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Sunday, September 10, 2023 - 16:07

Having finished reading the entire first section of this collection (ancient & medieval topics), out of 7 articles, one focuses specifically on female topics (Sappho), one includes a proportionate amount of female content (the medieval article) and 5 articles focus solely on male topics, either because of the specificity of the genre being discussed or because "there isn't much data on women and it's not what I study anyway."

I'm taking a slightly different approach to blogging this content than I have previously in similar situations. Rather than just listing the chapters/articles that don't have anything relevant, I'm creating an entry with a brief discription but not creating the usual "blog envelope." So you can read those entries by clicking through to the LHMP entry, then on the righthand sidebar, select "whole publicaton on one page."

If I had to guess from the article titles and authors, the Renaissance/Early Modern section will have 1 out of 5 articles with any relevant content, the section on "Enlightenment Cultures" is harder to guess at, so we'll see. And I think the last three sections of the book will all fall outside the temporal scope of the LHMP. So I may finish up this collection pretty quickly, except for the part where I have to read everything to see if there's anything relevant. (Sigh.)

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Lochrie, Karma. 2014. “Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 5 - Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe

Reading pre-modern literature in terms of gender and sexuality requires abandoning, modern sexual categories, even when continuities can be identified. The chapter begins with a review of major historians that shaped the study of medieval (homo)sexuality. It discusses the complicated structure of medieval, thinking around gender and sexuality. Discussion of specifics, primarily focuses on male homoerotic relations with brief nods to female relations. There is discussion of same-sex friendship in religious communities, such as beguines and convents, including poetry, between nuns, expressing erotic desire, and mention of the legends of cross-dressing saints. There is also a brief survey of secular literature, such as Le Livre de Manieres, Iphis and Ianthe, Yde and Olive, and the Romance of Silence.

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Friday, September 8, 2023 - 07:20

The chronology of this volume starts out with Sappho and I was a bit relieved to recognize the name of the author tackling the topic. This brief chapter packs a great summary of Sappho's work and legacy into a small space!

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Full citation: 

Andreadis, Harriette. 2014. “The Sappho Tradition” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Part I - Reading Ancient and Classical Cultures, Chapter 1 The Sappho Tradition

This chapter begins with a discussion of what is known about Sappho, her poetry, and her reputation among her contemporaries in ancient Greece. The tragically fragmentary nature of the written legacy of her work is traced, including the nine volume collection lost in the 9th century and the recovery of fragments of her work from papyrus sources in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

New work of Sappho is still being discovered up to the current date. However, due to this long gap in familiarity with her actual work, Sappho’s reputation throughout most of Western history has been based on secondhand accounts of her poetic reputation and myths about her personal life.

Only two nearly complete poems that were transmitted by other writers, the Ode to Aphrodite, and the poem, beginning “That man seems to me…”, formed the basis for translations, reinterpretations and pastiches in western languages beginning around the 16th century. Besides that, Sappho’s image was largely based on the fictional Sappho of Ovid’s Heroides, the one who was said to have given over the love of women for the ferryman Phaon, for whose sake she committed suicide.

This fictional tradition combined with the difficulty historic cultures had in reconciling the two faces of Sappho—the famous poet and the lover of women—resulted in a tradition of two Sappho’s: one desexualized and chaste and one promiscuous and lesbian. In the tradition of “there can be only one,” Sappho became the sole icon of female poetic excellence, erasing the existence of other female poets, which had the side effect of associating, female poetics with questionable sexuality.

By the early modern period, Sappho had split further into three images: the renowned poet, the example of transgressive sexuality, and the mythologized, suicidal abandoned woman of Ovid. The modern era has added a fourth image: that of the heroic lesbian pioneer and proto-feminist muse.

The next section of the article discusses the themes and content of Sappho’s poetry, and the traditions of translation that inspired an entire industry of versions of Sappho’s small oeuvre. Part of this tradition has always been, especially for male translators, to reconfigure the gender of the poetic voice such that Sappho is instead expressing desire for a male beloved, or to imply that the poetic voice of the poem is male, thus removing same-sex desire from the equation. This section includes a fairly extensive catalog across the centuries of poets who have translated or reworked Sappho’s most complete fragments. Only in the 20th century has Sappho’s legacy largely been picked up by female authors, retaining the same-sex context of the content.

The next section traces the historic reflections of Sappho’s image as a poet, as well as her transgressive sexuality, which was largely viewed negatively before recent times. Then we have a section tracing the development and legacy of the Phaon myth, and how it affected the image of Sappho, especially in the early modern period. Finally, the article closes with a section entitled “Sappho as Modern Lesbian Heroine,” which looks at the reclamation of Sappho as a positive figure, while also as an image of female homoeroticism. This is the era in which the use of “lesbian” and “sapphist” to indicate female same-sex eroticism became widespread.

Thursday, September 7, 2023 - 08:11

For unknown reasons, I'm feeling energized and inspired to get up at my "commute alarm" time on non-commute days to work on personal projects. So let's start working though this collection.

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Full citation: 

McCallum, E.L. & Mikko Tuhkanen. 2014. “Introduction” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.


The introduction discusses the definition of “gay and lesbian literature” and the problem of organizing a volume like this, in the context of a series that primarily focuses on nation, era, or genre. It discusses the focus on expressions of same sex desire, while at the same time problematizing the definition of “same-sex”. There are problems with using terms like homosexuality, much less gay and lesbian, with respect to cultures outside the relatively modern Western context in which those terms developed. As a result, the chapters in the book are sometimes in conversation with existing debates about the nature of gay historiography. The discussions do not focus solely on authors that might today be identified as gay or lesbian, but also on works that suggest same-sex eroticism, regardless of the identity of the author. The discussions recognize the distinctness that may exist between lesbian and gay literary history, and individual chapters may focus on one or the other, or treat them in separate sections of the same article. The authors of the individual chapters take a variety of approaches to terminologies, whether to use “gay” and “lesbian” in an ahistoric overarching sense, or to focus on culturally specific terms, or to avoid labels entirely. The book definitely does not work on the assumption that there is a single tradition of gay and lesbian literature. Although the chapters are grouped in sections identified by various historical eras, this is not meant to suggest a strict chronology regarding the content, but rather may indicate eras in the development of gay and lesbian literature within different cultures. Chapters vary enormously with regard to specificity and focus.

Monday, September 4, 2023 - 16:53

OK, I'm doing something unusual here. I'm going to blog the entirety of The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, but I'm not going to do it now. But I can't do only the article on gothic literature in my usual format, because I don't know how many individual entries I'll be writing and everything will get out of order. So here's what will eventually be the blog on that article outside of the normal LHMP framework, and then I'll tuck it into the usual format after I've worked on the rest of the book. That's likely to be a fairly quick exercise (for a rather thick book) because more than half the book focuses on the 20th century, and out of the 17 earlier articles, at least 9 of them look like they're solely male-focused. (Sigh.) So in the interests of finishing up my gothic reading, here you go.

