Having hit on the idea of doing a podcast on the topic of sapphic themes in gothic novels, I searched my to-do lists for several publications generally on the topic of 18-19th century fiction. This is the first of a set of three titles I pulled for that purpose, although I hope to get through them a bit faster than one per month. December was a very intense month for the day-job and I left my LHMP reading for the vacation week at the end.
Moore, Lisa. 1997. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Duke University Press, Durham, 1997. ISBN 0-8223-2049-5
In the later 18th century, there is a conflict in the English imagination between the foreign, dangerous, “female friends,” personified by the image of sapphic Marie-Antoinette, and the positive image of such celebrated English female couples such as Ponsonby and Butler, Seward and Sneyd. Hester Thrale personified this conflict, expressing deeply negative views of sexualized female relationships, but praising and even engaging in intimate (but not overtly sexual) relationships between women, such as Frances Barney.
This book examines the role that the novel, as a genre, played in negotiating that English post-Enlightenment view of sexual identity. The novel took on the task of distinguishing “good” and “bad” intimate female friendships. It was a tool for producing identity and for imposing a set of sanctioned identities such that they became viewed as “natural.” In particular, it defined the concepts of domestic space and female virtue that dominated the 19th century.
This study uses four novels to examine how female homosocial spaces were used to define English moral purity. The sexuality of the bourgeois English woman became the linchpin of this concept and process. Moore both references and critiques Foucault’s work here, and more generally notes the tendency for historic studies to avoid addressing female homosexuality in this era, either dismissing it is “uninteresting because not illegal” or erasing it as merely a type of masturbation.
Moore notes recent work in the field by Trumbach, Vicinus, Castle, and Woodward and points out that one can’t speak of a single “lesbian history” in this era but of many. Moore disagrees with Faderman, seeing romantic friendship as having a complex and contradictory reception. She also disagrees with Smith-Rosenberg, seeing more wariness and anxiety around “accepted” female friendships. Moore feels this erasure has contributed to a campaign against making genealogical connections between historic female homoeroticism and the modern lesbian. The core tension sets up sapphism and romantic friendship as inherently contrasting concepts—an idea that Moore challenges.
The program of the 18th century novel was to use the dangerous, sapphic female friend as a means for the heroine to engage with, then refuse, sexual immorality. It gave the bourgeoisie the means to define themselves as more virtuous than the aristocracy or peasantry. And it cemented moral hierarchies of race and nation to assign virtue to imperialism and colonialism. The female “other “of these texts – the sapphic friend – is linked to attributes drawn from naturalist/colonialist discourse: French and Italian decadence, barbaric Turks, savage Africans, sexually divergent Others. These are the characters who must be rejected by the heroine and banished or killed by the narrative. The ultimate victory is the heterosexual marriage plot. The four novels used for this analysis are: Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Jane Austen’s Emma. [Note: Although Moore doesn’t lay it out at this point in the book, the four works represent four tropes: the pious, sexless epitome of female charity, the tribade who is indiscriminately sexually wanton, the “mannish” figure, and the romantic friend.]
Chapter 1 - Resisting Reform: Millenium Hall
Millenium Hall is a solid depiction of the (de-sexualized) ideals of romantic friendship. It depicts a community of women who reject marriage for an all-female community. The work escapes the patriarchal narrative but is not radical in terms of sexuality. The novel’s popularity argues against the idea that the book was seen as subversive or threatening. Millenium Hall defines a very narrow, specific form of female power: bourgeois and domestic, rooted in a conservative morality that aligns with class and gender hierarchies rather than subverting them. The women of Millenium Hall represent the power of “domestic surveillance.” They organize and control other women’s lives “for their own good” and because they, by their class and situation, know best. The virtuous domestic woman. They do not have power outside the domestic sphere but work to build and justify their power within that sphere. They create the concept of “institutional culture” and establish it as a feminine space. The “institution” becomes a substitute “home sphere” for those who do not marry.
But this power is gate-kept by patriarchal society. Moore argues against taking the premises of the book too much at face value as presented by the novel. The promise of female power within the domestic space, she argues, is not description but seduction – the bait set out to lure women into accepting the limitations embedded in it.
Moore points out the irony of Millenium Hall’s use of a metaphor of “slavery” to describe the lives of married women, while failing to engage with the realities of chattel slavery at the time. The abolition movement fed into the feminist movement but often as a rhetorical motif, with white bourgeois women co-opting the language of slavery for their experience while failing to engage meaningfully with the reality of enslaved people.
And the “women of Millenium Hall” are only a subset of its inhabitants. Their leisure and ability to live their lives and perform their charities come from invisible resources (in this era, often dependent on colonial exploitation and enslaved labor). The day-to-day operations of the hall are enabled by the labor of poor working class women who not only serve the ladies by performing chores, but also serve as the subjects of their moral improvement projects.
Even as Millenium Hall depicts the “power of domestic virtue” it reveals how thoroughly coerced women are into that limited sphere. Many of the women who come there are victims of male sexual power and arrive, not by choice, but as a last resort. Female friendship is defined in opposition to the violence of male sexuality, as a refuge from it. This acts to exclude sexuality from the female sphere, as the author did in escaping her marriage to live with an intimate female friend. Moore reviews a few of the stories of individual characters in Millenium Hall to illustrate this general pattern.
The women of Millenium Hall have power, but only within a constrained scope separated from “the world” and only by removing themselves from the category of “ordinary women” – marked physically or emotionally by their past history, their lives given meaning only by the control they exert over other women, cut off from pleasure by assigning it to the realm of the male society they have escaped. It is a homosocial world but not a homoerotic one where women are able to have agency or personal desires. They are not separate from ordinary patriarchal society, but instead are a filtered reflection of it, with only the presence of men removed.
Chapter 2 - Domesticating Homosexuality: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
This chapter considers how Cleland shifts the view of homosexuality as essentially “foreign” as depicted in, e.g., the pamphlet Satan’s Harvest Home, to one in which it is part of a complex picture of distinctively English sexuality. Cleland blends “foreign” female homosexuality with English domestic settings and the language of romantic friendship (as well as similarly complicating the view of male homosexuality). He “domesticated” homosexuality, framing female homosexuality as harmless play and male homosexuality as vice.
Moore begins by considering the content and context of Satan’s Harvest Home, which locates homosexuality as foreign and a recent “invader” on British shores. In contrast Cleland depicts both female and male homosexuality as “native” in England. Moore considers the problems of interpretation in a novel in which neither women’s voices nor women’s experiences are directly represented.
Memoirs is, at heart, a domestic novel with a marriage plot resolution regardless of the protagonist’s early experiences as a sex worker. The community of sex workers into which Fanny is initiated has superficial similarities to other female communities. The women enjoy intimate bonds – both specific and general – and use language parallel to that of romantic friendship. But Memoirs is steeped in active sexuality of all types, just as Millenium Hall is drained of it. Fanny is explicit in her desire for sex and orientation towards men, even while sharing community with women whose “arbitrary taste” is for their own sex. And much of the admiration of other women’s beauty is moderated through Fanny’s narrative point of view, just as – in the same breath – Fanny admires men’s beauty in similar language. [Note: Moore spends an extensive passage examining the descriptions of male and female bodies within the novel.]
Chapter 3 – Colonizing Virtue: Belinda
Belinda represents the sexualization of female friendship and the contrast between deviant and virtuous friendships, but also makes connections with colonialism and slavery to connect sapphic sexuality within social and colonial hierarchies. Moore, in this chapter, connects the images of female friendship and of national, class, and racial hierarchy as manifested in Belinda, the Pirie-Woods trial, and Anne Lister’s diaries. The character of the enslaved Juba in Belinda and the mixed-race school girl Jane Cumming in the Pirie-Woods trial both serve as outsider voices that critique and make visible sapphic erotics, thus participating in the enforcement of white bourgeois “virtue.” Lister serves as a somewhat more self-aware but still unreliable window on the varieties of female sexual agency that are the social context for Belinda.
In Belinda, the character of Lady Delacour serves simultaneously as a symbol of the hazards of female friendship (in contrast with the ultimately successful marriage plot) but also as a lesson in wise choices via the contrast with Delacour’s friendship with Harriot Freke, the mannish cross-dressing gender outlaw. Delacour’s choice of Belinda over Harriot as a friend is used as a positive lesson.
The Pirie-Woods case provides a real life examination of the blurry line between virtuous and inappropriate friendships. The Pirie-Woods defense relied on invoking the need for female friendships to be considered above reproach, even in the face of affectionate behavior, lest all women be suspect. In order to maintain this illusion, even the idea of the possibility of erotic relations between women must be displaced onto a colonial Other – the sordid imagination of the half-Indian student who reported the teachers. Anne Lister’s existence was a powerful rejection of the assertion that lesbian relations were inherently un-English. While using her class privilege to provide her with the scope for acting on her desires, Lister exposes the contradictory images of romantic friendship when embedded within class hierarchies. These contradictions are even better displayed in the conflicting views recorded by contemporaries regarding the nature of the romantic friendship between Ponsonby and Butler. They were, at the same time, regarded as the epitome of the non-sexual romantic friendship, and as sexually suspect and shoehorned into stereotypes of the mannish sapphist, or at least the erotically-aware one.
Lister and Belinda illustrate another connection in attitudes – the effects of reading, especially of the classics, as a threat to women’s innocence and virtue. Both texts are feeling their way to a concept of female-female desire that relies on contrasting gender roles: the mannish (at least psychologically) one who pursues women, and the femme, who is not distinguished from heterosexual women, but is receptive to being courted by a woman. Lister also illustrates a self-awareness of the need to perform within the boundaries of acceptable female friendship, at least to the world at large.
Thus Belinda explores several relevant topics: the social functions of romantic friendship, the difficulty of distinguishing virtuous and indecent friendships, and the threat to virtue posed by novels and reading in general.
Moore provides a detailed plot and character study, primarily focusing on the character of Harriot Freke. Harriot may be depicted as a joke, but she is seen as a serious threat to Delacour’s and Belinda’s place in society. But if Harriot represents the dangerous version of female intimacy, Belinda + Delacour represent the positive social function of such friendships in giving women an appropriate context for intimate adoration prior to the point in the plot when it is appropriate for Belinda to transfer those feelings to a man.
Harriot is punished for her transgressive existence not only by cross-class mockery (from the enslaved Juba) but by physical disfigurment in the course of one of her transgressive adventures. But while the novel might superficially praise the conforming domestic woman, the narrative focus is on the more suspect characters, undermining that lesson. Harriot, though formally cast out from the characters’ lives in chapter 2, must continually re-enter the story in order to remind the reader of the hazards of female friendship, given that the central story relies on the motif so heavily.
Chapter 4 – Desire and Diminution: Emma
Emma, while offering views of female friendship, is less obviously related to the program of how friendship narratives serve the legitimization of bourgeois power. Of Austen’s novels, only Mansfield Park touches on issues of colonialism overtly. The concerns of the central characters in Emma are local and limited. In this, Austen typifies the “realist” novel, in which character is more central than sensational and wide-ranging plots. But Emma, Moore suggests, “incorporates and subordinates other social differences – here, microscopic increments of class and status – into sexual questions about the heroine’s relations with other women.” But in this it represents the triumph of the rise of bourgeois power, in which external/foreign conflicts have been disappeared in favor of the idealized domestic interior.
At the time Emma was written, romantic friendship had a complex and well-established history, both in life and literature. The action plays out against that array of sapphic possibilities. The multiplicity of models means that any story involving romantic friendship cannot help but invoke multiple possible readings, even if they aren’t explored directly in the text. It is still the “unregulated” female friendship – the one that strays outside its proper place – that poses a danger to the heroine. Emma is in danger because the “power of having rather too much her own way” sets her in opposition to the compliance and alignment with social hierarchies necessary for the proper heroine.
