances are a really great fit for sapphic historicals. One of the regular themes in exploring how sapphic romances can play out in historic settings is the question of resisting social and economic pressures to buy into the standard heterosexual marriage plot. Those pressures were significant, even if they weren’t as overwhelming as people sometimes believe them to be. When a woman has passed through the period of her life when those pressures are at their greatest, there can be more opportunity to explore and embrace other options, such as a same-gender romance.
The pressure to follow a normative life path can come in many forms. Perhaps the most insidious is simply not presenting same-gender romance as a possible option. Some cultures had established concepts for establishing a long-term same-gender romantic partnership but far from all of them. So young women who fell in love with each other may not have had a model for what such a relationship could look like. Or they may have been taught to view all same-gender feelings as platonic rather than romantic. It can take more life experience and time to develop emotionally before one is willing to challenge those attitudes, either in oneself or in society. There’s great potential for missed chances if one or both of the characters is hesitant to express what they’re feeling, either from general shyness or lack of confidence, or because they aren’t sure how those feelings would be received or understood. Or, conversely, one character may express an interest in a permanent romantic relationship, but the other character doesn’t understand because they have no framework for it.
Even cultures that recognized and accepted same-gender emotional bonds often treated them as a separate sphere from the relationships that shaped one’s life path. The romantic feelings that two young women experienced might not be considered a reason to avoid heterosexual marriage. Alternately, economic pressures of employment or family needs might be the barrier to establishing a permanent bond between two women, just as it could be a barrier for other types of couples. One of the features of second-chance romances is that the specific reasons why the “first chance” didn’t work out don’t need to be gender-based.
We can see examples of opportunities for second-chance romance play out in the lives of both historic and fictional women, regardless of whether the specific pairs were romantically involved.
In the 4th century Greek novel The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, there is something of a “Perils of Pauline” plot in which Xanthippe’s beloved young protégé Polyxena is abducted and goes through many adventures before being finally reunited with (and brought back to life by) her beloved.
Although Xanthippe and Polyxena are presented in the context of a Christian martyrdom story, the plot full of perils that separates a romantic couple is common in early Greek novels, such as the Babyloniaka in which one woman gets tangled up in the main story due to her resemblance to the primary heroine, and therefore is abducted from her girlfriend, Berenice, queen of Egypt, with whom she is eventually reunited.
There’s a 16th century example I found – I think 16th century, I’m having trouble finding the source article – that traced a pair of working class single women in London who set up a business together, but then were separated when they fell on hard times and needed charitable assistance, and later were back in business together. Even when women are economically independent of marriage, there may still be forces that become barriers when there’s no formal structure like marriage to bind their lives together. Migration to find work could split up a couple (or put a damper on a developing relationship).
A rare first-person account from a 17th century Iranian widow describes how, during her travels after the death of her husband, she is reunited with the woman she established a “sworn sisterhood” with in their youth, but from whom she had been parted for unspecified reasons (though marriage may have been reason enough).
The 18th century trial record of a cross-dressing woman details her relationship with anther woman, whose marriage (when passing as a man) was disrupted by a wide variety of factors: family objections, poverty, travel for employment, and personal conflicts. Theirs was not a particularly happy love story, but the dynamics of meeting, couplehood, separation, and reunion could be adapted for one.
The biographies of romantic friends in the 18th and 19th centuries are full of stories of family circumstance where the couple desires to live together, but one (or both) is responsible to care for a parent or family member and so the desired outcome is postponed. But often it was these very family duties that kept the women unmarried. One typical example is the life of Anna Seward whose known romantic relationships were all with women, and who escaped marriage (but also perhaps was hindered in how she expressed her romantic feelings) by being responsible for caring for her disabled father. One of her loves was for Honora Sneyd who joined their household when both were children, but Honora broke her heart by marrying. By the time Anna’s father died, leaving her a comfortable income, Honora had also passed, leaving the possibility of an eventual second chance to the realm of fiction.
Family duties were also the nominal hindrance to a romantic partnership between Anne Lister and Isabella Norcliffe, though by the time that was no longer an issue, Lister was no longer interested. The life of Anne Lister in the late 18th and early 19th century offers several models for second-chance stories, although she didn’t tend to let barriers to a dedicated relationship get in the way of an ongoing sexual relationship. Lister’s long-term devotion to Marianne Belcombe was blocked by Marianne’s decision to marry. They talked repeatedly about being able to live together some day if her husband died. That potential second chance never occurred and Lister had moved on.
19th century actress Charlotte Cushman had the right scenario for a second-chance story with her first girlfriend Rosalie Sully, who was left behind in New York when Cushman went to expand her theatrical career in England. But, alas, Rosalie died before Cushman returned from her extended tour.
Marriage could be a common reason for women who were devoted to each other to need to delay setting up as a couple. One late 19th century second-chance biography is that of Rose Cleveland (sister of President Grover Cleveland) who developed a passionate relationship with the widowed Evangeline Simpson. They exchanged love letters and traveled together, but Evangeline succumbed to social pressures and married again, which caused a break between the two. Only after the death of Evangeline’s second husband did she and Rose make arrangements to combine their households and share the rest of their lives.
These historic examples probably focus a bit too much on the situations that are unique to female couples. But almost any reason for needing a second chance that apples to other types of couples will work for female couples. Simple misunderstandings. Relocation for family reasons or due to work. Schoolgirl romances can be a good starting point. Drifting apart due to different goals and priorities. Pursuing a different relationship that didn’t work out. Or simply not having been ready for a serious romantic relationship at the time you were originally together. The beauty of this trope is that it doesn’t have to be about being queer.
If you notice a pattern in some of the historic examples above where the reunion (or potential reunion) between the women happens later in life when their responsibilities to parents, husbands, and/or children are left behind, then maybe you understand why I paired second chances with older protagonists for this episode.
Many of the social barriers to women sharing their lives together fall away with age, whether it’s a matter of no longer being responsible for other people, or no longer being subject to expectations regarding reproduction, or simply accumulating a sufficient supply of don’t-give-a-fuck. I’ve already discussed these factors in greater detail in the trope episodes about spinsters and widows, so I won’t rehash them all now.
Not all widows are older. And in the ages when becoming a spinster was a relevant concept, the age at which one was considered on the shelf could be anywhere between 20 to 30-ish, depending on the normative age of marriage. So a consideration of older protagonists isn’t simply a question of being free of other expectations, but of other aspects that come with age.
Non-married older women come in all economic flavors, each with its own considerations. As I discussed in the episode on widows, if you want to give your heroine substantial financial resources that she has control over, making her a widow is your best bet. But for those older women less comfortably situated, they will likely either be living with family, or will be looking for opportunities to stabilize their finances, perhaps by sharing living quarters with others, perhaps by leveraging any property they own by letting rooms, or at last resort by taking on employment that includes room and board. All of these have considerations for potential romantic possibilities and arrangements. (Keep in mind that, in pre-modern times, literally living all by yourself was not practical, and generally went along with extreme poverty.)
Regardless of the details, your older protagonist may be thinking about security. Or she may be thinking about doing things she didn’t have the time and freedom for previously. Or she may be having religious concerns about the end of life. Does she have a large network of friends and relations, built up over decades of adulthood? Or does she find herself alone and abandoned, looking for security? Has she already been everywhere and seen everything and is ready to settle into retirement? Or does she get a wild hair to go on pilgrimage or become a world traveler? What is her health situation like? Has life broken her down or made her a tough old bird? If your character has gone through menopause, do the hormonal changes affect her attitude toward the place of sex within a relationship? What experiences has she accumulated across her life that inform her attitude toward love and sex between women? Has her attitude changed from what it would have been when she was younger. This, too, can be part of the “second chance” dynamics. For that matter, has society changed during her lifetime in ways that affect her seizing a second chance?
In many ways, the differences in romantic possibilities for older women are very different depending on the gender of the potential partner. In historic records you often find women who are past childbearing age viewing male suitors as primarily looking for a housekeeper, nurse, or governess for their existing children. Outside of romance novels, the attractions of marriage for the older woman can be a bit thin on the ground.
And when it comes down to it, is there anything quite as attractive as a woman who has seen it all, been there and done that, has no more fucks to give, and is ready to embrace her own desires fully? Build your older romance heroine around that. And just maybe there’s someone from her past waiting in the wings to be given a second chance.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2023/04/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2023.
It’s been a long, wet winter here in California and—though I always do the knock-on-wood type of deflection of bad luck by saying “of course, we need the rain”—I have to confess I’m thinking very fondly ahead to summer. Even the hot days. Maybe especially the hot days.