Bruhm, Steven. 2014. “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8


Although this article is placed in the “Enlightenment Culture” section of the book, this survey article begins with references to several modern horror/gothic works that connect the themes of hidden supernatural terrors with hidden sexualities. But despite the modern recognition of how these themes are connected, and despite the graphic depiction of a wide range of “forbidden” sexualities featured in the historic gothic genre, male homosexuality is startlingly absent in historic gothic works (though not in historic pornographic works). Examining this problem, Bruhm notes that in 19th century gothic works, homosexuality is hinted at with innuendo or vague threat and is concealed under symbolic tropes. To illustrate this, he focuses on two works: Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.

In The Monk, the apparently pederastic desire between the head of a monastery and the mysterious, attractive young novice is resolved away from homoeroticism when the novice is revealed to be a woman in disguise, after which the story turns to more traditional heterosexual gothic transgressions when the abbot sexually assaults and murders a second woman who turns out to be his sister. The looming threat of male homosexuality is vaguely present, but never directly articulated, then is resolved by the gender reveal followed by the quite directly articulated heterosexual sexual transgressions. Homophobia inserts itself in the “unspeakability” of the (illusory) same-sex desire.

In Carmilla, by contrast, the looming threat is the vampire Carmilla who insinuates herself into the life and bed of the young woman, Laura, caressing her both in dreams and in reality, and stealing both her innocence and life by drinking her blood. Carmilla represents, not simply lesbian desire, but sexual liberation in general. Nor is she entirely unsympathetic, adopting gothic tropes of the orphan cast alone in the world on the kindness of strangers. But at the same time, Carmilla embodies the icon of the aristocratic, languorous predator who features in decadent literature largely as a male fantasy. Here, homophobia appears in the framing of Carmilla and Laura’s relationship as predatory (as well as in the opinions of literary critics who sometimes insist that the story’s lesbianism is not about lesbianism, but is a symbolic stand-in for something else entirely).

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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 15:47

My heart leapt when I ran across the article that was a preliminary to this book and then the book itself. Surely this would be foundational to my discussion of lesbian gothic literature! Well, it's definitely useful in organizing some of my thoughts, but the focus of the book is on lesbian genre literature of the 1970s through 1990s so it neither covers early gothic literature with lesbian themes, nor current lesbian gothic novels. Still and all, useful reading.

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Palmer, Paulina. 1999. Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. Cassell, New York. ISBN 0-304-70154-8

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

Note the publication date (1999) which means that this study of lesbian gothic literature will be far from up-to-date, and will reflect a previous generation’s ideas and experiences (as well as not reflecting the boom in queer literature that the e-book revolution has enabled). The introductory material suggests that the study’s scope will focus strongly on what today might be classified as paranormal (witches and vampires) rather than more classical gothics.

She notes the difficulty of defining exactly what the gothic genre is, but quotes one definition as the intersection of themes of inheritance and claustrophobia. From its origins structured around tropes of archaic settings, suggestions of the supernatural, the experience of terror, and the popular motif of the naïve heroine and wicked villain, the genre expanded in the 19th century to encompass vampires, ghosts, the search for illicit knowledge, and the figure of the “wanderer.” By the 20th century, Palmer’s definition of the scope of the gothic seems to include most of the genres of horror, thrillers, and the paranormal. Gothics often appear to challenge realist viewpoints in embracing the supernatural and social or sexual transgression, while at the same time often reinforcing the values of the dominant culture. From its roots, there have been separate strands of the “female gothic,” focusing on women trapped in a castle or mansion, and a gothic flavor more associated with male authors involving persecution, guilt, obsession, and dislocation.

From there, Palmer moves on to explore what she means by “lesbian gothic” within this study. Rather than gothic tropes being used to “decorporealize lesbian desire” (per Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian), these works written in the 1970s to 1990s [note the book’s publication date] “emply them to explore…erotic female relations and their transgressive dimension.” [Note: in choosing this timeframe, Palmer is focusing on stories that do not feel a need to conceal the lesbian nature of the characters and themes.] In the context of the early history of gothics, she notes that (especially) female authors treated themes that lent themselves well to lesbian contexts, including women’s problematic relationship to their bodies, the inherent transgressiveness of female sexuality, and the complications of female friendships and antagonisms, including mother/daughter relations. Women “haunting” other women is a common trope. Also noted is the contradictory role of the figure who is both courageous heroine and persecuted victim. The focus of gothic fiction on creating an emotional response in the reader blends easily with the depictions of repressed emotions and desires. There are structural parallels to closet/coming-out narratives in the themes of secrets, frustrated desire, shame, and persecution. The family/domestic sphere is depicted as a source of danger and claustrophobia, and heterosexual family structures are often viewed as threatening and the peril that must be escaped.

In traditional gothics, the lesbian-coded figure is typically assigned the role of villain and predator, but in contemporary lesbian gothics she becomes a protagonist, or the point of view shifts such that her vengeful and predatory actions are vindicated. Traditional gothics typically focus on an ominous history, either in terms of a family legacy or the physical reality of crumbling ancient monuments. History is the enemy. But lesbian gothics may be concerned with rediscovering and reclaiming a history that had been denied.

The individual chapters of Palmer’s book examine specific works within specific genre themes: the witch, the ghost, the vampire, and the thriller.

[Note: Palmer’s book has a certain historic interest as a study of the state of lesbian genre fiction as of the late 1990s, and an example of an academic work taking that field seriously as a subject of study. I personally found it a bit too all-encompassing to have a coherent take on the concept of “lesbian gothic,” at least from a current viewpoint. But the introductory material has been quite useful.]


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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 12:21

This one isn't very useful for my purposes, but what the heck.

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Yiannitsaros, Chirstopher. 2010. “’I’m scared to death she’ll kill me: Devoted Ladies, feminine monstrosity, and the (lesbian) Gothic Romance” in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies 8: 41-52.

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

The author makes a connection between themes prominent in the “coming-out story” (i.e., secrecy, guilt, persecution, and the fragmentation of the self) and the dominant themes of gothic fiction. Similarly there are connections in the reframing of the domestic sphere from a place of love and security to a site of secrets and maltreatment. As a genre rooted in marginality (of taste, politics, and sexuality) he argues that there is an inherent connection between gothic literature and representations of homosexuality.

