Some article I read -- I no longer remember which one, but it isn't important -- tried to claim that pre-20th century female couples inevitably involved an age difference and therefore followed the classical model of an older mentor and a younger "beloved". It seems to me that this is a case of finding what you're looking for, because even when a couple are very close in age--for example, fellow students at a boarding school--it may happen that one is seen as the older, more experienced figure and the other as the follower. Further, when certain behaviors are coded as "motherly" then acts of caretaking can appear to code as an age-differentiated relationship regardless of actual years.
Female couples have looked to a wide range of types of relationships as models for how they viewed or talked about their bond. To some extent this is inevitable if society has not offered you a neutral "default" understanding of the dynamics of a same-sex couple. I get a bit uneasy when an author points to an age-differentiated female couple and starts talking about "mother-daughter" dynamics because it invokes some pernicious stereotypes about homosexuality that aren't raised in the context of even greater age gaps in m/f relationships.
And yet, the language of mothers and daughters was a thing that some female couples used. Perhaps in some cases it was a way of creating an acceptable context for their feelings. But using the language and symbols of the mother-daughter bond (or of a sister bond) is a very different thing than actual incestuous relationships, and I feel this isn't always emphasized when the topic is raised.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love
In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]
It was common for women with homoerotic desires to have at least one crush on an older woman in their past. And couples that began with a noticeable age difference might grow into a more equal partnership as the younger member gained maturity. [Note: And let us not forget that m/f marriages in this era often involved a significant age difference. The middle-aged man who married a young woman inevitably carried a paternalistic air.]
Chapter 5 looks at three women who played a “daughter” role in their relationship, whether looking to a mentor in adoration, or playing the part of wild and rebellious teenager. But this chapter also looks at actual mother-daughter relations, and the challenges of creating independent identities.
In this chapter, the partners long to merge. While the similar relationships in Chapter 6 deal with the down side of merging (loss of identity) or the after-effects of an absence of mothering earlier in life.
One common trait the “daughters” in these examples have is rejecting conventional feminine norms, though not all in the same way.
Chapter 5 “A Strenuous Pleasure” – Daughter-Mother Love
The examples in this chapter are all of a single, younger woman in a relationship with an older married woman where the latter is framed as a mother figure in contrast to the “child”, looking for an unconditionally wise and understanding partner.
Because the marriage prevented the formation of an independent f/f couple, the relationship was often expressed by attempts to claim a right to the beloved’s attention and love. But these attempts could be negative: fights, jealousy, flirtations with a third party, or illness. The unattainability of the mother figure only stimulated the intensity of the passion. But that doesn’t mean the resulting relationships were unhealthy or a passing phase. Inevitably, to be successful, these relationships needed t evolve and accommodate the participants.
Gerldine Jewsbury suffered an absence of mother figures in her youth and seemed destined for a spinster life, keeping house for various male relatives. In search of something more, she came into contact with Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle and found a place for herself within the fractures in their marriage.
Although there doesn’t seem to have been an erotic component to their relationship, Jane served as surrogate mother and practical mentor for the enthusiastic Geraldine, and in turn received the admiration and love not present in her marriage, while being able to use that marriage to set clear boundaries with Geraldine. Jane played the rationalist while Geraldine used the language of romantic friendship, with all its enthusiasms, and wrote novels that bordered on the scandalous. But as Jane found her aspirations eclipsed by her husband’s fame, she became more dependent on Geraldine’s support and understanding, and the power dynamics in their relationship shifted.
Novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) attracted admiration from both men and women, and managed the passion of her “spiritual daughters” by preaching selfless duty. Edith Simcox, one of those admirers, was a social activist and journalist. She left a diary full of her passionate, unrequited feelings for Eliot, and her attraction to women in general. Eliot was not technically married, as her male lover was married to someone else, but the relationship functioned similarly for the purpose of setting boundaries for Eliot’s admirers. Eliot was not comfortable being cast into the role of mother figure, but did not offer equal friendship as an alternative.
Composer Ethel Smyth chose a mannish presentation and had a series of crushes on older upper-class women – as detailed in her 9-volume memoirs. She presents her attraction to women as an “emotional experiment” and left open the possibility of attraction to men. There is a recurring theme of relationships with surrogate mother figures – a context in which she could explore her erotic and emotional needs. Her first love, for the wife of her composition teacher, was reciprocated and set a pattern for the future. They role-played that Lisl was Ethel’s “real mother”, or that they were famous operatic couples. But Ethel flirted outside the relationship regularly, and after seven years of Ethel living in the composer’s household, she moved on to begin her professional career. She also moved on to fall in love with other women, including a complex triangle with Lisl’s sister Julia and Julia’s husband, Harry Brewster, which resulted in a breach with Lisl.
By framing her love for women in mother-daughter symbolism, Ethel was able to distinguish it from adultery, and somewhat more awkwardly, from however f/f love might be understood. Ethel’s relationship with her actual mother was somewhat strained and unsupportive.
Ethel next fixed her interest on Mary Benson (see previous chapter) who provided the type of accepting, nurturing love she wanted, but was unhappy at sharing Benson with too many other followers.
Ethel’s identity was tied up in music and composition – the thing that she felt distinguished her from “ordinary women” – and what she needed most in a relationship was someone who would admire and support that ambition. When she encountered Harry Brewster again, who could provide that support, she entered into an extended friendship with him, though she rejected his romantic advances until after Julia’s death. She declined to marry him and continued having sexual relationship with women as well.
Her next and very long-term relationship was with Lady Mary Ponsonby, who was more tolerant of Ethel’s flirtations than previous women had been.
The chapter then turns to a psychoanalysis of the motivations underlying (some) “mother-daughter” romantic friendships, including the tangled relations around Mary Benson’s actual daughters when both mother and daughter were involved with (or attracted to) the same woman, in one case, Ethel Smyth.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 186 - Poetry about Love between Women from the 18th Century - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/11/28- listen here)
In the podcast on 17th century poetry, I pulled together almost all the verses I could find in English or English translation that spoke of love between women. For the 18th century, there was far more material, and I need to pick and choose a bit more. The major reason for that expansion is that women’s writing was being preserved in larger quantities and in a wider variety of genres. But there is also a rise of popular themes that lend themselves to expressions of same-sex sentiment.
The 17th century poems sorted themselves out into some identifiable themes: The Pangs of Love, Men Jealous of Women’s Love for Each Other, Men Appropriating Lesbian Imagery, Satire and Vituperation, and The Triumph of Love. The 18th century material continues the larger themes but with some shifts and expansions.
One category that I’ve skipped over is translations or reworkings of classical material, such as the poetry of Sappho, or mythic tales like Iphis and Ianthe. In general, I’ve covered those in episodes examining their specific topics.
Poems of Romantic Friendship
Right off the bat, it’s clear that we need a new category: poems of romantic friendship. In the 17th century, we see the beginnings of this theme in the works of Katherine Philips and other poets working in the neo-Platonic tradition. The 18th century friendship poems are very similar, in focusing on a spiritual love that promises a union of souls, but not necessarily of bodies. The “pangs of love” may be expressed in this context, but first let’s hear some verses where those shadows don’t fall.
Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, began her poetic career in the Restoration era of the late 17th century, although the work I use here dates to 1713. Her work has something of a proto-feminist flavor, often commenting on the difficulties women encountered in the male-dominated literary establishment. Her works sometimes reference that of other female poets such as Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn and, like the work of Philips, she emphasizes the equality of men and women on a spiritual level. Finch was a maid of honor in the royal household and a companion of Sarah Churchill—whom you might remember from the episode on Queen Anne—and of Anne Killigrew, another poet whose work in the late 17th century included some poems suggestive of romantic feelings for women.
Anne Finch’s friendship poems are tender and passionate, but were written within the context of an amicable and loving marriage. Her husband was a significant supporter of her poetic career. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons romantic friendship was so openly acceptable was that it was not seen as inherently incompatible with loving relationships with, and marriage to, men. We mustn’t interpret these poems as indicating an “orientation” in the modern sense, but as operating within an understanding that souls were what loved, and that the gender of souls could be immaterial. Practical considerations meant that the ways that love was expressed differed depending on the object of affection, and that women were perhaps more free to make public expression of the passionate feelings they had for their female friends specifically because there was no inherent expectation of a sexual component.
Like many of her contemporaries, Anne Finch used poetic noms de plume in her work, for herself as well as for those her poems were addressed to. Finch was “Ardelia” as in the following work “Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia” from 1713, written in the form of a dialogue. “Ephelia,” the other voice in this poem, may be the as-yet-unindentified author from the same social circle of several poems also on themes of female friendship. In the poem, the alternation between Ardelia and Ephelia is identified with tags, but I’ll distinguish them by voice.
Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (1713)
(Included in Donoghue, Castle, Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
What Friendship is, Ardelia shew.
‘Tis to love as I love You.
This Account, so short (tho’ kind),
Suits not my enquiring Mind.
Therefore farther now repeat:
What is Friendship when compleat?
‘Tis to share all Joy and Grief;
‘Tis to lend all due Relief
From the Tongue, the Heart, the Hand;
‘Tis to mortgage House and Land;
[Be]For a Friend be sold a Slave;
‘Tis to die upon a Grave,
If a Friend therein do lie.
This indeed, tho’ carry’d high;
This tho’ more than e’er was done
Underneath the rolling Sun,
This has all be said before.
Can Ardelia say no more?
Words indeed no more can shew;
But ‘tis to love, as I love you.
Mary Chudleigh was part of the same intellectual circle as Mary Astell and Lady Mary Whortley Montagu who get frequent mention in blog entries about the 18th century. Chudleigh’s work, both poetry and essays, focused on feminist themes. The negative attitudes toward marriage expressed in her work suggest her own may have been less than happy. The poems touching on female friendship invoke the image of an idyllic rustic retreat, a popular theme continuing over from the neo-Platonic pastoral motifs of the later 17th century.
I have to confess from my own reading of Chudleigh’s work that her writing doesn’t strike the ear as among the most eloquent of today’s poets. One of the poems that I didn’t use includes the couplet “No, though lov’d darling of my heart, We’ll never, never, never part” and it’s easy to image the author thinking, “Hmm, We’ll never dum-da-dum-da part. Oh, I’ll fix it in revisions!”
The poem I’ve chosen, “To Lerinda” from 1703, is a fairly typical expression of the themes of platonic love and friendship.
Mary Chudleigh “To Lerinda” (1703)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from Poetry Nook)
Cease, Dear Lerinda , cease admiring
Why Crouds and Noise I disapprove;
What e'er I see abroad is tiring;
O let us to some Cell remove;
Where all alone our selves enjoying,
Enrich'd with Innocence and Peace,
On noblest Themes our Thoughts employing,
Let us our inward Joys increase:
And still the happy Taste pursuing,
Raise our Love and Friendship higher,
And thus the sacred Flames renewing,
In Extasies of Bliss expire.
