(Originally aired 2021/09/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2021.
After a few months of scrambling for podcast topics, I seem to have stumbled onto a few ideas that ought to keep me for a while. Last month’s Shakespeare podcast inspired me to do a Jane Austen themed one this month. I may cast around for other popular classic authors whose work either includes homoerotic themes or is a favorite to repurpose in new fiction. And after muttering on twitter about my idea of looking at how favorite romance novel tropes work or don’t work for female couples in history, I’ve decided to tackle that in a series of podcasts rather than hoping that I might someday get a chance to try it out as a convention panel. What’s your favorite historical romance trope? And would you be interested in joining me on an episode to talk about the different ways it would play out for women in historic settings? I always love to hear from listeners about what content you’d like to have on the show!
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has finished its coverage of Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. And after a brief digression to dis-recommend a book that I’ll mention in a minute, we’ve started on Emily Skidmore’s True Sex, which feels in many ways like a natural continuation of Manion’s study of trans-masculinity into the first few decades of the 20th century, but with a different emphasis largely due to the changing social context. Skidmore will complete my recent theme of new research on trans-related topics for the moment. I have a really exciting book that just arrived in the mail that I’ll move on to after that.
That sounds like a cue to talk about book shopping for the blog. The exciting new book is an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve covered a number of books looking at sexuality in classical cultures, but even the ones focusing specifically on homosexuality are 99% male focused, simply due to the distribution of the available content. That means that the authors of the books tend to be much more knowledgeable about and focused on male concerns, and that can skew how they cover even the small amount of female-related material they do find. More often it means that they don’t go digging for the source material that could speak to female experiences from other angles. Material that could help us reconstruct experiences that aren’t documented directly. But when you set out to write an entire book on a topic, you have the incentive to look hard and deeply for every scrap of information. In some cases, that means turning up new data that had been overlooked simply because previous researchers hadn’t been interested. More often, it means looking at familiar material in more detail. Presenting it with more context. Discussing all the many ways it could be interpreted and the arguments for each.
Understanding the social and historical context of data is of vital importance. That’s why I found Emily Stehr’s small compilation Tragic (but Interesting & Very Short) History of Sodomite, Lesbians, & Sapphics to be worse than useless, as I point out in detail in the blog. I spotted this title when ordering Boehringer’s book and thought it looked intriguing. But it turned out to be a random collection of short texts from books published in the 18th and 19th centuries that contained one of the keywords listed in the title. No discussion or context for the material is given, and in some cases the presentation fails to note that the source publication is reprinting and/or translating material from centuries earlier. There is always some value in a bad example, if only as a chance to talk about what makes a source good or bad and how one can evaluate it.
The rest of my non-fiction book shopping in the last month has been general background research on some of my favorite historic eras and topics, and isn’t directly related to sexuality or gender. Trevor Yorke’s Georgian & Regency Houses Explained can be a practical guide to getting house layouts and architectural details right in a Regency setting. Louise Allen’s Regency Slang Revealed organizes the contents of several 19th century books on slang or cant terms into topical groupings for the convenience of authors who might be looking for authentic language for a particular topic. Then there are two books I picked up for an online course about Black people in pre-modern Europe: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors and Olivette Otele’s African Europeans. These are part of my continuing personal project to decolonize my historic imagination.
I’ve pre-ordered a really interesting looking academic study of lesbian historical fiction that’s coming out in November, but I won’t count that as a new acquisition until it actually arrives.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
But speaking of books that have arrived, let’s look at recent, new, and forthcoming sapphic historical fiction in September. It’s a bit of a thin month with only six titles. The first is an August book that I missed previously.
The Adventure of the Golden Woman by Cynthia Ward from Aqueduct Press is evidently the final volume in her vampire thriller alternate-history series featuring LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and Lucy Harker, the daughter of Dracula. Set in an early 1930s that includes spaceflight, mechanical people, and a guest appearance by Sherlock Holmes, I’m not sure that I would have classified this as a “historic novel” if it had been the first book in the series that I encountered. But if you’ve been following Ward’s series starting with The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, then you probably know what you’re getting into.