Moore discusses the modern critical reception of Emma, which deals somewhat awkwardly with the undeniable centrality of Emma’s feelings for Harriet, beside which Knightley seems almost an afterthought, included due to the narrative necessity of the marriage plot. For most of the novel, Emma takes a male-coded role, and must be realigned into a “proper” passive feminine role to become a wife.
[Note: I confess this chapter is the least interesting to me as it focuses prominently on the evolution and variety of modern scholarship on the novel rather than its historical context.]
The three crucial female friendships play different roles in Emma’s progress. That with Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston is in initially central even as it is moved out of the danger zone by Mrs. Weston’s marriage. The socially approved friendship with Jane Fairfax – promoted as Emma’s most appropriate companion, emerges only at the end of the novel even as it is made inaccessible by Jane’s own marriage. Thus, the most prominent friendship across the story is the one with Harriet, the most problematic in terms of class and in how it encourages Emma in her dominance and unruliness.
Female friendships are also the context in which women (and especially Emma) can be admired for beauty, and sexualized. The taboo on overt admiration/sexualization of women by male characters concentrates the erotic tension into those interactions between women. Descriptions of female beauty and desirableness come from the mouths of other women: Emma’s admiration of Harriet, and Harriet’s of Emma. One can’t help but view Knightley’s hostility to Emma and Harriet’s friendship as involving jealousy, not simply concern for Emma’s social standing. Emma’s friendship with Harriet “masculinizes” her, keeping her from inhabiting the necessary role of wife. The friendship raises the possibility of options to marriage. Knightley, it is revealed, had similarly disapproved of Miss Taylor as Emma’s governess due to her inability (or unwillingness) to exert authority over Emma, thus enabling Emma’s willfulness and agency. It isn’t until Emma comes to view Knightley as her rival for Harriet’s affection (or Harriet as her rival for Knightley) that she breaks with Harriet and opens herself to an attachment to Knightley.
At the novel’s conclusion, all three of Emma’s female friends have been removed from her life to some degree, and into their own domestic spheres, leaving her no alternative to filling that space in her life with marriage and domesticity.
This section sums up the main themes of the book: the various ways in which representations of intimacy between women were used to develop and support the creation of the ideal of bourgeois domestic virtue, through a diversity of archetypes and contrasts. Rather than sharp displacements of one sapphic image with another, there is a shifting continuum of emphases.
(Originally aired 2022/12/17 - listen here)
There are some historic romance tropes that apply easily to female couples — sometimes even more easily than they do to mixed-gender couples, like “kissing lessons.” There are some that need a lot of thought and adaptation for female couples, like most of those based on the institution of marriage. And there are many where the trope works perfectly well, but in very different ways than it does for male-female historic romances. Today’s installment of “Our F/Favorite Tropes” is an example of the latter: the widow as romantic heroine.
To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes that evoke a certain dynamic or create certain expectations, whether the story fulfills those expectations or puts its own twist on them. In this series of podcasts, we look at how some of the popular tropes from mixed-gender historic romance novels play out differently for female couples, or how they can be adapted with a little creativity.
When I did the trope episode on spinsters, I was originally thinking of combining spinsters and widows as two categories of women living outside of heterosexual marriages. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that widowed characters bring some significantly different dynamics to female couples in historic settings, and needed their own separate discussion. (Although, as I noted at the time, pairing spinsters and widows has a lot of potential.)
As usual, my examples tend to be drawn from Western culture. If you’re writing your story in a significantly different cultural setting, you should research what the differences might be, particularly with regard to the legal, social, and economic norms for widows. I’ll go further than that and note that, except for a few early examples, the data I’m drawing on for this historical overview is mostly specifically English—simply due to the way my sources skew. I don’t usually do new background research for these trope shows, so it’s a matter of using what I already have in the blog. Because the legal status and opportunities for widows would depend greatly on the culture they were living in, you’ll want to do some specific research no matter what your setting is. Think of the present discussion as sketching out just one set of possibilities.
The Widow Trope
In mixed-gender historic romances, the widow as romantic heroine represents a woman with socially-sanctioned sexual experience who is now once again available for romance. Her previous marriage might have been happy, and represents a standard against which she measures new suitors. It might have been unhappy, and provides a strong argument against entering a new relationship. One of the strongest motifs that hang around a widow is that she has “paid her dues” in the patriarchal marriage economy and is now relatively free to make her own choices for the future. She will also generally be above the typical age of marriage, providing the opportunity to feature an older heroine without the social stigma of being an old maid. Unlike an ingenue, a widow generally has established habits, goals, and commitments that structure her life. She may have children – either young children who need her care, or adult children who add to her web of social connections (or may complicate her romantic life).
The places where the widow character functions similarly for male and female suitors is that she has generally achieved an accepted social independence that is difficult for a currently-married or a never-married woman to attain. That independence will either involve financial stability—in which case she will have a relatively high level of agency for her society and be in a position to enter into new relationships only if she chooses to—or it will involve significant financial precarity, far more precarious than a man in similar circumstances—in which case her decision about entering a new relationship will be complicated by the impact it has on her personal security.
And then there are the ways in which being a widow are uniquely relevant for female same-sex relationships. But before we get to that, let’s dive into a brief survey of widowhood across the ages.
Widows in Historic Societies
We generally understand words meaning “widow” to indicate “a woman whose husband has died.” But this sense wasn’t necessarily the primary meaning in early contexts. In classical Latin usage, both in pre-Christian and early Christian societies, the word vidua might primarily mean “a woman with no man to represent her legally” or “a woman with no male source of economic support,” thus encompassing never-married or divorced women as well as those who have lost a husband. In early Christian use, vidua sometimes seems to have carried a sense of “a woman who has made a vow of chastity” while the more general sense of a woman whose husband had died was conveyed by relicta, literally “leftover.” (Even as late as the 18th century, “relict” appears as a synonym for widow in English.)
There was some diversity in attitudes towards marriage and widowhood (in the modern sense) in various parts of the Roman Empire. In pre-Christian Egypt, for example, a married woman would join her husband’s family’s household, but on divorce or his death she would either return to her father’s household or could establish her own household if she had children. Spouses didn’t inherit from each other, so widowhood could mean financial problems, especially given that women typically needed a male agent for financial affairs. But to balance that, sons and daughters inherited equally, so a widow would have more than what we think of as a dowry from her birth family. There are records of early Egyptian widows living well in independent households with their children, presumably due to a solid financial foundation from their family of birth. It’s also worth noting that we have traces of evidence from Roman-era Egypt for female couples being a recognized social phenomenon, even including some ambiguous references to women marrying each other, but that’s a topic than needs closer scrutiny at another time.
In Rome itself, women were officially always under their father’s legal authority, even when married, and widowhood simply meant returning to his physical household. There were some interesting conditions and escape clauses among the upper class. Laws meant to encourage childbirth imposed some fairly nominal penalties on a younger widow who declined to remarry within a specified period of time. But she could escape this requirement if she had at least one surviving child. And a woman who had at least three children was entitled to have legal and financial agency regardless of marriage status. In a culture where it was typical for men to be significantly older than their wives, widowhood was a reasonable expectation, if you survived childbirth.
Christianity brought some different attitudes toward widows, especially with regard to re-marriage. While Roman society had praised widows who were “faithful” to their dead husband and did not remarry, early Christian society took the attitude that the marriage commitment was permanent even after death, and frowned on widows re-marrying at all. Instead, the most highly praised choice for widows was to dedicate their life to God, either as part of a religious community or not, though this certainly wasn’t a universal choice. Despite the legal restrictions and disadvantages for widows (indeed, for women in general), widows were the class of women most able to establish independence from the patriarchal household in this era, and one sees references to widows traveling and doing business on their own.
Moving on to the medieval period, the situation for widows depended on local marriage patterns and family structures. In southern Europe, we see what is sometimes called the “Mediterranean pattern” with women typically marrying young to older men and being under their family’s control before that. This social structure had few options for women outside the family—either the birth family or the marriage family—and older unattached women, regardless of marriage history, tended to be steered toward a religious life. I have less information easily at my fingertips on the specific options for widows in this context, so I’m going to move my focus to using England as an illustrative example for the remainder of this history.
English society followed what is sometimes called the “northern pattern” of marriage, with both women and men marrying somewhat older, and at similar ages, after they’ve both had a chance to gather resources for setting up a household. English medieval society tended to revolve around nuclear households, so there wasn’t an expectation for a widow to return to her parents’ household. In this context, widowhood could provide a woman with legal independence, control of her own finances, and the freedom to decline re-marriage, as long as she had the economic resources to remain single.
In theory, a married woman could have her own occupation and have financial independence from her husband as a femme sole, but only as a widow would this be the automatic and expected state. Medieval English widows would expect to inherit not only a significant share in her husband’s property, but the right to continue engaging in his business, often including guild membership and even civic offices. While rural real estate was often biased toward male ownership, including requirements like military service, or simply a desire to keep agricultural property intact as a single unit, urban widows could expect to share in the real estate left behind by their husbands, either as a direct bequest, or as a shared interest with other heirs, providing a regular income. And unlike never-married women, they could act as their own legal and financial agents in the courts, though many still employed a male agent for practical reasons.
Medieval attitudes toward people’s sexual lives meant that widows were often viewed as “unruly” in the sense of being sexually knowledgeable but not “ruled” in their behavior by a man. And unlike the beliefs about women’s sexuality that became prominent in the 19th century, medieval and early modern women were not only expected to have a sex drive, but were thought to have a stronger drive than men did. Thus we get characters like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath who is unabashed in discussing her sexual history and opinions. A sexually active widow (that is, active outside of marriage) drew less criticism than a sexually active woman who had never married, but there was sometimes more scrutiny on widows because of their presumed sexual experience.
Widows took the attitude that they had “paid their dues” and were no longer responsible to male authority in their personal lives. (Although it’s a regular pattern for male civic authorities to frown on this attitude.) Re-marriage was an option, but not a requirement. It could offset some economic disadvantages, and of course offered the only licensed context for sexual activity with men, but it meant returning to a husband’s authority.
Among the upper classes, widowhood might be the only context in which a woman had some control over her life path. A carefully negotiated marriage contract could provide a widow with the income from dower lands for her lifetime, and aristocratic widows often took up a second career as political movers and shakers.
As we move on toward the early modern period, many of the same conditions apply, perhaps more so. With a gradual restriction in the types of work generally open to women, it becomes harder for a never-married woman to gain financial independence, even aside from the social attitudes that pressured her to be attached to a male-headed household. But widows continued to benefit from the attitude that they were continuing to act in their late husband’s role in businesses.
Widows typically retained control of the family home, though they might instead live with family members, take in boarders, or combine households with other widows. While never-married women of the working and middle classes were suspect if living independently, and in some jurisdictions could be legally forced into domestic service, widows were allowed—and even expected in many cases—to continue their husband’s trade or business. They were far more likely than unmarried women were to be granted licenses for work such as food services, peddling, innkeeping and similar occupations. Among other options, a widow with a nest egg and a strong business sense could make a reliable living by dealing in small loans (once interest-bearing loans were legally allowed), or other financial investments whether real estate or businesses.
At the bottom end of the economic scale, poor widows were generally considered worthy of charitable support, rather than being treated as slackers or vagrants. At the upper end of the scale, the wealthy widow becomes an archetype of the desirable wife for an older man. But most widows fall somewhere in the middle.