Similar idealized sentiments appear in the romantic friendship poems of Elizabeth Singer Rowe. Much of her poetry was religious in nature and this may account for the motif that the greatest joy of friendship is a spiritual reunion after death as in this verse “To Cleone” published in a posthumous volume in 1739.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe “To Cleone” (1739)
(Included in Donoghue.)
From the bright realms, and happy fields above,
The seats of pleasure, and immortal love
Where joys no more on airy chance depend,
All health to thee from those gay climes I send!
For thee my tender passion is the same,
Nor death itself has quench’d the noble flame;
For charms like thine forever fix the mind,
And with eternal obligations bind.
And when kind fate shall my Cleonae free
From the dull fetters of mortality.
I’ll meet thy parting soul and guide my fair
In triumph thro’ the lightsome fields of air;
‘Til thou shalt gain the blissful seats and bowers,
And shining plains deck’d with unfading flow’rs.
There nobler heights our friendship shall improve,
For flames, like ours, bright spirits feel above,
And tune their golden harps to the soft notes of love.
The sacred subject swells each heav’nly breast,
And in their looks its transports are expressed.
How do we define the dividing line between close friendships and a more particular exclusive relationship—or at least the desire for one? One hint may come when jealousy, or feelings of abandonment, define the nature of a bond by its absence. I explore that theme a bit more in a later group of poems, but here in Elizabeth Thomas’s “To Clemena” we see the rise and fall of emotions, thinking that an intimate friend may have transferred affections to another.
Thomas was another member of the literary circle that included Mary Astell, Lady Mary Whortley Montague, and Mary Chudleigh. Reading through the biographies of these women, one gets a sense of how interconnected English literary lives were at the time. No one was writing in a vacuum, and the sharing of themes and motifs is part of the way their work is a constant ongoing conversation.
In this poem from 1722, Thomas addresses an absent friend, framing her doubts as an imagined conversation with a gossiping meddler.
Elizabeth Thomas “To Clemena” (1722)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Clemena, if you are indeed
The Friend you have professed,
Your Kindness now exert with speed,
And give me back my Rest.
Late in our gloomy Shade I sat,
Retired from all domestic Care,
And tho’ as calm as was th’ air,
Yet soon disturb’d like that.
For while I grasp’d my precious Store,
And read your last kind Letters o’er,
The gay Melinda pass’d along,
And cried, Oh where is Friendship gone!
What makes Eliza look so down,
When fair Clemena’s come to town?
Indeed, methinks she’s much your friend,
So near, and neither come nor send.
Nay, prithee do not turn away,
‘Ere you have heard what I can say.
Alas, I much lament your Case,
For haughty Gallia takes your Place;
Her Clemena gives her heart,
And leaves you not the smallest part.
Judge with what Grief I was possessed,
How love and Anger tore my breast;
Is this, said I, her kind Return,
For all my tender Cares?
Did I for this my Life despise,
And venture it for hers?
Did I for this such Frowns endure,
Such Hatred to myself procure?
And can she with her Vows expence,
Now make this cruel Recompence?
But when this Storm was somewhat laid,
I fancied that I was betray’d;
For looking round the Nymph was gone,
And mock’d from far my piteous Moan;
‘Twas then, you came into my mind,
So nobly faithful, and so kind;
That I can hardly think it true,
But wait to be resolv’d by you.
Setting Marriage and Women’s Bonds in Conflict
In the 17th century, there seemed to be an entire genre of men’s poems complaining about how the close friendships of women were shutting them out and making the women unavailable for heterosexual relations. John Hoadly’s poem “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” is perhaps a remnant of that tradition lingering in the 18th century. But, in general, male criticism of women’s relationships seems to have moved more into the harshly satirical. There is, perhaps, a sense that the greater public prominence of female friendships has placed them farther from reproach, even on the occasions when they make the women disinclined for marriage.
Hoadly was better known as a playwright (though making his living as a clergyman) with his work leaning toward pastorals and farce. Many of his plays were written in verse form. Also showing the satirical bent of his talent, he wrote the verses that accompanied Hogarth’s famous engravings of “A Rake’s Progress.”
In this poem, he first appears to praise the close friendship of two women, then shifts into suggesting that such friendships inherently become rivalries solved by both turning to men for love.
John Hoadly “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” (1730)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
HAIL, beauteous pair, whom Friendship binds
In softest, yet in strongest ties,
Soft as the temper of your minds,
Strong as the lustre of your eyes!
So Venus' doves in couples fly,
And friendly steer their equal course;
Whose feathers Cupid's shafts supply,
And wing them with resistless force.
Thus as you move Love's tender flame,
Like that of Friendship, paler burns;
Both our divided passion claim,
And friends and rivals prove by turns.
Then ease yourselves and bless mankind,
Friendship so curst no more pursue:
In wedlock's rosy bow'r you'll find
The joys of Love and Friendship too.
But women were becoming more forthright about rejecting the idea that marriage was a universal goal, or even a necessary evil. The anonymous poem “Cloe to Artimesa” published in 1720 is quite blunt on the subject. Note that the reference here to “the sex” means “the opposite sex”, that is, men.
Anonymous “Cloe to Artimesa” (1720)
(Included in Castle, Donoghue, Loughlin.)
While vulgar souls their vulgar love pursue,
And in the common way themselves undo;
Impairing health and fame, and risking life,
To be a mistress or--what’s worse--a wife;
We, whom a nicer taste has raised above
The dangerous follies of such slavish love,
Despise the sex, and in ourselves we find
Pleasures for their gross senses too refined,
Let brutish men, made by our weakness vain,
Boast of the easy conquest they obtain;
Let the poor loving wretch do all she can,
And all won’t please th’ ungrateful tyrant, Man;
We’ll scorn the monster and his mistress too,
And show the world what women ought to do.
Not all women were quite so forthright in their opinions. But marriage was sometimes framed as being in direct rivalry with female friendships. We may recall Katherine Philips offering similar sentiments.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe recounts a series of hazards to the intimate friendship she longs for in “To Aspasia” from 1751—a poem addressed to the woman she hopes will prove truer than those who came before her.
The poem is a bit of an extensive catalog of disrupted friendships, including an explanation of how she won’t recount one story as a favor to the sister of the faithless one. Listen for the reference to losing a friend to “Hymen,” which refers to the god of marriage and not the anatomical feature! Note also the reference in the first verse to pursuing friendship in “Dian’s Grove,” that is, among the followers of the goddess Diana who rejected marriage.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe “To Aspasia” (1751)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Wisdom, Aspasia, by thy gentle muse,
Warns me to shun the dang’rous paths of Love,
And rather those of sober Friendship choose,
With cheerful Liberty in Dian’s Grove.
Yet, led by Fancy through deceitful ground,
Oft have I friendship sought, but sought in vain;
Unfaithful friends with myrtle wreaths I crown’d,
Unpleasing subjects of my plaintive strain.
In youthful innocence, a school-day friend
First gained my sister-vows; unhappy maid!
How did I wipe thy tears, thy griefs attend,
And how was all my tenderness repaid!
No sooner Grandeur, Love, and Fortune smiled,
Than base Ingratitude thy heart betrays,
That friend forgot, who all thy woes beguiled,
Lost in the sun-shine of thy prosperous days.
Save me, kind Heav’n, from smiling Fortune’s power!
And may my wishes never meet success,
If e’er I can forget one single hour,
The friend who gave me comfort in distress.
Yet Friendship’s influence I again implored,
To heal the wounds by Disappointment made;
Friendship my soul to balmy peace restored,
And sent a gentle virgin to my aid.
Soft, modest, pensive, melancholy Fair,
She seem’d to Love and pining Grief a prey;
I saw her fading cheek, and feared Despair
Fed on her heart and stole her life away.
But ah! how chang’d my friend how vain my fears!
Not death, but Hymen stole her from my heart;
Another love dispell’d her sighs and tears,
And Fame was left the secret to impart.
Not twice the changing moon her course had run,
Since first the pleasing youth was seen and loved,
The Fair in secret haste he woo’d and won,
No friend consulted, for no friend approved.
Suspense not long my anxious bosom pain’d,
My friend arrived, I clasp’d her to my breast,
I wept, I smiled, alternate passions reign’d,
Till she the sad unwelcome tale confess’d.
Lost to her brother, country, and to me,
A stranger wafts her to a foreign shore,
She travels mountains and defies the sea,
Nor thinks of Albion or of Stella more.
Sure nature in her weakest softest mould,
Form’d my unhappy heart, false friendship’s prey!
Another story yet remains untold,
Which fond compassion bids me not display;
The lovely sister of a faithless friend,
Weeping entreats me spare of the recent tale;
Her sighs I hear, her wishes I attend,
And o’er her sister’s failings draw the veil.
This my success in search of Friendship’s grove,
Where liberty and peace I hoped to find,
And soften’d thus with grief, deceitful Love,
In friendship’s borrow’d garb attack’d my mind.
No passion raging like the roaring main,
But calm and gentle as a summer sea,
Meek Modesty and Virtue in his train,
What Friendship ought, true Love appeared to be.
But soon was chang’d, alas! the pleasing scene,
Soon threat’ning Storms my timid heart alarm’d;
And Love no more appear’d with brow serene,
But cloth’d in terrors, and with dangers arm’d.
From these enchanted bow’rs my steps I turn.
And seek from Prudence, safety and repose;
Her rigid lessons I resolve to learn,
And gain that bliss which self-approof bestows.
Thus, dear Aspasia, my unhappy fate,
My heart’s first darling schemes all blasted, see;
Yet now my bosom glows with hope elate,
Fair Friendship’s blessings still to find with thee.
By thee conducted to the realms of Peace,
No more in plaintive strains the muse shall sing.
Henceforth with hymns of praise, and grateful bliss,
The groves shall echo, and the valleys ring.
Erotic and Sensual Friendship Poems
Not all poems of romantic friendship focused only on the spiritual. The following three poems blend this theme with expressions of more sensual and erotic joys deriving from those relationships—or at least sought from them.
Pauline de Simiane was a French poet, the granddaughter of the famous courtier and correspondent Madame de Sévigné, whose letters she edited for publication. As the two poems of hers that I’ve included were originally in French, the translations are not metrical. The first, “Madrigal” encodes the homoerotic meaning in a complex set of mythological allusions to the goddess Diana and associated figures.
Diana, of course, was not only famously chaste and disdainful of men, but was the center of a number of stories featuring homoerotic relations between women (as discussed in my episode on Diana and Callisto). So when the poet addresses a female subject, who has kissed her sweetly, and calls her Diana, there is a weight of implication evoked. “Don’t treat me like Apollo” she says. Diana and Apollo were, of course siblings. So she’s begging, don’t kiss me chastely as one would a sibling, but passionately as one would a lover.
