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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 239 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 3: Adapting Marriage Tropes

Saturday, September 17, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 239 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 3: Adapting Marriage Tropes - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/09/17 - listen here)


Today we’re going to look at historic romance tropes involving marriage and how they can be adapted to female couples.

When we look at the popular historic romance tropes involving male-female couples, there is a large subset that revolve around the social context of the paired relationship—whether that relationship is depicted at marriage or the functional equivalent, or at an earlier stage of courtship. Closely related to this are tropes involving the motivations of the characters engaging in this relationship. Whether the trope is fake-dating, an arranged or political marriage, a marriage of convenience or outright fake marriage, or a compromising situation that pressures the couple into formalizing the relationship, all these tropes are deeply embedded in the function of marriage within society and the social expectations around marriage in the specific context of the setting.

While contemporary romance now includes marriage-based tropes that expand beyond male-female couples, any romance set in western culture before the 21st century that doesn’t involve a male-female couple needs to engage in some way with the inaccessibility of formal, legally-recognized marriage to other types of couples. This can be just as important as the need to engage with how the protagonists work around the normative expectations that they will engage in a male-female marriage.

And here I want to emphasize--even more than usual--that the discussion here will focus specifically on western culture in Europe and the Mediterranean area, as well as European-derived cultures in the Americas. There have been formalized, marriage-like same-sex bonds in other cultures in a number of times and places, which I don’t mean to erase. But historic romance tropes tend to assume a very specific cultural setting that either draws on or reflects western culture, therefore I hope I may be excused for sticking to that narrow focus.

Within western culture, there is a broad potential for formalized paired relationships other than marriage, but the social dynamics and expectations around those non-marital relationships will affect the ways in which they can stand in for marriage within a historic romance trope. Today’s exploration of the dynamics of popular historic romance tropes for female couples will look at some general types of contractual relationships that can provide an alternate context for marriage tropes, as well as exploring how specific tropes such as “fake relationship” or “marriage of convenience” might play out differently for non-marital bonds.

What Is a Trope?

For those who may be coming into this series in the middle, what we mean by “trope” in this context is 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.

As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal. Tropes involving marriage-analogues, perhaps more than character-based tropes, will vary a great deal according to the specific historic setting and the types of non-marital relationships it recognizes and supports.

Marriage as Such

There’s a separate topic to be considered in having the couple engage with formal marriage systems by representing themselves as a male-female couple. This covers a range of identities from having a female-identifying partner present herself as male for the sake of the marriage, all the way through various degrees of gender identification to the marriage of a trans man and a woman. This will be a complicated topic and will be covered in its own separate episode (or maybe more than one). Today’s episode will concern itself with two individuals who both identify as women and are perceived by their society as such.

Essential Differences and Potential Similarities

Marriage has always had multiple functions and purposes. The romance genre focuses on the purpose of finding and bonding with a romantic and erotic partner, but specific marriage-related tropes may lean on some of the other functions. These include creating an economic or social contract between families, the establishment of a line of inheritance typically including the production of children, combining economic and labor resources to better support the functioning of an independent household, and the formalization of a friendship. With the exception of procreation, you can find same-sex analogues for these purposes in many historic cultures.

While we may think of marriage as having certain universal features, a cross-cultural and cross-time survey of marriage practices and customs would have a hard time finding a defining set of characteristics. Marriage can be a contract between individuals or between families. It can be formalized by law, or by a religious authority, or simply by the declaration of the parties involved. It may be viewed as permanent or temporary. The consent of the couple being married may be essential, or optional, or irrelevant. Given all this, the question of what counts as a same-sex analogue of marriage depends on what definition and aspect of marriage you’re looking at. For our purposes, it may help to consider the relevant features to be: a formal or semi-formal contractual bond that affects the living situation and interpersonal relationships of two people, which is publicly known and recognized by the community, and which assumes certain features of good faith and sincerity in its ideal form.

One key feature of marriage tropes in male-female romance—as noted above—is the literary convention that a romantic connection is assumed to be relevant to marriage, either in its presence or in its absence. While some non-marital analogues, such as formalized friendship bonds, similarly assume an emotional component, others do not. So while male-female marriage tropes contrast the sincere performance of courtship with a conflicted performance, many of the analogues suggested for female couples contrast a sincere performance of the social contract with a conflicted performance, and then add in a separate polarity between the sincere performance of romance versus a conflicted performance.

This can make for some delightfully complicated plots!

Familial Bonds

Let’s start with types of social contracts that are typically driven by the character’s family, rather than personal choice. For example, the practice of fosterage among the medieval European elite was partially intended to create social bonds between families. Typically an adolescent would be sent to live with another family where they would learn adult skills and form personal connections that were expected to benefit their birth family. While there was sometimes the intent that the person being fostered would be exposed to marriage prospects, the connections they made between same-sex mentors and peers were just as important and could have life-long consequences. We see a tantalizing hint of how such relationships might form in the joint funeral memorial for Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in 15th century England. Their bond—whatever form it took—was driven by the strategies and goals of their families. But once brought together, they found something in common that went beyond living in the same household.