As we move into the 18th and 19th centuries, the employment options for unmarried upper and upper-middle-class women, including widows, continue to shrink due to social attitudes about women’s “incapacity” and appropriate roles. A widow of the upper or upper-middle class who did not have inherited money or a solid dower contract—the financial settlement agreed on at the time of her marriage—had few options for making an independent living and generally would need to find a place in someone else’s household, either a relative’s or as an unpaid companion. This is the reason why families tended to be extremely concerned about the background, finances, and reliability of their daughters’ suitors. The dower agreement or “jointure” was what stood between a widow and destitution, once significant social barriers to working for a living became established. For women of the aristocracy, a reliable jointure was an essential life insurance policy.
That consideration only applies to the upper parts of society, though. As long as she didn’t need to maintain that façade of middle-class respectability, a widow could still support herself through an independent business and, as previously, it was more acceptable for a widow to manage her own business than for a never-married woman to do so.
There were some trades that were traditionally female, such as dressmaking and millinary. Investment and lending were still an option open to women. Women worked as grocers and specialty shopkeepers, just as they had in earlier ages, and they were successful in food services and as tavern keepers. If a husband and wife had kept an inn, it was normal for the widow to inherit and continue the business. Inherited real estate could be run as a lodging house, with the widow either taking in boarders or renting out properties that they owned.
Following on several waves of proto-feminist sentiment starting in the early modern period, women were realizing how marriage had the potential to turn wives into unpaid servants with few rights or recourse. That experience of marriage led many widows to decline to enter it again, even if their late husband had not been particularly tyrannical. Intelligent, educated widows often found marriage constraining and tedious and saw few benefits to resuming the state. Some went so far as to argue against the institution of marriage entirely. But marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal share in family wealth into a livable independent income. All it required was the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right sort of children, and good financial choices at all stages.
How Widows Work Differently in F/F Romances
As we’ve seen from our historic survey, there are many commonalties for widows across the centuries, but just as many shifts in their specific life expectations. And the differences between social classes can sometimes be as important as variation across time and culture. But overall, from the point of view of creating single female characters with agency and social power, the figure of the widow is a very enticing choice. So now let’s look again at some of the primary dynamics of the widow as romantic heroine that we listed for mixed gender romances, and see how they work differently for female couples.
The question of sexual experience becomes more complicated for sapphic romances, and I’ll expand on that in a little bit. Sexual experience within marriage might suggest a general erotic awareness, but doesn’t imply any specific prior experience with women. Conversely, it doesn’t exclude possible erotic experience with women, because that would not necessarily have been categorized as “extra-marital sex” in people’s minds. On the other hand, in the version where a widow’s prior sexual experience has been less than satisfactory, that experience might be an incentive to consider whether a relationship with a woman could be more satisfying. (Assuming that it’s something she can imagine in the first place.)
Aside from the specifically sexual aspect, the potential comparison a widow might make between her late husband and a new suitor undergoes a seismic shift due to the difference in gender. A widow who was unhappy in her marriage would not automatically project that experience onto a relationship with a woman because of the role that gender would have played in her experience of marriage. So rather than potential obstacles being “I had a happy marriage, why would I risk an unhappy one?” or “I had an unhappy marriage, why would I want to repeat that?” the widow is unlikely to think of a sapphic relationship as being in the same category of experience. She’s paid her marriage dues; she doesn’t need to do that again. But a romance with a woman wouldn’t be “doing that again.”
One aspect of the widowed character that remains the same is that she is likely to be older than the typical expectations for romantic heroines – or at least, she is allowed to be older without needing special pleading. She likely has a fair amount of life experience, she’ll have interests, commitments, and presumably a set of established social connections. But whereas the widowed heroine’s interactions with unmarried men will be viewed as inherently significant and laden with meaning, her interactions with women of all social conditions will be viewed as expected and typical – the basic background of society. She will generally have social permission to cohabit with another woman without rousing scandal or needing excuses. And she may enjoy a broad range of physical expressions of friendship and affection with a woman before either of them needs to consider whether their relationship has shifted gears.
The Issue of Sexual History
I said I’d come back to a question of sexual history that can have more to do with the concerns of modern authors and readers: the fact that a widow comes with the assumption of a past sexual history with a man.
I’m going to veer a little into personal commentary here. I hope we’ve gotten past the era when sapphic romance heroines are always required to be devoid of any past romantic or sexual relationships with men. If you prefer to write or read characters who either have never been involved with men or whose orientation towards women is so strong that a past relationship with a man would be inherently traumatic, then maybe a widowed heroine isn’t the best choice for you. I’m not saying that there’s no place for plots where the widow’s motivation is “my marriage was so awful that I’m never going to commit myself to another person again” – after all, we see those in mixed-gender romances. But I personally have read too many sapphic widows whose late husband was cartoonishly dreadful and existed only for the sake of motivating her to give women a try. After all, that doesn’t say much for the inherent attractions of sapphic romance if it’s only presented as a rebound option!
Also within this context, let’s consider that in many of the ages that have left evidence about attitudes towards same-sex relations, there was a baseline assumption that people were inherently bisexual (although that specific word wasn’t used). People might have personal preferences within a spectrum, or might be attracted to different categories of people for different reasons. In a social context where marriage was the normative life pattern, it doesn’t take any special pleading for a woman to have gotten married to a man (because that was what one did) but then seek different pleasures when widowhood left her free to choose.
Given the non-romantic nature of many marriages in the medieval and early modern period, even a woman whose romantic urges are focused entirely on women might consider heterosexual marriage a necessary life passage. At the same time, given the attitude in many of those same eras that women were most likely to have close emotional bonds with other women, it doesn’t take special pleading or even an exclusive orientation for a widow to decide to focus her romantic life on other women rather than risking re-entry into the restrictions and hazards of marriage.
There are, of course, ways to widow a heroine without giving her a sexual history with men. A fake marriage of convenience, an extended absence with no prior consummation, a tragically convenient death. One plot that came immediately to my mind would be a variation on Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow, this time with a woman engineering another woman’s marriage to her dying relative to fix the inheritance, after which the two in-laws find themselves falling in love. Just make sure to get those inheritance contracts set up airtight first!
Opportunities for Widows in F/F Romances
But let’s look at some more typical cases and spin a few scenarios.
People love their aristocracy romances, whether it’s in a medieval castle or a Regency ballroom. While widowhood isn’t the only means for an upper class woman to have maneuvering room to engage in a long-term sapphic romance, it’s the easiest. A widowed queen’s closest companions will be her ladies in waiting, often themselves unattached in order to make the queen their highest priority. There’s fertile ground. A good number of queens of England had special passionate friendships among their ladies in waiting or close confidantes, with Queen Anne being only the most notorious example. Or perhaps the widowed aristocrat will be employed as a loyal and canny diplomat to a foreign court, only to find herself enjoying the sparring with a nominal rival a bit too much and questioning those loyalties.
We needn’t consider only queens and princesses. I have a plot I’m noodling set in Restoration England where two aristocratic women who had an intense platonic friendship in their youth (a la Katherine Philips) found themselves on opposite sides of the English civil war, but are thrown together again, now that both have been widowed. The 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for non-romantic aristocratic marriages, where widows, having secured themselves a solid inheritance, found solace with a dependent female companion.
But let’s broaden our scope to more ordinary widows. As I noted in the episode on spinsters, the dynamics of a pre-20th century household meant that few people literally lived by themselves. Our middle class widow will be considering the options, not only for companionship, but for financial stability in combining households with other unmarried women, or taking in lodgers, or finding someone to help with the household management if she finds herself taking over the running of her late husband’s business. If you listened to the podcast on Anne Lister’s courtship scripts, you might remember the somewhat hothouse environment of the women-only Paris boarding house where she begins several seductions. A widow running a boarding house for unattached or adventurous women could be quite the player up to the point where she meets “the one.”
Or our widowed businesswoman may be looking more directly for a business partner and is looking out for a woman with experience or investment funds. How about a Regency romance where the struggling innkeeper’s widow has a chance encounter with a female guest, traveling alone for…oh…mysterious reasons, and romantic chemistry leads to an impulsive offer to this near stranger, whose past later comes back to haunt their budding romance.
In the Victorian era, widows might plunge into charitable works, turning female social networks into fundraising or volunteer resources. Those networks are another fertile ground for passionate devotion to a cause evolving into a passionate devotion to each other.
In general, widowed romantic heroines offer scope for second-chance romances, whether the two heroines were originally school-friends separated by family differences, young women in a passionate friendship separated by marriage, or any of the other dynamics that separate women whose husbands have the power to direct their life paths.
Two widows with children can fit easily into some of the romance scripts for blended families, particularly if there are economic pressures involved. Many of the “friends-to-lovers” options for widows take advantage of the social acceptability of two women sharing a household where that same option would be unthinkable for a mixed gender couple.
The eccentric, autocratic, wealthy widow is a mainstay of fiction across a wide span of time, and there are lots of ways to maneuver her into a position where she needs to learn more empathy and humility to win the heart of the less powerful woman she’s fallen for. Imagine Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh if she were softened just enough to be redeemable by true love!
In summary, the widow has some serious advantages when it comes to agency in her romantic choices. She is generally free from an automatic expectation that she will re-marry, and similarly free from the expectation that she will live under the authority of a male relative. It is trivially easy to design a widowed character’s backstory to give her financial independence, regardless of her social status, if that’s what your plot needs. But at the same time, it’s easy to give her economic reasons to share her household with another unattached woman and let proximity do its work. The widow is assumed to have some degree of erotic experience, so it’s no surprise if she’s looking for an erotic outlet that will not compromise either her reputation or her freedom. And widows have long had a reputation for eccentricity, outspokenness, and knowing their own minds. All useful characteristics in a romantic heroine who is about to break with normative expectations the next time she falls in love.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
(Originally aired 2022/12/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2022.
Usually I try to start the On the Shelf episodes with a bit of general chat or philosophical introspection, but since I found myself ranting a bit on various topics later in the show, I’ll just note the turning of the seasons and a hope that you’re all getting through your to-be-read stacks for the year.
Publications on the Blog
After the blog marathon in October to present the edition and translation of the Grandjean trial record, I feel like I was slacking a bit in November, just covering four journal articles. The first was a delightfully image-filled exploration of classical Greek vase paintings showing female pairs in the context of romantic and erotic symbolism. The article by Meryl Altman has the in-joke title “Parthenoi to Watch Out For.” Not an article, technically, but the text of a conference paper which—alas—never seems to have been expanded into the more detailed study the author promised.
After that I covered three articles all touching on medieval Arabic topics. The first, “From Semantics to Normative Law” by Sara Omar, looks at the logical structures and argumentation behind how charges of same-sex acts were treated in Islamic law. The other two look at homoerotic topics in the 1001 Nights. Zayde Antrim’s “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” discusses how early versions of the tales feature ideals of beauty and desirableness that don’t follow a gender binary, raising the question of whether attraction itself could be considered gendered in that context. The other article, “’I Am Not Good at Any of This’ Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights” by Frank Bosman, was less relevant than I thought it would be, as if focuses mostly on apparent scenes of male same-sex erotics.
In December I expect to continue cleaning up some of the random journal articles in my to-do folder. And then, perhaps in the new year, I’ll pull something from the bookshelf for a deeper dive. I haven’t been doing any serious book shopping for the blog lately, which means I really should go look at some of the academic press catalogs and see what’s come out while I haven’t been paying attention.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction and Publishing Dynamics
In the context of the new and recent releases of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I’m doing something a bit unusual this month and holding off on including one title, due to the ongoing strike by Harper Collins employees. The Harper Collins Union has indicated that one way to support the strike is for reviewers and readers to hold off on promotion of Harper Collins titles until an agreement is reached. Therefore I’ve taken note of the books that I’d otherwise be including in this list and will cover them in a later episode.