“I’d be happy with Endymion’s fate” the poem concludes, referencing the myth of Endymion, which was originally attached to the moon goddess Selene whose lover he was. Among many variants, the central motif of his myth is that he was cursed or blessed to sleep eternally in order to preserve his life and beauty. As Selene and Diana were both associated with the moon, Diana was sometimes substituted as Endymion’s lover, despite her generally anti-male attitude. Putting all this together, de Simiane is addressing a woman and asking, “Why do you kiss me like a sister, with such sweet kisses? Why do you treat me like a sibling when I want you to treat me like a lover.”
I’ve included the original French in the transcript of this show.
Pauline de Simiane “Madrigal” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
Vous me baisez comme une soeur:
Ces baisers sont pleins de douceur;
Mais souffrez que je les condamne.
Je ne suis qu’un mortel, ô nouvelle Diane,
Pourquoi me traitez-vous ainsi qu’un Apollon?
Je serai trop heureux du sort d’Endimion.
You kiss me like a sister,
Kisses filled with sweetness;
Yet you must allow me to condemn them,
For I’m only mortal, my Diane;
Why treat me like Apollo great?
I’d be so happy with Endymion’s fate.
The second poem from Pauline de Simiane is in the form of a letter to someone addressed in the poem as Corinne (possibly a pseudonym) and in the poems title as “Madame la Marquise de S—“. Both this and the previous poem are dated 1715. The title of this verse indicates it accompanied a gift of tobacco and the poem makes a number of connections with “gratifying the senses”. The poet is self-deprecatingly suggesting that she would not have been asked to satisfy the Marquise’s more important longings—despite certain rumors to that effect. The final lines begging the recipient to “trace for me with your hand all of your pleasures” seems superficially to be asking for a letter in return, but raises other images as well.
Pauline de Simiane “Letter to Madame la Marquise de S--, On Sending Her Tobacco” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
I’ve not forgotten you chose me
To gratify one of the senses
That’s generally said to be
Immaterial to life’s pleasures
Thus, despite the rumors spread abroad,
If you truly had the longing
To satisfy them one and all,
I think that in this fancy
Your heart, without a pause
Would not have chosen for the task
A pitiful friend like me;
But you have need of modest size;
In you, only the sense of smell is unfulfilled.
And yet do you imagine that my eyes
Away from you suffer any less?
Still, I cannot bear to see you penitent,
And will relieve your pain. As reward
For my tobacco and my care,
All I ask, my lovable Corinne,
Is that your hand sometimes choose
To trace for me with tenderness
All of your pleasures, all your fine times.
If tobacco seems an unusual gift of affection, the following poem by Mary Matilda Betham catalogs some much more conventional gifts, before settling on a gift of a kiss. Betham was a diarist, writer, and miniature painter in the late 18th and early 19th century. She wrote a biographical dictionary of famous women as well as four books of her poetry. Betham supported herself with her painting and writing and did not marry. I don’t know whether there are any guesses as to whom this “Valentine” poem was written in 1797.
Mary Matilda Betham “A Valentine” (1797)
(Included in Castle.)
What shall I send my sweet today,
When all the woods attune in love?
And I would show the lark and dove,
That I can love as well as they.
I’ll send a locket full of hair--
But no, for it might chance to lie
Too near her heart, and I should die
Of love’s sweet envy to be there.
A violet is sweet to give--
Ah stay! She’d touch it with her lips,
And after such complete eclipse,
How could my soul consent to live?
I’ll send a kiss for that would be
The quickest sent, the lightest borne,
And well I know tomorrow morn
She’ll send it back again to me.
Go, happy winds; ah, do not stay,
Enamoured of my ladies cheek,
But hasten home and I’ll bespeak
Your services another day!
The Pangs of Love
For this next set of verses I retain my poetic category of “the pangs of love” with two rather different takes on love gone awry.
Anna Seward was a well-known and prolific poet who spent all her life in the relatively rural area of the Peak District, far from the literary circles of London. She was a friend of the “Ladies of Llangollen” and wrote poems referencing them and their home. Seward rejected marriage, both abstractly and in the form of specific offers. Her romantic relationships were all with women, though her commitment to caring for her father limited how she carried them out. Very notably, she fell in love with a younger woman named Honora Sneyd who lived in their household for a while before marrying and thereby breaking Seward’s heart.
The following two poems mark the early adoration and the later hurt. First “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” written around 1780.
Anna Seward “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” ( c. 1780)
(Included in Castle, Faderman. This text taken from Poetry Nook)
I write, HONORA, on the sparkling sand!--
The envious waves forbid the trace to stay:
HONORA'S name again adorns the strand!
Again the waters bear their prize away!
So Nature wrote her charms upon thy face,
The cheek's light bloom, the lip's envermeil'd dye,
And every gay, and every witching grace,
That Youth's warm hours, and Beauty's stores supply.
But Time's stern tide; with cold Oblivion's wave,
Shall soon dissolve each fair, each fading charm;
E'en Nature's self, so powerful, cannot save
Her own rich gifts from this o'erwhelming harm.
Love and the Muse can boast superior power,
Indelible the letters they shall frame;
They yield to no inevitable hour,
But will on lasting tablets write thy name.
This following poem, titled simply “To Honora Sneyd,” is only one of many “break-up poems” Seward wrote about what she considered Sneyd’s betrayal. Some people dwell a bit too long.
(Included in Donoghue. This text from Poetry Nook)
Honora, should that cruel time arrive
When 'gainst my truth thou should'st my errors poise,
Scorning remembrance of our vanished joys;
When for the love-warm looks in which I live,
But cold respect must greet me, that shall give
No tender glance, no kind regretful sighs;
When thou shalt pass me with averted eyes,
Feigning thou see'st me not, to sting, and grieve,
And sicken my sad heart, I could not bear
Such dire eclipse of thy soul-cheering rays;
I could not learn my struggling heart to tear
From thy loved form, that through my memory strays;
Nor in the pale horizon of Despair
Endure the wintry and the darkened days.
Now we turn to a somewhat more light-hearted and borderline scandalous expression of the pangs of love. The verse has a rather complicated provenance, so forgive me for going into a bit of detail.
In the 18th century, feuds between the fans of prominent opera singers were a thing. They’d show up to cheer on their favorite or heckle her rival. The theater managers considered these rivalries great for ticket sales and did nothing to discourage them. The rivalries between the stars themselves might go beyond jockeying for the best roles and even go as far as fisticuffs. One such rivalry was between the up and coming Faustina Bordoni and the established star Francesca Cuzzoni who came to blows during a performance in 1727—a fight that was quickly satirized in broadsides and even in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728.
The following poem purports to be a letter from Faustina Bordoni to one of her supporters. It can validly be doubted whether Bordoni herself wrote it, particularly given that it seems designed to cast aspersions on her reputation.
The original gives the speaker’s name as “F—” in one place, but I’ve supplied the full name as Faustina from the attribution. Elsewhere, the name of the lady to whom the letter is supposedly addressed is left a blank and there seems to be no good theory as to who might be indicated. I wanted to fill it in with something for the sake of the metrical flow but the meter in that line is a bit of a mess and seems to call for a single unstressed syllable, so I’ve read “Joy to the fair [blank]” as “Joy to the fair one” and we’ll leave it at that.
There are a number of allusions that may be useful to know. The claim “ladies unpracticed in the art of love a living Aretin in me may prove” is a reference to the “Dialogues” of Renaissance author Pietro Aretino which included discussions of sex between women. The classical pseudonyms Chloe and Thalestris may have been understood by contemporaries as specific women in Bordoni’s circle. Thalestris was the name of an Amazon of legend. And the reference toward the end of the poem to Durastanti is to an earlier star soprano who had been supplanted by Bordoni’s rival Cuzzoni.
Faustina Bordoni (nominally) “An Epistle from Signora F—to a Lady” (1727)
(Included in Loughlin.)
Condemn not, Madame, as I write in haste,
My thoughts confused, or any word misplaced.
Of cens’ring tongues I scorn the little spite,
In wild disorder, as I love, I write.
In haste I write to ease your tortured mind,
Spite of your jealousy, I still am kind.
Unspotted as the sun, my love shall rise,
And soon dispel the fears that cloud your eyes
Let others for dear scandal search the town,
Or with superior fancy choose a gown;
Others their heads with learned volumes fill,
Or boast of deeper science at quadrille;
In the gay dance let other nymphs excel;
Faustina’s glory lies in loving well.
Of pleasure all the various modes I know,
In different degrees, it’s ebb and flow.
Ladies unpracticed in the art of love,
A living Aretin in me may prove.
Propitious Venus, Grant me power to give
Joy to the fair --, ‘tis for her I live.
Cease then to let your jealous fancy rove,
Nor give me such a cruel proof of love.
Am I in fault that crowds obsequious bend,
And rival beauties for my love contend?
That fierce Thalestris has attacked my heart?
Or gentle Chloe cast a milder dart?
To fierce Thalestris I disdain to yield,
And gentle Chloe ne’er shall gain the field,
In vain she breathes her passion in my ear,
For when you speak I nothing else can hear;
In vain with transport to my feet she flew,
All joys are tasteless, but what come through you.
Before your fatal face I chanced to see,
No Cynic ever laughed at love like me.
Inconstant as the wind, free as the air,
I ranged from man to man, from fair to fair.
I roved about like the industrious bee,
First sucked the honey, then forsook the tree.
In Venus’ combats I have spent the day,
Swiss-like I fought on any side for pay.
But now I love and your bewitching face
Has well avenged the cause of human race.
Do justice to yourself, review your charms,
Nor fear to see me in another’s arms.
Have you not beauty equal to your youth?
Look in your glass, and then suspect my truth.
No passion tramontane in you I’ve found,
By love and gratitude I’m doubly bound.
You first of all the British fair declared,
I sung unrivaled, e’er my voice you heard.
By sympathy you felt each charm, each grace,
And loved my person ere you saw my face.
Nor was I coy, or difficult to move,
When you revealed the story of your love.
With such pathetic mirth you played your part,
You found an easy conquest of my heart.
I felt a thrilling joy, till then unknown,
And loved with ardour equal to your own.
Witness the transports of that happy day,
When melting in each other’s arms we lay.
With velvet kiss your humid lips I pressed.
And rode triumphant on your panting breast.
Thus rode Saint George, thus fearless thrust his dart
Up to the head in the fell dragon’s heart.
In ecstasy you cried, “What joys are these?
Not Durastanti’s self so well could please.
This is no sleepy husband’s feeble mite,
The tasteless tribute of an ill-spent night.
Such were our joys, Oh could they always last!
But greatest pleasures are the soonest past.
Oh, did my power and will in concert move!
And were my strength but equal to my love!
Th’incredulous philosopher should see
Perpetual motion verified in me.
Satire and Vituperation
As I mentioned earlier, if mildly teasing digs at female couples for making themselves unavailable to men show up less often in the 18th century, the more vicious attacks on specific women, either for a lesbian reputation, or using accusations of lesbianism as a weapon, are on the rise. These were often published anonymously, although in some cases the authorship is obvious and undisputed.