If we’re brainstorming for a romance plot, we can consider the attitudes of the two characters toward their situation. How might a young woman feel about being fostered into a strange family? How might a daughter of that family react to her? What are their relative social positions? Are they expected to be friends? Do they feel pressured to behave as friends regardless of how they feel? Do they have personal goals that the relationship between them might further or hinder? What happens if one or both feel romantic stirrings?

In a similar situation more fraught with tension, offspring of a range of ages might be claimed as long-term hostages by someone in political power, to ensure the compliance of their birth family. This can place them in a situation where superficially they are like members of their new household, but always with an underlayer of distrust on both sides. In a way, one might view this situation as analogous to a forced or political marriage, if the hostage gets tangled up in emotional connections to the more powerful family.

Situations like those described above can parallel the dynamic in an arranged marriage or forced marriage, in that the protagonist may have little say in the matter and yet be expected to take up the role of serving as a bridge between families, or paying a social debt, or the like. The scenario places them in close proximity to people with whom they need to establish alliances, partnerships, or friendships—ones that may have lifelong consequences in the same way that marriage might.

But from another angle, if the context and power dynamics work out, a couple may manipulate the forms of an arranged contract in order to provide a context to enjoy their romantic relationship. Rather than the contract serving as an arranged or forced context, it becomes the “fake” context that gives cover to a less public purpose.

Employment Bonds

Outside the upper class, the apprenticeship system is something of a parallel to fosterage. The range of jobs a young woman might be apprenticed into will depend on context, but could include joining her mistress’s household. As with fosterage, she may have an ambiguous position in that household depending on her own background. And her interactions with her fellow apprentices (or with the mistress’s daughter!) create the romantic potential. In the early modern and later eras, you can find a similar dynamic when “poor relations” might place a child in the household of more comfortable relatives, or an unmarried woman might take a place as companion in the household of a relative or social connection of the family.

For that matter, any sort of employment situation can create the sort of contractual framework that can operate as an analogue for marriage for the purposes of a trope. While the power dynamics of employer and employee can complicate the ethics of a relationship for modern authors and readers, they are not qualitatively different from the historic power dynamics of husband and wife. Employment in personal service, such as a lady’s maid or--at a higher level of society--as a lady in waiting, creates the sort of intimate proximity in which complicated desires can flourish. And as with other contractual relationships, the “story behind the story” can turn what appears to be straightforward employment into a fake relationship or a relationship of convenience. What if the lady’s maid isn’t actually a working-class servant but is being concealed from danger under the guise of employment? What if the supposedly loyal lady in waiting is actually a spy?

I’ve talked about the enticing potential of companion roles as a context for romance, but they also provide the possibility of fake or convenience-based relationships. A well-off woman might take on a companion against her preference for any number of reasons. Perhaps she needs a companion for social appearances. Perhaps she’s been pressured to take the woman on as a favor to someone else. Perhaps the two women have decided that a companion arrangement is convenient for both of them even if not financially or socially necessary. In all of these, the companion bond may step in for a marriage in fake, arranged, or convenience tropes in which a romance develops within the context of the bond.

But from a different angle, what if the romance comes first and it’s the employment relationship that is the fake? Here we have a possibility that differs somewhat from the male-female trope. If a man and woman are in love and have communicated that love to each other, and if there is no bar to them getting married, there’s no good reason to frame a marriage as “fake” in that context. But if two women have confessed their love to each other and present themselves publicly as mistress and companion because it gives them a context for sharing their lives, then it’s reasonable to view it as a “fake companion” relationship. You see how things twist and change?

The Bonds of Friendship

In many cultures, there was a recognition and celebration of intimate personal friendships that could even be understood as being closer than the emotional bonds of marriage. As an ideal, such friendships were not dictated by economic, genetic, or social ties but were the free union of two souls. Such friends might use the same language as marriage to talk about their bond, and in some contexts might have formal or informal rituals available to mark their commitment to each other.

Until relatively recently, there was usually an assumption that true friendship was difficult to maintain between those of different genders without it turning awkwardly sexual, and therefore friendship practices tended to revolve around same-sex pairs. Alan Bray’s book The Friend [] is a useful detailed study of attitudes and practices around same-sex friendship across a long span of time, although he focuses almost exclusively on male friendships. But there are a number of studies of intimate female friendships, especially from the 17th century and later, that provide models for fictional characters.