I’m also, increasingly, thinking fondly ahead to something else. I don’t tend to talk about my day-job doing failure investigations on this show much because there’s very little overlap. That is, there’s actually a lot of philosophical overlap between my writing and my day-job, but it takes a bit of explaining. Having a day-job means that I can be blithely oblivious to questions of monetizing this podcast. But more and more, my day-job has been crowding out the time and attention I have for my creative work: writing fiction, and the blog and podcast. In part it’s because I’ve been accumulating more managerial duties in addition to my investigation work. In part it’s because my department’s headcount keeps getting squeezed and we all have bigger workloads. So in addition to the increasing frequency of working evenings and the occasional weekend, it means that when I do close the corporate laptop, I often don’t want to do anything involving “braining” or staring at computer screens.
But there is an end in sight. If you ever spot me concluding a social media post with something like “2 years, 1 month,” it’s the countdown to my target retirement date. It’s depressing to think that I may not get back to serious fiction writing until I retire. But we all have our choices and priorities, and in the capitalist hellscape we live in, it would be a difficult choice to give up that sweet, sweet corporate paycheck and retirement fund for the laughably thin income of a lesbian historical fiction novelist. So I hang on, and I look ahead, and I scramble to keep this presence going so that I have some hope that people remember who I am and what I’m giving to the world. Some days, that’s the only thing that keeps the podcast going: the thought that it’s my only current way of saying “I exist, I matter, I am here" to the larger lesbian community.
Publications on the Blog
But this is all to say that I’ve spent the second month in a row without reading anything new for the blog. Which also means that the Gothic Fiction episode is going to get pushed out again.
But in the meantime, the book shopping came through and I have two new books (plus several downloaded articles) in preparation for that show. The most focused of these is Paulina Palmer’s Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. It looks primarily focused on relatively contemporary gothic novels, though some with historic settings. The second new acquisition is The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature edited by E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, which includes the article “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” by Steven Bruhm, although I’ll clearly want to cover the entire collection of articles on the blog. Looking through the table of contents, I see a lot of familiar names.
This month will see the first fiction episode of this year’s series, which will be Catherine Lundoff’s “The Pirate in the Mirror,” another story in her Celeste and Jacquotte series.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of fiction, let’s look at new and recent sapphic historical fiction. There are several March books that only just caught my eye, all of them set in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Violet Cowper has put out another book in the Ladylike Inclinations series. Her Venetian Beauty doesn’t have a series number on the cover, but it looks like it should be number 4.
A fiery beauty and a scholarly spinster... together, will they find the happy ending they deserve? Alexandra Craven has a secret dream to escape the trap of the genteel birth and earn her independent living as a writer. She thinks that accompanying her brother on the Grand Tour would provide her with enough material. However, when her brother falls ill in Venice, she is left without a guidance - and has to look to the timid daughter of their noble host, Veronica Zanotti, for help. Veronica Zanotti, a young lady of more learning than charm, has no secret dreams at all. She is seemingly content to be left alone in her father's library while her sister enjoys the spotlight. However, when a ravishing Englishwoman asks for her assistance, she is plunged into a whirlpool of perilous adventures...
Another Regency-era novel, The Enemy Within by Stein Willard, seems to assume that the casual shopper will be familiar with the series the book belongs to, as the descriptive cover copy is very slight. So your guess is as good as mine on this one.
With their goal of receiving official pardons from the Crown finally in sight, Hirsh and her band of pirate sisters are actively planning for the future. Vows are made and new friendships are formed as the family continues to grow.
We get a lot more information on setting and characters for Eight Strings by Margaret DeRosia from Simon & Schuster.
Ever since her grandfather introduced her to eight-string marionettes, Francesca has dreamed of performing from the rafters of Venice’s popular Minerva Theater. There’s just one problem: the profession is only open to men. When her father arranges to sell her into marriage to pay off his gambling debts, Francesca flees her home. Masquerading as a male orphan named Franco, she secures an apprenticeship with the Minerva’s eccentric ensemble of puppeteers. Amid the elaborate set-pieces, the glittering limes, and the wooden marionettes, she finds a place where she belongs—and grows into the person she was always meant to be: Franco. The past threatens to catch up with Franco when his childhood friend Annella reappears and recognizes him at the theater. Now a paid companion to an influential woman, Annella understands the lengths one must go to survive, and she promises to keep Franco’s secret. Desire sparks between them, and they find themselves playing a dangerous game against the most powerful figures of Venice’s underworld. With their lives—and the fate of the Minerva—hanging in the balance, Franco must discover who is pulling the strings before it’s too late.
Moving up to the early 20th century, we have Her Female Husband (The Kendallville Librarian #1) by Julieanne from Western Michigan Publishing.
While many women in 1908 accept their lot in life to marry, rear children, and run a household for their husbands, Sarah, the Kendallville Librarian lives with her own private reasons to resist such a path. Despite having moved to Kendallville to "find a husband" alongside her best friend, Lydia, she has yet to allow any of the local men her favor. For her own reasons, Lydia also avoids tying herself to a man. While she yearns to do a "man's job" of being a journalist, and for a fair wage, she faces rejection at every turn. That is, until the day she overhears whispers of a woman in another city doing the unthinkable… living as a man. She can't possibly. Or can she? When the notion of donning men's clothing and pursing her dreams won't leave her mind, Lydia begins scheming, much to Sarah's simultaneous shock and burgeoning hope. Sarah, however, soon finds herself thrust into the center of local murder investigation. With everything at stake, will Sarah and Lydia get their happily ever after together? Will the Kendallville Librarian survive her perilous endeavors and finally find peace with her female husband?
I frequently take note when characters in a story fall in the ambiguous territory between gender disguise and transgender identity. When the first couple of books in L. Dreamer’s Heart series came out in 2020, I wasn’t sure how to categorize the relationship. Now that the third and final installment has come out, Heart’s Home, the author has confirmed that he views the story as a lesbian romance. The previous books were originally published under the author’s former name but have now been reissued with the byline L. Dreamer.
In the final installment of the Heart Series, join Thomas, Rachel, TJ, Charlotte, and all of your favorite side characters as they continue to navigate the highs and lows of the lives they’ve created. Follow their adventures through the years, from the Great War to the Great Depression and beyond as the family charts their own paths while learning the true meaning of love, loss, hard work, and family. This collection of short stories and novellas picks up a couple of years after Heart Sings and finishes off the Heart Series with new challenges, triumphs, heartbreaks, and joy.
Another series that recently wrapped up is Cameron Darrow’s “Ashes of Victory” supernatural stories set between the two world wars. The author asked me to let people know that the entire series is now available as a boxed set under the title From the Ashes of Victory.
The First World War is over, the old world shattered and overturned. But one didn't need to be anywhere near the fighting to have everything stripped away. Families, homes, identities lost, the witches of the clandestine group EVE were left at war's end with only two things: their magical gifts and each other. From the ashes of Allied victory and the Russian revolution, this group of survivors will forge for themselves something altogether new in a time when women aren't even allowed to vote, let alone openly practice magic in public. Or love one another. But not all threats to their budding coven come from without. Secrets, lies and the lingering trauma they've suffered could tear them apart as easily as the war tried to do, and they will have to overcome--and embrace--all that they are to ensure the peace is a lasting one, and that the horrors of a world war are never repeated.
The April books are a fascinating spread of themes and settings, starting with a mythic Norse tale, Legacy of the Valiant (Tales from Norvegr #2) by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.
Humble Kai aspires to become more than the petite, inconsequential young woman her community sees. Persistence pays off when the village holy leaders reveal a prophecy. Kai might actualize her dream of being a hero if she completes three seemingly impossible tasks. Princess Solveig, descendant of the famous shieldmaiden Sigrid the Valiant, believes she was born to accomplish great things, but her poor eyesight, weak constitution, and lack of physical expertise hold her back. Convinced she can never realize her ambitions, Solveig settles for living vicariously through her warrior girlfriend. The appearance of a dangerous jötunn wreaking havoc in the kingdom brings the two would-be champions together. Solveig feels both threatened and skeptical when Kai arrives in her father’s great hall with a “magic” sword, claiming she’s there to save the day after more promising protectors have failed. With many lives at stake, will rivalry push Solveig and Kai apart, or will they inspire each other to realize the greatness both women desire to achieve and to survive the coming battle?
Well-known lesbian romance author Karin Kallmaker has only rarely dipped her toes into historical settings, but a current loosely linked series includes this medieval tale: Knight of Nights (The Coin of Love #2) from Romance and Chocolate Ink.
Left in charge of clan and lands while menfolk ride away to the Crusades, Lady Kirstine breaks with tradition by coming to the aid of the local green woman whose medicines once saved Kirstine's life. She's surprised to find the old woman already ably defended by a knight - a knight with no flag. A knight like no other Kirstine has ever met.
I dithered a bit about whether including this next book in the podcast is being true to the identities of the characters, but as usual I tend to err on the side of inclusivity and as long as there is sapphic content it needn’t be the central relationship. But I like readers to know what to expect, so in the case of Something Spectacular (Something Fabulous) by Alexis Hall from Montlake, the podcast relevance is that there is a romantic backstory between a female character and a non-binary but assigned female character, however the central romantic plot of the book involves both of those characters matched with a castrato opera singer. So: make of that what you will.