There was a time when queer books were mostly the province of small independent presses and maybe we figured that the doings of major publishing houses were irrelevant to us. But even though the majority of the books I include in these listings come from small presses or are self-published, the “big five” publishing conglomerates make up a substantial fraction – close to a quarter of the titles I mentioned in 2021. And the visibility of queer books from those major publishers has a wider effect on the market and on reader expectations. Some of the issues being raised by the Harper Collins Union include diversity and inclusion among publishing staff, which can definitely have an impact on what books get chosen and how they get promoted. It behooves us, as book-lovers, to care about the larger dynamics in the publishing world, whether it’s an openness to queer characters in mainstream books, or the ways in which monopolistic systems depress author income, or how technologies help or hinder the distribution of books in ways that benefit those who create them.
We’ve been getting some strong reminders recently about not entrusting our communities to corporations that are primarily concerned with making a small number of very wealthy people even richer. Twitter has been an enormous benefit for community building, for publicizing work, for networking with other authors and readers. And despite the long ongoing struggle around trying to improve the safety and usefulness of the platform, most people assumed it would continue more or less as a fixture. Now we’ve seen how fragile those Twitter communities and dynamics were. It only took one obscenely wealthy man to decide he wanted Twitter as his plaything, and now it’s broken and we’re all scrambling to rebuild those networks. The most vulnerable and marginalized are scrambling the hardest. In this context I should note that I’ve moved most of what had been my Twitter activity over onto Mastodon, where you can find me as @heatherrosejones@Wandering.Shop. The Twitter accounts for me and the Project will remain for now, but socializing will be on Mastodon.
The queer book community has an unfortunate habit of piling our eggs into too few baskets, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Amazon. Self-publishing and e-book distribution have been wonderful for readers and writers of niche genres. But I wince every time I’m putting the new book lists together and see a book that is only available through Amazon. In the time that I’ve been actively working on using non-Amazon links in the show notes, fully one third of the books I mention are relying solely on Amazon for distribution. And, of course, if we’re looking at self-published books, the rate is much higher. What happens to those books if – no, not if, when – Amazon decides to mess with the availability of queer books? What happens if Jeff Bezos decides books in general don’t have a high enough profit margin and disappears that part of the business after having leveraged his clout to drive other options out of business? This is the devil’s bargain that people make every day when they trade healthy, complex economic systems for convenience and the simplicity of one-click.
This, I confess, is the socio-political rant I go off on most often. When we fail to be mindful of the sum consequences of all our individual decisions as producers and consumers, we are complicit in our own eventual destruction.
That being said, here are the new and recent books falling generally in the category of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction. There’s one October book that, while not technically having a historic setting, may appeal to fans of historicals.
Julie & Winifred's Most Excellent Adventure by Heather Massey from Crackerjack Creatives
In 1838 England, spinster mathematician Winifred Blackburn helps her inventor brother build a time machine as an instrument of good for science, only to discover his diabolical plan for using it to manipulate history. To stop him, she steals the device. But when her heist goes wrong, she uses the time machine to avoid capture—and accidentally leaps to the year 2030. Meanwhile, in 2030 America, Julie “Queen of All Geeks” Sherman enjoys a lucrative job, an adorable cat, and a treasure trove of comic book collectibles, but finding the love of her life is the one achievement she hasn’t been able to unlock. What good is her golden nest egg if she can’t share it with anyone? One fateful day at a comic con, Julie encounters a disoriented Winifred and helps her recover. The situation takes a wild turn when Winifred proves she’s a genuine time traveler. This time-crossed couple wins the romance jackpot, but danger threatens their happily ever after when a mysterious intruder appears, bent on stealing the time machine at all costs. To help Winifred escape back to Victorian London, Julie has to act fast—even if it means losing the woman of her dreams.
The majority of the new books this time are catching up on November books.
Observations on the Danger of Female Curiosity by Suzanne Moss from Aesculus Books is inspired by real life female scientists of the 18th century.
Thea Morell, Georgian heiress and eligible lady, is not normal. At least, that’s what she has come to believe. She loves nothing more than spending hours at the study of natural history, collecting fossils, insects, dead fish, bones and even the odd spider. Up to now, she has held off her mother’s entreaties to marry, but this year something has changed and the pressure is growing. While observing and experimenting in her search for scientific truth, Thea also begins to acknowledge a truth about herself. A most inconvenient one which sparks at the lips of the electrical venus and bursts into flame in the presence of the very proper Lady Eleanor Harrington. Has her obsession with the male-dominated world of natural history caused the unnatural tendencies she can’t seem to control? And more importantly, what is she going to do about it?
And if that sounds intriguing, the author has a free prequel story, “A Defence of Astronomical Curiosity for Ladies,” offered to those who sign up for her newsletter. The show notes have a link to her website where you can sign up.
This prequel tells the story of aspiring astronomer Harriet Nichol, her intended – the dastardly Courtenay Marriott, and the significant complication of socialite Emma DeClere.
A slightly different take on the “Roaring 20s” than some of the books we’ve been seeing lately is: My Life with Rachel: A Tale of Two Women in 1920's New York self-published by Ariel Archer.
June 29, 1921. Ariel Archer and Rachel Selinger, two “sisters,” arrive on Ellis Island from Europe… beginning new lives in America. Finding that they must keep the true nature of their relationship (and indeed other aspects of their actual identities) a secret, they embark on a journey of discovery in a new home… New York. A place they call home for the next 9 years. My Life with Rachel, told in the first person through Ariel’s point of view, is a story about confronting the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate, chance, and choices as part of the Human condition, about living amidst the changes of progress but also trying to cope with things that hold us back, and ultimately about the power of friendship, companionship, and love… especially when that’s all you have left and you have to start over again. Step back a century into the Roaring Twenties. Prepare for some history, some drama, a bit of romance… and a few surprises!
From the cover copy, it isn’t entirely clear that this next love triangle ends up with the two women together, but I think we have enough variety of stories that it’s ok to take a risk. So check out: Elsie Sees It Through self-published by Derek Ansell.
London, 1943. The War in Europe is raging. After Elsie bumps into a young soldier, they are both attracted to each other and in time, become close friends. Elsie lives with her widowed mother in a small North London house and has a close relationship with her long-time friend, Julia, who would like that relationship to become more personal and intimate. After the young soldier Brian proposes marriage to Elsie, she doesn't know who to choose. Conflicted, Elsie doesn't know what she wants, or what she believes is her destiny. While sweeping changes take place across England and the rest of the world, Elsie must come to terms with her life and her future, and navigate a difficult, thorny path to happiness.
I am still grumpy that Jeannelle M. Ferreira—who has been one of our fiction series authors—let me find out by chance on Twitter that she has a new collection out from Nekyla press, The Fire and the Place in the Forest: Collected Stories and Poems.
The circle is always closing. In crazy times, this essential selection of the fiction and poetry of Jeannelle M. Ferreira holds out a branch of lights kindled from chosen futures and pasts always close behind, where history never confines itself to one familiar face and selkies and demons offer as much inheritance as memories, bodies, or ghosts. Intimately Jewish, integrally queer, these are tales for holding on to. They know how to remember and to change. Eighteen years of stories and poems from small queer presses, 'zines, podcasts and other corners of the universe are collected here, alongside new work, for the first time.
I wanted a more concrete description of the contents and asked Jeannelle if the collection fit into the “historic lesbians” theme. And she replied (and I quote directly):
"I think historic lesbians is really all I do at this juncture but yes, we gotcher gaslamp New Bedford lesbians, yer steampunk New York garment district lesbians, yer 1816 Virginia lesbians, yer Of Course I Wrote a Holocaust One lesbians and, as you know, yer Pale of Settlement lesbians, with a smattering of Young Dyke of the Nineties poetry, mostly because poetry zines die fastest."
Meg Mardell has trained me to look forward to her annual Christmas Masquerade series from NineStar Press and hasn’t failed me yet. Volume #3 is A Chaperoned Christmas and as usual features a broadly queer cast while centering a romantic couple that will appeal to sapphic readers.
Candida Damerell avoids two things at all costs: her former hometown, Salcombe Bay, and her former lover, Broderick Carlyle. She’s worked too hard to shake off her sad family history in Devonshire and become a premier London hostess. To think she nearly threw it all away for a bohemian charmer like Broderick! He never understood Candida’s need to keep their secret romance, well, secret. Unfortunately, this holiday season, the fates seem determined to thwart her best efforts at self-preservation.
Broderick Carlyle is not surprised to see his estranged lover on the same coastal railway platform a fortnight before Christmas. Who else could tempt him into such a backwater at this dangerously jolly time of year? Not the country rustic whose need for Society chaperones is the alleged reason for the visit. What Broderick is not prepared to learn is that this windswept bit of coast is where Candida grew up. Even more alarming? The “country rustic” is none other than an earl’s daughter from the neighbouring estate.
Lady Sophia Luscombe has no intention of leaving her beloved Devonshire and her new horse breeding business for smelly, snobby London, especially not under the guidance of two Society chaperones. What if they managed to get Sophie married at last? No, she will distract her sophisticated visitors by making them fall in love with each other. The intimate entertainments of a West Country Christmas will make it easy to force the two together. It would be the perfect plan—or it would be if only the too-perfect Candida were not Sophie’s secret first love. Just as the web of cross purposes frays to breaking point, a masquerade ball arrives to give these fierce spirits one last opportunity to tell the truth in time for Christmas. Is it too late for a second or even a third chance at love?
I suppose we could count that last as functioning as a December book, but there are only two titles officially released in December.
The Captain's Choice: A Sapphic Seas Romance by Wren Taylor from Epicea Press follows the usual sapphic pirate romance storyline.
Wales, 1707 Mona Lloyd is desperate to escape a wedding and a future with a man she doesn’t love. When she stows away on the only ship to visit her sleepy village of Ogmore-by-Sea, she learns the ship isn’t all it seems, and neither is the beautiful, aloof captain that helms it. As Mona fights for acceptance among the ship’s crew, she is also fighting a growing attraction to the alluring captain. Captain Elinor Davies promised herself she would never fall in love again. She has everything she ever dreamed of: a ship of her own, a loyal crew, and wealth beyond her wildest dreams. But when a pretty, young stowaway appears on her ship to challenge everything she holds dear, she has to choose between her responsibility to her crew and her heart’s true desire. Can the two overcome their differences and a tragic past, or is history doomed to repeat itself? Follow Mona and Elinor to the Caribbean for this steamy, swashbuckling romance filled with adventure, danger, and desire in the Golden Age of Piracy.
Edale Lane’s Wellington Mysteries series from Past and Prologue Press diverges from the previous volumes in presenting a collection of shorter works under the title Daunting Dilemmas.
Stetson has been fooling London for ten years while her fictitious alter-ego solves crimes. But could a criminal mastermind put her carefree days of sleuthing in jeopardy? Evelyn longs to be recognized for her talent; will her music prove to be the key in helping Stetson solve a mystery? While Jack the Ripper terrorizes London, Stetson closes in on the art thief she has been after for months; however, will catching him place her in an impossible position which threatens to expose her? A collection of five sequential novellas, each encompassing its own exciting mystery while furthering the story of Stetson’s life in London.
So those are the new books for the month. Another new thing I’ve started doing recently is boosting these new titles into my social media feeds. Discoverability is the biggest hurdle for queer books and I strongly encourage you-all to mention the books you’re reading and the books you love in your social media to help people find them.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been consuming? I’m still focusing far more on audiobooks than print, mostly for the multi-tasking potential. This month I took in Olivia Atwater’s Victorian faerie romantic adventure, Longshadow. This is a sequel to a previous book Half a Soul, which I haven’t read yet, but the book fills you in on the backstory you need.