How can intimate same-sex friendships work as a marriage analogue within historical romance tropes? For one thing, in a context where the usual pattern was to develop life-long friendship bonds, and especially if such friendships had significance within larger social dynamics, there’s an opportunity for a declared friendship to act as a context for a “fake dating” or “marriage of convenience” trope. Say Person A is trying to be your best buddy and you have reasons to avoid them or distrust them but don’t want to say so outright? So you arrange with Person B to be your “bosom friend” to whom you profess loyalty. And then, well, it turns out you want more than a convenient excuse.

But such friendships—like familial alliances—could also have more practical benefits than simple companionship. Entering into a public friendship with ulterior motives has clear parallels to agreeing to a marriage for hidden purposes, with similar emotional consequences if the other person believes you are sincere.

In literature, and perhaps sometimes in life, same-sex friendships might be treated as an equivalent to marriage not only in their emotional dynamics, but in being socially obligatory. Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, although written as a satire, describes a secret society in which female pair-bonds were required for entrance and we see a similar, though also satirical, treatment in the late 18th century fictional Anandrine Sect. During the heyday of Romantic Friendship, a middle-class woman who lacked a special female friend might well be considered devoid of proper sensibility. And unlike the other types of semi-formal contractual relationships discussed in this episode, friendship assumed the existence of an emotional bond in the same way that the historic romance genre assumes the alignment of marriage with an emotional bond. This makes formalized friendships an excellent choice for those who want a close parallel to marriage-based romance tropes.

The Helpmeet

Regardless of gender dynamics or the existence of a marriage contract, one of the very practical functions of people coming together to form a household is the ability to pool resources and share duties. Even in contexts where it was logistically possible to set up an independent household as a single person, everything was easier with one or more partners. Two people can merge their financial resources and incomes and gain access to more security than either of them alone. And the work of maintaining a household, whether it involves physical labor or management skills, is halved when two people are involved. This has always been held out as one of the basic purposes of marriage—the partnering with a “helpmeet”—and outside of marriage it remains as a practical motivation for cohabitation.

Across the ages, it has been common for unmarried women to pool resources—either in pairs or in larger groups—to achieve a more stable position or a higher standard of living. In some historic contexts, this type of household was a recognized “type”. Whether the arrangement is framed as a landlady with boarders, or spinsters ekeing out their resources together, whether they present themselves as business partners or the overt couplehood of a Boston marriage, whether the arrangement looks like employment or like friendship or like familial bonds, the outcome is a semi-formal living arrangement that has a public purpose not related to a romantic or erotic relationship.

This can not only create an analogue to marriage for the purposes of a romance trope, but it can add an additional layer of complexity to the tensions and interactions that play out within the trope. Let’s look at just one isolated scenario and ring some changes over it. Anne has inherited a house from her grandmother and doesn’t want her cousins to move in under the argument that she needs the help. Elizabeth is making an adequate living as a writer, but since it’s all under a pen name to conceal her gender, her family assumes she’s impoverished. To solve both their problems, Anne offers to take Elizabeth on as a boarder. Aha, fake relationship! Because neither of them needs the financial arrangement, they only need the illusion of depending on the financial arrangement. But now, in comes the romance plot, though neither of them went into this expecting any sort of emotional entanglement. For that matter, maybe they don’t even like each other much at first. Or each of them believes the other’s fictional financial emergency. And then one or the other finds herself getting attached. But something happens to disrupt the fictional boarder arrangement. Maybe Elizabeth comes into some money that she’s able to be public about and so can afford her own place. What to do? Can they sort out all the fictions and feelings to achieve true love?

Making it All Come Together

Expanding the types of relationships that can be used as the basis for a marriage-like trope for female couples changes some of the dynamics, but not always in the way you might think. The imperative toward marriage can involve external pressures and demands, but so can other types of personal contract. First marriage traditionally happens around a specific life stage (though perhaps a different age in different contexts) but other interpersonal contracts may have a similar ticking clock. Marriage may be driven by ulterior motives that create the temptation or the need for deception—either between the couple or for an external audience—but so do many other types of relationships.

And as we’ve seen, while male-female marriage tropes typically operate between two contrasting states (the idealized one in which romance, desire, and marriage are all aligned, and the conflicting state in which that alignment is disrupted), parallel tropes for female couples disrupt the assumed connection between the “public” arrangement and the existence of a romance, allowing for a three-way conflict between the romantic potential and the public and private understandings of the contractual context in which it develops.

The essential features in turning a trope into a plot are to identify which functional aspects of the trope you want to replicate, and then find a type of formalized same-sex arrangement that can replicate the same functions. And if you set it up cleverly, you’ll end up with even more potential for angst, intrigue, and misunderstanding than traditional marriage can offer.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The structure of historic romance tropes focusing on marriage
  • Historic relationships between women that can be used as marriage-analogues in tropes
  • How separating the relationship aspect of the trope from the emotional dynamic creates the potential for even more angst and conflict

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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