Peggy Delancey’s not at all ready to move on from her former flame, Arabella Tarleton. But Belle has her own plans for a love match, and she needs Peggy’s help to make those plans a reality. Still hung up on her feelings and unable to deny Belle what she wants, Peggy reluctantly agrees to help her woo the famous and flamboyant opera singer Orfeo. She certainly doesn’t expect to find common ground with a celebrated soprano, but when Peggy and Orfeo meet, a whole new flame is ignited that she can’t ignore. Peggy finds an immediate kinship with Orfeo, a castrato who’s just as nonconforming as she is―and just as affected by their instant connection. They’ve never been able to find their place in the world, but as the pair walks the line between friendship, flirtation, and something more, they may just find their place with each other.
When an author has a historic romance series that includes various gender pairings, it’s fairly rare for there to be more than one f/f romance, but Renee Dahlia has done just that in her “Desiring the Dexingtons” series with The Widow's Modiste.
A bored widow, an incredible dress, and a modiste with a secret. Jacinda Dexington wants to take her modiste shop to the haut ton, so when a client gives her tickets to the Soho Club’s Contrary Gods masquerade ball, she wears the outfit herself. It’s a sensation and everyone wants to know who created it. But only one person offers her refreshments… and a little bit more. Lady Merryam, widowed and bored, only attends the Soho Club’s latest ball to help raise funds for her son’s orphanage. The last she expects is a one night stand with the mysterious woman wearing ‘that’ dress. Could spending more time with her be the answer to her ennui?
The last April book has a somewhat experimental structure with a cross-time plot: The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Two women, connected across time, edge toward transgression in pursuit of their desires. A Mississippi woman pushes through the ruin of the Roman Colosseum, searching for plants. She has escaped her life, apprenticed herself to catalog all the species growing in this place. Crawling along the stones, she wonders how she has landed here, a reluctant botanist amid a snarl of tourists in comfortable sandals. She hunts for a scientific agenda and a direction of her own. In 1855, a woman pushes through the jungle of the Roman Colosseum, searching for plants. As punishment for her misbehavior, she has been indentured to the English botanist Richard Deakin, for whom she will compile a flora. She is a thief, and she must find new ways to use her hands. If only the woman she loves weren’t on a boat, with a husband. But love isn’t always possible. She logs 420 species. Through a list of seemingly minor plants and their uses―medical, agricultural, culinary―these women calculate intangible threats: a changing climate, the cost of knowledge, and the ways repeated violence can upend women’s lives. They must forge their own small acts of defiance and slip through whatever cracks they find. How can anyone survive?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been consuming since last month? In general, it’s been books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, which perhaps indicates that I’m not in an experimental mood. I finished reading Meg Mardell’s latest holiday romance Christmas Masquerade, which is a bit of a comedy of manners, country-house story in which everyone thinks they’re playing matchmaker while also being matched by others. I’ll give away that the conclusion involves pansexual polyamory, just in case that affects people’s inclination to try it. This one didn’t grab me as solidly as Mardell’s previous books, but I admire that she’s telling stories that are so expansive in terms of identities and outcomes.
My other read was Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo, which is the third novella in her Singing Hills series, set in an alternate China with light fantasy. The central character is a collector of stories, and as with the previous books, the telling of stories, and the way those stories interact with the framing action, form a complex structure that offers a slow reveal of hidden secrets. I liked that in this story, that final reveal was so subtle I had to page back to check on a point where I’d made an unsupported assumption that led me off track. The series continues its tradition of including normalized queer relationships among the characters.
Moving over to audiobooks, we have C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken, another historic fantasy that employs an alternate version of an actual historic setting—in this case, colonized French Algeria—and a light overlap of fantasy—just enough to keep you guessing about possible plot twists, and is full of normalized queer relationships, including between the two female protagonists. I loved the worldbuilding and the romance, but I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I hoped due to the bodycount and a fair amount of gory body horror. That doesn’t make it a flawed book, just one that I’m not the target audience for.
And finally, my other audiobook is K.J. Charles’ latest, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, which matches up a newly-inherited Regency baronet, who has abandonment issues, with the head of a clan of smugglers, who is overburdened with a sense of responsibility. This book has the sort of K.J. Charles plot that I love: very individual characters whose romantic conflict comes from their personal flaws, even as they both try to be good people doing responsible things. I can wholeheartedly understand why they’re attracted to each other and why they have to struggle to get their happy ending. That hasn’t always been the case in my recent reading, so it cheers me up greatly.
What’s been cheering you up in your recent reading? I’d love to hear about it.
When adding upcoming titles to my database, I once again was struck by the geography of sapphic historical fiction. These thoughts aren’t meant to poke at any particular author or book, but at a cumulative pattern that emerges. And specifically a pattern that some historic settings seem to exist primarily in a mythic space, as far as sapphic historicals are concerned.
I can back this up with data from my cumulative spreadsheet. One of the settings I want to highlight is Greece. With the sole exception of a series of WWII-set stories by Mary D Brooks, the titles I’m aware of are set in the Classical era or earlier. And of those 16 books with classical Greek settings, only 2 don’t appear to have overtly fantastic elements, primarily involving the concrete appearance of the pantheon of gods, or movement between the mortal world and that of the immortals. The two exceptions are a fictionalized biography of Sappho, and a story set in Sparta that stretches historic plausibility but doesn’t include any supernatural elements.
I think you could probably include the Brooks WWII series as having fantasy elements—and perhaps even Classical connections—because, as I understand it, the series was originally Xena “Uber” fan-fiction, so there’s a premise of reincarnation, and at least one book includes psychic phenomena. But they don’t fit the more general pattern on a surface level.
Now, I will grant you that—with the exception of Sappho herself—researching sapphic themes in Classical Greece is a bit tricky, although now that we have an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome there’s a bit less friction to the process. Given that mainstream histories of classical Greece tend to surrender to the imbalance of information on male versus female lives, often making one wonder if women existed at all outside of myth and legend, it makes me sad that historical fiction authors seem to have swallowed that illusion. The pattern here is two-fold: that Greece has no significant history after the Classical era, and that sapphic stories can only exist in the world of mythic fantasy, and not among ordinary lives.
There is, perhaps, less of an excuse on the research side for the similar pattern we see for historic stories with Scandinavian settings. The spreadsheet has 18 stories set either in specific Scandinavian countries or nebulously in the region of Scandinavia. All but 3 of them are set either overtly or implicitly in an early-medieval or mythic “Viking era”. (The 3 exceptions include 2 in the 17th century and 1 in WWII, none of which have fantasy elements.)
But this is not the early medieval Scandinavia of the history books. Fourteen of the 15 stories feature warrior women. The 15th is a cross-time story. Ten of the stories also feature gods, monsters, or magic. Now, the question of women’s participation in warfare in Viking-era Scandinavia is complex. Women warriors definitely featured in Norse sagas and myths, regardless of whether they were part of ordinary life. But what is interesting is how strongly the motif seems essential to sapphic historical fiction with this setting. In many cases, the motif isn’t presented as a woman taking on a cross-gender identity, but rather that warrior women are normalized as part of the fictional culture of the setting.
As with the Classical Greek stories that bring in gods and mythic Amazons, within the fictional geography of sapphic historical fiction, the actual historic cultures of these settings have been erased and replaced with a mythic fantasy. Mind you, I have no problem with mythic fantasy stories! But I do feel uncomfortable around the way they become the only landscape to the exclusion of the realistic.
The presence of mythic or fantasy stories isn’t quite as overwhelming in some other settings. Of the books set in Egypt, only 2/3 have fantasy elements. There are similar numbers for those set in China or a clearly China-based culture. Compare to stories set in France where only 1/3 have fantasy elements. Compare to stories set in Canada or Germany or Russia which are almost devoid of fantasy. (The only reason I’m not tackling the statistics for stories set in the British Isles or in the USA is because I have a lot of gaps in the coding for this aspect and I don’t have time to fill them in enough to do the calculation.)
What does it mean that our imagined version of specific times and places is so heavily overlaid with myth? What does it mean that we seem to find it hard to imagine women loving women in some contexts unless we make those women stand outside the limits of ordinary life? And what does that say about our ability to see people in those cultures as whole, complex human beings? Each book stands alone on its own merits. But in the aggregate, those patterns ask questions that we should ponder.
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
(Originally aired 2023/03/18 - listen here)
This show could almost have been a “F/Favorite Tropes” episode. But that series is aimed at examining the tropes that are popular for mixed-gender romances and how they work in a same-gender context. “School friends to lovers” isn’t a standard pattern in heterosexual historic romance, for the salient reason that co-educational schooling was not the norm in most places before the 20th century. So instead I’ll do this as a thematic episode.