The anonymously penned “The Adulteress,” published in 1773, is something of a broad-brush attack on the sexual morals of women in general. Some have identified it as a very loose re-working of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which is a similar misogynistic catalog of women’s supposed vices. I’ve included here only two brief excerpts: part of the preface, which compares the decadent present to the solid virtues of the era of Queen Bess (that is, Elizabeth I), and then the section discussing homosexuality. There are a couple of disguised personal names—a common technique for dodging libel. Since the specific names only matter to those who know the ins and outs of 18th century British politics, I’ve filled them in to fit the meter, though in one case I believe I’ve identified the correct person.
Anonymous “The Adulteress” (1773)
(Excerpts included in Castle, McCormick. Text (excerpts) from: Rictor Norton (ed.), "The Macaroni Club: The Adulteress, 1773", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 11 June 2005.)
How better were the Matrons of QUEEN BESS,
Who suited all their manners to their dress;
Who breakfasted on beef, and drank stout ale,
Rough as their Lords, as honest and as hale!
Our Sons had then red cheeks and sturdy back,
Not melted by Cornelys' and Almack's:
Earth never then had known a Coxcomb race;
Then Macaronies were not Man's disgrace;
The Sun did never condescend to smile
On tiny things like J----y and C--l-le;
Earth's common fruits in Markets were expos'd,
Unknown forestalling, Commons uninclos'd:
But when ELIZA to the Stars withdrew,
Genius and Chastity attended too.
With JAMES and CHARLES rank Lechery came in,
And Virtue then gave place at Court to Sin:
New modes of Lust e'en CHARLES himself devis'd,
And ROCHESTER both nurs'd them, and chastis'd:
Then did the Court chaste Marriage-rites profane,
And purer Virtue breath'd in Drury-lane.
# # #
Women and Men, in these unnat'ral Times,
Are guilty equal of unnat'ral crimes:
Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:
And if they don't relinquish such a Crime,
I'll give their Names to be the scoff of Time.
But here, Sweet Girls, my indignation fires,
When Man with Man into the shade retires;
And when that Justice damns them and their crimes,
The noble Monsters of these monstrous Times
Repair to Majesty, and piteous plead
A Wretch's cause – whom Virtue deem'd to bleed.
Can beauteous VIRTUE shew her heav'nly face?
When Jones is pardon'd – ***'s held in Place!
Hear me, sweet sheeny Virtue – hear my pray'r,
Make Love and Modesty thy constant care!
Diana, cull a wreath of Roses fair,
And place the posy in the Poet's hair:
I feel throughout this meretricious strain,
A hallow'd Virtue trill from vein to vein.
When Fashion suffers Turpitudes to grow,
Honour and Truth both cordially allow,
That even Bawdy is a Virtue now.
While “The Adulteress” takes aim at entire swathes of society, and as much at effeminate men as at “Tommies”, William King penned a much more pointed satire in revenge at a specific woman. The Duchess of Newburgh, he claimed, owed him several thousand pounds, but he lost a lawsuit to try to obtain the funds. Frustrated with more formal methods, King wrote a very long, convoluted satirical poem, densely packed with obscure references to contemporary figures and their scandals, which featured the Duchess in the form of a promiscuous pansexual witch named Myra. If the initial version in 1732 were not enough, William King published an expanded version four years later and reprinted it again in 1754.
From a historical point of view, the poem is valuable in demonstrating that the term “lesbian” was used in English in a sexual sense at least as early as 1732. Though one shouldn’t put too much reliance on the poem as evidence of cultural practice, it depicts a lesbian cultural tradition that envisions women who had a distinct and stable sexual orientation toward women.
The problem with trying to include even a sample from this poem in the podcast is that any brief excerpt is incoherent, while any extensive passage is going to include material that is not merely homophobic but also packed with slurs involving racial and religious groups, just for a start. So I will leave you with the knowledge of its existence and a serious content warning if you choose to look into it.
William King “The Toast” (1732)
(Excerpts included in Loughlin, McCormick, Rictor Norton)
(Poem not included in the podcast.)
For Love of a Dildo
One rather curious genre of poetry that appears in the 18th century—perhaps in parallel with the greater openness of sexual satires in general—are works about dildoes. It is difficult to determine the genuine place of dildoes in female same-sex erotics in this or other historic eras, largely because the records that obsess over the use of an artificial phallus may be treating it more as a symbol than a reality. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” The use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. So to some extent, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives.
This anxiety rarely stands alone, but is typically accompanied by an accusation that if men were doing their proper job as lovers, then women wouldn’t look elsewhere. In both the 17th and 18th centuries, satirical works combine accusations of male effeminacy and rampant sodomy with the vision of women consequently turning to each other, or to dildoes, or both as a consequence.
The anonymous epic poem “The Sappho-an,” published in 1735, is an extended exploration of this theme. Following the naming conventions of the day, the title should be read as “the Sappho club” or “the Sappho circle.” The appearance of the name “Mira” in the text suggests a connection to William King’s poem “The Toast,” raising the possibility that King was the author of this poem as well.
The poem contains extensive descriptions of sexual encounters and techniques between women but is clearly intended as a satirical attack, either on lesbian sex in general or on a specific woman whose connection to the poem is no longer obvious to us.
The general plot of the poem is thus. The Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo. There is an underlying message that all of these delights are less satisfactory than sex with men, were that only available.
Anonymous “The Sappho-an” (1735)
(Included in Castle. Text from Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Sappho-An, c.1735 or 1749," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 26 August 2017.)
[The poem begins with this warning to contemporaries, before moving on to the classical setting:]
(Opening of Canto I)
SWAINS of Britannia’s happy, gladsome isle,
Who wait submissive on the fair-one’s smile;
And all the soothing arts of lovers try
In hopes to make the cruel Nymph comply;
Know, whilst you idle thus away your time,
Women in secret joys consume their prime;
Some fav’rite maid, or handy young coquette,
Steals the rich prize you vainly strive to get;
Of them be cautious; but the artful prude
Watch most, for she will thoughtless girls delude;
At break of Day when you have often mourn’d
Your tender billet-doux, unread, return’d,
And thought some happier rival in the place
When you expected the long-wish’d embrace;
Your lovely nymph, in private, quench’d her flame
With some experienc’d, well-known, crafty dame,
Who knew the softest way to reach her heart,
And proudly vy’d with nature in her art.
(Much later in the poem, Sappho arrives to save the day.)
“CEASE, cease she cries, your needless search suspend,
“Well vers’d in love, let me the conflict end;
“A curious artist that thro’ nature pry’d,
“Has ev’ry wish our hearts could form supply’d;
“He gives us man without the plague of males,
“Which will untired remain when nature fails;
“The conscious blush must rise whene’er I think
“What arts we use when drooping standards sink;
“In vain the lily hand with genial fire
“Strives with fresh heat the mortals to inspire;
“When round their limbs robust we gently twine,
“And fondly hope to make the centers join;
“Repugnant to our joys, the Ruler, dead,
“Hangs like a fading flow’r its livid head;
“Nor can our heaving breasts new strength excite,
“The darting tongue no longer can invite;
“When we to rushing joy go boldly on,
“Supine and indolent they tumble down;
“Baulk’d in our bliss, we to reproaches fly,
“And noise and tumult for kind signs supply;
“No more we clasp him in our tender arms,
“No more his colder breast our bosom warms;
“Who then such frail felicity wou’d trust,
“Or value those imperfect efforts most;
“When solid joys are always at command,
“And court the pressure of your eager hand?
“For this the burnish’d iv’ry rears its head,
“Waiting for coral of a lovely red;
“Or if too rude the polish’d engine seems,
“The velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes;
“Its shape compleat, nor can ye aught despise,
“For to your choice they shall adapt the size.
…SHE said, and with a more majestic Mien
Produc’d at once the wonderful Machine.
Not more the Greeks rejoic’d when Ilium’s Fate,
Which on its stol’n Palladium did await,
The sly Ulysses cautiously drew out
And charm’d the wond’ring chiefs and vulgar rout.
…WITH rapture all beheld it, and applause
In Io’s loud, the silent image draws.
Immediate trial is the next demand,
The trial claims a gently trembling hand;
Kind Sappho soon administers her aid,
And drives the dart into the yielding maid.
Fond of the scheme they strive t’improve its use,
And each will the most pleasing method chuse.
The poem continues on at some length and ends by suggesting that the use of such implements damages the health and those who use it will end in regret.
Another poem “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” published in 1722 has similar underlying themes, if fewer classical allusions. It personifies the dildo as a foreign lover, bringing new sexual practices to England (and spreading them throughout the world). You may be amused that when Monsieur Thing first arrives in London, he finds lodgings at a “toy shop” in Covent Garden. There is a series of anecdotes describing various categories of women using the device, though only one anecdote involves a female couple. I’ve only included this excerpt from the poem. The reference to “two cows playing in a field” suggests that the author was familiar with same-sex mounting behavior in domestic animals.
Anonymous “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” (1722)
(Included in Castle, McCormick.)
Clear as Monsieur was, and free to range
Hs tour he took towards the Great Exchange;
Ingratiated himself into the favor
Of milliners, by’s complaisant behavior;
He pitch’d his tent between two partners
Indeed he took them not for to be whores
But like two cows a playing in a field,
While the one rid, the other seemed to yield;
This was itself complete encouragement,
To show what they’d be at, and their intent
Fully explain’d what it was that they meant.
One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.
The Triumph of Love
But now it’s time to turn away from bawdy satire to conclude our poetic tour with the triumph of love. Many of the poems in the romantic friendship genre might easily fit here. I’ve chosen a work by one member of perhaps the most famous female couple in 18th century England: Sarah Ponsonby, the junior member of the Ladies of Llangollen. The poem, dated 1789, is simply titled “Song”. Although the poem contrasts “vulgar eros” with “love,” the sense of being overpowered by desire is reminiscent of Sappho’s work.
Sarah Ponsonby “Song” (1789)
(Included in Donoghue.)
By vulgar Eros long misled,
I call’d thee tyrant, mighty Love!
With idle fear my fancy fled
Nor e’en thy pleasures wish to prove.
Condemn’d at length to wear thy chains,
Trembling I felt and ow’d thy might;
But soon I found my fears were vain,
Soon hugged my chain and found it light.
A tour through various poems of the 18th century that touch of different aspects of love between women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
There's an entire book on the Benson family that I should probably add to the blog to-do list at some point. She seems like a fascinating person, though the interpersonal relations within the Benson family are not exactly a pinnacle of functionality. Still, to think that someone who came into a marriage so disadvantaged in terms of social power (I mean, her husband arranged to train her up to be his future wife when she was only 11 years old!) was able to come to a no-fucks-to-give point where she renegotiated the entire basis of their marriage and relationship. That's quite a story.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 4 “The Gift of Love” – Religion and Lesbian Love
One approach to acceptance of same-sex desire was to view all love as a gift of God and therefore acceptable. This chapter looks at two examples of f/f love embedded in religious structures. Lesbians had far from a unified attitude toward religion, aligning themselves more often based on class or family attitudes, sometimes embracing them, sometimes rejecting.