From this starting point, the author takes a deep dive into Molly Keane’s 1934 novel Devoted Ladies which, he argues, is a parody of the gothic genre, focusing on a lesbian relationship that is simultaneously presented as ordinary and everyday, and as inherently flawed, unequal, and monstrous. Their relationship is eventually disrupted by the “femme” partner’s refocusing on a heterosexual relationship and the murder of the butch partner by a third party who wants to prevent her from interfering.

The connections the author makes with gothic literature primarily involve more recent work, such as Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and similarly recent formulations of the gothic genre.

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Monday, September 4, 2023 - 11:52

Let's see if I can get back into the blogging thing and catch up on all the gothic-related reading I want to do for a gothic themed podcast. A number of the articles I've collected for this are not ones I'd blog purely for the Project, so I may be skimming more briefly than usual.

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Parker, Sarah. 2008. “’The Darkness is the Closet in Which Your Lover Roosts Her Heart’: Lesbians, Desire and the Gothic Genre” in Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2: 3-16.

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

It’s always a good reminder to “check the publication date” when reading academic studies of popular culture. This article, having been written in 2008, can’t reflect a more up-to-date range of lesbian gothics. But perhaps more to the point, it focuses almost entirely on two specific works: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (published 1936) and Sarah Waters’ Affinity (published 1999), so it reflects an even older approach to lesbian themes in gothic fiction (while still addressing modern fiction rather than fiction from the origins of the gothic genre).

This context comes out in the analysis of how gothic fiction uses the exploration of “unconscious fantasies and forbidden desires” to make lesbian desire legible and to “counter the repressive  effects of ‘lesbian panic’” – a theory circulating at the time that much women’s fiction (of the time) was fixated on a negation of lesbian possibilities because they disrupted the gender economy in which women’s value derived from their value to men.

In discussing the characteristics of the gothic genre (and how it lends itself to articulating lesbian desire), Parker focuses on the themes of boundaries (“from the physical limitations of the domestic space – castle walls, prisons, locked chests – to the ancestral ‘line’ of the aristocratic family”) and how gothic texts allow the reader a “safe” encounter with transgressing those boundaries, but representing repressed desires via fantastic and supernatural elements. Thus, the gothic is structured by patriarchal order even as it uses transgressions against that order for its emotional impact. (For example, the regular threat of incest and its literary punishment.) Passion and desire may be experienced because the text inevitably contradicts, erases, or diffuses their experiential reality.

In Nightwood and Affinity, Parker argues, the lesbian desire that is at the heart of the story is this threat to patriarchal order that provides the reader with a pervasive sense of threat that—in these cases—is allowed to persist and be realized. In Affinity (as in many historic female-authored gothic novels) the apparently supernatural elements that contribute to the atmosphere are revealed as rational in the end. The character who fills the role of “lesbian predator” is allowed her own happy ending, even as the nominal protagonist is victimized by her.

[Note: I’m less able to follow the discussion of Nightwood, and overall this article has only tangential relevance to the gothic theme I’m currently exploring.]


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Saturday, September 2, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 267 - On the Shelf for September 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/09/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2023.

It feels like I just did one of these, so I guess time is flying. September is supposed to feel like autumn, but that’s not how my part of California rolls. Instead we glance around nervously and hope that maybe this year won’t be a bad fire year—then we knock on wood to fend off jinxing things. Of course, lots of parts of the world are dealing with a regular fire season now. Instead of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, my part of California has rain, green, heat, and fire season.

My facebook memories feed has been showing me a constant stream of my last two overseas trips for Worldcon, which is usually scheduled around now. It’s been making me yearn for next year when I’ll be traveling across the pond again for that event. I’m already starting to make lists of people and places I’d like to see.

As usual, I’d like to remind folks that we’ll be running a fiction series again next year on the podcast, and the Call for Submissions is up on the website. Tell everyone you know who might be interested in writing a sapphic historical short story.

Once again, I have two author interviews at the end of this episode. It isn’t intentional to double-up, but that’s just how the contacts are working out. I hope I can keep it up, since I really enjoy hosting authors on the show. I’m always interested in being contacted about interviews, especially in the context of book releases, but I also love talking to people about non-fiction relating to sapphic history or historical fiction.

Book Shopping!

The book shopping was plentiful this month—not specifically books for the blog (which, you’ll note, I haven’t said anything about lately because I’m on an inadvertent blog vacation) – but several works for deep background research for my own projects or for historical fiction projects in general.

First up is the chunky and luxurious exhibition catalog The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, by Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker. This was created to accompany an exhibition that’s currently in San Francisco, but which many of my friends saw when it was in New York previously. It focuses mostly on the life of the court with portraits and rich furnishings.

While I was picking the catalog up in the museum bookstore, I also snagged Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. It’s a popular-oriented discussion of the everyday life mostly of ordinary people in Tudor England. I find this sort of work useful for getting my head in a historic space when brainstorming stories, though such guides can vary a bit in reliability on the details, and they almost never touch on anything specifically relevant to queer characters.

A similar book, more specifically aimed at authors is Krista D. Ball’s What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank. Despite the title, which suggests that it’s pitched at fantasy authors, the focus is on historic food culture of the real world, as something of a reality-check for world-building medieval-ish fantasy settings. So while it may not be a detailed guide to any particular era, it can help set expectations and burst some popular myths.

Another exhibition catalog that caught my eye is Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World by Noémie Ndiaye and Lia Markey. While the topic fits in with my interest in what I call “decolonizing my imagination”, I’m not sure that this specific text will be useful to me as it focuses a lot on how racialized artifacts and representations are handled in museum displays and archives.

Given the ways I integrate historic magical practices into my Alpennia series, I’m always on the lookout for interesting new books on the history of magic and this month I picked up two of them. Speculum Lapidum: A Renaissance Treatise on the Healing Properties of Gemstones by Camillo Leonardi, translated and edited by Liliana Leopardi, is an edition of a 16th century Italian work on magical gemstones—just the sort of reference book that Antuniet Chazillen would have collected for her work.

The second book speaks more to the type of everyday language-based magic that we see in Floodtide. This is Katherine Storm Hindley’s Textual Magic: Charms and Written Amulets in Medieval England. It has some great discussions of the how, what, when, and who of magic based on written texts or spoken words.

And finally, I picked up the 17th annual volume of the series Medieval Clothing and Textiles, which publishes articles on a wide variety of topics related to that subject.

One of the secondary themes of this podcast is women in history doing things that modern people might believe they didn’t do, such as the recent episode on female spies. I often pick up books exploring women in specific professions, either generally or focusing on a specific woman. One fascinating book that I did not buy this month is Deanne Williams’ Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a study of women—especially young women—involved in various aspects of dramatic production in the middle ages and Renaissance. Our image of the medieval and Renaissance stage is often skewed by the fairly unusual situation of public theater during the Elizabethan era, when women were legally prevented from acting on the public stage, resulting in the use of boy actors for female roles. But Williams digs into all manner of historic records to find women as performers, authors, and translators of plays and pageants, including private household entertainments and court masques. I learned about the book on the history podcast “Not Just the Tudors” when they had the author on to talk about it.