The history of gender-segregated education
Single-gender institutions and communities have always tended to be a context where intense and intimate same-gender bonds could flourish and even be celebrated. One contributing cause is obvious: lack of other opportunities. This has often been cited in contexts where the women had little or no freedom to leave the institution, such as prisons and pre-modern convents. But often such bonds between “particular friends” were actively encouraged, with the understanding that close personal bonds helped to stabilize the micro-culture and to provide emotional support, especially when the inhabitants might be separated from family for an extended period.
I discussed the ambivalent attitude toward “particular friends” in convents in an earlier episode dealing with that institution. But today I want to tackle the history of passionate or romantic friendships in schools, both between students and between teachers.
The idea of mixing the genders in educational institutions is rather recent, in a historic time-scale. And there are many contemporary cultures that still prefer to keep separate male and female schools for a variety of reasons, as well as individual institutions that consider it to be a more productive way of focusing on education and personal development. I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of single-gender schools—an extremely complex topic—but rather to focus on how that environment has intersected historically with same-sex relations.
As usual, my broad generalizations will tend to focus on Western culture, due to the nature of my sources, with many of the specific examples drawn from the English-speaking world, though in this case the general pattern is similar throughout western Europe.
One reason for gender segregation in schools, especially for older students, has been the historic exclusion of women from formal education. While some women challenged this exclusion on an individual basis, in many cases, girls’ schools and women’s colleges were created to redress this exclusion as a more practical solution. But another motivation of gender segregation was to reduce the risk of unauthorized romantic relationships, or sexual encounters—especially in contexts where the girls and women were not under direct family supervision. One theme I come back to regularly in the trope shows is the pervasive attitudes that unregulated mixing of the genders created an existential risk of sexual activity. Outside of marriage, respectable women and girls did not have the social permission to say “yes” to sex, and both in and out of marriage they had very little social permission to say “no”. Thus, strict supervision, codes of etiquette, and physical segregation were all employed to reduce this risk.
In Europe, religious shifts in the 16th century that encouraged basic education for all children led to the development of local grammar schools that were typically co-educational and non-residential. But more advanced education, and especially at what we would consider the college level, was mostly residential and single-gender (and, at that time, not available to women). Such residential schools were being established for boys in the later Middle Ages. Residential schools for girls began appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Catholic countries, these were typically—though not always—run by religious orders and sponsored by convents, while Protestant institutions were set up either as philanthropic—or sometimes commercial—enterprises. Girls who had the opportunity for post-grammar school education might be sent to a boarding school or convent school that combined education with limits on their interactions with men. Here we’re generally talking about middle-class families and higher, not only due to the cost of boarding school but because it kept students out of the workforce. In urban areas, non-residential schools were also part of the educational landscape, but they aren’t the primary focus of this show.
Women’s colleges began to be established in the early-to-mid 19th century in England and the United States, with a scattering of women’s colleges elsewhere in Europe. In that era, there are isolated examples of women gaining entrance to established (men’s) colleges, but it was only with the creation of women’s colleges that higher education became generally available to women.
In the United States, public secondary education generally shifted to being co-ed in the 19th century with gender segregation continuing in private institutions, while in England secondary education typically remained gender-segregated well into the 20th century. Most Western countries fall somewhere within that range. Genuinely co-educational colleges appear at widely different times in different countries, with rare examples in the USA starting in the mid-19th century and in the UK in the later 19th century. But women-only colleges remained a significant presence into the mid-20th century.
This sets up a timeline for the social dynamics of women-only educational institutions. For secondary boarding schools, we would generally be talking about the 17th century and later, with the shift away from single-gender institutions depending on location, and sometimes on class or income. For the heyday of women’s colleges, we’re talking generally about the mid-19th century into the early 20th century. The specifics—not only of school systems, but of attitudes towards same-gender relations within them—can differ significantly within this scope, by time and culture, as we’ll discuss later.
This age of women’s colleges coincides and is intertwined with a number of other social factors that affect women’s intimate friendships and attitudes toward them, such as a significant rise in feminist movements, and the beginnings of the medicalization of homosexuality. We can see how awareness and attitudes toward homosexuality affected the perception of school “smashes” across this heyday, moving from an accepted, admired, and even encouraged practice, to one viewed with suspicion, and discouraged in its more excessive manifestations.
Romances Between Students
When we look for romances between women that began as boarding-school friendships, we can begin in the 17th century with English poet Katherine Philips. She attended a boarding school in Hackney run by a Mrs. Salmon from 1640 to 1645—when she was in her early teens—and it was there that she met Mary Aubrey, to whom she gave the classical nickname “Rosania” in her poetry and correspondence, and who was the first of her romantic objects.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Anne Lister engaged in her first romantic relationship with boarding school roommate Eliza Raine, when sent to the Manor House School in York when both were in their early teens. Although that relationship didn’t last past Lister’s departure from the school two years later, it may well have been the context in which she recognized her exclusive orientation toward women.
In the mid 19th century, future English novelist Mary Mackay (who would write under the pen name Marie Corelli) was shipped off at age 11 to be educated at a Parisian convent school, where she met Bertha Vyver. Their lives were intertwined from then on. When both women were around 20, Vyvyr moved in to care for Corelli’s invalid father. After his death, the two shared a household and supported each other’s careers for over 40 years, and Corelli left the profits of a best-selling literary career to Vyvyr when she died.
These are only a very few examples of known romantic couples who first met as schoolfellows. But finding isolated examples of female romantic couples who met at boarding school is a different matter from having an open culture of such relationships.
In the 18th century, literature about female schoolfriends didn’t tend to fantasize about their possible sexual relations in the same way it did about women in convents. But there are veiled allusions in manuals about education that suggest girls not be left unsupervised too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” These references could be either to same-sex activity or to masturbation, but those two topics were not always distinguished at the time.
By the later 18th century, it became typical (although not universal) for middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States to be sent to gender-segregated boarding schools. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was an anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family.
The Culture of School Crushes
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg includes school friendships in her study of women’s same-sex bonds in 19th century America, using family correspondence dating between the 1760s and 1880s. Although Smith-Rosenberg tends to view these ritualized female bonds as primarily non-romantic, even when couched in romantic language, we can turn directly to the relevant quotes to see how these relationships were viewed. Female friendships were expressed with warmth, spontaneity, and a sense of fun. Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged, and enjoyed dancing with each other. This sort of behavior was enjoyed openly without any expectation of suspicion or criticism. Indeed, schools often encouraged students to pair off and sponsored all-women dances and similar events.
Sarah Butler and Jeannie Musgrove met in their mid-teens in 1849 when their families were vacationing in Massachusetts. They then spent two years together in boarding school where they formed a deep, intimate friendship that included romantic gestures and the assumption of nicknames for each other. One of them took a male nickname, a pattern we regularly see among intimate female friends. They continued using those names to each other all their lives. Sarah married, but the two continued to write of their desire to spend time together, of their longing to be with each other and of how much they meant to each other. Passages from their letters include, “I want you to tell me in your next letter, to assure me, that I am your dearest.” and “A thousand kisses--I love you with my whole soul.” Jeannie married at age 37, precipitating significant anxiety between the two about how it might change their relationship. And it did result in a physical separation, though with no change in their emotional intensity.
A second pair has a similar story. Molly and Helena met in 1868 while attending college together in New York City. Over several years, they studied together, visited each other’s families, and became part of a network of artistic young women. They developed a close intimate bond that continued the rest of their lives. In their letters, they called each other dearest and beloved. They expressed this affection in kisses and embraces. After five years, they had planned to share a home together but when Molly bowed to her parents’ wishes and decided against the plan, Helena responded angrily, leading Molly to fear it would mean a break-up. The friendship cooled somewhat and both gained male suitors and married. During this time of upset, they expressed their feelings in romantic and marital terms. Molly wrote, “I wanted so to put my arms round my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her...I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken each other for life--and believe in her as I believe in my God.” And she wrote to Helena’s fiancé, “Do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so. Don’t you wonder that I can stand the sight of you.”
Martha Vicinus takes a detailed look at formalized romantic dynamics within English girls’ boarding schools in the later 19th and early 20th century in her article “Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships,” specifically looking at the practice of “smashes”—another term for “crushes” or “raves”—ritualized romantic connections between students, or sometimes between student and teacher.
While the schoolgirl friends mentioned previously involved couples of equal age, which seems to have been typical of relations in the 18th and larger part of the 19th century, the later practice of “smashes” in English boarding schools arose in a culture that encouraged an age-differentiated and more formalized love, rather than an egalitarian relationship. Note that Vicinus is focusing specifically on the era when the social perception and performance of such “smashes” was changing due to external social shifts, and they were beginning to be viewed less innocently.