The use of passionate and erotic language to express spiritual experiences provided an acceptable context for using similar language about a same-sex beloved. In some cases, women might embrace such feelings as non-erotic, while in other cases the spiritual nature of their feelings excused the erotic.
The first focus of this chapter is Mary Benson, the dissatisfied wife of a successful Anglican clergyman, who found fulfilment in a series of relationships with women.
The Benson family is extensively documented through their correspondence, diaries, and books. Not only Mary, but her two daughters and three of her sons had a preference for their own sex. In Mary’s case, she had experienced several crushes on women before marrying Reverend Benson, who had identified Mary as a prospective wife when she was 11.
Mary did not love him, appears to have disliked marital relations, and found her life being micro-managed. After 12 years and six children, she had a breakdown, and while convalescing at a spa in Germany, fell in love with a fellow female boarder, finding in that relationship the self-confidence and self-love lacking in her marriage. She returned to the marriage with boundaries around her emotional and erotic life that thereafter excluded her husband.
With this new arrangement, Mary supported Reverend Benson in his career advancement and found her own religious vocation as a spiritual “mother” to other women, that combine both religious and erotic love. The taboo against divorce, particularly for the clergy, gave them both a motivation to find accommodation.
Mary saw carnal desire as a weakness – something to strive to master – but not only in the context of same-sex relations. In defining the boundaries of carnal versus spiritual love, kissing, embracing, and sleeping together fell on the “spiritual” side.
The second focal couple in this chapter is Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together as Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and Katharine’s mother helped raise her Edith and her sister, with Katharine taking over guardianship at her mother’s death when the two sisters were in their teens. Katherine’s shift from “elder sister” to mother figure to lover with respect to Edith may strike the modern sensibility as problematic, but the relationship was mutual and devoted and confirmed to be erotic.
Together they developed their literary talents and chose to write under a single name. “Michael Field’s” work was acclaimed, but when their authorship was revealed, public opinion turned fickle, considering their work “unwomanly”. That, combined with changes in poetic tastes and with Edith’s health problems decreased their literary output.
Having always had a free-spirited and eclectic approach to religion, the reasons why they converted to Catholicism are convoluted. But one consequence was a turning to themes of sacrifice, but in different directions that made their prior mode of collaboration more difficult. Cooper found her new religious vocation in conflict with her poetic muse, while Bradley embraced the near-pagan ritual and symbolism in her work.
While they continued to promote the image of perfect unity, conflict crept into the nature of that unity. Cooper began to lose interest in the sexual aspect of their relationship and agonized over how to frame it in her confessions. Bradley struggled with the apparent involuntary renunciation of her erotic life. Bradley’s poems from this era express a sense of loss.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 185 - Sapphic Historical Fantasy in Asian Settings - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/11/21 - listen here)
So…not so funny story. Last Sunday morning I was setting up my equipment to record this podcast, went to make my first cup of coffee of the day, and instead found myself phoning for an ambulance when I couldn’t catch my breath. One pulmonary embolism and three days in the hospital later I’m back on track and getting this recorded. Just a reminder that we never know what’s coming around the bend at us. I hope for all of you that you can listen to what your bodies tell you and that you have the resources to act on those messages and get the care you need. I’m fine for now, but I confess it was a bit scary there for a little while.
In searching out upcoming sapphic books to include in the On the Shelf show, I often notice interesting patterns and themes. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of historical fantasies set across Asia, either using historic cultures or fantastic versions of them. And it’s particularly exciting that these books are being written by authors with roots in the cultures they’re writing about.
What’s curious is the difficulty I have finding purely historical f/f stories in Asian settings, at least ones focusing on local characters, and especially own voices stories with those settings. I’m deeply curious what the underlying reasons for that are—other than the sad fact that f/f historical fiction is an impossible way to make a living as a writer. I’d love to put together a discussion on the topic, though it’s always tricky to ask a question like that. “Why aren’t you writing this thing that you aren’t writing?” How can you answer that? Every author is “not writing” many more themes than they do tackle.
But in pondering the question, and in celebration of some really exciting books, both already published and upcoming in the next half year, I wanted to do a short focus on some historical fantasies by authors from various Asian cultures who have stories revolving around queer women, or in some cases characters who will resonate with readers looking for queer women. This list is going to be roughly chronological by publication date.
First up is The True Queen by Zen Cho, who was a guest on the podcast to talk about this book. The True Queen is a loose sequel to Cho’s earlier novel Sorcerer to the Crown and continues to tie together a fantastic Regency-era England with dragons and magical ties to Faerie, including connections with magical figures in the region of Janda Baik in Malaysia. Here’s the description.
When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.
One of the allies that Muna makes in England is a young woman studying magic at the academy who becomes very close to her indeed. Like pretty much all the books I’ll be talking about today, the romance is not central to the plot but at the same time is very central to the ultimate decisions the characters make. In both this and in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho tackles the complex and painful ways in which colonialism underpins the glittering fantasy of the Regency era, while the alternate history setting enables her to rearrange those themes in triumphant ways.
One of the few books I’ve succeeded in reading during this summer’s long quarantine is Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian historic fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Taking up characters and themes from Persian legend and tradition, we get a story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, and finding one’s way to trust and redemption.
There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story. As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming...human or demon. Princess or monster.
On the romantic side, Soraya deals with the temptations and heartbreaks of loving both women and men…well, it would be giving things away to note that those labels aren’t always the most pertinent ones! I very much enjoyed how same-sex attraction was normalized within the historic setting and was not, itself, a source of conflict.
When I first wrote the script for this show, I noted that I had the next book on my iPad but hadn’t read it yet. Well, thanks to the aforementioned adventures, I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo off my phone while waiting for test results in the emergency room. This is the start of a cycle of books connected by the motif of a cleric whose vocation is to collect stories. Here’s the cover copy.
A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.
The sapphic aspects of The Empress of Salt and Fortune are fairly subtle and backgrounded. I wasn’t aware it fit my remit until I spotted the second book in the series, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain which is coming out next month in December 2020.
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
We’ve heard the story about “the tiger or the lady” but how about a story where the tiger and the lady are in love? Both books are novellas and can be read independently, so if you’re looking for something bitesize to tackle, give them a try.
I have been hoping for quite some time for one of my favorite sff authors, Aliette de Bodard, to write something with the right characteristics to feature on the podcast. Her impressive Dominion of the Fallen series is very queer but feels a bit too removed from our world’s history for the show. And her Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace isn’t really set in our world. But in February 2021 she’s coming out with yet another Vietnamese-rooted fantasy that feels right for the podcast: Fireheart Tiger. Here’s the cover copy:
Fire burns bright and has a long memory…. Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions. Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
Many of the books featured in this show are set in a land clearly based on a historic culture in Asia, but removed from reality just enough to give room for play. A mythic version of India is the setting for Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, scheduled to come out in June 2021. Here’s the description:
Exiled by her despotic brother when he claimed their father’s kingdom, Malini spends her days trapped in the Hirana: an ancient, cliffside temple that was once the source of the magical deathless waters, but is now little more than a decaying ruin. A servant in the regent’s household, Priya makes the treacherous climb to the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to play the role of a drudge so long as it keeps anyone from discovering her ties to the temple and the dark secret of her past. One is a vengeful princess seeking to steal a throne. The other is a powerful priestess seeking to find her family. Their destinies—and their hearts—will become irrevocably tangled. And together, they will set an empire ablaze.
I always try to be careful and precise about character identities, when the information is available. It would be misrepresentative to say there is sapphic representation in Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, coming out in July 2021. There is a character described in the cover copy as a girl who takes on her brother’s identity and who is involved at some point with a female character, but the information I can find from the author indicates that the protagonist is intended to be male-identified. So put this in the category of books that I think will appeal to fans of the podcast, but where the story cannot necessarily be described as sapphic. Here’s the cover copy:
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness. In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother's identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother's abandoned greatness.
Why are we getting so many fascinating historic fantasies set across the face of Asia? Why do so many of them feature queer characters? And where are the similar own-voices stories being set in the historic past? It’s hard to analyze a trend when you’re in the middle of it, so maybe we should just relax and enjoy the books!
A tour through some sapphic historic fantasy in various Asian cultures by authors with roots in those cultures.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
When Romancelandia became more generally aware that Georgia voter activist Stacey Abrams was also romance author Selena Montgomery, they took her and her cause to their heart big-time. Thus was born "Romancing the Runoff", a fund-raising project to support various organizations in the state of Georgia working on voter registration, turnout, and education. While putting together a fund-raising auction with all manner of fascinating book-related stuff, they raised nearly $100,000 in direct donations. The auction doubled that in its first 24 hours.
And other than my general support of voting activism and democracy, how does this relate to the Alpennia blog? As it happens, I've donated a research paper or story critique around the topic of sapphic historical romance. See this listing for details. (You need to set up an account to view it, I believe.) If you've ever wanted to bring the power of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to bear on the historical context of your choice, this is your opportunity.
I hadn't quite intended to take a vacation from the blog, but the stress of the US elections and their aftermath was more distracting than I'd anticipated and I gave myself a pass. And then, this past Sunday when I was planning to get the nose back on the grindstone...I ended up in the hospotal instead with a pulmonary embolism (i.e., blot clots in the lungs). I'm ok and following treatment, but it was, shall we say, disruptive to my schedule? But some down time in a hospital bed allowed me to get several more chapters written up (as well as a chance to read an entire novella on my phone while waiting for test results), so here we are.
Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities
Part II: Queer Relationships
This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.
Chapter 3 examines women whose relationships came under scrutiny of the law, while chapter 4 covers women who experienced their relationships within a religious context, flourishing, in part, because their associates chose not to question the nature of that relationship.
Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities
This chapter begins with the familiar slander lawsuit of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie against Dame Helen Cumming Gordon (examined in detail in Lillian Faderman’s Scotch Verdict). The essence of the trial was that a student at the school run by Woods and Pirie accused the two women of having a sexual relationship. As Dame Cumming Gordon spread word of the accusation, parents began pulling their daughters out of the school. To try to save their reputation and livelihood, the two teachers accused Cumming Gordon of slander while she counter-accused them of unnatural acts. The verdict (an oddity of Scottish law, “not proven”, which means neither guilty nor innocent) is not the most interesting part of the trial.
The trial records demonstrate that the judges (all upper class white men, of course) considered their first duty to protect the reputation and good name of British women in general from the suspicion of unnatural possibilities. It was important, not only to exclude the possibility that Woods and Pirie had done what they were accused of, but to protect the general female public from knowledge of those accusations, lest they give people ideas.
To admit the possibility that women—at least proper British women—could engage in same-sex erotics would make all women suspect. It’s the reverse side of sexual ignorance: not a disbelief in the possibility of lesbian relations, as such, but an imposed denial of those possibilities. Even in the closed-door context of the trial, the goal was suppression of the imagination.