Another series where I jumped in on book two is A Restless Truth by Freya Marske. This is, again, a sort of magical Victorian romantic adventure—which we seem to have been seeing a lot of lately. As with a prior series where I dipped in on book 2, the overall series focuses on a series of queer romances, but book two is the only one with a female couple.
When I included Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk in the new book listings, I wasn’t sure exactly what the historic setting was. Now I can assure you that it’s 1930s Chicago complete with supernatural gangsters and deals with demons. And a very very central sapphic romance that drives all the protagonist’s choices.
I don’t mention my tv and movie viewing as religiously as the books, but here are some items worth noting. I want to give a very strong recommendation to The Woman King a fictionalized treatment of the Dahomey “Amazons” in the mid 1800s. Even aside from providing a strikingly different view of colonial West Africa, the central aspect of the story is the tight bonds of loyalty, friendship, and love between the women of the Agojie warror band. If you like the energy and power of the superhero movie Wakanda Forever (which I also saw and recommend) then I recommend you seek out The Woman King which adds in some overt sapphic elements.
For the aforementioned movies, I wish I could get the same vibes with a bit less emphasis on violence and fight scenes. I’m not getting that from the Netflix series Warrior Nun, which is about a secret convent of demon-fighting nuns, with bonus science-fictional elements, Vatican intrigues, and angels…maybe. Again, lots and lots of violent fight scenes, sufficiently mitigated by overt sapphic threads in the plot. And you just have to forgive a show when its willing to include casual lesbians.
Another very queer series that just released its second season is Young Royals, which follows the entirely-too-realistic struggles of a teenaged heir to the throne, exploring same-sex love and heartbreak at an upper crust boarding school. There’s a temptation to shout at the kids, “Dial it down, chill out, adolescence isn’t forever!” But that’s really the point of the drama and angst and the series handles contemporary issues in realistic ways.
I haven’t decided on a podcast topic for the December essay show yet. I’ve been trying to space out the trope shows a bit to make sure there’s some variety in content. But if you have a favorite trope that you want to make sure is included, speak up.
We’ll close out the end of the month with our last fiction episode of the year, “From the Bird's Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko. I felt that Jennifer really captured the dynamic of a later 19th century romantic friendship in this epistolary story and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. And, of course, in January we’ll be open for submissions for next year’s fiction series. Wait… how can that be coming up so soon! I hope that the choices are just as hard as they were last time! Spread the word and point all your author friends to the Call for Submissions linked in the show notes.
I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of having an author guest every month, helped by having interviews set up for our fiction series authors. This month I invited Marianne Ratcliffe to talk about her recent gothic romance, The Secret of Matterdale Hall.
[Interview transcript will appear here when available.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Marianne Ratcliffe Online
Sometimes an article looks really intriguing and then you feel cheated by the actual content. This isn't necessarily the fault of the author -- sometimes it's the fault of my pre-conceptions that "read in" assumptions based on my own interests. I find this happening a lot with novel descriptions. Because my social media feeds combine streams with different defaults (SFF, queer, romance, historical) I have a tendency to fill in any unmentioned characteristics in a book description with my own particular interests. If the book is a historic romance and the blurb doesn't specifically indicate that it's m/f, my brain will tend to default to filling in a f/f story. And so on. My assumptions aren't anyone else's fault. (Though they do help me exist within a world of queer female possibilities that aren't always fulfilled.) So when an article is titled "Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights" and specifically mentions the story of Princess Budur, I'm going to make some pretty strong assumptions. Which, alas, were not fulfilled in this case.
Bosman, Frank G. 2021. “’I Am Not Good at Any of This’ Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights” in Religions 12: 480.
This article looks at two stories within the 1001 nights that set up scenes of apparent homoeroticism due to gender disguise. In two romances—that of Qamar and Budur, and that of Ali Shar and Zumurrud—the woman disguises herself as a man during a period when the lovers are separated, and then when they are reunited and the disguised woman is in a position of greater social power, she teases her lover (who has not recognized her or even realized she is a woman) by demanding that he submit to her sexually (believing he is submitting to a man). The focus of the article is on how scenarios like this play with the idea of homoerotic encounters, while returning to, and reinforcing heteronormativity in the story’s conclusion.
I confess I was disappointed that the article focuses almost entirely on apparent male-male interactions. The discussion of the part of Budur’s story when she marries and has a sexual relationship with the princess Hayat is treated dismissively—even though it is the one scenario of those discussed that involves a knowing, consensual same-sex relationship. The author describes their relationship as “unintended—a strange convergence of circumstances” framing the cross-dressed Budur as a “victim,” asserted to be in contrast to the dominant position of the cross-dressing women when dealing with their oblivious male lovers.
I feel that the article missed the chance to draw some more interesting conclusions due to what I consider to be a bias on the part of the author against taking female same-sex desire seriously.
One of the interesting through-lines in the history of female same-sex desire are the parallel strands of "attraction based on similarity" versus "attraction based on difference." If you will: femme-femme and butch-femme. (It would be interesting to look for historic antecedents for butch-butch attraction, which would also fall under the similarity model, but the primary examples tend to be femme-femme.) But these models of attraction or desire aren't limited to same-sex couples. Indeed, one could see the same-sex versions as being licensed by similar dynamics withn the larger society affecting all romantic attraction. If beauty is viewed as not dimorphic, and if one is expected to be attracted to someone similar to you--not merely because of non-gendered beauty standards, but as a basic principal--then surely same-sex attraction is a natural outcome?
This article looks at the motif of non-gender-specific beauty standards (and their implications for romantic desire) within medieval Arabic literature, but we find a similar phenomenon in medieval European romances, where it also impacts the depiction of gender disguise. (See the "similarity" tag for this motif in general.
Antrim, Zayde. 2020. “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” in Al-Usur al-Wusta vol. 28. pp.1-44 [Note: journal title has multiple diacritics not included here]
This article looks at how beauty and attractiveness and desirability are framed within the early manuscripts of the 1001 Nights as involving similarity rather than gender difference. While later editions, and especially translations and adaptations into western languages, tended to insert a more binary-gendered aesthetic into the descriptions of characters in the thousand and one nights, this is a conceptual shift from the early versions.
Descriptions of beauty for both male and female characters show striking similarities in the language used and the ideals of appearance attributed to them. Further, romantic couples in the tales are often specifically described as being highly similar in their beauty and attractiveness using the same vocabulary for men and women. This observation does not contradict the importance within the tales of the gender binary within the realms of marriage inheritance and social structures. But it contrasts with the real-life divisions in society between elite adult men who were at the top of the social pyramid and all others including both women and lower status and younger men. This social structure is not idealized within the tales, which leads to interesting speculations about audience and reception.
This emphasis on similarity and a lack of emphasis on binary gender differences has caused problems of interpretation for those either looking to find romantic relationships structured around contrasts of power and gender, or by those looking for concepts analogous to same-sex orientation. If desirability is portrayed in essentially identical terms for both male and female objects of desire then is it relevant to look for a concept equivalent to same-sex desire? This ideal of similarity is particularly celebrated in the context of erotic love within the tales, and when distinct differences between potential romantic partners are emphasized, it is often for the sake of humor or mockery. (There is a section of the article somewhat later that reviews a number of stories in which imperfect or racialized bodies are used to derail expected romance structures.)
The aesthetic ideal depicted in these stories uses the full moon as a symbol of beauty and often describes a romantic couple is being like twin moons. Facial features are idealized as: dark eyes, arching brows, rosy cheeks, and white teeth, framed by black or curly hair. The descriptive language is not gendered even though grammatical gender is unambiguous in Arabic. (That is, there isn't the equivalent of describing women as "beautiful" but men as "handsome" using different words.) And the descriptions of the ideal features of a beautiful body do not focus on gendered aspects such as the genitals or breasts. Beautiful bodies are slender and supple, but curved and fleshy, described as quivering or full to bursting, as well as being idealized as soft and smooth. While one might view the men being described in these terms as being feminized or depicted as youths, the language does not emphasize them as being young or adolescent.
This idealization of similar--though not necessarily androgynous--beauty interacts in interesting ways with the common motif of cross-dressing within the tales. Certainly if a man and woman are depicted as being close to twins in appearance then the audience may be more primed to believe that one could carry off a disguise as the other.
Romantic couples in the 1001 Nights are not simply described using the same language and the same ideals but are often explicitly described as similar or having a resemblance where the similarity in appearance is echoed in the mutuality of their love and an unexpected equality in the power they wield within the story.
The article uses the story of Qamar al-Zaman and the princess Budur, whose names both refer to the moon as an indication of their ideal beauty, to illustrate the importance of similarity in the romantic structure. The two are brought together by two supernatural creatures who are each championing one of the couple as the most beautiful person in the world, in order to determine which is right. The couple fall in love during this comparison and then, after being separated, spend the rest of the story pursuing a reunion. The author argues that the interlude in the story in which Budur disguises herself as her absent lover and finds herself married to a king’s daughter does not so much insert a lesbian Interlude into the story as it points out the immateriality of gender to erotic desire. When Budur gazes on her wife after their marriage, the sight reminds her of the beauty of her husband. This episode, then, is not a transfer of desire from a male object to a female one, but an extension of desire from one beautiful object to another equally beautiful. (In this, the author disagrees with Sahar Amer’s framing of the text.)
The emphasis on similarities is foregrounded in the 15th century texts of Qamar and Budur’s story, but the 19th century Arabic printed editions that have been a significant means of disseminating the story in modern times, and translated editions of a similar date, modify the descriptions and omit or add passages to downplay the similarity theme and attribute more gender distinction to the characters, especially with a focal emphasis on the genitals during erotic scenes.
The narrative consequences of Budur and Qamar’s similarity play out further in a concluding episode to the tale when Qamar is reunited with Budur (still in male disguise) and she teases him by using her new status as “king” to demand that he submit to her sexually. Qamar protests but the descriptions continue to emphasize the impossibility of recognizing Budur’s gender until they get sufficiently intimate that Budur finally lets him in on the joke. In contrast, the 19th century versions frame Qamar’s response more in terms of a “homosexual panic” and emphasizes his rejection of the request.
In conclusion, the author emphasizes the need to interpret texts as the texts present themselves, and not to retroactively apply later assumptions about gender difference and the dynamics of sexual desire.
I've been sorting out the collection of pdfs of journal articles that I haven't blogged yet, so I can get them all taken care of and start some fresh collections. There were three I spotted that were loosely associated with same-sex issues in the medieval Islamic world, so I figured they'd make a good cluster. This one looks at the internal logic of legal texts discussing the appropriate classification and punishment of same-sex acts. The primary focus is on acts between men, but the ways in which women were treated differently is interesting on its own.
Omar, Sara. 2012. “From Semantics to Normative Law: Perceptions of Liwat (Sodomy) and Sihaq (Tribadism) in Islamic Jurisprudence (8th - 15th Century CE)” in Islamic Law and Society 19. pp.222-256
This paper looks at the structure of legal arguments in medieval Islamic law that covers male and female homosexual acts. The author examines how different schools of law structured their analysis regarding categorization and punishment either through analogy to illicit heterosexual sex or with regard to the social roles of those involved in the sex act. This is not an analysis of how same-sex sexuality is treated in literature or poetry but specifically within the genre of legal argumentation. The analysis also looks at why and how jurist came to different conclusions about the appropriate punishments for male and female homosexuality. The historical literature is far more concerned with male activity than that of women, and there has been less scholarly interest in exploring the treatment of female homosexuality.