It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these school friendships were conscious of an erotic aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, around the turn of the 20th century, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been as forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.
The increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools toward the end of the 19th century contributed to this new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life for women. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control, in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on an older student or a teacher, but one that was not necessarily expected to be reciprocal or egalitarian.
The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from being “gone on” someone), or flame. The vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was similar, deriving from equivalent social conditions.
In the prototypical “smash,” love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was not part of the official prototype. It would have meant a failure of the expected self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The older object of the rave or smash might recognize the underlying urge as sexual, but she was expected to help channel those feelings into emotional rather than sexual expressions, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements. These age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor, which set up a “safe” symbolic context for the interactions.
British “Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and ritualized secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussions that normalized the practice and socialized new students in how it was to be performed. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provided to the target of devotion. These acts typically didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks for her. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination. The rules for these romantic rituals might even be codified in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.
Letters from American college students describe less hierarchical and less covert practices, as in this description from 1873. “When a girl takes a shine to another, she straightaway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of ‘Ridley’s Mixed Candies,’ locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as ‘smashed.’” “If the ‘smash’ is mutual, they monopolize each other and ‘spoon’ continually, and if it isn’t mutual, the unrequited one cries herself sick and endures pangs unspeakable.”
Age-difference relationships were often by their nature temporary, as the older beloved would inevitably leave the school first. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. But some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling as their school crushes.
The language of marriage was frequently invoked between such friends. In 1892 one woman writes after the death of her lifelong friend, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages. We know there have been other such between two men and also between two women. And why should there not be. Love is spiritual, only passion is sexual.”
This last provides a hint of how the participants may have reconciled their passionate friendships with conventional ideas of morality. Kissing and embracing and snuggling in bed together were not necessarily understood as sexual. Once the idea that such activities might be sexual emerged toward the turn of the 20th century, only then were intense female friendships increasingly looked askance. And, of course, for those relationships that had been sexual, the shift in attitudes might result in suspicion focused on relationships that had previously been considered admirable.
Romances Between Teachers
Among women in teaching professions in the 19th and early 20th centuries the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: it would have been nearly impossible to pursue a career in academia while fulfilling the expectations for a wife. Even pursuing the education necessary to become a college professor required personal and professional support that women could not expect to receive from a husband, much less support in a career itself. But even more importantly, schools and colleges usually required that female faculty be unmarried. So whether women entered teaching professions already having an emotional life focused on other women, or whether they chose the profession over the possibility of heterosexual marriage and then found life with a female partner to be an attractive option, the teaching profession became a fertile field for finding female life-partners with a wide variety of forms of relationships.
Whether such relationships were viewed as having erotic potential depended on the general attitude toward intimate female friendships. At the beginning of the 19th century, Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie co-founded a girls’ boarding school in Scotland and then became embroiled in a famous legal trial when a student accused them of having a sexual relationship. While the results of the trial were complex and not entirely satisfactory, the two women benefitted from their society’s rejection of the idea that two respectable women—however close—would engage in an erotic relationship.
Around the same era, Eliza Frances Robertson ran a school in Greenwich with her beloved friend Charlotte Sharp. When the school encountered financial problems, Robertson came under attack for a strange variety of charges, but including the assertion that she and Sharp had an unnatural relationship. As a novelist and pamphleteer, Robertson came to her own defense invoking Biblical justifications for intense same-sex friendships. Without weighing in on the truth or falsehood of the specific charges, we can see that within the numerous examples of female academic partnerships, erotic potential was imaginable. But for most relationships, the question was never raised, even when they had all the external trappings of marriage. To do so would have undermined the entire economy of female education.
Publicly recognized female couples were such a fixture at women’s colleges in 19th century New England that, alongside the term “Boston Marriage,” such relationships might be called “Amherst marriages” or “Wellesley marriages” in reference to those two women’s colleges.
The book Improper Bostonians details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records, both famous and obscure. Many established couples among the female faculty of women’s colleges simply lived quietly ordinary lives, such as Carla Wenkebach and Margaretha Müller, both in the Wellesley German department in the 1890s, and Margaret Pollock Sherwood and Martha Hale Shackford, also at Wellesley.
But female academic couples include a number of rather well-known women. Katharine Lee Bates, the author of the anthem “America the Beautiful,” met her partner Katharine Coman while at Wellesley and both later joined the faculty there.
Not all romances between teachers arose at colleges. Black poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké and her beloved Mary K. Burrell met while fellow teachers at Dunbar High School, a segregated school for Black students in Washington D.C.
One particularly illustrative example is that of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. The two met in 1895 when Woolley had just been made a full professor at Wellesley College and Marks (12 years her junior) was a student. The two hit it off and from there on their lives and careers ran in parallel. That same year, Woolley was offered a job heading the women’s college at Brown University and offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, a prominent women’s college. She chose the latter and a few years later became one of the youngest college presidents when she took over at Mount Holyoke. That same year, Marks (having finished her degree at Wellesley) became a professor of English at Mount Holyoke. The complexities of a two-academic-career household were simplified somewhat by Woolley’s ability to pull strings as president. The two were recognized publicly as a couple and lived together at the Mount Holyoke president’s residence for 36 years. After retirement, they continued to live together at the Marks family home in New York.
Despite this clear evidence of enjoying a marriage equivalent and a deeply romantic attachment, Woolley and Marks were not immune to shifts in attitudes toward their type of relationship. In 1908, Marks wrote an essay entitled “Unwise College Friendships” suggesting that such romantic relationships between female students were an “abnormal condition” and asserting that only a relationship between a man and a woman could “fulfill itself and be complete.” The essay was never published, and Lillian Faderman suggests that it may have been too out of step with public attitudes in the US, which still saw schoolgirl romances as harmless or admirable. Marks left other writings showing a developing homophobia, and one is left contemplating the tragedy of embracing a change in social attitudes that negates the validity of one’s own life partnership.
A Shift in Attitudes
In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between American schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. But the combination of anti-feminist backlash, the growing field of sexology and its theories about same-sex desire, and an increasing public awareness of the erotic potential of women’s romantic friendships was gradually changing attitudes towards both schoolgirl and fellow-teacher romances in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. The public culture of school crushes or raves became a focus of psychological concern. School authorities gradually began to characterize raves as disruptive and self-indulgent, or to try to channel the same emotions into a more distant and diffuse expression. As medicalized theories of homosexuality spread into people’s awareness, even the participants in rave culture might later view their experiences with misgivings.
One American woman who novelized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush on a teacher, when writing in the 1930s, felt the need to turn the teacher’s happy, life-long Boston marriage with another teacher into a tragic love triangle that provoked the suicide of the teacher’s partner. Over the course of a single lifetime, the attitudes and understandings toward such school crushes had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.
Just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting social dynamics—especially when they expanded outside the school context—resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, whether between students, between teachers, or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. Unmarried female teachers became figures of suspicion (ignoring the context that their singlehood was often a contractual obligation) and suspected of having twisted or at least frustrated sexual desires that made them prone to exploiting student crushes.
This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant in the beginning of the 20th century did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (the British equivalent of the Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were such crushes regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.
Women’s Same-Gender School Relationships in Literature
There are several strands of academic same-sex romance that appear in historic literary works. Some come out of the culture of Romantic Friendship and depict devoted, loving couples who may or may not end up devoting their lives to each other. Some are more ambivalent, suggesting that these academic romances are transient and problematic and will give way to a marriage plot. Some engage with the motif of the predatory lesbian and the hazards of single-gender environments in bringing “innocent” girls and women into contact with predators who consider such environments a useful hunting ground. And some fall more into a libertine and even pornographic context, using the single-gender institution as an excuse for depicting lesbian interactions.
The love of schoolfellows or of a student for a teacher shows up in any number of classical novels where no suggestion of eroticism is present. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (published in 1847) deeply loves her school friend Helen as well as a compassionate headmistress. We can find devoted school friends in the works of Jane Austen, such as Anne Elliot’s attachment to her friend Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. But works in this category generally draw a curtain on the erotic potential of such friendships by marrying their protagonists off to men.
In the extensive genre of girls’ school novels, crushes and romantic behavior between students at boarding schools are depicted unselfconsciously as sweet and innocent, though when the narrative is confined to the school years, there is no need to address whether and how the relationships persist later in the characters’ lives. This genre was popular in the later 19th and early 20th century and existed in parallel with the development of darker stories in which erotic potential was recognized, and typically punished.
On the more daring side of school stories, Colette’s Claudine at School (published in French in 1900) includes a series of sexual liaisons between students, student and teacher, and between female teachers. But the depiction—though hardly involving sincere long-term romances—is playful and sympathetic, with none of the looming threat of decadence and damnation seen in other works with similarly overt erotic content.