While listening to the podcast, it occurred to me that I might add theatricals to my series on tropes. I don’t know that falling in love in the middle of putting on a play is a particularly common trope in heterosexual romance, but my memory started pulling up any number of examples involving female couples, where the context of gender play on stage creates a space for experiencing and expressing same-sex desire. It touches on some of the same themes as my planned episode on the gender-disguise trope, but has enough differences to be worth a separate show.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Now let’s tackle the new fiction! I have a couple of books to catch up on from earlier months, but mostly this will be August and September releases.

When one of this month’s interviewees mentioned Ember of a New World by Ishtar Watson from Dark Elves press, I realized I’d somehow missed including it in the new releases, despite interacting with the author on Mastodon. So here it is now, belated from its April release date.

7500 years ago, at the dawn of the western European Neolithic...

Ember of the Great River people is a free-spirited woman living in a small tribe in prehistoric Germany when a sign from the gods sends her on an epic quest to the end of the world, where the Sun sets. With only her wits and her father's obsidian blade, she faces the vast, untamed wilds of prehistoric Europe.

But these wild lands are far from empty...

One can find love, death, and adventure in the dark forests of tribal Europe, where only the Mesolithic forest people dare to tread.

Well-researched and highly descriptive, Ember of a New World is an inspiring coming-of-age story featuring a non-binary protagonist. Clothing, weapons, rituals, and daily life are described in detail as the reader is transported to the Linear Pottery Culture of the early western European Neolithic.

In the grand tradition of queering Jane Austen, we have Sanditon: The Lesbian Solution by Garnet Marriott and Jane Austen. People are less likely to be familiar with the original text of Sanditon as it was never finished, though a mini-series has expanded the original draft into a longer story.

Here Garnet Marriott has taken Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and re-told and completed it as a lesbian romance, also featuring Austen’s Lady Susan, and Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley. In this version, a carriage accident at Willingden leads to Charlotte Heywood’s invitation to visit Tom Parker’s new coastal health resort at Sanditon, where she meets the handsome Sidney Parker, the audacious Sir Edward Denham, and the beautiful mulatto visitor, Miss Constance Lambe, heiress to a fortune. Charlotte and Miss Lambe begin to form an amorous friendship, but when Charlotte’s sister Katy is subject to unwanted advances from Sir Edward and Willingden’s Lord Faulkner, there begins a feud which ultimately threatens Sanditon’s existence and the future prospects of Charlotte Heywood, who must wrestle with her own emotions and affections whilst fighting to preserve Tom Parker’s vision of a new world.

Where Pleasant Fountains Lie (The New Countess #3) written under the nom de plume Lady Vanessa S.-G from Pacifico Press adds to a series giving voice to the female characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Countess Olivia has married Sebastiano accidentally: She thought he was his sister Viola, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. However, until Olivia has sex with him, she can annul her marriage. Today, she will secretly give Sebastiano three tests, and then make her final decision.

I’m a bit confused by Haven's End (Daughters Under the Black Flag #2) by Eden Hopewell, because the book identified as number 1 in the series isn’t scheduled to come out until next June. So I don’t know what’s going on there—whether this story stands on its own or whether you need to have read the first volume, which evidently you can’t yet. The cover copy certainly sounds like we’re coming in at the middle of a story.

Margo (O'Shea) Flynn's life is anchored by two great loves: her best friend who she married, Caleb, and her soulmate and love of her life, Elara. Together, the three built a life, raising children and tending a thriving business. But when Caleb's ship is captured by the Spanish while privateering, their world is shattered.

Leaving their adult children to manage the family enterprise, Margo and Elara set sail with a pirate crew, driven by grief and a thirst for vengeance against the ruthless Spanish fleet. Their journey is fraught with danger, heartache and surprises, but their love for each other and Caleb's memory fuels their resolve.

As they navigate treacherous waters and face relentless adversaries, the bond between Margo and Elara deepens, becoming their greatest strength and most profound connection. But will their love endure the trials they must face, or will their pursuit of justice lead them to a peril they cannot overcome?

The Birdwatchers by Louise Vetroff from Lura Press is clearly tagged as a lesbian story, otherwise I might have moved it to the “other books of interest” section.

In the mid-19th-century United States, fate brings together three people from Louisiana: a birdwatcher, a runaway wife, and a little girl, and leads them to a wagon train from Texas to California. Three different characters with three distinct reasons to leave their homes have something that unites them — the dream of a better future. Will they struggle to overcome their challenges alone or receive guidance from unexpected places so they may achieve their collective dream?

The supernatural intersects with a heist in The Haunted Diamond by Becky Black from JMS Books.

Flapper Bobbie Morgan is always a welcome house guest at weekend parties. But the young woman her hosts think is only a jolly fun girl with nothing but dancing and fashion on her mind, is actually a jewel thief and her latest job is to steal a South American diamond with a long and bloody history, for a buyer waiting in New York. While Bobbie is crossing the Atlantic with the stolen diamond, Iandara, a ghost bound to the cursed stone, manifests, with one mission -- free herself forever by destroying the diamond.

As if the temporarily-corporeal, thousand-year-old ghost of a trainee witch isn’t enough trouble, Bobbie’s ex-partner and now rival thief, Frances Stryker, is aboard and also determined to steal the diamond from her. Bobbie and Iandara team up to thwart Frances, and in the ensuing shenanigans become much more to each other than simply temporary allies.

But there is no way for both of them to complete their missions. How can they find a way to free Iandara and also allow Bobbie to complete a job whose stakes are higher than Iandara knows?

The second volume is out in Shelley Parker-Chan’s epic series set in a semi-historical China: He Who Drowned the World (The Radiant Emperor #2) from Tor Books. I was very impressed with the first book and have added this to my audiobook queue.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high on her recent victory that tore southern China from its Mongol rulers. Young, ambitious, and in possession of the Mandate of Heaven, Zhu believes utterly in her own capacity to do anything – endure anything – that will allow her to seize the imperial throne from the Mongols and crown herself Emperor.

But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor, the former courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband – and her powerful kingdom has the strength and resources to wipe Zhu off the map. The only way for Zhu to defeat Madam Zhang is to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the beautiful, traitorous eunuch general Ouyang.

Nearly mad with the grief and guilt of having killed his beloved Prince of Henan, Ouyang is alive for only one reason: to enact revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan. His instability soon threatens his partnership with Zhu, who has never felt grief in her life. Zhu can’t even imagine what kind of sacrifice could ever cause her to feel it. But all desire costs, and while Zhu has already paid with her body – the true price of her ambition will break even her ruthless heart.