In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed on occasion, and which they did not deny—could be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. This meant that it was also necessary to argue that a 16-year-old girl was either capable of imagining the sexual acts she described without having observed them, or had knowledge of them from some other source.
While the judges reviewed ideas of f/f sex prevalent in popular culture, they were able to exclude those possibilities in the present case on the basis of class, occupation, and nationality. The teachers were not tribades, prostitutes, or foreigners (who might be understood to engage in such practices), therefore they could be presumed innocent. If, one asserted, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?
The resolution of these conflicts came by blaming the accusing student of invention, using her biracial (Anglo-Indian) background as an excuse for her familiarity with deviant sexual practices. Thus the reputation of true British women was maintained.
The other legal case considered in this chapter—the Codrington divorce trial—also rests on the question of whether two well-bred women could share a bed with that act assumed to be completely innocent.
Feminist and activist Emily Faithful was a close friend of unhappily-married socialite Helen Codrington. The two had shared a household when Admiral Codrington was absent on military duties. On his return—at least according to his later testimony—he blamed the growing conflict in his marriage on Helen’s association with Emily, including Helen’s preference for sharing a bed with her in preference to her husband. Codrington banished Emily from the household and later claimed to have written the reasons for it in a sealed letter that he placed in the care of a relative.
Emily Faithful went on to join forces with other feminists and found the Victoria Press, among other projects. The Codringtons were posted to Malta, where Helen engaged in flirtations and perhaps more with some of the officers there.
The Codrington divorce trial was sparked by suspicions that Helen had committed adultery under her husband’s nose in Malta, while Helen countered with charges of neglect and emotional abuse. Emily Faithful was drawn into the conflict when Helen accused her husband of having tried to rape Emily during the period when Emily lived in their household, on an occasion when Helen and Emily were in bed together.
Emily first agreed with the charge, but later said she was uncertain and had been convinced of its truth by Helen. Emily’s feminist activities and not conventionally feminine appearance led to rumors of lesbian improprieties. Forced to testify at the trial and with the rumor of the “sealed letter” hanging over her, Emily retreated from the accusation of attempted rape, thus throwing the matter back into Helen’s hands as the one who raised the topic.
Thus, although the accusation in the trial was heterosexual adultery, it came to revolve around rumors of lesbianism. And the heart of those rumors was the question of whether two women sharing a bed could be assumed to be sexually involved or assumed to be sexually innocent.
Although the trial reveals little of the truth of their relationship, Emily’s writings, and especially her semi-biographical novel Changes Upon Changes, make it clear that she was romantically obsessed with Helen Codrington, while feeling betrayed by Helen’s volatility and instability.
After the trial, Helen disappeared from public view while Emily Faithful eventually redeemed her reputation away from the glare of London, and finished her life with a long-term female partner.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 184 – Interview with Jane Walsh
(Originally aired 2020/11/14 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jane Walsh Online
(Originally aired 2020/11/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2020.
What Did I Wake Up To?
Such is the timing of podcast recording that I have no idea how to introduce this show. And, of course, I’m showing my American focus here, but it’s what I’m immersed in. Am I giving a deep sigh of relief as we start the hard work of reclaiming the soul of our nation? Am I reeling with the same stunned shock I felt four years ago? Am I biting my fingernails to the bone still waiting for a resolution? Whichever it is, one of my small parts in the struggle is to keep putting out queer content.
The New Podcast Site
Setting all that aside as unknowable at this point, the big new thing for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is the move to our new independent site. All the existing content has been moved over, so it won’t be lost when TLT shuts down. Starting two episodes back, the new shows have been released real-time in parallel on both the TLT channel and the new LHMP channel. You should be able to subscribe directly through almost any popular podcatcher app. And I’d like to urge you to do that: subscribe. Especially if you were a subscriber to TLT previously and enjoyed the show.
It’s easy for details to fall through the cracks during a transition like this. I don’t want you scratching your head months from now thinking, “Huh, I wonder why the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast hasn’t released any new episodes for a while?” I don’t do this show for the money. (There isn’t any.) I don’t do it for the fame and glory. (Well, ok, maybe just a little bit for the fame and glory.) I do it to share my love of queer history and my love of sapphic historical fiction with all of you out there. And one of the few concrete metrics I have for knowing that I’ve succeeded is those podcast listener numbers.
So right now, if you’re listening to the TLT version of this episode, put the show on pause, go to your podcatcher’s search function and plug in “Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast”, or follow the link in the show notes that says “new podcast distribution links,” and add the new show to your feed. And if you’re already listening to the independent show, thank you! And tell a friend about us.
Just to remind you, in January we’ll be changing the schedule a little to two shows per month, plus the quarterly fiction episodes. The On the Shelf show will still be a magazine format with news of the field, new book listings, but now the interviews and book appreciation lists will be included in that show as well and the content may vary from month to month. The essay shows will be just as before, with discussions of people, topics, and themes from history, or sometimes more analytic pieces on the process of researching, envisioning, and writing queer historical fiction.
As always, if you have a topic or a guest you’d love to hear, or if you’d like to appear on the show either as an author or as a reader, or if you have or know about a book you think should be included in our new release listings, please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact the show. It’s one of the best ways you can let us know we’re providing content you enjoy.
I’m always looking for new ways to expand engagement with the Lesbian Historic Motif Project as a whole. We have our own Twitter feed now, and if you’re interested in becoming part of the LHMP / Alpennia community, contact us for an invitation to our Discord. I’m looking forward to doing some live events there, and we have a 200th episode birthday coming up in May that would be a great excuse.
And don’t forget about the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series, coming up in January. You still have lots of time to polish up a short story for consideration.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog started October with a bonus book that was a footnote in Betty Rizzo’s Companions Without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Rizzo mentioned two women frequenting lesbian bordellos in 18th century London, as mentioned in E.J. Burford’sWits, Wenchers and Wantons – London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century.
That sounded intriguing enough that I tracked down the book and winkled out all its references to female homosexuality. Then I spent another blog tracing down further historical information about the women who were mentioned in Burford. I have yet to find a solid historical reference for anything resembling a lesbian bordello in this material, but there was certainly a lot of gossip recorded about various women, both aristocrats and actresses, whose lovers included both men and women.
It’s an interesting exercise in trying to trace down the known facts behind what often turns out to be a game of historical telephone, where offhand comments get exaggerated or reinterpreted and turned into far more serious claims than the original evidence supports. But I was able to determine that if you want to explore rumors of which 18th century society women were said to have female lovers, the diaries and correspondence of Horace Walpole and Hester Thrale Piozzi are a good place to start.
The blog has moved on to Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 which is a collection of biographic sketches of couples who illustrate various types of homoerotic relationships in that period. This book may take up not only the rest of November but on into December, since I’m planning to spend some of my November writing time doing NaNoWriMo for the first time.
While putting together the research for the podcast on the Anandrine Sect, I ran across another of Jeffrey Merrick’s books on French homosexual history that I needed to get. This is a collection of articles: Homosexuality in French History and Culture, edited by Merrick and Michael Sibalis. So that, along with Burford’s book mentioned earlier were the book shopping for the blog in the last month.
This month’s author guest will be Jane Walsh, whose debut novel Her Lady to Love is out from Bold Strokes Books this month, adding to the popular field of sapphic regency romance.
For this month’s essay, I thought I’d return to my chronological tour through poetry by or about women who loved women. I’ve worked my way up to the 18th century at this point, which fits well with other material I’ve covered recently. I have another slot to fill this month, so let’s see what I come up with for a book appreciation show.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
That brings us to the new and recent f/f historicals. I have three October books to catch up on and five November releases.
We’ll start off with one where I confess the cover copy rubbed me the wrong way. I’m simply not fond of books that spend all their time promising you an unexpected surprise twist ending but don’t give you much of an idea of what you’ll experience along the way. The Sappho Romance by Jacquie Lyon and Sam Skyborne published by Dukebox claims to give us the true story behind the legend of Sappho in ancient Greece. The cover copy rambles a bit so I’m going to condense it a little.
Sappho, the ancient Greek poet and teacher of legend, known as the ‘Mortal Muse’, had a secret so well guarded that centuries of scrutiny and academic debate could not unearth it. Until now. You know the speculation and controversy surrounding her private life. Was she the quintessential lover of women? The devout wife of Kerkylas of Andros and mother to his ten children? The tragic suicide out of love for the ferryman Phaon? What if the real story were different... holding fragments of all these legends, yet hiding a splendid alternative twist?
The regency genre gives us two titles this month, one from our featured guest author Jane Walsh, titled Her Lady to Love published by Bold Strokes Books.
Country mouse Lady Honora Banfield arrives in London with one mission: to catch a husband. A perpetual wallflower, she’s going to do whatever it takes to win a proposal from London’s most eligible bachelor, including teaming up with the most popular (and least proper) woman in London. Miss Jacqueline Lockhart is having too much fun in her sixth season to ever consider settling down, even though she’s been unsuccessful at mingling with the upper echelons of London society. When Lady Honora agrees to exchange invitations to the most exclusive events in return for Jacqueline’s introductions to eligible gentlemen, neither expects their friendship to ignite passion. Nora and Jacquie begin an affair with the strict understanding that it will end once Nora is married, but as a proposal becomes more imminent, choosing between a conventional life without love, or certain ruination if they stay together, isn’t as simple as it seems.
The second regency seems to be part of a connected series, following up on one of last month’s books. This is The Enigmatic Steward, self-published by Stein Willard.
After losing her husband in an accident that left her with a noticeable injury, Lady Florence Hampton, the Viscountess of Clarence, was used to the looks of pity she received when she ventured out in public. However, it was the loneliness that her condition forced upon her that wounded her most. Surely, no man would want to be seen with a middle-aged, damaged woman on his arm. Chester Vaughn knew everything about hardship and violence, but nothing about love. As the Viscountess’ land steward, she protected her employer from the attentions of an unscrupulous, gold-digging neighbour whilst at the same time struggling to hide her own deep affection for the aloof woman.
The American Civil War and the wild west period that followed provide us with three titles this month. First up is The Coffield Chronicles - Hearts Under Siege: Book One, by T.L. Dickerson from Sapphire Books.
The year is 1862. The war between the states has been raging intensely for a year now. The country is in complete and utter turmoil, and brother is fighting brother to the death, dying for what each believed. It seems it’s all the townsfolk of New Albany, Indiana can speak of, and Melody Coffield is paying attention. Through a series of heartbreaks and sorrow, she settles on the decision to cut her hair and don men’s attire. Going under the alias of Melvin A. Coffield, she leaves her childhood home, the only home she had ever known, and enlists in the United States Army. Chewing tobacco and drinking liquor were ways of men, and she learns quickly how to behave like one. She would soon know the horrors of battle, and what was called the glory of war, through roads that led straight to Vicksburg, Mississippi. However, her biggest concern was making sure she was not detected by the others. Keeping her secret would not only be challenging, but trying as well. Will she remain in this solitude the rest of her life, never allowing anyone into her heart again? Or will she find love, once more, in a world that was intolerant and unaccepting of who she truly was?