A Sunless Heart, published in 1894 by Scottish writer Edith Johnstone includes several archetypes: the racialized student Mona who falls in love with her lecturer, Miss Grace, who in turn wavers between discouraging her and a creepy erotic possessiveness, fellow lecturer Miss Gasparine whom Mona views (evidently with reason) as a rival for Miss Grace’s affections, and the older male professor who represents the temptations of heterosexual marriage for multiple characters. The book’s position with respect to same-sex relations can be seen in the plot’s resolution in which Mona and Miss Grace, after an angsty breakup, find each other once again as they are both dying in a train wreck.
Even more hostile to same-sex love is the 1917 novel Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane, in which the predatory boarding school teacher Clare Hartill courts and lays claim to younger colleague Alwynne Durand, gradually isolating her from other contacts until Clare’s controlling behavior finally drives Alwynne into the arms of a convenient male suitor. The novel ends with Clare contemplating possible candidates for her next conquest at the school.
The punishment of same-gender school liaisons with nervous exhaustion and mental breakdown is a contribution to the genre from the French decadent writers, where the motif shows up earlier than in the English literary world. In Adolphe Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (published in 1870), the point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, a young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. When the two women are forced to separate by their husbands, the wife goes into a decline caused by sexual exhaustion and dies. Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, during an era when writers in America were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal.
The depiction of such passions as understandable but doomed, appears in Christa Winsloe’s 1933 novel (originally in German) The Child Manuela, later filmed in more than one version as Mädchen in Uniform, in which the entire girls’ school has a crush on the most personable and kind of their teachers, but Manuela believes she has been given reason to believe her love is especially returned and makes a public declaration, triggering a crisis. The teacher, already under suspicion of same-sex interests, gently rejects her, resulting in Manuela’s suicide (though the movie version has the student saved from death at the last minute).
The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in the works of some authors. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and making assumptions about the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian.
A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.
A work mentioned earlier, Olivia by Dorothy Strachey Bussy was based on the author’s own school experiences around the turn of the 20th century when she had a crush on a teacher who had a romantic partnership with a fellow teacher. But by the time Bussy fictionalized her experience in the 1930s, the student crush and declaration of love becomes the catalyst for the breakup of the academic couple, resulting one partner’s death.
In summary, the culture of girls’ and women’s educational institutions, beginning in the 17th century, not only created a context in which many women found romantic attachments that might shape the rest of their lives, but came to encourage an unselfconscious public culture of courtship-like behavior. The social dynamics around women in academia similarly encouraged the creation of female partnerships that fell on a long sliding scale between friendship and marriage-equivalents.
Social changes toward the end of the 19th century began to introduce elements of doubt and suspicion into these dynamics, for both students and teachers, that eventually eroded the public culture of school crushes and undermined the acceptability of the “Wellesley marriage” arrangements previously popular among faculty. But these changes were gradual, taking different shapes in different countries, and one can find both positive and negative takes on women’s academic romances overlapping across several decades.
All of this makes the school environment a rich source of potential for sapphic historic romances full of angst and drama, but with the potential for happy endings.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2023/03/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2023.
I feel like I have very little to discuss this month, but the extensive list of recent books makes up for that in content. And I felt inclined to ramble a bit in the “what I’ve been consuming” section, to make up a little for how far behind I am in posting book reviews.
News of the Field
I do have another podcast I’d like to direct your attention to. I can’t say a “new” podcast because evidently they’ve been broadcasting for five years or so at this point, but new to me, at least. The show is “Queer as Fact” and is based out of Australia. Their content tends to be relatively modern topics (that is, “modern” from the point of view of my interests), but the most recent episode caught my attention because it’s on women loving women in Classical Rome—a topic my own show has tackled. There’s a link to the podcast in the show notes. If you enjoy it, drop them a note to let them know where you heard about it.
Publications on the Blog
I’ve managed to get through February without reading anything new for the blog. This wasn’t my intent, but other aspects of life have been a bit intensive. Not all of them bad! I spent a lot of time in February processing my overly abundant Seville orange crop and now have the year’s supply of marmalades, candied orange peel, and other preserved items put away. Nature has a habit of reminding us that the seasons turn as they will and you need to get with the program and catch up.
I did acquire one new book that I may mention in the blog, though the queer content is extremely minimal. This is The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega, subtitled “Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society” from which you may understand that it’s a popular-oriented work on women’s history in the middle ages. It appears to be a collection of material from the author’s blog and looks very readable, if you’re in the market for some basic grounding in the subject. But it only has a couple pages of content touching on same-sex issues, and is very basic on that topic.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The meat of this episode is going to be the new book releases. The list has some catching up to do, not only because the Harper Collins strike has been settled and I’m finally doing their books from the last few months, but also because I turned up some titles that I missed or had mis-categorized. So we’ll start with a couple of December books.
A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar from Harper Collins appears to be something of a girl-gang heist story, using a setting that seems to attract stories like a magnet.
Josefa is an unapologetic and charismatic thief, who loves the thrill of the chase. She has her eye on her biggest mark yet—the RMS Titanic, the most luxurious ship in the world. But she isn’t interested in stealing from wealthy first-class passengers onboard. No, she’s out for the ultimate prize: the Rubiyat, a one of a kind book encrusted with gems that’s worth millions. Josefa can’t score it alone, so she enlists a team of girls with unique talents: Hinnah, a daring acrobat and contortionist; Violet, an actress and expert dissembler; and Emilie, an artist who can replicate any drawing by hand. They couldn’t be more different and yet they have one very important thing in common: their lives depend on breaking into the vault and capturing the Rubiyat. But careless mistakes, old grudges, and new romance threaten to jeopardize everything they’ve worked for and put them in incredible danger when tragedy strikes. While the odds of pulling off the heist are slim, the odds of survival are even slimmer…
Evil's Echo by Jane Alden from Desert Palm Press seems to blend romance with a noir detective story.
In her heart, Eleanor “Butch” Tracy is a crime reporter. Her city editor at the Gazette doesn’t see it that way. He believes women should be covering society parties and fancy weddings, not chronicling murder victims and evildoers. Butch gets her shot at the crime beat when a mysterious killer chooses her to narrate his cold-blooded serial execution of prominent New York citizens. To fully report the crimes and prove herself up to the opportunity, Butch must find the connection among the victims. She partners with the striking NYPD detective Christine Carr to discover the link between the deaths of a judge, a billionaire, and a plastic surgeon. Will they be in time to prevent the final murder? The answer lies buried in the Gazette’s clippings morgue, deep beneath the streets of New York City.
There are several January books to catch up on, both new discoveries and those previously held back. We’ll start with the first of two French-language novels I turned up this month.
Aimer Mathilde self-published by Laurence Tardi is a romance set in Victorian-era Montreal.
Montréal, 1865, deux femmes, un amour... possible? Mathilde Hébert, une jolie blonde enjouée de 19 ans, fille de notaire, rencontre par hasard Elizabeth Rice, 25 ans, immigrante irlandaise vivant seule en chambre dans un quartier industriel. Mathilde est plus que ravie d’avoir enfin rencontré une jeune femme qui s’intéresse à autre chose qu’au mariage et à la mode. Leur sentiment l’une pour l’autre naîtra dans le décor d’un Montréal en plein développement, pourtant encarcané dans une rigidité de mœurs toute victorienne. Leur amour pourra-t-il trouver sa place ? Comment accueilleront-elles leurs propres sentiments ? Comment leur entourage réagira-t-il ? Comment, dans ce contexte, pouvoir aimer Mathilde ? C’est là toute l’histoire de ce roman.
Montreal, 1865, two women, one love...perhaps? Mathilde Hébert, the pretty, cheerful, blonde 19-year-old daughter of a notary, has a chance meeting with Elizabeth Rice, a 25-year-old Irish immigrant, living alone in an industrial district rooming house. Mathilde is delighted to meet a young woman interested in something other than marriage and fashion. Set in Montreal, their feelings for each other emerge hemmed in by rigid Victorian morality. How can they find a place for their love?
When We Lost our Heads by Heather O'Neill from Penguin Random House is—quite by coincidence—also set in 19th century Montreal. With the contrast of careless privilege and civic unrest, it seems the protagonist shares much with her namesake, as alluded to in the title.
Marie Antoine is the charismatic, spoiled daughter of a sugar baron. At age twelve, with her pile of blond curls and unparalleled sense of whimsy, she’s the leader of all the children in the Golden Mile, the affluent strip of nineteenth-century Montreal where powerful families live. Until one day in 1873, when Sadie Arnett, dark-haired, sly and brilliant, moves to the neighbourhood. Marie and Sadie are immediately inseparable. United by their passion and intensity, they attract and repel each other in ways that set them both on fire. Marie, with her bubbly charm, sees all the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie’s obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Soon, their childlike games take on the thrill of danger and then become deadly. Forced to separate, the girls spend their teenage years engaging in acts of alternating innocence and depravity, until a singular event unites them once more, with devastating effects. After Marie inherits her father’s sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city’s gritty underworld, the working class begins to foment a revolution. Each woman will play an unexpected role in the events that upend their city—the only question is whether they will find each other once more.