Carving a New Shape by Rhiannon Grant is the topic of one of this month’s two interviews.

Arriving in a new village on her first ever trading voyage, Laki immediately feels unsettled by some of the rude and bullying behaviour and the loss of her necklace - and attracted to Bokka, who is both helping and hindering. As they start to work together to escape the situation, will Laki's naive ideas and Bokka's struggles with communication make it impossible to carve out a space in their society which is the perfect shape for them?

Set in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and around the Orkney Islands, Carving a New Shape is an evocative exploration of an ancient society, the power of love, and the ability of humanity to adapt. Featuring central characters who would be described today as lesbian, bisexual, and autistic, this is a warm-hearted story which doesn't play down the challenges they face but leads to a happy ending.

For Love and Liberty by Eden Hopewell is set in Philadelphia in 1804.

Follow the story of Abigail, a young heiress in the early days of the industrial revolution, who inherits a textile mill after her mother dies. When she starts to see the harsh working conditions that her employees face, her heart is moved to fight for their rights. Along the way, she meets Sarah, a worker at the mill, who shares her passion for justice. Together, they navigate the challenges of their society and work towards a better future for all. But Abigail struggles with her attraction to Sarah and the societal and personal risks involved in pursuing a relationship with her. But their love deepens despite the risks involved. In the face of danger and opposition, Abigail and Sarah decide to stand up for their love and their cause.

Her Duchess by Brooke Winters has a very brief blurb, but it may be sufficient to pique your interest.

One dowager Duchess. One school teacher. One happily ever after.

It's 1871 and the school that Iris works at is closing, forcing her to leave the town that's become her home and the woman she secretly loves.

Peggy can't stand the thought of life without her best friend and she'll do whatever it takes to keep her close.

And finally we have Into the Bright Open: A Secret Garden Remix (Remixed Classics # 8) by Cherie Dimaline from Feiwel & Friends.

Mary Lennox didn’t think about death until the day it knocked politely on her bedroom door and invited itself in. When a terrible accident leaves her orphaned at fifteen, she is sent to the wilderness of the Georgian Bay to live with an uncle she's never met. At first the impassive, calculating girl believes this new manor will be just like the one she left in Toronto: cold, isolating, and anything but cheerful, where staff is treated as staff and never like family. But as she slowly allows her heart to open like the first blooms of spring, Mary comes to find that this strange place and its strange people—most of whom are Indigenous self-named "halfbreeds"—may be what she can finally call home. Then one night Mary discovers Olive, her cousin who has been hidden away in an attic room for years due to a "nervous condition." The girls become fast friends, and Mary wonders why this big-hearted girl is being kept out of sight and fed medicine that only makes her feel sicker. When Olive's domineering stepmother returns to the manor, it soon becomes clear that something sinister is going on. With the help of a charming, intoxicatingly vivacious Metis girl named Sophie, Mary begins digging further into family secrets both wonderful and horrifying to figure out how to free Olive. And some of the answers may lie within the walls of a hidden, overgrown and long-forgotten garden the girls stumble upon while wandering the wilds...

Other Books of Interest

Two books made the “other books of interest” list, for different reasons.

The Girl Who Fled the Picture by Jane Anderson from Howe Street Publishing is a bit too coy about the potential queer content to make the main list.

A girl who won’t conform. A journey across 18th Century Europe. A dangerous pursuit of forbidden love.

1742, Constantinople. Fifteen-year-old Isabella dons Turkish dress to pose for her portrait. The touch of the artist’s apprentice freeing her from corsets and draping her in sensuous silk unleashes a passion that changes her life forever.

Fleeing to Rome to avoid an arranged marriage, Isabella rebuilds her life creating beautiful silver jewellery but love for the apprentice takes her on another journey. She arrives in Scotland just in time for the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. In the midst of the dangerous intrigue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s court, will the forbidden nature of her secret love see her lose everything?

In contrast, The Valkyrie by Kate Heartfield from Harper Voyager isn’t coy about the female protagonists being lovers, but is more mythic than historic, so it too falls in this group.

Brynhild is a Valkyrie: shieldmaiden of the Allfather, chooser of the slain. But now she too has fallen, flightless in her exile. Gudrun is a princess of Burgundy, a daughter of the Rhine, a prize for an invading king – a king whose brother Attila has other plans, and a dragon to call upon. And in the songs to be sung, there is another hero: Sigurd, a warrior with a sword sharper than the new moon. As the legends tell, these names are destined to be lovers, fated as enemies. But here on Midgard, legends can be lies… For not all heroes are heroic, nor all monsters monstrous. And a shieldmaiden may yet find that love is the greatest weapon of all.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? There are several books I’ve been reading in print, but none that I actually finished last month, so you’ll have to wait to hear about them. I’ve listened to two audiobooks. The Great Roxhythe by Georgette Heyer is a book that is deeply conflicted about exactly what sort of book it’s trying to be. This book has been deliberately out of print for much of its existence and is one of the few Heyers that I hadn’t previously read. Georgette Heyer more or less writes three types of stories: the light historic romances that she’s most famous for, murder mysteries, and a few more serious historic novels that I will confess I have mostly found tedious and dense. I eventually struggled my way through An Infamous Army, which wants to be a historic novel about the battle of Waterloo, but builds the story around an array of characters from her Regency romances. The Great Roxhythe is set during the reign of King Charles II and is, in essence, a love story—but it’s a tragic, asymmetric love story between Lord Roxhythe and King Charles, and between Roxhythe’s somewhat naïve and priggish secretary and Roxhythe himself. It is suspected that this aspect of the book is what led to its suppression: there is no suggestion at all of any erotic relationships between the three men, but the emotional bonds are portrayed in the language of romantic love which—although historically accurate for the setting—may have been a Bit Much for an early 20th century readership. But this isn’t a romance novel—it’s a slogging, overly detailed tour through Restoration-era politics. And if I hadn’t been consuming it as an audiobook I would never have kept at it long enough to finish.

Alas, even the appeal of audiobooks couldn’t keep me going through the second title, Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. The premise of the book is, “What if the Eurovision song contest, but as an interstellar fight for survival?” The book’s gonzo, madcap comic narrative style was appealing when I heard the author doing a reading from it—appealing enough to spend an Audible credit on it. But it just didn’t hold up for me for an entire book’s worth of interest. There wasn’t enough cake under the frosting and every time I tried to listen, my mind kept wandering away.

Author Guests

So let’s finish up the show with our author interviews. First up is Rhiannon Grant.

[interview transcript will be added when available]

Our second guest is Katherine Quarmby, talking about a book that was in last month’s release announcements.