Rivers of Eden, self-published by R.E. Levy gives us a story of conflicts and contrasts on the frontier.
Margaret Hatch is a good woman. She has a husband, a homestead, a baby, and always heeds her preacher. But when things in Eden begin to go awry she can't help but feel guilty. Guilty for that night five years ago. Guilty for kissing her best friend. Guilty for wanting more. Emma Johansson is not a good woman. She is loose, unmarried, and employed. Three things a woman should not be. She also happens to be in love with her best friend Margaret, a fact both of them have kept buried all of their lives. Now, the two women must reconcile their hidden history with the terror that has taken hold of Eden, a malevolent force keen to expose their truths to the world. Emma and Margaret must face what they unleashed five years ago before it takes both of them, and their secret, to the grave.
We’re offered a touch of fantasy with our wild west in Martha Moody by Susan Stinson from Small Beer Press. Unfortunately what we aren’t offered is any sort of clear indication of the plot. So if you’re up for a surprise, this might tempt you.
At once a love story and a lush comic masterpiece, Martha Moody is a speculative western which embraces the ordinary and gritty details ― as well as the magic ― of women's lives in the old west.
Another historic fantasy is the latest installment in Geonn Cannon’s Trafalgar & Boone series: Trafalgar & Boone at Magic's End (Trafalgar & Boone 6) from Supposed Crimes.
Trafalgar and Lady Dorothy Boone, still shattered by the consequences of their last mission, have decided to heed a warning from the future and put an end to the widespread use of magic. While Dorothy sits vigil for someone she loves, Trafalgar accepts the invitation from a fellow Society member to investigate an ancient queen's burial site. A simple mission quickly turns sour, and Dorothy finds herself racing to save not only her friend and partner, but the whole of London. While the Society is stronger than ever, Dorothy herself is alone without her closest allies and advisors. Faced with the choice of a horrible loss and a potentially catastrophic future, Dorothy makes a decision which could change the world forever... and cost her the very thing she hopes to save.
The last title is an anthology that got a lot of buzz on book twitter when the kickstarter was first announced: Silk and Steel edited by Janine A. Southard from Cantina Publishing. It isn’t strictly historic, but is likely to appeal to our listeners.
Princess and swordswoman, lawyer and motorcyclist, scholar and barbarian: there are many ways to be a heroine. In this anthology, seventeen authors find new ways to pair one weapon-wielding woman and one whose strengths lie in softer skills. “Which is more powerful, the warrior or the gentlewoman?” these stories ask. And the answer is inevitably, “Both, working together!” Herein, you’ll find duels and smugglers, dance battles and danger noodles, and even a new Swordspoint story!
Let’s just say that I was excited enough by the premise that I was inspired to try my luck at one the handful of open submissions slots. My story wasn’t selected, alas, but I think you’ll love the ones that were.
What Am I Reading?
My own reading is still picking up. I finished Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian-inspired historic fantasy, Girl, Serpent, Thorn and can highly recommend it, not only for the lovely queer ending. I’m working on an advance copy of Malina Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, in preparation for interviewing her in January. And I hope to get an advance copy of my December guest’s book as well.
Podcast Cross-Promotion: SweetBitter
I’ll close the show this month with a chance to cross-promote a new podcast that might be of interest to listeners: Sweetbitter is a podcast all about the poet Sappho and her work. And I was able to get some of the hosts on to talk it up.
[Transcript for the interview will be added later.]
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
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 182 – Give Us This Day by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/10/31 - listen here)
This month’s story is the second appearance of Jennifer Nestojko in our fiction series. She sold us a story in 2018 for the first year of the fiction series and now returns with our final story of 2020. There’s one more story that I bought this past January, but it will air as the first story of the 2021 season. I hope you’re all thinking about submitting stories in January for next year.
When I decided to buy “Give Us This Day” I knew exactly when I was going to schedule it, because having Halloween fall on a podcast day cried out for a ghost story. As it happens, I had two ghost stories to choose from, but this one set in medieval Brittany felt like it fit the day more closely.
Jennifer Nestojko is a writer and poet who lives in central California. She is a part time medievalist as well as a high school and college teacher. While writing a paper for fun on the undead in medieval literature she encountered this story about a revenant baker, and it has been lurking in her mind over the last few years asking to be told anew.
I should also note that Jennifer is a longtime friend of mine, though that didn’t give her any leg up in selling me a story. If you’ve read my novel Floodtide, you might notice that the book is dedicated to her.
I’m proud to be able to narrate this story about loss, a baker who doesn’t know when to quit, and the discovery of new possibilities in life.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
Give Us This Day
By Jennifer Nestojko
Narrated by Heather Rose Jones
A sudden pounding on the door woke Mari out of her daze. She stared for a moment at her hands; they had continued kneading the dough while her thoughts had wandered. The knocking came again, and her heart started its own pounding. Who could it be? The church had already tolled Matins and most good townsfolk were sleeping.
The door flew open and Mari grabbed her rolling pin in one hand, clumps of dough falling to the ground. Her husband strode in, going straight to the second table, the one where he had always worked until just two nights before, and began mixing ingredients. Mari’s rolling pin fell as she gaped in shock. His hands moved in practiced motions as he began to knead, but they were clumsy and she noted that they were caked with the dark clay that lay deeper beneath the soil.
He was a large man, her husband, and older than her by a good two decades. His greying hair was cut short, but it was unkempt, though the last time she had seen him it had been carefully combed; she had done the combing herself. His beard, which was black with greying streaks, had bits of dirt in it, and the sight of clumps falling into the dough brought her out of her shock. Per would never in his life have been so careless with his baking, but then they had laid him in his grave yesterday morning.
He took no notice of her as he went about his craft, and after a few moments of staring Mari went about her own work, not knowing what else to do. What if this was a demon that had taken possession of Per’s body? She had heard tell of a corpse that had accosted a woman at her prayers, but it was a demon inhabiting a dead man’s body and the woman’s prayers had turned the demon away – that and the cross she had hit him with. The bakery had no such heavy crosses, and the rolling pin seemed a poor weapon.
Despite burying her husband, Mari had known she had to keep the making of bread going; it was why she had been up and working so soon after the funeral. The town needed its bread. She needed to eat. She took comfort in the practiced moves of kneading and shaping dough; after all, she came from a family of bakers. It was what had made the match to Per so fitting. After carefully laying aside the next loaf ready for firing, Mari reflected that she was grateful she had not gone giddy or fainted. After all, the bread Per was making could not be eaten. Mari shuddered to think of it.
The night passed in a silence punctuated by the sounds that came with baking. She and Per had spent many a night working peacefully in this way, though they had also spent many nights talking as they worked. He had been a relief as a husband, considerate of her and never unkind. If he had never been the love minstrels sang of, then he had also never been the tyrant some husbands could be.
This night was not peaceful; Mari wanted to speak to him, to ask what was happening or why he was there. She wanted him to turn to her, and she prayed that he would not. She herself had sewn his eyes shut, had prepared his body after his heart had failed him in the middle of the baking that had been his work, his life. The night of his death had seemed endless, filled with sorrow and worry; Mari reflected wryly to herself that it now seemed swift as a rushing stream compared to this one. She strained to see a glimmer of light through the window, hoping that the coming of dawn would send this corpse back to its grave.
Even though she was straining for the sound, the crowing of Katalin’s rooster made her jump. Per immediately dropped the loaves he was taking from the oven, yanked open the door, and shambled out into the now waning night.
Mari watched him go, then sank to the floor, holding her head in her floury hands. She did not know how long it was before she heard the sound of irregular footsteps, and then she felt warm arms about her. Katalin’s voice whispered soothingly at her, but Mari couldn’t process what she was saying. She kept seeing Per’s shambling figure working the dough with those dreadful clay-soiled hands. Grave dirt. She shuddered, her body shaking repeatedly.
“Drink this,” Katalin said, gently lifting Mari’s face and handing her a flask. The taste of the miller’s peach brandy startled her back to herself; the miller was not fond of subtler drink. Mari looked around, almost surprised to see that not much time had passed. She could smell her loaves baking, and there was no hint of burn yet.
“There, now,” said Katalin, smiling at her. “That always wakes me up of a morning. Da, now, he makes it strong for a reason.” She stood up, using the table’s sturdy edge to lift herself. Mari missed the warmth of her touch; it was Katalin who had comforted her after Per’s death and who had sat vigil with her that long night. “You don’t need to talk, if you like. I saw who left your door this morning.”
Mari stood slowly, brushing her hands against her apron as she got up. “And just what did you see?”
Katalin snorted. “It wasn’t young Paol, the minstrel.” She looked directly at Mari, and there was fear in her glance. “I saw Per, sure as I breathe now and he no longer does. Why is he walking?”
Mari looked at the ruined loaves on the floor, and the clods and smears of soil marring the countertop of Per’s workspace. She shook her head; none of this seemed real, but neither had the funeral of the previous morning.
“I think,” she said softly, “I think he doesn’t know when to stop working.”
“No,” said Katalin, “I don’t think he does, at that.” She sighed. “It is just like the man, too.”
Katalin helped Mari set the kitchen to rights, though Mari took the loaves from the oven when they were ready. She saw how much the miller’s daughter was leaning on her crutch, for the morning was damp and mist shrouded, but she said no word as Katalin swept and cleaned the tables. She felt protective at times of Katalin, though that wasn’t quite the correct feeling. Katalin was more than capable. Mari had found herself watching for her new friend more and more over the last three years, studying her movements, the way she held her head or limped across the floor. She was fascinated by her laugh, and Katalin was working hard this morning to laugh and make merry, trying to distract Mari from the night’s fears. The kitchen was ready well ahead of the time for the lord’s workers to come for their daily baking, as was the law, and Mari was ready to set up shop for the morning, selling what untainted loaves she had.
Of course Anna, the blacksmith’s wife, came in during her daily rounds. She looked carefully at each loaf, shifting her babe slightly and rocking her hips gently, soothing the child almost reflexively.
“Now who,” said Anna, “did the baking of these?”
“Why, I did, of course!” said Mari, indignantly. “Who else?”
“By your savior, you swear this is true,” she asked, giving Mari a hard look.
Mari gave her a hard look back. “On my faith and hope of heaven,” she replied, and Anna’s eyes softened. She nodded.
“That’s all right, then. I’ll take my daily bread,” she told her. “Late last night this little one was fussing – it is the time for new teeth – and who did I see but the baker walking right past my window. I could not sleep then, myself, even after the babe was soothed. I saw Per return, with flour mixed in with the clay on his hands.” She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Everyone knows the dead bring plague and disease when they walk; their sins infect all others.”
“I didn’t know Per had all that many sins on his head,” Mari said dryly. “He rarely left the bakery or shop.”
“Well,” Anna began, and then shrugged. “He was a good man, and a hard worker. He never did make time for much else; festivals saw him working double the time and never resting. Perhaps you are right, and it is not sin that brings him from the grave.” She put the bread into her basket, but lingered. Anna always liked a bit of gossip, and Per’s death had been the biggest news since fall. At least, it had been until last night. “Shall you keep on as bakester, then?” she asked.