Your Goyle and Mine (The Magickal Underground #1) self-published by Nan Sampson mashes up several historic eras, thanks to a sprinkling of magic.
It’s 1921. The Great War is finally over, but trouble is again brewing for Paris’ most defiant witch. When Father Dominic knocks at Celeste Bérenger’s door asking her to find Eddie, one of the last living gargoyles, she jumps at the chance. For the last fifty years, she and her life partner, Astrid Tollefsen, have run an apothecary shop on the border between the hidden Magical Quarter with its cornucopia of magical denizens and the mundane streets of post-war Paris. Fifty years of punishment for a devastating natural disaster that wasn’t entirely Celeste’s fault. But this is her chance to feel useful again. Helped by her friend, the undead Lord Byron, Celeste’s hunt for Eddie leads her from the casinos and brothels of the Magical Quarter to the Bohemian intelligentsia of Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salons, and into a devious web of danger woven just for her. To protect Byron, save Astrid, and rescue Eddie, Celeste must defy the rules again and draw on forbidden magic…before time runs out for all of them.
The boundaries between fantasy set in history and fantasy with the flavor of a historic setting can be very fuzzy indeed. And as I’ve noted previously, I struggle to be consistent in what I include or exclude with these listings. The Daughters of Izdihar (The Alamaxa Duology #1) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager could have gone either way. The setting is strongly based on recent Egyptian history, though set in a fictional land. You’ll just have to accept that sometimes I include books that are purely fantasy on a whim.
As a waterweaver, Nehal can move and shape any water to her will, but she's limited by her lack of formal education. She desires nothing more than to attend the newly opened Weaving Academy, take complete control of her powers, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. But her family cannot afford to let her go--crushed under her father's gambling debt, Nehal is forcibly married into a wealthy merchant family. Her new spouse, Nico, is indifferent and distant and in love with another woman, a bookseller named Giorgina. Giorgina has her own secret, however: she is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. She has no money and no prospects. Her only solace comes from her activities with the Daughters of Izdihar, a radical women's rights group at the forefront of a movement with a simple goal: to attain recognition for women to have a say in their own lives. They live very different lives and come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think. The cause--and Nico--brings them into each other's orbit, drawn in by the group's enigmatic leader, Malak Mamdouh, and the urge to do what is right. But their problems may seem small in the broader context of their world, as tensions are rising with a neighboring nation that desires an end to weaving and weavers. As Nehal and Giorgina fight for their rights, the threat of war looms in the background, and the two women find themselves struggling to earn--and keep--a lasting freedom.
Now we move on to three February books. A Defiant Devotion (A Truth Universally Acknowledged #2) self-published by E.B. Neal rather transparently advertises one of its inspirations in the series title. Although this is the only volume (so far) featuring a female couple, the series as a whole is very diverse in terms of race and gender. I get a little bit of a sense that the author is trying to capture the dynamics of the Bridgerton tv series.
The year is 1812, and Miss Katherine Knight has no desire to debut, let alone find a husband. An independent, feisty young woman, Katherine prefers hunting and horseback riding to dining and dancing, and spends most of her time eavesdropping at closed doors. When her eldest brother, Lucas, jeopardizes their family’s already precarious future, Katherine uses her talents and intellect to do what she thinks will save her family from ruin. But all her plans threaten to unravel when she meets Lady Rebecca Alwyn, a mysterious and captivating young woman from Amsterdam whose family’s meteoric rise in British society arouses suspicion. Katherine and Rebecca fall headfirst into a deep and intimate friendship, testing the bounds of propriety and morality as they sink ever-deeper into an attachment that might be their undoing. Together, they must tackle their complicated family legacies and come to terms with the actions they take in order to protect the ones they love most — including each other.
Our second French-language title this month is La Femme Falaise self-published by Hélène Néra.
Alice est tombée éperdument amoureuse de Lucia, son amie d’enfance. Leur liaison orageuse a bien failli provoquer un immense scandale dans la haute société anglaise du début des années 1920. Les proches d’Alice, pressés de mettre fin aux rumeurs, l’ont forcée à quitter Londres et à s’installer à Paris où elle tente tant bien que mal de panser ses plaies et de surmonter la perte de Lucia. Après deux années d’une existence solitaire et morose, Alice fait la rencontre de la princesse Sonia de Malanset, une figure du Tout-Paris qui semble prête à lui ouvrir les portes des cercles mondains. Alice tombe très vite sous le charme de Sonia qui l’entraîne dans un tourbillon de fêtes et de musique dans le Paris des Années folles. Mais malgré la promesse d’un nouveau départ, Alice demeure hantée par le souvenir de Lucia et de leur amour sacrifié.
Alice fell madly in love with Lucia, her childhood friend. Their stormy affair threatened a scandal in the high society of 1920s England. To suppress the rumors, Alice's relatives sent her from London to Paris, where she struggles to recover from the loss of Lucia. After two lonely, gloomy years, Alice meets Princess Sonia de Malanset, who seems ready to draw her into Parisian society. Alice falls under Sonia's spell amid a whirlwind of parties and music in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties. Despite this new beginning, she remains haunted by the memory of Lucia and the love they lost.
The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes from William Morrow Paperbacks goes a little bit overboard in setting up the backstory in the book’s cover copy. So bear with me.
Berlin 1933. Following the success of her debut novel, American writer Althea James receives an invitation from Joseph Goebbels himself to participate in a culture exchange program in Germany. For a girl from a small town in Maine, 1933 Berlin seems to be sparklingly cosmopolitan, blossoming in the midst of a great change with the charismatic new chancellor at the helm. Then Althea meets a beautiful woman who promises to show her the real Berlin, and soon she’s drawn into a group of resisters who make her question everything she knows about her hosts—and herself. Paris 1936. She may have escaped Berlin for Paris, but Hannah Brecht discovers the City of Light is no refuge from the anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizers she thought she left behind. Heartbroken and tormented by the role she played in the betrayal that destroyed her family, Hannah throws herself into her work at the German Library of Burned Books. Through the quiet power of books, she believes she can help counter the tide of fascism she sees rising across Europe and atone for her mistakes. But when a dear friend decides actions will speak louder than words, Hannah must decide what stories she is willing to live—or die—for. New York 1944. Since her husband Edward was killed fighting the Nazis, Vivian Childs has been waging her own war: preventing a powerful senator’s attempts to censor the Armed Service Editions, portable paperbacks that are shipped by the millions to soldiers overseas. Viv knows just how much they mean to the men through the letters she receives—including the last one she got from Edward. She also knows the only way to win this battle is to counter the senator’s propaganda with a story of her own—at the heart of which lies the reclusive and mysterious woman tending the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in Brooklyn. As Viv unknowingly brings her censorship fight crashing into the secrets of the recent past, the fates of these three women will converge, changing all of them forever. Inspired by the true story of the Council of Books in Wartime—the WWII organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors to use books as “weapons in the war of ideas”—The Librarian of Burned Books is an unforgettable historical novel, a haunting love story, and a testament to the beauty, power, and goodness of the written word.
Finishing up with six March books, this may be the longest collective list I’ve ever included. Starting chronologically, we begin with a pair of books set in ancient Greece—a Greece that, as usual, includes a heavy overlay of mythic fantasy.
Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood from Harper Teen.
Each spring, Ithaca condemns twelve maidens to the noose. This is the price vengeful Poseidon demands for the lives of Queen Penelope’s twelve maids, hanged and cast into the depths centuries ago. But when that fate comes for Leto, death is not what she thought it would be. Instead, she wakes on a mysterious island and meets a girl with green eyes and the power to command the sea. A girl named Melantho, who says one more death can stop a thousand. The prince of Ithaca must die—or the tides of fate will drown them all.
As is often the case, that description doesn’t give any indication of the book’s sapphic content, so you’ll have to trust in the tags in Goodreads. The second Greek book is a bit more forthcoming: Now the Wind Scatters by J Donal from Asteria Press.
Iphigenia seems to have it all. As the eldest daughter of the House of Atreus and princess of Mycenae, Iphigenia has had an idyllic childhood despite her family's bloodstained history. She is the darling of the people of her city, and at her side are her endearingly annoying sister Electra and adorable baby brother Orestes. As she comes of age, however, that fragile peace is threatened by strange, burgeoning feelings for her handmaiden. Amidst this crisis of identity, another looms as an ancient goddess only Iphigenia can see simmers beneath the surface of reality. All of this falls to the back burner when war with the Trojans looms high on the horizon, and Iphigenia's father summons her with a proposal of marriage she would go to the ends of the earth to avoid. In a desperate attempt to circumnavigate her fate, Iphigenia discovers a dark truth: the altar her father intends for her is sacrificial rather than matrimonial. It is only by an act of divine intervention that she survives, and it is by divine retribution that she will have her revenge. It is from the desecrated shores of Aulis that Iphigenia will embark on a journey that will take her from the furthest reaches of the ancient Mediterranean to the underworld itself. Amidst romances with goddesses and her own terrifying deification, Iphigenia plots. Despite the pleas of everyone around her, she vows that blood will soon stain the marble halls of the House of Atreus once again. Vengeance is sweet, but as Iphigenia soon discovers, it comes at a price that could cost her everything.
When Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt from MIRA turned up in my search terms, it had all those vague queer-coded descriptions like “the secret wishes of her heart.” Fortunately I was able to confirm with the author that it definitely has sapphic content.
Nantucket in 1846 is an island set apart not just by its geography but by its unique circumstances. With their menfolk away at sea, often for years at a time, women here know a rare independence—and the challenges that go with it. Eliza Macy is struggling to conceal her financial trouble as she waits for her whaling captain husband to return from a voyage. In desperation, she turns against her progressive ideals and targets Meg Wright, a pregnant free Black woman trying to relocate her store to Main Street. Meanwhile, astronomer Maria Mitchell loves running Nantucket’s Atheneum and spending her nights observing the stars, yet she fears revealing the secret wishes of her heart. On a sweltering July night, a massive fire breaks out in town, quickly kindled by the densely packed wooden buildings. With everything they possess now threatened, these three very different women are forced to reevaluate their priorities and decide what to save, what to let go and what kind of life to rebuild from the ashes of the past.
Some real women from early Hollywood inspired Well Behaved Women by Caroline Lamond from One More Chapter.
When Maybelle Crabtree, a God-fearing farm girl from Kentucky, has a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger, her life changes forever. With an invitation to join the infamous Alla Nazimova and her Sewing Circle, Maybelle’s eyes are opened to a life of decadence and glamour. Able to freely discover her own sexuality, Maybelle embraces all that Hollywood has to offer in the hedonist roaring twenties. But both Maybelle and Alla have secrets that threaten to bring their gilded lives crashing down. Hearts will be broken, careers destroyed and friendships shattered because what happens behind closed doors, doesn’t stay hidden forever… A compelling story inspired by the real life of silent movie icon, Alla Nazimova.
World War II is a popular setting for sapphic romances, but usually more in the European theater. To Meet Again by Kadyan from Bold Strokes Books takes up the wartime setting in south-east Asia.
London, 1938. Evelyn has only one dream: to become a singer. Fleeing an arranged marriage, she leaves for Singapore in pursuit of a future brighter than the conventions of society could offer her. Evelyn performs in a Chinatown cabaret to survive, where she meets Joan, a young Australian doctor and avid fan. Little by little, Evelyn and Joan form a close bond that leads to a love stronger than either has ever known. But history has other plans. The Japanese army invades Singapore, and Evelyn must flee while Joan refuses to leave her patients. From prison camps to the deep jungle, through encounters and tragedies, Evelyn and Joan struggle to survive and to find each other again.
Gothic novels are all about atmosphere, and A Dark, Cold Touch by Megan E. Hart from Howling Unicorn Press has it in plenty. What it doesn’t have is a clear indication of where or when the story is set, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The position of lady’s companion at the grand, isolated Hemford House was meant to save Estelle Glass from the scandal of her own making. But when she arrived at the mansion and was greeted by the stern, mysterious and intimidating Mrs. Blackwell, Estelle began to see what had been meant as a punishment might possibly become more like a reward…if only she could manage to find her place in the dreary household and the service of Mrs. Virginia Hemford, the childlike beauty Estelle had been sent to serve. Soon the secrets of Hemford House begin to reveal themselves, one by one, as Estelle tries her best to take care of Ginny and avoid her confusing feelings for the intimidating Mrs. Blackwell. Estelle finds herself caught up in a web of rules designed to keep Ginny “safe”…but safe from what, exactly? Or from whom? What accident claimed the life of Ginny’s previous companion? Why does Mr. Hemford avoid his wife’s company, no matter how charmingly she tries, and fails, to seduce him? And who’s reaching to take Estelle’s hand in the night with that dark, cold touch? Only when Estelle learns the deadly secret everyone at Hemford House has been keeping can she truly understand what it means to take care of Ginny Hemford…or to be cared for by Rachel Blackwell. Can the women of Hemford House escape the hauntings of its ghosts, or will the past consume them all?
That feels like a good set-up for the special show on sapphic gothic stories that I hope to do this month.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? Although I’m currently in the middle of reading two titles in print, the works that I’ve finished in the last month were all audiobooks, dominated by going on a K.J. Charles spree. K.J. Charles, who specializes in gay male historic romances, sometimes with a fantasy element, might seem an odd obsession for someone like me who is focused so strongly on sapphic fiction. But the simple fact is that K.J. Charles is an amazing writer—she has an ability to create vivid and nuanced characters that fit their historic settings and yet are recognizable, and varied, “types” that resonate with this modern reader. And she finds ways for her same-sex couples to be together despite the challenges of the times. All of which makes me rather disappointed that the couple of times she’s written female couples, she just doesn’t seem to have found them as interesting to write about.
But another interesting aspect of reading KJ’s work is that, because I find her writing itself so satisfying, the books provide me with a useful way to define and calibrate how I feel about degrees of sexual content in historic romances, and various types of relationship dynamics. Overall, KJ’s books have far more sexual content, and it’s far more central to the story, than I’m interested in. It isn’t even a matter of the gender of the people involved—I’d feel the same way about that level of sexual content for a female couple. I’m willing to put up with it for the sake of the characters and story, in the same way that I’m willing to put up with boring fight scenes in superhero movies for the sake of the underlying story and characters.
But that means that when the relationship in question doesn’t work for me, the premise that the characters are fated to end up together because of their mutual sexual desire isn’t enough to make it believable. Or perhaps, “believable” isn’t the right word, because I’m quite willing to believe that people end up in bad relationships because the sex is good—I’ve seen it in real life among people I know. But it means that I become much less invested in the story because, for me, great sex isn’t sufficient motivation. So, for example, the central relationship in books 2 and 3 of the Magpies series (A Case of Possession, and A Flight of Magpies) is like pebbles in my shoe. The two characters profess their love for each other despite conflicting goals, lack of trust, and poor communication, based solely (as far as I can tell) on the fact that their sexual kinks are complementary. Mind you, I love the fantasy worldbuilding in this Victorian-set series, with its magically-based thriller/mystery plots. But I’m simply not invested in the couple.
There’s a similar theme in Spectred Isle, another fantasy-infused romantic thriller, this time set between the world wars. The protagonists not only deal with the legal persecution of gay male relationships, but with deep personal distrust of each other and very little in common other than being drawn into the same plot. So, in order to bend the plot to a romance, it’s necessary for sexual desire—unrelated to affection or admiration—to be an overwhelming force. That dynamic works better for me in The Henchman of Zenda, KJ’s alternate take on the classic novel The Prisoner of Zenda, because the central characters are not framed as a romantic couple, but as rivals, possible adversaries, and only incidentally fuck-buddies. (The listen inspired me to check out a couple of video versions or the original story, and I have to say, I love KJ’s spin on the “true story” much better.)
So aside from my immersion in gay male historicals, I listened to two audiobooks that cheered me up in their inclusion of incidental, casual queerness in genres that are only gradually allowing the reader to expect that as a possibility. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott is a YA historic fantasy, inspired significantly by the social and political dynamics of Greco-Roman Egypt. The protagonist is marginalized due to her mixed-class heritage and gender, but hopes to find fulfilment in a ritualized athletics competition. Personal and high-level political upheavals disrupt that plan but her training gets put to good use. The book puts a number of interesting plot developments in train for the sequels. In the background, we see how the same socio-political dynamics disrupt her sister’s sweet romance with another girl, and I’m looking forward hopefully to see if they’re allowed a reunion.
The queer elements in Lucy Holland’s Sistersong are much more overt. Inspired by a cross-over between Britain in the midst of the Saxon invasions, and the folk song about a murdered sister who is converted into a harp that sings her fate, we follow three very different sisters with magical connections to the land: one whose disfigurement makes her hungry for love, one whose self-centered spite brings disaster, and one who is destined to cross gender boundaries and become king. It’s a complex story with many twists and turns, revealing key elements of the past and present in a gradual fashion. (I did spot some of those keys in advance, which added to my enjoyment of the book.) The story was slow at first, and the conflict between Christian and non-Christian elements was a bit overdone, but the story picked up as it went along.
I’m not sure why I felt inspired to be more talky about my reading for this month. I guess I miss being in the habit of doing reviews regularly. Maybe I’ll go back and comb through these podcast notes and do something more formal. I hope your reading is giving you something to think about, too!
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