[interview transcript will be added when available]

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Rhiannon Grant Online

Links to Katharine QuarmbyOnline

Major category: 
Monday, August 21, 2023 - 08:19

To help with discoverability for the podcast (and make promotion a little easier) I've been setting up special topic indexes. The latest one is for the "Our F/Favorite Tropes" series. So if you want to check out our shows about how favorite historical romance tropes work differently for female couples, here's your list!

Do you have a favorite historical trope you'd like to have explored? It's probably already on the to-do list, but lots of interest could move it up in the queue.

Major category: 
Saturday, August 19, 2023 - 12:19

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 266 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 9: Spies - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/19 - listen here)

Professions as Tropes

So far in the “Our F/Favorite Tropes” series, I’ve tended to focus on topics where gender is a functional aspect in how the trope plays out, such as marriage-based tropes or tropes that depend on assumptions about sexual tension. But many popular tropes simply feature aspects of the characters’ lives: their personalities, their life history, or their profession. With respect to professions (understood broadly) we definitely see gendered aspects in what professions are popular in fiction, or which are considered to have romantic potential.

There’s a motif that often comes up when discussing sapphic historical fiction that I’d like to tackle head-on, and that is the notion that women in history “weren’t interesting” and therefore that one either needs to manipulate them artificially into a male-coded profession, or go to the length of gender disguise in order to have at least one of your romantic protagonists be interesting enough to support the plot.

If you will excuse the vulgarity: bullshit!

It would be bad enough if I heard this notion from people who disparage the idea of woman-centered fiction in general, but too often I hear it from people who are fans of lesbian fiction as a rationale for why they don’t like historical fiction. Or from writers and readers of lesbian historical fiction explaining why they require at least one character to take on a male-coded role in the story. Or, for that matter, as a reason for why a fictional woman with an unexpected profession is considered “unbelievable”.

As a general booster of sapphic historical fiction, I do understand the attraction of adapting popular tropes, plots, and character types from heterosexual fiction and simply slotting one of the female protagonists into a traditionally male role. But as a historian and a feminist I find it immensely frustrating to see the implicit message, time and again, that women-as-women are inherently boring.

So in the trope episodes that explore professions, I’m not going to take the angle of “here is how you can have your heroine get around the problem that Women Didn’t Do This Thing” but rather to talk about the contexts and ways in which actual historic women Did The Thing.

To some extent, I kicked this off in the episode on Aristocrats and Billionaires by touching on ways in which women could become independently wealthy.  But today we’re tackling something a bit less ordinary: women as spies.

Espionage and Romance

Espionage creates a gloriously rich context for angst-filled romances. Not only is there a lot of potential for an enemies-to-lovers plot (as I mentioned in the episode covering that trope), but the inherent complexities of dissimulation, dishonesty, ulterior motives, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties lend themselves to a storyline in which the romantic conflicts and misunderstandings are solidly grounded rather than being trivial or artificial.

For same-sex romance plots, there is also the thematic parallel of being closeted in one’s profession as well as perhaps in one’s romantic desires. (Although, as always, I’ll note that modern concepts of being closeted or feeling a need to be covert about romantic or erotic attraction don’t necessarily map directly to historic experiences.) All in all, the life of a spy means that you are regularly trying to establish relationships of questionable sincerity, usually for a third party’s benefit, in contexts where being open and honest about your identity and desires could mean peril or death. I hope I don’t have to justify why having one or both of your romantic protagonists be a spy is guaranteed story potential!

Women in Espionage

So here’s the other side of the question: when and in what contexts in history were women engaged in espionage? What sorts of roles did they have and what types of actions did they take? And were those roles conducive to engaging in same-sex romances or would special pleading be needed?

Let’s first acknowledge that espionage has been a key aspect of politics and war since the earliest written records. The forms might differ, but the essential truth is that any time two cultures, states, or peoples come in contact with each other, people will be working hard to gather information on the other side while trying just as hard to keep information about their own side concealed. Any traveler, diplomat, or guest is a potential spy—and is often expected to be so by their own people. When the other party in a conflict comes into your territory, every ordinary person has the potential to become a spy, if they’re in the right place at the right time and paying attention.

The information being gathered might have to do with resources, technologies, plans, intentions, or actions in process. The spy may be purely an observer or may also be providing carefully selected information, either to affect the other side’s decisions or as a quid-pro-quo. Espionage may slide over into sabotage, either by the provision of false information or by acting against people or resources.

A spy may be motivated by loyalty or be a hired agent or a mixture of both. Or she might be playing all sides against each other, either for profit or personal power. Even when the arrangement was financial, bonds between spies and their handlers tended to be personal, rather than more anonymously administrative, which may explain continuing loyalties even when pay was scanty and infrequent. In the complicated politics of Europe, those loyalties were rarely as simple as basic nationalism, but followed lines of religion, family or marital allegiance, political alignment, or even simple charisma.

Spies came from all walks of life. Although our typical image of the official diplomat who doubles as a spy is male, it isn’t uncommon for women of the court—whether courtiers or courtesans—to fill a diplomatic role less formally. Female spies of the aristocracy often found themselves in that role to step in for a husband or father who had ben killed or imprisoned, or was in diplomatic service. All the way up through the 20th century, being a female member of the aristocracy often meant spending much of your adult life embedded in another culture, tangled in a complex jumble of allegiences.

But women of the middle and working class might be recruited or volunteer just as often, though their specific names are less likely to be recorded. All that was needed was access to information, the motivation to use that information, and a contact to pass it along to. Non-aristocratic women were more likely to act as agents in their home cultures, especially during wartime. But they might also become foreign agents if attached to the household of someone who traveled, or if engaged in commerce that involved travel.

In all these functions, women spies had significant advantages over men. Author Nadine Akkerman elaborates on this point in her book Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain. They were socially invisible. Men considered them less sophisticated, less astute, and less politically aware. They were often given a significant benefit of the doubt when acting suspiciously.  Nobody expected women to be involved in covert activities. And when they did come under suspicion, many women could leverage male courtesy. The same prejudice that leads us today to view espionage as a male profession served as useful cover again and again across the centuries, even in the face of the evidence.

Women were invisible in another way too, as providers of hospitality, goods, and personal services. In every army camp, every city, and every countryside, women came and went serving food, providing hospitality, doing laundry, cleaning living quarters, organizing social events, and so forth. A clever woman with even a smidge of acting talent could watch, listen, and read documents without being thought of as anything but part of the furniture. And that’s without taking into account the usefulness of manipulating male egos to boast of things better kept secret, if a woman is the one listening. We see this again and again in male commentary on secrecy and discretion—that the presence and access of women is dismissed and downplayed.