Legal argumentation focused around several general topics. One is analogy to the concept of zina, the label for illicit sex between a man and a woman. Another is the definition of sexual intercourse as being specifically an act of penetration by a male organ. The third factor is the relevance of the social status of the individuals involved in their relationship to each other. Within the commentary on these legal concepts there are also discussions regarding whether the technical legal terms involved or being used literally in their formal sense or metaphorically in a non-binding sense.
There are relatively few legal judgments and opinions relating to sex between women. The three hadith that appear to touch on the subject include one that refers to sihaq (“rubbing”) between women as being zina. Another indicates that skin to skin contact between two women lying next to each other is forbidden that they must be wearing clothing for fear the contact would excite them. The third hadith is related to cross-dressing and forbids men who dress like women and women who dress like men but that’s not specifically touch on sex.
Another key element of the legal reasoning is the assignment of offenses and therefore of punishments to two different levels of severity, those that are specifically forbidden in the Qur’an which are punished more severely, and those that are not mentioned in the Qur’an where the punishment is at the judge’s discretion.
One key question in determining the appropriate approach to unlawful sex is whether it is categorized as zina, which in its narrowest interpretation refers to the vaginal penetration by a man of a woman he does not have legal rights to. Appropriate punishment for zina also depended on the context of the act with regard to the age, social status, marital status, and mental competence of the participants. as well as a very technical definition of what constituted penetration.
When the participants in an illicit sex act were a man and a woman there were clear definitions of how to apply these rules. Where legal approaches differed was in whether those rules applied by analogy to same-sex acts and if so how they applied. One school of thought argued that because different words existed for zina and liwat, where the latter indicated anal penetration, regardless of the sex of the participants, that they could not be treated the same under law because what is named differently cannot be identical. By this reasoning, because liwat was not forbidden in the Qur’an, any punishment was at the judge’s discretion. Another school of thought viewed liwat as being a subcategory of zina and therefore subject to the more severe punishments. However, both categories were defined in terms of penetration and therefore were viewed as something that only a man could perform. This meant that for both types of acts punishment was determined with regard to the individual status and relationship of the participants, but sexual acts between women were entirely excluded from consideration.
The word sihaq does not appear in the Qur’an. Some have interpreted a word in a Qur’anic passage non-specifically meaning “lewdness” as referring to sex between women, but this interpretation is note generally accepted. Therefore, those who viewed erotic activity between women as criminal needed to use a different rationale. This was available in general prohibitions against immodesty, or improper contact between people who did not have a relationship that licensed such contact. The offense was transgressing against the requirement to protect your genitals. This was categorized as a sin, but not as a crime. And, in essence, the punishment treated both women as having transgressed by being the passive partner in an illicit sex act.
This inability to define sex between women as something that fell within the most forbidden categories of sexual crimes did not mean that sex between women was considered acceptable or meaningless but it did protect those who engaged in it from the most dire consequences, by virtue of the social assumptions that sexual crimes required the illicit use of a penis.
(Originally aired 2022/11/19 - listen here)
Welcome to another episode of the occasional series “Our F/Favorite Tropes,” in which the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast explores various popular historic romance tropes within the context of lesbian and sapphic history. In the sense used here, a trope is an identifiable, recurring motif that connects our understanding of a story to other stories that use the same trope. It can be a character type, a situation, or even a mini-plot that treads familiar ground and sets up – or subverts – reader expectations. Today we’re looking at the “kissing lessons” trope, in which two characters practice or learn the techniques of romantic kissing, only to find themselves falling in love.
The Structure of the Trope
The “kissing lessons” trope has a certain structural similarity to the “fake relationship” trope, in that it relies on the misalignment and then realignment of the sincere and performative aspects of an act. We may recognize that, historically, there have been many motivations and understandings behind the contract of marriage, but romance novels revolve around the subset in which romantic desire aligns with the legal contract. Even more so, kissing is an activity that exists in a liminal and ambiguous space: an act that can have many meanings and functions, depending not only on the identity of the people involved, but on the social context in which it is performed.
There’s a wonderfully detailed article on this topic discussed in the blog: Helen Berry’s “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720.” It was published in a collection entitled The Kiss in History, which sounds like an excellent resource for historic romance novelists in general. While the article focuses on a very specific context in time and space, it points out the wide variety of meanings that kissing can have simultaneously. It could act to seal a legal contract, as ritual performance of a hierarchical relationship, as a symbol of communal bonds as in the “kiss of peace” used in Christian ceremonies, as an expression of familial affection (or the illusion thereof), as a ritual act in greeting or leavetaking, and—of course—as a component of intimate erotic activity, whether as a prelude to intercourse or as an accompaniment to it.
Kissing is, inherently, an intimate gesture—far more intimate than clasping hands or other gestures that might be used in similar social situations. And the multiplicity of meanings the activity could carry resulted in complex social rules about the contexts in which kissing was authorized, and those contexts in which it was transgressive. Berry’s article notes that, in the 17th century, the increasingly popular genre of etiquette manuals included guidance on how to navigate those rules, giving us a window into all the various meanings and functions of kissing.
As a romance trope, the idea of “kissing lessons” focuses specifically around one particular function—kissing as an erotic act—and around the idea that one can learn the mechanics of erotic kissing separate from experiencing an erotic response to it. But the “kissing lessons” trope can also rely on all those other licensed contexts for kissing to give cover or to reduce the sense of transgression when a kissing lesson is proposed.
The Trope in Male-Female Romances
In male-female romances, the “kissing lessons” trope often revolves around a contrast in experience levels. The excuse for kissing is either that the less experienced person simply wants to know what kissing is supposed to feel like with someone who knows what they’re doing, or they want to learn to be a better kisser in order to win the heart of some third party. The lessons are “safe” not only because they are specifically framed as non-romantic, but often because there’s some reason that the two participants are considered not suitable as a romantic couple.
And then, of course, mock kissing sparks genuine erotic response in one or both parties, which disrupts the contract and leads to their eventual mutual confession of desire.
But beyond those outlines, the roles don’t tend to be fixed. The student may be a naïve young woman who secures the cooperation of a teacher because she wants a better basis for evaluating suitors. Or she may be less naïve, but awkward and wants to appear more sophisticated. Her teacher may be someone considered a platonic friend that she considers “safe” or she might approach a notorious rake with the confidence that he wouldn’t take the lessons as a serious commitment. But the set-up may also be the reverse: the student as a naïve young man, embarrassed by his lack of experience, or the awkward nerdy sort who thinks he needs to up his game to impress the diamond of the season. And his teacher, once more, might be someone familiar—perhaps the girl next door—that he’s never considered seriously as a romantic partner but who will keep his secrets, or it might be a woman with a daring sexual reputation who would never be considered a suitable marriage partner in ordinary circumstances. And there are many possible variants beyond those scenarios.
But in all cases, the kissing lessons contradict the expected script, that first comes love, then comes kissing, then comes marriage (or sex, depending on the specific flavor of book). Instead of being the main performance on stage, the kissing lessons are a rehearsal of the script with a stand-in. The twist comes when the rehearsal sparks desires that fall outside the original agreement.
The Trope in Female-Female Romances
When discussing ways to play out marriage-related tropes with female couples, there is always an understanding that in the historic settings in question, actual legal marriage is not an option for two female-presenting people. That’s not an issue with the “kissing lessons” trope, because the formal nature of the resulting romantic relationship isn’t an inherent part of the trope. Instead, the basic structure can be closely parallel to that of male-female couples. Two people “practice” kissing to enhance their knowledge or skills in the activity, with the surface understanding that they are not engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship, but when the kisses generate an erotic or romantic response they work their way toward communicating those feelings, resulting in forming a romantic or erotic couple.
There are two primary ways in which the trope operates differently for female couples. The first is the degree to which the society of the story’s setting assumes that women don’t engage in romantic or erotic relationships together. Rather than the lessons being considered “safe” because the teacher is categorized as not being eligible as a partner, due to the past history of the couple or due to the social persona of the teacher, instead the lessons may be “safe” because it is assumed there’s no romantic or erotic potential in the first place due to the gender of the participants.
Keep in mind that this attitude is far from universal. Many historic societies recognized and even embraced the idea of two women enjoying a romantic relationship that included kissing and other physical expressions of affection. Other historic societies defaulted to assuming that kissing between women would only be a matter of formal social interactions. Some societies openly acknowledged the possibility that women’s romantic relationships might include an erotic component, and might either accept that or discourage it. Other societies might embrace a model in which romantic and erotic relationships were not linked, and that women’s romantic feelings towards each other would never lead to erotic desire (or if they did, it would be unacceptable).
All this comes on top of the question of the variety of acceptable social functions for kissing in your story’s setting. So in order to know how your characters will approach the proposal of kissing lessons, how they will go about engaging in their practice, what their expectations of the outcome will be, and how they will react when their emotions go in a different direction than expected, you’ll want to dig into the normative practices around kissing and expressions of affection. And you’ll want to understand what types of relationships between women were publicly accepted and where the lines were drawn. It’s possible for a sapphic historical romance to employ a kissing lessons trope and never have the characters step outside behaviors that their culture considered openly acceptable and even praiseworthy. Guilt and shame are not obligatory components of a historical sapphic romance.
The Unfortunate History of “Just Practicing” for F/F Couples
The second difference for female couples engaging in a “kissing lessons” trope comes with a bit of cultural baggage. It has been a recurring theme throughout history that erotic activity between women can be overlooked because it’s “just practice” for heterosexual relationships. We see this in discussions of romantic friendships in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the intense expressions of love and devotion that young women were allowed to express toward each other were dismissed as “practice for what she should feel for a husband.” Similarly, the schoolgirl “crushes” popular in boarding schools of the later 19th and early 20th century could be considered acceptable as a rehearsal for married life. Women had license to kiss each other with a fair amount of intensity as long as it could be categorized as “just practicing.”
In erotic literature, this motif goes further, with depictions of one woman initiating another into sexual activity as a prelude to heterosexual relations. Sometimes it’s explicitly framed as training the student so that she will be sexually experienced in her first encounter with a man. This motif shows up in the family of 16th and 17th century novels and plays based on the Spanish work La Celestina, in which an older woman prepares a younger one for work as a prostitute by initially seducing her herself. Similar scenes occur in the 18th century French novel Thérèse the Philosophe, and in John Cleland’s novel Fanny Hill, from a similar era, in which the title character is initiated into sex by her fellow brothel workers but considers the experience nothing more than training.
This backdrop means that a sapphic historical romance may want to tread carefully around having the characters treat kissing lessons between women as “safe” because they’re only practicing for future male suitors. While the attitude may have solid historical roots, it invokes a long tradition of dismissing the importance of erotic interactions between women. And yet, that long tradition can also provide a context for layers of romantic angst if both of our heroines believe the other one is “just practicing.”
Exploring the Possibilities
That said, there are a lot of narrative options for using “kissing lessons” to introduce a character to the erotic possibilities with women. Or to have some self-discovery around how she really feels about that best friend. Let’s look at some of the options, keeping in mind that the specifics will depend on the era and culture.
The naïve, inexperienced ingenue who decides she wants to know what all the fuss is about before entering the world of courtship and matchmaking can turn to another, more experienced, woman to learn the mechanics of erotic kissing and explore her responses to it. This could be a near age-mate who, perhaps due to being slightly older, or due to having mixed in society more, seems a bit more worldly. Perhaps they’ve already established a close friendship. Perhaps they don’t know each other quite as well but are thrown together in proximity for some reason.