Piracy in the South China Sea is the setting for C.B. Lee’s A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix from Feiwel & Friends. This is evidently part of a thematic series of new takes on classic novels from this publisher. Lee takes the basic themes of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s classic pirate novel—secret maps and hidden treasures and a legacy of piracy—and evokes the real historical setting of the Chinese pirate fleets that contended with colonial powers as well as local forces in the early 19th century. Two girls unite in their quest to decipher the clues hidden in a pendant that may lead them to a fabulous treasure. The cover copy makes no references to sapphic themes in this young adult book, but I’ve gotten verification from the author.
Jazz Hell, self-published by Charlotte K. Stone isn’t exactly set in a historic era, being concerned with the afterlife. A stage accident lands jazz singer—at least I think she’s a singer?—Minnie McCloud in the underworld. But there’s still jazz after death, and the deals with the devil are only a bit more literal. And falling for the boss man’s girl will still get you in a hell of a lot of trouble.
My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke from Sapphire Books tackles class conflicts in 1930s Tennessee. Cecilia Howison’s wealthy family are evicting poor farmers from the site of a new national park. Musician Airey Fitch’s family is among those threatened. An unlikely pair even to meet, much less to fall in love. So many reasons not to trust, and yet so many dreams waiting to be pursued.
Second chances or missed chances? That’s the question in Late City Summer by Jeanette Bears from Bold Strokes Books. In 1946, Emily Stanton is moving directly from college to marriage. But her wedding photographer is the woman who turned her life upside down four years previously. Will all her plans and dreams be overturned again or will new ones take their place?
It's always hard to tell where to set the cut-off between historical fiction and near-contemporary. Part of it is a matter of feel, and struggling against my reflex that my lifetime isn’t “history.” But I think Punk Disco Bohemian by Arya Jenkins from NineStar Press has that “feel” that makes it a historical. Provincetown in the mid 1970s is the setting for a story of teenage rebellion, sexual awakening, and coming to terms with the price of freedom and the end of childhood.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading or consuming that listeners might be interested in?
I finally capitulated and got an Audible audiobook subscription to listen to Rose Lerner’s sapphic gothic take on Jane Eyre, The Wife in the Attic. Listening to the audio version—it’s an Audible Original—made the gradually building suspense all the more palpable.
I’ve been using audio books to cover more of my reading for the SFF Hugo awards, including the newest installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that my tastes simply don’t align well with Seanan’s writing, which is a shame because I’m in awe of the breadth and scope of her body of work and really enjoy knowing her as a human being.
I don’t usually plan my fiction reading around the podcast, except for a few topical shows, but I’m trying to fit in some of the Jane Austen-related fiction that I’m going to discuss in this month’s essay. So far I read the erotic short story “Mary’s Secret Desire” by Tilda Templeton which…well, I’ll say more about it in the future show. And I’m in the middle of Elna Holst’s Pride and Prejudice spin-off Lucas, which tackles some hard topics but has enchanted me by having a proper understanding of Regency-era clothing and how to take it off.
There are movies I’ve had sitting in my queue to watch that get put off for a long time because I don’t know whether the ending will be happy or sad. That’s been the case with Elisa & Marcela, which I watched on Netflix. It’s a fictionalized biography of two real-life early 20th century Spanish women who married, using gender disguise, then had to flee when discovered, first to Portugal and then to Brazil. The depiction swings from sweet to romantic to terrifying and leaves the viewer guessing until a subtly positive ending (which unfortunately is a happier fictionalization than the real outcome). This is, alas, one of those films that contributes to the stereotypes about lesbian historical movies, even though I found it sensitive and well made.
And that’s it for the September round-up. I have a little surprise planned to pair with the Jane Austen episode later this month, so stay tuned!
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