Mari winced. “I haven’t,” she began, then her throat closed and no further words came. Her eyes pricked with tears.
“Shhh, shh,” said Anna soothingly. Her hips rocked a deeper rhythm, as if she were jiggling Mari instead of the infant. “I spoke too soon. You should stay, though. Get young Katalin to help you with the bread.”
Mari nodded, and was grateful when the woman went on her way. Still, she felt some amusement. Anna was fond of matchmaking, but with no youngsters mooning about at the moment, she seemed to be branching out.
Katalin came in to the shop from the kitchen door, leaned her crutch against the wall, and sat on the stool Per had made for her. “Anna is up to her old tricks, it seems,” she said, laughter in her eyes.
“At least she will pass the word that the bread is not diseased,” Mari told her.
“It’s not so bad an idea,” Katalin began after a townsman had stopped in. He, blessedly, had no questions about the dead and just wanted food for his table.
“What idea?” Mari asked, her thoughts elsewhere.
“Having me work with you,” she answered. “I grew up underfoot, what with me being neighbors and the miller’s daughter and all. Per taught me. Especially after my accident at the mill, he gave me something to do. He was rather like an uncle to me.”
“Me too,” said Mari, and then she reddened. “I mean, he was a good husband, but he was twenty years older, and, well…” She shrugged.
“He was always busy,” Katalin finished for her. “Don’t worry, Mari, I know. When Malo, the other baker, as you know, died Per was lonely, and Anna told him to marry a daughter of the guild – get him a wife and a bakester in one. Still, Per was set in his ways.”
“He was kind, always,” said Mari softly. “I enjoyed his company, especially when working. He seemed most alive, then.”
“Except for last night,” Katalin responded impishly.
Mari surprised herself by laughing in response, but Katalin did that to her. She then felt a chill. The day was passing. Would the night bring her husband back to the bakery?
Alan, the blacksmith, stopped by before Mari closed up the shop. He was a big man, but gentle. There was concern in his eyes when he looked at her.
“I wanted to tell you,” he began, looking about to make sure no one was lingering, “that my lad, Jon, you know – the eldest - and I went to the grave. We had the sexton come and help, and we dug Per’s casket up.” He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath before continuing. “His shoes, the ones he went to the grave with, they had been clean?”
“Of course,” replied Mari. “I cleaned them myself. I laid out all his things proper.”
“Yes,” Alan said. “I thought as much. Mari, girl – they were caked in mud. His shirt was all over mud and flour, as were his hands. He walked last night – that he did.”
Mari stood still. The morning’s fog had burned away with the bright springtime sun, and she was half convinced that last night had been a strange dream. She was still partly sure that this last few days were some strange sort of dream, like one that court poets would write and later wandering storytellers would recount, where the dreamer toured hell or the dead visited their loved or despised ones. Looking at Alan, she knew that she was awake and not dreaming and that night would come again all too soon.
“Not to worry,” the blacksmith said, correctly reading her fear. “I have arranged that some of the village men, those stout of heart and limb, will barricade his way should Per walk this night. Jon will be with us as well. Get you your rest, if you can.”
Mari could not rest that afternoon. She lay on her bed, but stared blankly at the cross on the wall of her room, running the beads of her rosary through her fingers. Was there a special prayer to keep the dead from walking? She would never have thought to have need of one. She remembered the thump, thump of a dead man’s hands kneading dough, and her heart beat faster in fear. Then she realized she was actually hearing thumps coming up the stairs, and for a moment her blood turned ice, but then a familiar voice called out, “It is only me, Mari.” Katalin. She rarely climbed stairs, but she had her own careful method of getting up them when needed, She came into the room, leaning on her crutch. Mari drank in the sight of her, with her soft brown hair slightly mussed, as always, and a slight flush in her cheeks.
“I figured you wouldn’t be sleeping,” Katalin said. “Shall I keep you company?”
“Please?” Mari asked, and Katalin propped her crutch against the wall and limped over to the bed, lying down beside Mari, slipping her strong hand into Mari’s own. Mari held her hand tightly, letting the tears come. Katalin put an arm about her and began smoothing Mari’s hair, and the tenderness of her touch brought the much needed sleep she had been courting.
Katalin quietly came with her to the bakery when it was time to prepare the bread, leaving no room for argument. Mari would not have argued; she dreaded the coming night and had no wish to be alone. They worked together companionably, but anxiously, starting at any sound. Mari had carefully prepared a space for Per, should he return, so that he would need touch nothing that she and Katalin would be using. She remembered tales of dead men and curses and plague and prayed that the men at the barricade would come to no harm.
The mist had been curling around the buildings when they had opened up the bakery; it lay still and silent on the trees and hedges, on the sleeping homes of the townsfolk, but through the silent fog came shouts and strange noises. Mari froze, staring at the dough in her bowl, more frightened than the night before. The door flew open, and she jumped, letting out a small shriek. Katalin, on her stool, exclaimed, “Anna, what is the matter?”
Anna closed the door, her face white. “Per is throwing rocks at Alan and Jon and the others. My Enora has the children down with my mother for safety. I thought I’d warn you.”
Someone yelped in the darkness. Anna moved quickly from the door and went to a corner, picking up a large baking paddle. Katalin passed something in a small gold box to Mari.
“Take this,” she said. “I got it from Father Brendan this afternoon, with his blessing.”
Mari took a quick look; it was a piece of communion bread. Mari knew that bread; she baked it every week specially for the church. “Consecrated?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Katalin, and then the door swung open again. Per came in, head swinging from side to side. He was agitated, knocking bowls off counters, moving to his table, slamming flour down and spilling water. He was much clumsier than he had been the night before. Mari could see that his eyes were still sewn shut; how he navigated the road here much less the kitchen was beyond her ken. One of the good bread bowls hit the floor and cracked. Water hit the side of the oven and sizzled as it steamed.
Katalin lunged off her stool and hit Per with her crutch as Anna hit him on the head with the baking paddle. There was a soft sound, like hitting a feather mattress, and then both crutch and paddle broke. Per swung his arms about clumsily; Anna dodged his blows, running back to her corner. One flailing fist caught Katalin in the chest; she fell back to the ground. Mari wanted to run to her, to see how she fared, but she couldn’t.
The dead man turned back to his work, trying to turn water and flour into dough as he had for so many nights before.
“Per,” Mari cried, walking up to him. He stilled for a moment, calmed, it seemed, by her voice. He turned to her, his sewn-up eyes gruesome, his mouth open. “Your work is done now. We can carry on for you.” Per turned back to the table. “Per,” she repeated. “You have earned your rest. In God’s name, rest.” He turned to her again, his clay-stained hands reaching for her, but Mari stepped closer and brought out the communion bread and reached up to lay it on his tongue. His forehead was cold as she sketched the sign of the cross in the dirt there. His eyelids ripped open, tearing her careful stitches, and for one moment he looked at her. Tears ran down his face, making small tracks. He nodded once, turned, and left, shambling into the night.
Mari stood, watching him go, knowing somehow that he was returning to his grave. She whispered a small prayer for his soul, tracing his way down the street in her mind. When she was certain that he was gone, she then went to where Katalin had fallen. Katalin was sitting up, looking a bit dazed, but unhurt. Mari threw her arms about her friend and Katalin relaxed into her embrace.
Anna was leaning against a wall, and she straightened slowly. “Well,” she said. “That’s a thing.” She caught her breath, moving her hand down to her ribs. “I think I strained something there, but that was quick thinking, the both of you.” She looked down at the two on the floor. “I did say you’d make good partners. Think on it.” She limped toward the door. “That was my Jon, I reckon, earlier – I know that yelp from when he was younger. I should check on the rest of the menfolk. They always need looking after.”
Mari lifted her head from Katalin’s shoulder. “Thank you, for your aid tonight. You are a brave woman.”
Anna shrugged. “I think that poor man will rest now. And now so can we. Peace to you and to your home.”
Mari watched her disappear into the night and then turned back to Katalin. “Are you hurt? He didn’t injure you did he?”
Katalin shook her head, and then took Mari’s face in her hands. She leaned in and then kissed her, softly at first, and then more deeply. Mari found herself kissing her back, holding her closely, feeling that this was what she’d been watching for these past three years.
She thought of her husband with a pang and pulled back, gasping, “Is this - is this right?” She did not want to walk with dead feet through her own streets after her death.
Katalin seemed to understand. “Yes,” she said soothingly. “Per is at rest. This harms him not one bit.”
“How do you know?” Mari protested. “Perhaps this will set him to walking again.”
“Tell me true, Mari – would this set Per to walking? Was he burning in his passion for you?”
Mari’s lips twitched. “Well, no. I believe he will rest now.”
Katalin stroked her hair. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.” Her eyes were soft, vulnerable. “Anna did say we made a good pair.”
“She was talking about the bakery,” Mari protested.
Katalin looked mischievous. “That as well, I suspect, but Anna is a hopeless matchmaker.”
Mari stared at her. Had Anna meant that? She was a respectable matron, mother of five, town gossip. Did she think Mari would want to be kissing Katalin like this? Mari found herself leaning in, initiating the kiss this time. That wandering storyteller would never have added this onto her strange dream poem, she was sure of that.
“Wait,” she said, ending the kiss, her worries asserting themselves once more. “If this is wrong, will I be walking from my grave some day, pelting the town with stones?
“Mari, dear heart,” said Katalin gravely, her face serious. “You just gave the holy sacrament to the dead, blessing him back to his grave. You have sent him onward to his new home. Can you so soon fall into darkness?”
Mari stared at her. It seemed she didn’t need a court poet or a wandering storyteller; she had a poet with her. “I just did what was needed.”
“With love,” Katalin said. “As this is love. And needed.” She kissed her softly, gently on the forehead, on her lips.
They held each other for a long moment, Mari feeling a sense of wonder. She let go of Katalin finally, got up and took one of the new loaves, one that had been finished before the upheavals of the night. She knelt before Katalin, broke the bread with her hands, and gave Katalin a piece, quietly taking a piece for herself. They each ate their morsel, this small act a promise and prayer. Mari then gently helped Katalin to her feet, Katalin leaning against her.
“This may require an adjustment for you,” Katalin began somberly, in a different tone from her serious one before. There was laughter lurking beneath her seeming sternness.
Mari thought about what adjustments would need to be made. It was not unheard of that two women, one a widow and one a cripple, would share bed and board. No one need worry about anything else, especially if Anna acted as protector. “I think I can become used to more of your company,” she said lightly.
Katalin laughed, limping heavily. “Will you mind moving the bedroom to the ground floor, though?”
The fourth story in our 2020 fiction series
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jennifer Nestojko Online
I wrote something for Ace Awareness Week and my publisher hosted it on their blog. This is highly relevant to some non-Alpennia-novel writing projects I'm currently poking at.