Another advantage women had in many cultural contexts was a hesitancy to perform rigorous searches of their person. Secret messages were concealed under clothing—or even sewn into the interior of garments—or tucked into elaborate hairdos, or hidden in jewelry or other household objects. This hesitancy to accost and search women, combined with the baseline lack of suspicion, offered a higher rate of success than males spies might expect. Furthermore, female spies, even when discovered, might be able to turn gender prejudice to their advantage, arguing that they had been duped, or were ignorant of the purpose they had been recruited for, or simply that they were deserving of mercy for their gender. This could be crucial in eras when unmasked spies might be tortured to reveal their contacts, and execution was a typical sentence.

The lack of suspicion extended to the objects and activities used to communicate information. There are stories in the 18th and 19th centuries of women using laundry as means of communicating signals and basic information, coded in the specific types and colors of garments hung out to dry. Secret messages might be written literally “between the lines” of ordinary correspondence using invisible ink (formulas for which are recorded as early as the 1st century) as well as being more obviously concealed with codes and cyphers. If a woman’s correspondence gave the appearance of concerning household and family matters, it might not be examined more deeply. Women gathering to talk in private are dismissed as “gossips,” not suspected of passing along intelligence.

Female spies might work alone, connected only to the “handler” that they passed information to. But from the 17th century onward, we also have evidence of women working together in organized rings that collaborated and supported each other.

A lot of the literature on women in espionage focuses on the 20th century and military contexts such as the two world wars or the Cold War. But we can identify female spies by name in Europe at least as early as the 16th century, and doubtless earlier if one were looking for them.

So let’s take a brief tour of some specific female spies, with a big nod to Wikipedia for having century-by-century indexes of people so categorized, starting in the 16th century.

The Spies

A Venetian woman named Beatrice Michiel, later known as Fatma Hatun, fled an unhappy marriage in Italy to join family in Constantinople, married a general of the jannissaries, and proceeded to send intelligence on the Ottoman court back to Venice during the reigns of two sultans. She was not the only female spy in the Ottoman court, and had regular alliances and conflicts with the others in trying to influence policy via the sultan’s mother.

When Catherine de Medici married the heir to the French throne at age 14 in 1533 she was thrust into a foreign culture with few allies. Even when she became queen she was expected to play second fiddle to the king’s mistress. But the king’s death when their three sons were still boys brought her into the middle of power struggles for influence. When her eldest son died, she was ready with her network of spies and influencers and ruthlessly took up the reins of power.  One of her tools was a group of beautiful female spies known as her “flying squadron,” skilled at extracting information from the men of the court.

Isabella Hoppringle, the head of Coldstream Priory located on the border between Scotland and England worked as an intelligence agent for England, aided by her personal friendship with Margaret Tudor, the dowager queen of Scotland.

Elizabethan England was rife with networks of spies, not only in direct service to the queen—or at least, to the queen’s spy-masters, but private individuals also had their own information networks, such as Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who with her husband had custody of the exiled Mary Queen of Scots.

Although it’s less commonly on the radar of historical fiction readers, the north of Europe was full of political turmoil in the early modern period. When Ebba Bielke’s father was imprisoned for supporting King Sigismund of Poland against King Charles of Sweden, Ebba took on the task of supplying her father with essential intelligence about the progress of conspiracies against Charles.

During the Thirty Years War, Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis was the de facto postmistress of the Holy Roman Empire, after the death of her husband, the hereditary holder of the office, and during the minority of her son. “Postmaster” was far from a boring administrative post—she had access to every piece of correspondence that traveled within the empire and employed a network of agents to systematically open, review, and copy the contents of anything important that passed through their hands. She was successful for a long time because even those who suspected their letters were being tampered with, found it difficult to believe that a prominent noblewoman could be directing the surveillance.

Across the centuries, there’s no context like a civil war for espionage to create opportunities for drama. I previously mentioned Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents, which covers much of the English Civil War and interregnum. The most familiar name to listeners of this podcast may be Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles II, but she was only one of many women on all sides of the conflicts of the mid-17th century who engaged in espionage, not only in England, but in France and the Low Countries.

Elizabeth Alkin was a newspaper publisher and Parliamentarian spy during the English Civil War who worked to identify rival Royalist publishers.

Elizabeth Maitland was Countess of Dysart in her own right (remember from the aristocrats episode how this is a rare possibility) and was Duchess of Lauderdale by marriage. Her father saw to it that she received a classical education, as well as learning the skills to run an estate. Her family were royalists and Elizabeth was active in the secret organization known as the Sealed Knot and passed along information to exiled followers of Charles II on the continent, even developing her own recipe for an invisible ink. The intelligence she provided came from close social connections with the parliamentarian side, including Oliver Cromwell, with whom she successfully interceded for the life of the man who would much later become her second husband. At the Restoration of the monarchy, she was rewarded for her work and loyalty with lands and a pension—a far cry from the scraps that many spies of less exalted position had to be content with.

Not all royalist spies were from the aristocracy. Jane Whorwood’s family had minor positions at the Scottish court, her mother a laundress and her father the surveyor of the royal stables. But they worked their way up in responsibility and prestige, her mother later marrying a groom of the bedchamber to the princes Henry and Charles who would later become Charles I. During the Civil War, the whole family was active in royalist causes, especially channeling funds from supporters. Jane’s husband had gone into exile on the continent but she remained with the court in Oxford, once personally smuggling nearly a ton of gold concealed in laundry soap barrels, and helping to create a network of intelligence contacts ranging from London to Edinburgh, as well as participating in an unsuccessful plot to help Charles I escape captivity from Hampton Court. Letters in cipher between Jane and King Charles indicate that she also became his mistress when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, which reflects the close access she had for exchanging information. Her labors, alas, went largely unrewarded and unrecognized after the Restoration, compounded by a violent and unhappy relationship with her long-estranged husband. At one point, she reflected, “My travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter.” I think we agree.

Wars between France and various coalitions, conflicts of interest and loyalty meant that family background or place of residence weren’t a predictor of loyalties. The French noblewoman Marie de Hautefort was a favorite of King Louis XIII, but although she benefitted from his friendship, her loyalty was to Queen Anne who was regularly under suspicion for her Spanish origins. Declining to spy for the king as an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, she instead spied on the king as an agent for the queen and assisted her in conducting secret correspondence with Spanish agents.

Queen Anne was surrounded by spies, working for different factions of the French and Spanish courts. When she first arrived in France, she was accompanied by Countess Inés de la Torre who had been planted in her household by the king of Spain to spy on Anne and report back on how well she supported Spanish interests, cooperating closely with the Spanish ambassador in France. Inés was replaced in Anne’s household by Marie de Rohan, duchess de Chevreuse who had her hand in more conspiracies and plots than it’s possible to detail here, resulting in regular periods of exile from France. Marie de Rohan features among the the female spies and intriguers fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Another woman in the orbit of Queen Anne was Madeleine du Fargis, who was placed in the queen’s household by Cardinal Richelieu in the expectation that she would be his agent there. Instead she befriended the queen and, after she was exiled to Brussels following a purge of the queen’s household sparked by plots against Richelieu, she became the queen’s agent there, engaging in secret correspondence to provide information on plots and alliances, as well as serving as a conduit for information gathered by others.