Then one or both feels the chemistry between them, but is hesitant to act on it because that wasn’t the deal. Perhaps there was already a potential suitor for one or the other and the hesitation has to do with interfering in those future plans. The lack of societal expectations for female friendships to turn into lifelong partnerships can make it awkward to negotiate expectations and plans. But, oh, that kiss! It’s so hard to forget that kiss.
Or we can look at another variant of the heterosexual trope: the rakish, transgressive instructor who isn’t taken seriously as a potential partner. In a male-female version of the trope, often the daring reputation of the teacher is exactly what makes them “safe” – because they are expected not to be interested in commitment. When the student is an ingenue, there’s the hazard that her reputation will be damaged by contagion, and that same dynamic is available for a female pairing. The “good girl” who approaches a fallen woman for romantic instruction is risking her own reputation in way that doesn’t apply to a young man in the same situation. On the other hand, when an ingenue approaches a fallen woman, the risk is different than if she approached a male rake for the same purpose. The difference between damage and ruin. There’s a literary example of this in the 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons, in which the cynical and experienced Marchioness de Merteuil is manipulating the innocent girl Cecile in order to take revenge on her ex-lover. But at one point, the Marchioness suggests taking Cecile on as her “pupil in love,” taking advantage of opportunities to embrace her and expressing jealousy of the man that she’s setting up to seduce Cecile. Cecile, in turn, feels an attraction to the Marchioness that goes beyond innocent friendship. Although nothing comes of this in the original novel, we could easily turn the story into one in which the romance plot takes a sharp turn to the sapphic.
But the student needn’t necessarily fall in the “young and innocent” category. A more mature woman may also be wondering what all the fuss is about if the men courting her never sparked the response she had been led to expect. She might feel less risk in seeking out a woman infamous for her romantic exploits and asking for instruction. Alternately, she might confess her curiosity and frustration to a long-time female friend who seems to have figured things out a bit more and who can be depended on to be discreet. In the early 17th century play The Antipodes by Richard Brome, two women are discussing their experience of marriage while lying in bed together (see the episode about the “only one bed” trope for context on how normal this was). Martha complains that her husband of three years has never done “what a man does in child-getting” and she’s clueless about what it is she’s missing. She suggests to her friend Barbara, “I’ll lie with you and practice, if you please. Pray take me for a night or two.” Martha’s intent is to learn how to make love so that she can teach her husband in turn. But at the same time, Martha does have previous erotic experience. She explains, “I remember a wanton maid once lay with me, and kissed and clipped and clapped me strangely, and then wished that I had been a man to have got her with child.” The entire scene speaks to the idea that women might turn to other women for erotic instruction.
While kissing-lesson tropes in male-female romances typically require some sort of asymmetry of knowledge and experience, there is more scope between female couples for the exploration and practicing of kissing techniques to involve an equal starting point. There needn’t necessarily be teacher and student roles—the historic “just practicing” motif can involve a mutual exploration as often as it involves the transmission of experience. Kissing between women might begin as a routine expression of close friendship and then be expanded to something more intense.
The kissing lessons might occur in the context of role-playing. Amateur theatricals, anyone? One is reminded of the scene in Shakespeare’s As You Like It when Rosalind—disguised as the boy Ganymede—instructs Orlando into how to court a woman by practicing with her (in male disguise) as his object. I’m now imagining the tangled possibilities of an all-female amateur production of As you Like It where the women playing Rosalind and Orlando find excuses to practice their scenes extensively. Kissing might be part of light-hearted games and social frolics, where such activity was acceptable specifically due to a removal of gender expectations. There were any number of “parlor games” in which losing the round might require forfeiting a kiss.
Conversely, not all kissing-lesson plots need be sweet and innocent. The very license given to women to kiss without an implication of eroticism means that the activity offers a back door for seduction. Here we may see a pushing of boundaries or deliberate use of ambiguity. The offer of kissing lessons becomes an opportunity to deliberately evoke an erotic response, rather than the response being an unexpected surprise. This is a technique that Ann Lister details in her diaries when she’s sounding out potential partners. Social kissing slides easily into using “a little more pressure of the lips” and checking to see how this is received.
In conclusion, the popular “kissing lessons” trope has a vast potential for driving the romantic arc in sapphic historical romance, specifically due to the ambiguous nature of kissing as an activity, and because women often had a broad allowance for kissing as an expression of the bonds of friendship, including at times some fairly passionate activity. The specific social understandings of kissing, and the cultural rules around appropriate kissing behavior will vary depending on your setting, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a historically appropriate way to use this trope no matter where, when, and who you’re writing about.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
This paper is brief and preliminary (though, alas, the author's CV doesn't list any more recent publications that appear to have expanded on it) but offers a glorious survey of classical greek painting on ceramics depicting pairs of women with all the symbolic signifiers of erotic courtship. Given that several authors who specifically discuss this type of evidence in the context of female homoeroticism seem to have overlooked or been unaware of several of the pieces discussed here--and given the examples of how the erotic interpretations of the figures have been dismissed or ignored by previous scholars who examined them--it suggests that there may be many more depictions of female homoeroticism in Greek art that simply haven't come to the attention of anyone who considered them interesting or relevant. I strongly recommend clicking through to download the original article because it's copiously illustrated.
Altman, Meryl. 2009. “Parthenoi to Watch Out For? Looking at Female Couples in Vase-Painting and Lyric” in CAMWS. [Note: this is from a conference proceeding. The word Parthenoi is in the Greek alphabet]
A methodological discussion of how to interpret images of paired women in Classical Greek art.
This article is a conference proceeding rather than written for publication, therefore it has a somewhat more informal flavor than usual. It takes a methodological approach to questions of how to interpret images of two women in classical Greek art that would be interpreted as involving courtship motifs if the figures were two men or a man and a woman.
The author leads us on a discovery tour involving one particular kylix, first showing the interior image, which was what the author initially had access to, which shows two young women, one holding the other by the wrist and leading or pulling the other forward. The second holds writing equipment in her other hand. Scholars have generally described it fairly neutrally: either as a school scene, based on the writing equipment, or as a scene of unwilling persuasion. The author admits that she was first attracted to the image due to the potential interpretation of the women as a romantic couple. But she admits that it was wishful speculation at the time the idea occurred to her.
At a later time, the author described the vase to another scholar who immediately responded, “Oh, the one with the courting couples of women on the back!” Returning to the object and viewing the much more extensive scenes on the underside of the bowl, it becomes much more difficult to see the interior figures in isolation as non-erotic. The female figures around the underside are shown in a variety of poses that reflect a recognized vocabulary of courtship in male pederastic art. Each couple involves one woman eagerly persuading and the other being more reticent. The dress and gestures are also recognizable as involving symbols of courtship.
This leads to a consideration of how the entire decorative program of Greek vase art must be considered in order to interpret the individual elements. The context provides cues and clues to the meaning of images that may otherwise seem generic. Several examples of pottery with similar programs of heterosexual courting or sexual couples are offered as comparison.
Returning to the original kylix the author discusses both the real difficulties and artificial barriers to interpreting female figures in Greek art. There are circular arguments regarding the nature or profession of women depicted in art, based on assumptions that respectable women would not be so depicted, therefore any woman shown in a scene must fall outside of social respectability. No woman in a vase painting--according to this position--can be interpreted as typical, and therefore the art does not represent women as a class. Alternately ,the author considers the position that some put forth that images of two women together in Greek art always represent a parody or a joke--that the image can never be representative or sincere. This argument is based on assumptions about the user the object (a drinking vessel used at symposia), based on the position that women did not attend symposia or similar types of gatherings, therefore the intended viewership have been men and must be interpreted through a male gaze. [Note: it’s clear that the article’s author is challenging many of the underlying assumptions here.]
The author compares these problems of interpretation with the scholarly reception of poetry describing female couples or female romantic interactions, most notably, of course, Sappho, but also touching specifically on Alcman’s Partheneion. However, the author reserves for a later article a more extensive comparison of the depictions of female couples in these paintings and in poetry. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, that later, more in-depth study has not been written.
The remainder of the article is taken up by additional description of the artwork, including an observation that the pairs of figures around the underside of the bowl could potentially be read as a temporal progression of a single relationship, given the variation in how the couple interacts and the arrangement of their garments. Alternately these variations could simply indicate different possibilities for a courting couple. The article includes many illustrations about half of them in color.
In the final discussions, the author notes that Sandra Boehringer’s study of classical female homoeroticism does not include these specific images and that they contradict some of her claims about how female eroticism is depicted in ancient Greek art. The images also address questions of whether female same-sex relations in classical Greece were less hierarchical than those of male couples, with these artistic depictions suggesting greater similarities to the hierarchy in other courting couples, while poetry suggests a more egalitarian depiction. But a wider study of depictions of female couples or at least pairs of the women in Greek art of a wide variety of styles and eras suggests a range of relationships--some showing asymmetric interactions and others showing a more mirror-like relationship.
In conclusion, the images provide a strong case for the legibility of female romantic or erotic couples in Greek art that is not always apparent in other surveys of the topic.
[Note: the article is available online here and is worth downloading to see the art.]
As part of the Great Twitter Migration, I'm doing several things.
For one, I'm giving my best shot at restarting my author newsletter. I sent a "not dead yet!" letter out yesterday and hope to return to a monthly schedule. Part of the secret is going to be not setting myself an unsustainable content goal. I'll just mention what's new and if I feel like adding "extras" I will, but I won't require it of myself. If I keep to this enough to put out a December newsletter, I'm going to run a new subscribers campaign with the bait of a drawing for an audiobook. And because I dislike disincentivizing my current subscribers, I'll also have an opt-in drawing for a second audiobook.
Several months ago, I set up a Mastodon account as @heatherrosejones at the Wandering.Shop instance. Mastodon looks like it's "the new twitter" except without the corporate ownership and wide open gaps for abuse. Relying as it does on volunteer labor and voluntary financial support, it's a different type of thing than twitter, but that means a lot more local control over your experience there, while still being able to connect with people across (most of) the whole of the Mastodon federation. I'm not the person to explain Mastodon to you if you want to know more, but there should be plenty of explainers out there.
I need to explore using my HootSuite account to automate more of the routine content announcements across my social media. Currently I do a lot of manual posts for every blog and podcast and for book publicity. I have some content files set up for automatically posting links to older podcast content and mean to do that for older LHMP blog content, but it takes doing a lot of set-up. But if I'm remembering HootSuite's capabilities correctly, I should be able to create a "hey, here's a new podcast" post there and set it up to send it to all my social media. Which would make things more efficient.
As always, if people want a more casual interactive social media experience loosely focused around my work, ask me for an invitation to join the Alpennia Discord. It's small, sporadic, and low impact and full of creative friendly people. (And I really do need to draft up a formal "expectations for conduct" document for it, so it'll be there if the Discord ever takes off.
And you know that you can always comment on this blog, right? Right? I know, I know, "Blogging is Dead." But a girl can dream.
What other things do you think it might be fun and/or useful to do in terms of social media? Given that I already have a YouTube channel for the LHMP, I've thought about adding (adapated) video chat versions of the LHMP book blogs. For some reason I don't recall, I set up an Instagram account. I haven't really done anything with it, but yesterday as a test post I put up a video of the otters in the Contra Costa Canal that I stopped to film on my bike ride. What does one do with an Instagram? What would *you* find fun or interesting? Keep in mind that my time and energy is finite, but it's so hard to guess what might hit a niche that I haven't thought of yet.
(Originally aired 2022/11/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2022.