As an example of how tangled loyalties could become, we have the example of Swiss aristocrat Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl who spied on behalf of King Louis XIV of France when protestant sympathizers in Bern were planning an alliance with England. Katharina had picked up her allegiances as a young woman sent to the French court where she appears to have led a rather wild life. A conflict with a French noblewoman resulted in a challenge to fight a midnight duel with pistols on horseback, reverting to swords when it turned out that the pistols were not loaded. On another occasion, she shot a count who was annoying her during a hunt. Her fame led to an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden—yes, that Queen Christina—to join her as a lady in waiting, and isn’t that an alternate history that could have been very interesting indeed? When an exodus of Huguenots from France into Switzerland, due to religious persecution, resulted in Swiss sentiment against the French crown, Katharina was recruited as an agent by the French ambassador, trading on her local contacts and access. When her messages were intercepted, she was imprisoned and tortured, but escaped a death sentence thanks to family influence.

Toward the end of the 17th century, Anna Maria Clodt’s position as a trusted confidante of the Queen of Sweden gave her a chance to leverage her access for profit from those who wanted favors from the queen. But when she turned her hand to supplying information to foreign agents, such as the Danish envoy to Sweden, she crossed the line to espionage.

Another Swedish courtier who turned her hand to espionage for profit was Beata Sparre, whose position as lady-in-waiting to two successive queens of Sweden offered scope for influence peddling, which again crossed the line to spying when she acted as an agent for the French ambassador.

Moving on to the 18th century, we begin to have so many examples I’m going to pick and choose. Women were engaged in intelligence-gathering on both sides of the American Revolution. Women had access to information from opponents in the context of providing hospitality, goods, or services. Signals encoded in everyday public activities such as hanging up the laundry were beneath suspicion—a technique used by Anna Smith Strong to signal the timing and location of messages to be picked up.

Domestic activities required easy movement and casual interactions with neighbors and merchants, creating a context for passing information, and this was used by Lydia Barrington Darragh to report on the conversations of British officers quartered in her house.

When Emily Geiger was carrying messages on behalf of General Nathaniel Greene, she was captured but maintained the secrecy of the message by eating it while her captors were trying to locate a woman loyal to the British side to search her. With no proof available, Emily was released and later delivered the memorized message verbally.

The British side of the Revolution had their own share of female agents. Ann Bates was part of several intelligence networks and completed a number of expeditions into Washington’s camp, disguised as a pedlar, which enable her to eavesdrop on logistical conversations as well as taking inventories of troops and equipment. Her work was extensive enough that eventually she was regularly at risk of being recognized and exposed, having several narrow escapes by means of a network of loyalist safe houses. After the war she moved to England and successfully petitioned for a pension to repay her efforts.

The French revolution and the Napoleonic era afterwards caught up a number of women — especially women of the aristocracy — in intelligence gathering.

The English actress Charlotte Atkyns was recruited as a royalist spy in Paris at the outbreak of the revolution and was active in several plots to try to rescue the royal family.

Camille du Bois de la Motte slipped into the role of spy for France when acting as hostess and secretary for her father , who served as the French ambassador first to Spain and then to Sweden. In Sweden she became a close confidante of Princess Charlotte who would later become queen of Sweden and was accused of passing along government secrets that Charlotte shared with her to foreign diplomats at the Swedish court.

The Baroness d’Oettlinger was the nom de guerre of one of Napoleon’s agents, working in Germany to gather information on the activities of exiled royalists by presenting herself as an exile.

Etta d’Aelders was a Dutch feminist who encouraged the French revolutionaries to extend their ideals of equality to women. From being active in French and Dutch intellectual circles, she became a courtesan at the Dutch court and was recruited there by the French secret service, though her activities served a variety of political interests. She teetered on the line between diplomacy and espionage, reporting on attitudes towards leaders or situations and offering advice and arguments regarding specific actions, but she was eventually imprisoned at the Hague as a spy.

There were so very many women who mixed espionage with the more ordinary duties of a courtier that it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface.

Moving on to the 19th century, let’s stick to a brief survey of female spies during the American Civil War. The intertwined nature of the two sides provided many opportunities for women who were engaged in everyday activities to have access to conversations and information.

Confederate supporter Belle Boyd based her espionage operations in her father’s hotel in Virginia. In addition to eavesdropping from concealed locations in the hotel, she took advantage of the tendency of Union soldiers to boast and brag to a beautiful woman. She passed this intelligence on to Confederate officers concealing the messages in a hollow watch case. Her work was so effective that the Pinkerton agency assigned three men to track her down.

And speaking of the Pinkertons, at least two women worked as spies for the agency during the Civil War. Hattie Lawton and Kate Warne were involved in uncovering an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, among other more routine activities.

The women most at hazard when spying were Black women spying for the Union. Harriet Tubman had set up her extensive intelligence network for the purpose of liberating people from slavery, but when the war began she also used it to support the gathering of military intelligence, as well as more direct actions.

A woman whose name has not been recorded deliberately returned to where she had been enslaved after she and her husband had escaped to freedom so that she could spy on the Confederate officers camped nearby and pass messages to her husband on the other side of the lines by means of a code embedded in how she hung the laundry out to dry.

When the Confederate navy was building the ironclad ship Merrimack, Mary Touvestre, a free Black woman working as a housekeeper for one of the ship’s engineers, stole the plans for the ship and traveled secretly to Washington DC to deliver them to Union officials.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was part of a spy ring in Richmond organized by an eccentric socialite who arranged for Bowser to be hired as a servant at the Confederate White House. Taking advantage of the prejudice that assumed a Black woman would be illiterate and ignorant, she gained access to critical documents left out in the open and later reported their memorized content to her contact.


Can we identify any specific women who we know to have been spies and also to have been engaged in same-sex romances? With the aforementioned exception of Aphra Behn, perhaps not. But though many of the female spies in our brief tour found themselves recruited in the context of marriage to men (or other less formal arrangements), many others had careers where romantic relations with men were not a factor. The question feels like a red herring. As this podcast regularly points out, same-sex desire (in culturally-appropriate forms) is present throughout history. So an overlap between women who might experience that desire and women who might find themselves engaged in espionage is inevitable. And I would love to read more of those stories!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about women in espionage through the ages and why this makes a great context for romance

Sources mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 


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