I’m always tempted to make some sort of seasonal observation after noting the month, but seasons are so very contextual. Here in relatively-coastal California, November means that tomato season is finally winding down to a close and just this week I decided it was time to change out the air filter in the heater and turn on the thermostat for the winter. What was my clue? Probably the layer of cats that I’d find myself buried under every morning. OK, so two cats don’t make much of a layer, but still.
For me, the end of the year is either a chaos of traveling and events, or it’s time to retreat to my introvert-cave and try to recharge. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between. This year, it’s the introvert cave. No more traveling until…well, I’m not sure when. The next thing I have on my calendar is in July, but I’m sure something will come up.
The wealth of virtual conferences that I can attend from my home office has changed the dynamic of thinking about book-related events. A few weeks ago, I was able to take part in an online mini-convention around sapphic speculative fiction, organized and hosted by Sheena Ebersohn of The Lesbian Review. Sheena has been doing some amazing things to support the lesbian and sapphic fiction community, and I always know when I’m invited to take part that it will be well-organized, well-run, and a joy to participate in. Even as many events are pivoting back to being in person or hybrid events that combine physical and virtual spaces, I think we’ve all realized the continuing potential for virtual events to expand our connections and to welcome those whose geographic or economic situation has historically restricted their access.
With the end of the year coming around, I’m ramping up the cheerleading for next year’s fiction series. Once again, we’ll be buying stories to air on the podcast. Please help spread the word to authors who might feel inspired to submit something for our consideration. This will be our sixth year airing fiction. Somehow I keep thinking about the fiction series as being a recent addition to the show, but we’ve been doing fiction shows for two thirds of the podcast’s lifetime. I love being able to bring you new stories and to support the authors who are writing them. I hope you’re enjoying them just as much!
Publications on the Blog
For the last month, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been doing something drastically different from our usual: publishing a translation of a historic document that sheds light on attitudes and beliefs around gender and sexuality in mid-18th century France. The legal appeal of Anne, or Jean-Baptiste, Grandjean against a charge of “profaning the sacrament of marriage” by being a woman married to a woman raises questions about the interaction of legal, social, and internal gender identities, changing understandings of the relationship between gender and desire, and the challenges of interpreting even the most factual of documents when everyone involved has a vested interest in spinning those facts for their own protection and survival.
I’ve presented a couple of shorter texts in translation previously but this is my most ambitious project to date in that field. I won’t claim that the result would meet scholarly standards, but it’s certainly been an enjoyable adventure.
I’d like to return to blogging shorter journal articles for a while—though journal articles can be just as much work as entire books to turn into summaries. As my day-job has shifted to including one day a week in Berkeley at the physical worksite, it will be easy to spend some evenings at the U.C. Berkeley library downloading material from JSTOR. The change in work schedule is adding an enjoyable variety to my schedule, though I’m glad I’ll still be working from home for the most part.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now it’s time for the new book listings. I’m already looking forward to my year-end analysis of trends in sapphic historicals, because I’ve been noticing some trends on an anecdotal basis that I’d like to verify. One of those trends is stories set between the two world wars, whether you call it the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, or the Lost Generation. I should do a special round-up of titles in that era at some point.
The one October book I’m catching up on is set in that era. The Veronica Nash series by A.J. Matthews follows two British women through a series of mysteries. I hadn’t identified the characters as sapphic previously, due to the lack of any clear signifiers in the cover copy, but the 8th book, Death on the Rocks, from Extasy Books, Inc. specifically mentions the couple being on a honeymoon, so you might want to circle back and start the series at the beginning.
Death drops in. Veronica and Claire’s delayed honeymoon on the French Riviera is interrupted when a man falls onto their beach. Did Hollywood mogul Solly Myers fall—or was he pushed? He’d plenty of enemies, but negotiating the tangle of friendships and betrayals to uncover the truth is no easy task—especially after one fateful night in the casino.
The November books don’t include any particularly early settings—all from the Regency onward through the mid-20th century, and all set either in England or the USA or a fantasy version of one of them.
Her Vixen Actress (Ladylike Inclinations #2) self-published by Violet Cowper, is a working-class Regency romance with a lot of passion.
England, 1782. Grace Dashwood longs to woo London’s theater-goers. But the up-and-coming actress’s glamorous good looks and sexy charm aren’t enough to win her a place on the city’s cutthroat stage. Until she meets an earnest lady playwright who has the connections she covets… and a ravishing beauty she wants to explore. Frances Smythe clings to her prim-and-proper manner. So the quiet writer’s patience stretches to a breaking point with the redheaded whirlwind of a performer, even as she senses the first red- hot sparks of passion. But when she finally yields to the woman’s dramatic pleas for aid, she’s rewarded with a delectable kiss that leaves her aching for more taboo trysts. Shocked to have caught a wealthy man’s eye, Grace can’t bring herself to accept his patronage in the face of her unexplored desires. But Frances’s fear of intimacy plunges the duo into an impossible limbo as she refuses to fully commit her emotions. Will their tangled connection get tied up in knots or weave a tapestry of happily ever after?
There’s something about the Regency era that inspires authors to toss magic into the mix, and Lady Liesl's Seaside Surprise (Teacup Magic #4) self-published by Tansy Rayner Roberts, offers a sapphic romance in a magical Regency series. I’ve been a fan of Tansy’s work for quite some time—especially on the now-retired podcast Galactic Suburbia—and I’m very much looking forward to reading this story.
Lady Liesl, fourth daughter of the Earl of Sandwich, always thought her fate was to marry well, and live a perfect life like her older sisters. Now she's had a taste of rebellion, and she likes it... Hunting a missing diamond in a remote seaside town on behalf of a runaway Countess, Liesl finds herself at the mysterious Aphrodite Villa, with a sinister lack of servants, and no household magic in sight... not to mention a parlour full of wild, bohemian artists, including the devilishly seductive Perdita. This is the Teacup Isles, where nothing is quite as it seems. Lady Liesl is about to uncover some surprising secrets about her family and herself.
Due to the nature of source material on women who loved women in history, even writing something relatively biographical can require a lot of fictionalizing. That Dickinson Girl: A Novel of the Civil War (Forgotten Women #1) by Joan Koster from Tidal Waters Press is loosely based on the life of a forgotten orator, feminist, and lesbian, Anna Dickinson, This is the story of her rise to fame and fortune at the expense of love during the political and social turmoil of the American Civil War.
Eighteen-year-old Anna Dickinson is nothing like the women around her, and she knows it. Gifted with a powerful voice, a razor-sharp wit, and unbounded energy, the diminutive curly head sets out to surpass the men of her day as she rails against slavery and pushes for women’s rights. There are only two things that can bring her downfall—the entangling love she has for her devoted companion, Julia, and an assassin’s bullet. Forced to accompany the fiery young orator on her speaking tour of New England, Julia Pennington fights her growing attraction to ever more impertinent woman. When a traitor sets out to assassinate Anna, will Julia risk her life to save her?
There has long been a close connection between gothic literature and queer-coded female characters. Now we can get stories where we don’t need to rely on ambiguous coding, as in The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe from Bellows Press.
Susan Mottram lives an idyllic existence until her eighteenth birthday, when her father’s sudden death plunges the family into penury. To support her mother and younger sister, Susan takes employment as a teacher at a remote Yorkshire boarding school, Matterdale Hall, owned by the radical Dr. Claybourn and his penny-pinching wife. Susan soon discovers that all is not as it seems. Why is little Mary so silent? What really happened to Susan’s predecessor? Is anyone safe in the school’s draughty halls? Through a life-changing meeting with the beautiful and mysterious Cassandra, Susan begins to uncover the truth about Matterdale Hall, and discovers the cruelty, and love, that can lie within the human heart.
One of the anecdotal patterns I’ve been noticing, though one that probably doesn’t rise to the level of statistical significance, is for a romantic historic fantasy series where the second book features a female couple. This can create a dilemma for those of us with somewhat focused reading tastes: read the series from the beginning to get the full set-up? Or cherry-pick the book with the characters we find intriguing and hope we’ll get the background from context? I tend to do the latter, I’m afraid.
The latest series I’ve seen with this structure is A Restless Truth (The Last Binding #2) by Freya Marske from Tor.com.
The most interesting things in Maud Blyth's life have happened to her brother Robin, but she's ready to join any cause, especially if it involves magical secrets that may threaten the whole of the British Isles. Bound for New York on the R.M.S. Lyric, she's ready for an adventure. What she actually finds is a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.
Hot Keys by R.E. Ward from Bold Strokes Books is another Jazz Age romance, adding to my perception that we have a trend going on.
In 1920s New York City, it’s hard on the streets, but Betty May Dewitt and her best friend, Jack Norval, are determined to make their Tin Pan Alley dreams come true. Fate leads them to a speakeasy called the Trespass Inn, where people play fast and loose and criminals run the show. Betty and Jack are whisked into the glamorous and dangerous world of Prohibition rum-running, but fate has more in store for them than adventure. Romance blooms when a psychic medium’s magic dazzles Betty, and a gangster infuriates and fascinates Jack all at the same time. But danger lurks in every alley, and with the Trespass Inn under attack by rival gangsters, Betty and Jack will have to fight—not only for their hearts and dreams, but for their lives.
I’m not entirely sure of the intended era for the historic fantasy Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk from Tor.com. The cover copy calls it a “period piece” and some reviews mention the 1940s, so I guess we’ll go with that.
A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago's divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above. An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother's life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can't resist―the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves. To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago's most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.
And we’ll finish up with another story from the 1940s, but purely historical this time: Enigma by Suzie Clarke from Bold Strokes Books.
There is a time for courage, a time for sacrifice, a time for love. In the fall of 1941, the United States Office of American Defense summons agent Polly Silvester to find an elusive spy. Critical information about aircraft designs, production numbers, and flight schedules vital to America’s safety are being stolen from the Portage Aircraft plant in Barberton, Ohio. And the spy is most likely a woman. Polly’s orders are simple. Find the spy—whatever the cost or sacrifice. Polly has taken an oath to protect and serve her country, but the spy she’s hunting may be the love of her life. Desperate times and impossible choices skew the line between what’s right and what matters. Can Polly do what she must when everything is on the line?
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? Audiobooks are dominating my list, though I did read a paper copy of P. Djèlí Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It’s a novella set in the same magical alternate early 20th century Egypt as the novelette A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which I also listened to this month, and the novel A Master of Djinn, which I listened to back in May. The latter two feature Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi and her girlfriend who…well, that would be a spoiler. Fatma will ensnare the heart of every reader who likes a dapper butch detective. I missed that aspect when A Master of Djinn came out last year and failed to include it in the new book listings.
I also listened to the audio version of a medieval Arabic tale The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma, translated by Melanie Magidow. Despite the focus of the narrative on a supremely competent warrior woman who becomes the leader of her clan, defeating rival families and Byzantine crusaders alike, the story needs a lot of content warnings for misogyny, sexual coercion and rape, and just plain annoying relatives. But embedded within the historic context is a casual acceptance of fictional women warriors and of female same-sex desire, though the latter gets only a brief mention in passing.
I also listened to a couple of short Audible Original historicals. The Audible Originals being free with the account means they don’t have to work quite as hard to catch my attention. K.J. Charles offers her standard fare of gay male historical romance with a Regency-set enemies-to-lovers caper in A Thief in the Night. I was a bit less enchanted by Sarah Page’s Mrs. Wickham which endeavors to redeem the character of the charming and amoral pair from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The writing was ok, but I had a hard time buying Mr. Wickham’s change of personality that was the core of the happy ending.
I hope you enjoyed our most recent fiction episode, “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard. The author is here to join us to talk about the story and her writing.
[A transcription of the interview 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 Miyuki Jane Pinckard Online